Traditions start as single activities.
A one time event makes an impression so that it is planned for again in order to recapture the excitement and joy of the first one. Nothing celebrates holidays like traditions.
I had the fortune of growing up in a musical family. Both my father and mother were music teachers and my two siblings and I had lives that were intrenched in music lessons, church choirs, band, piano, choir concerts, etc. No time of year was more filled with music than Christmastime.
At early ages, my sister and I would wear out the phonograph playing my father’s vinyl albums of the Robert Shaw Chorale “Hymns and Carols Vol. 1” and the Harry Simeone Chorale “The Little Drummer Boy.” I don’t remember the first time I heard them, I just remember listening to them every year. This grew into my own tradition of seeking out and purchasing a unique Christmas album each year. My collection on CD is extensive. 🙂
When we were slightly older, perhaps tweens or so, my parents taught us a Christmas carol to sing for our relatives after we made the long car trip to Grandmother’s house – in 4 part harmony. It kept us engaged and perhaps kept us from fighting over spots in the back seat. Our first carol was an arrangement of Deck the Halls, followed in subsequent years by several Alfred Burt Carols. It became a tradition throughout our teens, with my oldest brother contributing the final carol we would rehearse and perform as a family unit (written in a fit of inspiration during his first year of teaching and sent to my parents as a Christmas card – much like the Burt carols).
A most memorable tradition began soon after we had moved to Arkansas in the early 1970’s. My father had become the choral music director at (then) Arkansas Polytechnic College, a place that at the time was known for its band program but never had much of a choir. I suspect that he decided that he wanted to give a grand Christmas program one year. Preparations would always begin the Friday/Saturday before the concert with the search for the appropriate Christmas tree to cut and bring into the main lobby, the crafting of decorations, and last minute rehearsals. The program grew each following year and would begin with small ensembles singing in a pre-concert venue around a Christmas tree.
Antiphonal brass and choirs would perform from the open balconies of the music department lobby. Processional pieces that involved brass and organ announced the start of the program. Unique stage decorations such as large evergreen wreaths of cedar and pine or a mock stained-glass window would adorn the center of the stage.
There were exciting new choir pieces and familiar favorites and the community came out in droves year after year.
My father passed away a few months ago, and these memories have been a comfort these past few weeks. I am fortunate to have a soundtrack for my memories of him, and much of it is Christmas music. Here is a top five (ok, six) list of Christmas musical moments influenced by my Dad.
1. O Come all ye Faithful (Robert Shaw Chorale)
2. Come Dear Children – Alfred Burt
3. Ríu Ríu, Chíu – Anonymous
4. XIV: The March of the Three Kings, from Hodie by Ralph Vaughan Williams (really this entire work, Hodie, is worth a listen)
5. His Yoke is Easy, from Messiah by George Frideric Handel
And finally, a moment of sweetness that expresses my father’s love of music greater than any song, poem, or piece that I could have written.
What Sweeter Music – by John Rutter
I encourage each of you to embrace your traditions, not only during this season of the year, but all year. It might be baking or going to events. It might be meals together or a hike in the woods. It could be singing or storytelling. It could be volunteering to help others. Watch them grow each year. Make something your own tradition and share it with ones you love.