Tag Archives: Christmas carols

A Christmas Carol (my story–not Dickens’s)

With the arrival of the December holidays, we’re surrounded by the sounds of holiday music.  Much of this music celebrates religious holidays, but some of it has become beloved secular songs.

I’ve always loved holiday music, ranging from traditional Christmas carols to more elevated music composed by serious composers.  I especially relished singing Christmas music with my high-school and college choral groups.

My high-school experience was memorable.  Our school chorus was invited to sing carols in the plaza of the Chicago Sun-Times building. We joyously sang at this site on Michigan Avenue adjacent to the Wrigley Building, just north of the Michigan Avenue Bridge. What a fabulous time we had, singing a number of well-known carols in the freezing cold while bundled-up passers-by watched and listened. (Sadly, the Sun-Times building was demolished around 2004, and its plaza is now occupied by an enormous blot on the riverscape along the Chicago River: the 92-story T…. International Hotel and Tower, built by our twice-impeached former president.) 

As a college student at Washington University, I joined two choral groups that sang holiday music with the St. Louis Symphony.  First, as a member of the university’s Women’s Chorus, I sang with the symphony in “L’Enfance du Christ” (“The Childhood of Christ”) by Berlioz.  By my senior year, I was part of the wonderful university Choir. We did a lot of singing, including a holiday-timed presentation of Handel’s “Messiah.”  Singing these two pieces, as well as Brahms’s “A German Requiem,” with the St. Louis Symphony created some of my favorite WashU memories.

The holiday season and its music also revive a memory from my much younger childhood.  When I was about eight, my parents shopped for a piano so I could learn how to play.  I remember viewing a handsome model at the Lyon & Healy store on Wabash Avenue in downtown Chicago, where the salesman had a great sales pitch.  He told us this piano was worth a great deal more money than L & H was asking because it was designed for a wealthy pooh-bah who’d returned it to the store only because he wasn’t happy with some feature or another.  True story or not, my parents scooped up this gorgeous piano, and it became a highlight of our otherwise ordinary living room.

Mom immediately set about arranging piano lessons for me.  Somehow she came up with Rachel G., a woman whom I remember as a rigid unsmiling taskmaster (taskmistress?), lacking in patience, whose lessons became a dreaded part of my existence.

At first Rachel G had a fairly kind approach.  She introduced me to classical music in very simplified form, and I did glean a basic knowledge of composers like Mozart, Haydn, and Bach in child-designed sheet music.  Truthfully, I didn’t retain much of their biographical information, but I painfully made my way through the simple arrangements of some of their most famous melodies.  I later progressed to slightly more advanced arrangements of major classical pieces, like the Soldiers’ Chorus from Gounod’s “Faust” and the theme from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto in B-flat Minor.  Remarkably, I’ve saved almost all of my sheet music, shuttling it around the country during numerous cross-country moves, and I still have them, decorating the piano that now sits in my apartment.

One day fairly early in our relationship, Rachel G brought a new and very simple piece of music for me to learn.  It was a well-known Christmas carol:  “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”  The front cover of the sheet music, with a cover price of 30 cents (a 25-cent price is crossed out), portrays a Dickens-era group of four carolers, led by a man in a top hat and bright plaid coat.  In big letters, the cover notes that it includes one of six different “Carols you love to sing and play.”  Inside, we read that this carol was the creation of Phillips Brooks and Louis H. Redner and that Walter Lane arranged the very simple collection of notes and lyrics.

Phillips Brooks was the Episcopal rector of a Philadelphia church (later rector of Trinity Church in Boston) who was inspired to write the words of the carol by his visit to the city of Bethlehem in 1865.  Three years later, he finally wrote the words, and just before Christmas, he asked Redner, the church organist, to add the music.  Redner later recalled that the simple music was “written in great haste and under great pressure….Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music…would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.” 

My parents weren’t members of any church, Christian or otherwise.  They—especially my father–were pretty casual about religious observance of any stripe, including their own.  My grandparents, who’d emigrated from Eastern Europe, were probably unfamiliar with American Christmas carols, but my American-born parents never objected to my singing them. 

Still, my mother, usually reticent, seemed disturbed by Rachel G’s selection.  I think she viewed the carol as a religious piece of music, and she disliked the idea of my playing religious music in our home.  Before my lesson began, she uncharacteristically spoke up.  I don’t recall the exact words spoken by either my mother or Rachel G, but I could grasp the tense tone of the conversation. 

Looking back, I suspect that Rachel G was most likely Jewish, so her choice was somewhat curious.  But I’ve concluded that her choice was based on the music, not the words.  Its super-simple musical arrangement was clearly suitable for the level of my ability.  So, as a conscientious music teacher, she stood her ground. 

In the end, Rachel G must have soothed my mother’s concerns because I went on to learn, haltingly, the music of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”  I still have the fragile paper copy of the sheet music.  And I still love to play its beautiful melody in my still halting fashion.

When my family moved from Chicago to LA when I was 12, my parents sold our gorgeous piano, and our fortunes never led to the purchase of another one. That ended any possibility that my piano skills would ever improve.  I grew up to deeply envy skilled pianists who undoubtedly had more benevolent instruction and a piano literally at their fingertips.

The carol I learned to play, thanks to Rachel G, has endured.  When I viewed “Christmas in Connecticut,” a fan-favorite Christmas movie that appeared on TV last week, I watched star Barbara Stanwyck romanced by star Dennis Morgan.  In one delightful scene, he charmingly plays “O Little Town of Bethlehem” on her piano while she’s trimming her Christmas tree. 

