Advent Calendar: The Beauty of Britten

For the Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories: December 21 – Christmas Music.


Choirs and choral music have been a fact of my Christmas life since I was … oh, I don’t know, thirteen?

It was inevitable. I sang my way through the junior high and high school choirs. I sang in church choirs.  I sang in regional and state choirs and of course I sing in the shower when all else fails.

The magic of human voices blending and soaring has never lost its mesmerizing effect for me, and never more so than in the depths of December. Every year for the past decade, my church choir and an ensemble of musicians have participated in a candlelight carol sing, and the moment when the audience and the singers hold lit tapers and join together for our final song has a way of stopping anger, anxiety and cynicism in its tracks, if only for two or three precious minutes.

We’ve sung a lot of Christmas pieces over the years, but one in particular is special to my heart.

British choirs and composers work their own particular spell with Christmas. And hands-down my favorite Christmas choral work is by Benjamin Britten — A Hymn to the Virgin, composed in 1930, when Britten was all of 16. Using a starkly simple medieval text, it is a dialogue between two groups of singers, usually a full choir and a quartet of soloists.

It is simply, hauntingly lovely. Singing it transports you for a few minutes to a cleaner, calmer, brighter place.

Apparently, Britten retained a deep affection for Hymn to the Virgin throughout his life, and it was one of only two of his own works performed at his funeral on Dec. 7, 1976. Here it is, performed by the British professional mixed choir Polyphony.

I also love Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols — another beautifully crafted tribute to the season.

Advent Calendar: Christmas Ham … Onstage

For the December 16, 2010 Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories: Christmas at School. What did you or your ancestors do to celebrate Christmas at school? Were you ever in a Christmas Pageant?


Was I ever in a Christmas Pageant? Wild horses couldn’t have dragged me away from one. I loved to sing (fortunately, I could do it on key), I loved Christmas, and I was a complete and utter ham. What more could  a person need?

And Christmas songs! Couldn’t resist them. Volunteered at age eight to stand in front of the class and belt out “Silver Bells.” Realized that in a Catholic school I should have done a religious song, and offered “Silent Night” as an encore. Was politely told to sit down.

My school didn’t do the classic pageant from what I remember. We did a sort of Christmas revue, in which each class did one big number. Then, at the very end, we would do a Nativity scene tableau with a select group of kids dressed in proper costumes, while the rest of us sang something (not “Silver Bells”) softly in the background.

The class numbers were a mixed bag. One year we had a 12-kid lineup doing “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” in which each of us unfurled a poster depicting our day’s gift as we sang it out. It took forever to get through those twelve days, due to delays in singing caused by fumbling with posters. I sang the nine ladies dancing bit, and was extremely bitter that I wasn’t assigned the five golden rings.

I remember another year in which we sang “Silent Night” in German as my (German-speaking) mother winced at various manglings of the original text. (“Schlayyyyyf….. in heimlicher …. Roooooo.…”)

Children’s pageants may well be a long-standing tradition in my family. Although it doesn’t involve a holiday pageant, I was charmed to discover this item from the Brooklyn Eagle dated April 14, 1918:

“Toy Shop” Aids Hospital Fund

The Bay Ridge Hospital will increase its building fund by a considerable sum from a children’s musical extravaganza which pleased a large audience at the Bay Ridge Presbyterian Church, Ridge Boulevard at Eighty-first Street, yesterday afternoon. The production, “The Toy Shop,” included popular airs in a plot laid in a toy shop. The toys come to life through the genii of Aladdin’s lamp and are turned back into toys by a jealous little miss … One little doll named Babykins, kept in tissue paper as specially precious, was a wee tot of 2 years old, little Catherine Haigney.

So there’s a star turn by a Haigney child of yesteryear! I haven’t identified her positively yet. She might be my father’s eldest sister, although the age reported is a bit too young. At any rate, the show sounds adorable.

And tradition marches on. Only yesterday, I listened to my eight-year-old and her classmates sing their hearts out at the annual Winter Concert. As long as there’s a December, there will be kids treading the boards — and parents biting their nails in the audience.

Advent Calendar: All Hail The Yule Log

For the GeneaBloggers Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories: Christmas Eve.

Thank God for the Yule Log, is all I can say.

