The Christmas of 1995 started for me on a frosty night in late October. I had driven up to my best friend’s house for an autumn bonfire and hayride, but when I opened the back door I was greeted with a rush of music so lovely I knew it had to belong to the Christmas season. It was the first time I’d ever heard the tender Austrian carol Still, Still, Still, and to this day it carries me back to that night as if the intervening years were but a dream.
It was no surprise to walk into Rachel’s den and find it full of my friends singing together: ours was a musical crowd, and we girls found the tenors and basses of our male counterparts to be an invaluable asset in both living room concerts and more formal occasions alike. For years we caroled together in my parents’ neighborhood at Christmastime, and I still remember those fully fleshed-out versions of Lo, How a Rose and The Holly Bears a Berry with a stab of tender joy: voices rising on the frosty air, faces lit by gleaming tapers—truly among the dearest memories of my life.
Life has a way of carrying us along, of course, in a passage so swift we feel dazed by its torrent. But the habit of singing with my girlfriends is one that we’ve fought for amid the rushing swirls and eddies of time. For over twenty years we’ve made music a factor in our fellowship, and from this vantage-point all the harmonies we’ve worked out and the tricky intervals we’ve rehearsed seem like a perfect image of friendship itself. In a world that changes “surely as the seasons, and twice as fast,” how precious to find such anchors of shared pleasure and committed companionship amid the ravages of Time’s current.
Over a decade ago I looked around at our little ensemble gathered at the piano and thought with a stab that I was the only one present whose immediate family was intact—whose inner circle had not been breached by death and grief. Everyone but me had been forced to say goodbye to either a parent or a sibling—a thing undreamt of in our younger days. I’ve joined their ranks now, with the loss of my father, but the sorrows we’ve known—and shared—have only forged our heart ties all the firmer.
Over the years our little band has swelled and contracted, depending upon the birth of children, illness, the general unpredictability of life. (And depending upon our size on any given occasion, we call ourselves The Illustrious Five, or Six, or Nine, or Twelve, what-have-you, with a nod to our much-admired Anonymous Four.) In the meantime, my “littlest sister” grew up and joined us, contributing harmonies, mandolin, and occasional photography to our gatherings. A few precious Christmases we’ve had Rachel back in our midst, home from her new home in Australia. And in December there’s always been something to rehearse for, be it Christmas party or Twelfth Night revel.
For all our commitment, however, it’s been three years since we’ve gotten together to sing. Three years? Remember what I said about the torrent of Time? The two Christmases previous have seen our fundamental organizer (the other Rachel) living overseas—and me too occupied with grief to call a singing party, much less a Christmas party for which to rehearse our songs.
I was driving through the square of my hometown early in the season, singing along to The Waverly Consort Christmas album, when one of my very favorite tracks came on: The Gloucestershire Wassail. I smiled at the memory of a Christmas not so many years back, when my friends and I had performed that song according to the traditional form, inserting the names of my farm animals in place of the more generic ones with which the lyrics were supplied. Such a happy crowd of old associations leapt to mind: my house alight with candlelight and the faces dear ones; my friends and me grinning at one another through verses dedicated to the likes of Pansy the goat and Margot the rooster; my Daddy perched on the little Empire sofa in the parlor laughing his head off. I laughed likewise at the memory, and the next moment gasped over a sob. Of all the animals we had inserted into that song, only Harry the sheep, “with his long horn,” remained—though we’re still blessed with a farm-full, all the others we’d sung about that night are gone. What’s more, my Daddy is gone, lost to me these sixteen months. The contrast between that bright time and this unlooked-for shadow of grief was suddenly unbearable. I wanted to go back and shake my younger self, saying, Here, old girl, do you see—Here are all the verities of life in one room! Don’t miss it, and don’t waste it fretting about trifles!
“Christmas hurts,” I whispered, switching off the stereo and steeling myself to the traffic and drizzle once more.
And then, like a resolution, I thought, I need my friends.
In this whirling world of sadness and uncertainty, I needed my mainstays to remind me of things that would never change.
They came on a Saturday afternoon in mid-December, as many as could make it in such a busy, flu-fraught season. I made the tea and laid the parlor fire with a singing heart, pulling sugar cookies from the oven just as the doorbell started to ring. In they came, faces bright with the frosty day, battered folders of song sheets in hand. We gathered around the piano as we’ve always done—only there were teenaged daughters in our midst now, and my “littlest sister” was more radiant than usual, expectant with a little one of her own.
And one more change: I found that time passed had left its mark on me, as well. After squinting over music grown suddenly fuzzy and unfamiliar, I was obliged to retrieve my readers from the bedside table, and I spent the rest of the afternoon regarding everyone over the nose bridge of my granny glasses.
“Can I make a request for large quantities of scalding hot tea?” one friend had texted early in the day.
Goodness knew we all could use it.
“I’ve already got my two biggest pots ready to go,” I texted back. “What would we do without our cups of tea?”
Indeed—what would I do without these friends with whom to share it?
We were all out of practice. My voice felt tight, contracted with disuse.
“I’ve lost my range,” I told the girls, and one stab at that high E on Past Three O’Clock confirmed it. But after an hour or so of singing, and copious amounts of “scalding hot tea,” I felt my throat open up somewhat; the stabs, if not dead-on, at least landed in the general vicinity.
The fire crackled; the tea kettle simmered in the kitchen; the late afternoon light slanted through the west-facing windows, throwing filigreed patterns of bare branches upon the walls and floors. And our unselfconscious joy ran through the room like a game of musical catch. We sang for hours, all our old favorites, all with golden memories attached: All Hayle to the Days, Ding, Dong Merrily on High, All My Heart This Night Rejoices, The Shepherd’s Star, Tomorrow Shall be My Dancing Day—some turned out better than we expected, others underscored our lack of practice.
And I realized, as teacups and water glasses crowded on tabletops, and piles of sheet music accumulated on the floor, that it was the first time since our teenage years that we’d gathered to sing purely for the joy of singing—most other instances, sweet as they were, had been in preparation for some event or occasion.
But I couldn’t help thinking that there’s no better reason to set aside a whole afternoon to sing than for the love of the season, for the love of lifelong friends, and for the love of the King whose coming we’re celebrating.
I will not count the care times bring,
I’ll only count my time to sing.
Anonymous text, set by Henry Purcell