“O Little Town” lives!

Happy Christmas

Happy Christmas!  That’s what the Brits say, right?  I’m thinking in Brit-speak right now, thanks to recently immersing myself in the world of Victorian London, and I haven’t shaken it off just yet.

The occasion? I showed up at this year’s Great Dickens Christmas Fair & Victorian Holiday Party, held every year at San Francisco’s Cow Palace.

I’ve always associated the Cow Palace with the Republican convention held there in 1964.  The one where Barry Goldwater gave his famous acceptance speech, including the memorable line, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”  I remember watching him say those words on TV while I was at home with a high fever.  The whole experience seemed like a feverish nightmare.  A candidate for the presidency of the United States saying those words!  To a Democratically-inclined young person in 1964, Goldwater’s words were shocking.  (Fast forward to 2016, when much more inflammatory speech was hurled at the nation almost every day by another candidate for the presidency.  One, unlike Goldwater, who got himself elected.)

Back to the Cow Palace.  It’s an indoor arena known as a venue for dog shows, sporting events, rodeos, and gun shows.  The Beatles appeared there twice in the ‘60s (and U2 at a special event in October 2016).  I’d never been there before.  But there I was, along with my two daughters and two granddaughters, entering the world of Dickens’s London.

Dickens was an early favorite of mine.  During my teen years, I read David Copperfield and Oliver Twist and became totally enamored of the characters and plot development in both.  (I also read, or tried to read, A Tale of Two Cities, during sophomore year, thanks to Mr. Hurley.  Every girl in our class, including me, had a major crush on him, the only good-looking under-40 male teacher at our high school.  But the book was a poor choice, even for the best readers among us, because it demanded a knowledge of history we hadn’t yet acquired.  When I returned to it years later, knowing something about the history of that time, I found it quite wonderful.  Still, it was and is very different from any of Dickens’s other works.)

Later I moved on to reading more and more Dickens. Bleak House, an indictment of the law as practiced in Dickens’s London, was a favorite.  I saw Oliver performed on stage and in the movies and saw countless dramatizations of his other stories, including the perennial A Christmas Carol.  The 1982 BBC mini-series of Nicholas Nickleby, starring Roger Rees, was especially memorable.

In short, I was—and am—a Dickens fan.

So off I went to the Great Dickens Christmas Fair, not quite sure what to expect.

What I discovered was a whole world of people who turned out to enjoy dancing, music, and theatrical performances inspired by Dickens and the culture of his time.  At least half, possibly more, were dressed in the Victorian fashions they would have worn when meeting Dickens himself.  Perhaps many of these fair-goers like the theatricality of dressing up this way, pretending to be in a different time and place, no doubt escaping the reality of their everyday lives.

A host of vendors offered Victorian-style clothing and hats; many Victorian-clad fair-goers may have purchased theirs at earlier fairs.  Vendors also sold things like second-hand books (some by Dickens), jewelry, vintage photos, and scented items, along with food and drink.  My granddaughters were taken with the stunning dresses, and their mother bought one for each of them on the condition that they wear them as often as possible.

We headed for a few of the performances, including a charming version of traditional Christmas carols (yes, the singers were in Victorian garb), Irish and Scottish dancing, and a typically-British “music hall” comedy.  An over-18 version began after ours and attracted a lot of people waiting in line outside the music hall as we departed (we had two under-18 girls among us).  Finally, we were treated to Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball, where fair-goers could themselves get on the dance floor and twirl to the music of Victorian London.  Just before we left, a beautifully-costumed Queen Victoria showed up, along with her retinue, to wish us all a Happy Christmas and a Good New Year.

The Dickens Fair was tremendous fun.  And it had a bonus:  it reminded me of two special times in my past.  When my husband-to-be Herb and I first began dating, we discovered that we not only lived in the same apartment building near UCLA (where we were working) but we both were also great fans of Charles Dickens.  (In London years later, Herb and I made a beeline for the only house still standing where Dickens lived and wrote.)

Herb somehow garnered tickets for a live performance at UCLA by the British (specifically Welsh) writer and actor Emlyn Williams.  Best known for his plays Night Must Fall and The Corn is Green (both frequently revived on stage and made into notable films), Williams also worked on screenplays for directors like Alfred Hitchcock and acted himself in a number of films.

When we encountered Williams in early 1971, he was touring with his one-man show, in which he portrayed Charles Dickens, bearded and outfitted in Victorian attire, reading excerpts from his famous novels.  (Some say he began the whole genre of one-man and one-woman performances. He appeared in New York as early as 1953 and no doubt appeared in London even earlier. Probably best-known to Americans is Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain.)  Herb and I were entranced by Williams’s stellar performance, and I followed it up by giving Herb a new biography of Dickens as his Valentine’s Day gift.  (Not very romantic, but Herb loved it.)

Ten years later, we learned that Williams-as-Dickens would be performing close to our then-home on the North Shore of Chicago.  At the Northlight Theatre production in Evanston, Illinois, we reveled once again in his zestful reading of Dickens’s writing.

The miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is perhaps Dickens’s most memorable character.  Let’s remember what Dickens wrote toward the end of A Christmas Carol.  When Scrooge discovered the joy of helping others, “His own heart laughed.”

Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, I send you this wish:  May you have a laughing heart today, and every day to come.