We were a bit thin on Christmas Eve traditions in my childhood home. My mother’s parents were German, so we could have adopted the German custom of keeping the tree in a closed room until the big reveal for the wide-eyed children on Christmas Eve.

But my German grandpa was more about being all-American. Anyway, he could hardly have hidden a Christmas tree in his Brooklyn apartment. And it wouldn’t be any easier to pull off in the New Jersey split-level where we were raised.

But we could cherish the Yule Log, a Christmas Eve TV tradition in the greater New York City area from 1966 to 1989. If you grew up in that place and time, chances are you tuned in to WPIX-TV for your fix, at least for a minute or two:

The Yule Log’s magic is hard to explain to someone who didn’t grow up with it. (“Let me get this straight. It was a VIDEO of a LOG. Burning. In the fireplace. With Christmas carols. That’s it?”)

Yeah. That’s it.

The Log originally burned in the fireplace at Gracie Mansion, the official home of New York City’s mayor. You can read all the history and trivia in this delightful Yule Log website, lovingly tended by Lawrence F. “Chip” Arcuri, a maestro of Yule Log trivia.

In a 1970s version of home-theater surround, we could put the Yule Log on the TV in the living room AND on the radio in the kitchen, since it was simulcast. And the sound track was a true winter wonderland: Percy Faith! The Robert Shaw Chorale! Mantovani! My Dad singing along as he wrapped the final fruitcakes!

It is hard to imagine any TV station today devoting four hours of programming on Christmas Eve to a musical, burning log. (“Aw, c’mon. Who needs another abs machine infomercial, anyway?”) And after 20-odd years of Yule Logs, WPIX found it hard to imagine, too. The Log went out for a good long time.

But no doubt due to devoted fans like Arcuri, the Yule Log’s custodians at WPIX and its parent, Tribune Broadcasting, have rediscovered its retro appeal. It’s returned to New York airwaves in recent years, although not on Christmas Eve. Here is a schedule.

Keep the home fires burning. And Merry Christmas!

Advent Calendar: Aunts of Christmas Past

(Written in response to the GeneaBloggers Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories Dec. 10 prompt: Christmas gifts.)

I had two aunts who were the alpha and the omega of Christmas gift giving.

Aunt Joanie gave us fabulous toys. Aunt Cath gave us clothes – the gift most likely to be consigned by kids to Siberia (i.e., the back of the tree, alongside the bad ties for Dad and the pine-scented bath oil for Mom).

I feel badly, in retrospect, for our bored reactions to the clothes from Aunt Catherine. They were good quality, beautiful and chosen with care. Long after the tinsel was swept away and the tree taken down, we were glad to wear them. Not that we admitted it.

Aunt Joanie’s gifts had the unfair advantage of being more kid-friendly. And beyond that, they were just … well, fabulous.

The Shiba Productions fairy tale books Aunt Joanie gave us one year stayed in my mind so strongly that I have paid through the nose for a couple of them on eBay to share with my own daughters. They were produced by a Japanese stop-motion animator, who created magical puppets and sets to illustrate them. As children, we really felt we were disappearing into a fairy tale just by looking at the pictures.

Eliza in "The Wild Swans"

Illustration from "The Wild Swans," copyright 1966, Shiba Productions, published by Golden Press, New York.

And I still remember the Honey Moon doll. Can you blame me? (Really, click the link and take a look. She has to be seen to be believed.)

Amazingly, this doll is not a visitor from Mars; she is a tie-in to the Dick Tracy comic strip. Honey Moon was the child of Miss Moon Maid and Junior Tracy, the adopted son of Dick Tracy and Tess Trueheart. A genealogy angle! Tracy family researchers, take note.

Honey Moon was the perfect example of an Aunt Joanie gift: eye-popping, cool and definitely not something your parents would buy you. (My mother’s reaction when I unwrapped Honey Moon was something along the lines of “Whuh..?”)

Aunt Joanie’s and Aunt Catherine’s gifts were also wrapped as beautifully as anything I’ve ever seen. Even as kids, we felt badly about unwrapping them. And the ribbons were always secured with unique little trinkets that my mother could never bear to throw away. So we’d hang them on the tree. They are still part of the family ornament collection, forty-odd years later.

In their memories, I’m raising a glass of Christmas cheer to all the aunts who spoil their nieces and nephews rotten. What would we do without you?