Seasonal Beauty “My family and the Sacred Music of the Season” may contain affiliate links, if you make a purchase from these links I will receive a commission.
You’re on one side of the holly-and-ivy, Christmas music fence, or you’re grimacing, arms folded on the other….or, yes, you’re that one standing on the rails above, belting out the tunes on road trips and light-viewing expeditions, caroling even though you don’t have the foggiest idea what wassail or figgy pudding is or why Jesus and Mary came sailing in on ships of three.
I love Christmas carols, and I sing them…just not very well. My children don’t seem to mind. It’s a huge part of our Advent and Christmas season to listen to and sing carols together. As my father did during my childhood, I regularly bring out my guitar, place it on my knee, strum it and sing with my children. The fact that I’m not brilliant doesn’t matter; I’m making memories through music with my family.
In my much younger days I sang White Christmas at the junior high holiday concert. My dad said I was probably the third, maybe fourth best person there…then he paused to make sure he wasn’t forgetting anyone.
My friend Christina dragged me to an impromptu audition for it. I tried to sing “Blackbird” by The Beatles for the new choir leader. I sounded like a young man going through puberty; I couldn’t find the right pitch anywhere, though I manfully searched about for it. For some desperate reason, the teacher accepted me anyway.
I could have found that missing pitch or even gotten good probably if I had practiced “White Christmas” in front of my mother. Performing in front of others – not those jokes and silly dances I did in elementary school – was no laughing matter, she emphasized. Unfortunately, every time I tried to sing in front of Mom I giggled. The sterner she looked, the more I was tickled. Dad eventually told her to give up, that if I didn’t want to practice and ended up embarrassing myself, it would be my own fault. I breathed a sigh of relief; I’d grown immune to embarrassment during my preschool years, so I went to my room to smugly sing to myself.
My parents were bravely there at the concert, and I was so nervous that, seeking comfort, I pointed out into the crowd at my best friend Michelle and sang at her. She smiled back encouragingly, but later probably wished I had pointed at some kid near the opposite end of the gym. Later, I performed in a trio, our choir leader filling in last minute for a girl with a cold. We sang “Joy to the World”, and somebody was so far off key, we all skidded off into the frosty embankment of chaos. That tone-deaf individual? Our choir director! It made perfect sense why she accepted my audition.
Luckily, the concert ended with Dad playing several songs on his guitar at the request of my teacher, Mrs. Hillis. He revived the sorely abused Christmas spirit for everyone.
Vinca and Annie, my big sisters, could really sing, and both participated in the proper junior high holiday program. Mr. Owens, also the algebra/geometry teacher, ran it and held real auditions. (He sadly gave up directing it the year before I auditioned.) The production was put on in the evening for the community, not mid-day. It included musical performances and a holiday-themed play. There were festive sets and a huge, bright Christmas tree in the background. I remember being enchanted by the comedy, the music at intermissions and the general gaiety of the evening. All the actors and singers took a bow with Mr. Owens at the finale, and the audience applauded loudly and cheerfully.
Later my sisters both studied under a legendary choir director in high school named Ms. Freeman. She was a short, blond-haired woman and a force of nature, a quality-oriented task master. You did not talk about life outside music in the daily hour she owned. You breathed, sweated and dreamed music. The concerts that she coordinated were therefore brilliant.
My sisters were brilliant, too: in their big, poufy, satiny dresses with their big, coiffed hair and their big, powerful voices on stage in some vast auditorium. At my sisters’ feet, in their audience, I learned to appreciate what they had learned to appreciate and sing: songs like “I Wonder as I Wander”, “Patapan”, “Ding! Dong! Merrily on High” were just a few that I grew to love as my sisters’ and their peers’ voices gave testimony to the message. I first stood for the “Hallelujah Chorus” at my sisters’ concerts.
Due to their influence, then, I have a great love and reverence for traditional carols, many no longer well known. My first carol love is “Joy to the World”, of course, because I remember how my dad played it during my childhood, with a quick tempo and truly joyful.
My new favorite carol is an obscure one. It is based on a poem, composer uncertain, from the 18th century and is called “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree”. Vinca gave James Galway’s Christmas Carol to my dad some years ago, and I was thereby introduced to its gorgeous, profoundly spiritual lyrics on that collection. It begins thus:
The tree of life my soul have seen
Laden with fruit and always green
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ the apple tree
Ah, I love that. I know who my Savior is.
Carols are my preference over popular winter jingles. I’d also rather hear Dean Martin, Doris Day, Frank Sinatra or a choir sing them than any contemporary popular performer. Still, sometimes inspiration, awe and reverence can be found in unusual places. The very first time I heard the Barenaked Ladies’ and Sarah McLachlan’s collaboration on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman/We Three Kings“, it became my favorite arrangement of those songs.
Audacious gal that I am, I dare to play Christmas songs beginning somewhere in November; I must practice for our family’s annual sing-along with relatives and friends, after all. I accompany myself on my burgundy guitar, a beloved gift from my husband years ago. My playing is like my singing; it could use practice, better form, and all the proper chords/notes might help, but I enthusiastically bang it out. My children think my rendition of “Feliz Navidad” is perfect.
The music of this season, whether I’m rambunctiously playing it or listening to it appreciatively, connects me to each Christmas past through sacred lyrics and all the rich gifts of memory they bear, and, above all, to Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.
A Little More about Hillary
Hillary Ibarra is a blessed wife and mother of four who believes everything in life is better with Jesus. She writes faith, humor and human interest pieces on her blog hillaryibarra.com, and for various sites including CatholicMom.com and Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. She is the author of The Christmas List, an inspirational holiday novella based on the true events of one miraculous childhood Christmas Eve.