I want to get this down while it’s still fresh in my mind. Today, (and similar days in past Decembers), is one of the more emotionally devastating, yet ultimately satisfying days of my year. I’m exhausted, physically and emotionally, but, I think…in a good way.
I do free-lance administrative work for several arts and cultural organizations. One of them is a chorus I sing in as well. Today, we made our annual “Christmas Caroling” trek. I put that in quotes, as I don’t really know what “Christmas” means…more about that in a minute. I generally grumble and mutter under my breath when the group plans this expedition. Coming up to the time, it seems overly precious and sentimental; not to mention, well, more “religious” than I’m comfortable with. I’m the kind of secularist that, on one level, really doesn’t understand how someone can say something like: “I’m an atheist. But. I really like Christmas!” —what? What does that mean? To me, when I observe the society around me, I can’t define “Christmas” as any one thing. It is a pivotal celebration for some branches of religionists. It’s also associated with Pagan or natural celebrations of solstice; in fact the solstice observances of many cultures have been hijacked by the Christians in order to incorporate already existing holy times into the celebration of their leader’s birth.
The confusing thing to me is that in some countries, Christmas is also a cultural holiday; a time to share gifts and cards, parties and greetings, and perhaps a softer attitude than at other times of the year. Is there something in the darkest time of the year that causes us to slow down and reflect? Something beyond the religiosity of it all?
In times past, I’d tell people I don’t celebrate the holiday, as I’m not a Christian or a Pagan. I’d receive looks ranging from the quizzical to the hostile; from those who’d ask what either of those spiritual paths has to do with it (!) to those who are strictly Christian and don’t like the Pagans or secularists usurping “their” holiday. (Kind of ironic, considering)
So I grumble and complain and say I don’t want to do this “caroling” thing…and yet…I always do. We’re not the kind of carolers that go door-to-door. We visit care facilities such as today’s Alzheimer’s, Hospice, and Chronic Care units. I realize, as I always do, that most of the people who receive the gift of our songs have heard them all their lives, whatever their religious or lack of religious upbringing. These holiday songs are ubiquitous. You’d have to travel somewhere really remote, or never leave your home between November 1st and December 26th to avoid them. This becomes important in the saga of the caroling.
Our first visit was to an Alzheimer’s unit, a nice set of five cottages around a central courtyard. We visited all five cottages. In most, there were a mix of relatively alert, and pretty-much-out-of-it residents, with a few visiting family members thrown in. We never know what kind of reception we are going to get, because with Alzheimer’s patients, the short-term memory is the first to go, and they may not remember their son’s name, for instance, but they sometimes do remember all the words to a Christmas carol. I’ve seen this happen many times. The residents will look around in confusion as we enter their living space. Are they supposed to know who we are? Some of them give us hostile or suspicious looks.
And then: We start to sing. We sing very well, as we are from a semi-professional chorus. Rich, four-part harmony greets the residents as they listen to familiar tunes. Some of them open their eyes, and watch, with rapt expressions. Others keep their eyes closed, but, somehow, mouth the words. Still others wake up, as if from a long sleep, and start to sing along; voices beautiful; moving; emotional.
This is when the magic happens for me. For those few moments, there is no illness; no loss of cognitive function. We all share in these carols we know so well. We sing a mix of purely secular winter songs (Jingle Bells; Frosty the Snowman) Pagan (Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly) to the overtly religious (O Little Town of Bethlehem; Silent Night) and we always end with We Wish You a Merry Christmas, and at that moment, I do; I really do!
As we ended with each group, we went to shake hands with those who were able to do so, and greet them. Two women and one man kissed my hand. We were told by their caretakers that they hadn’t seen some of them this animated in a long time. I felt blessed in my ability to share this gift. I was content. It was meaningful. We had another facility, a county nursing home to visit, and then…we had “a thing at the mall”.
“What a contrast”, I thought to myself, “between singing to these lovely folks who can’t get out for a concert, and singing for a lot of mall shoppers trying to get the best deal!”
At the county-run large nursing home facility, I recognized several residents from the prior year. Unlike at the previous venue, there were a variety of ages; many quite young, but profoundly disabled and requiring 24-hour care. The staff member that took us around to three main lounges explained that, although some residents would have their eyes closed, or otherwise appear to “not be all there”, they nevertheless just might be able to take the music into their inner lives. She told us that last year, a resident came out of a coma after we sang! This was the first I’d heard of that. Again, a few audience members sang or mouthed some of the words with us. Others sat still and unblinking with tears running down their cheeks. One man, relatively young, sat with his eyes closed, seemingly oblivious, until, during Jingle Bells, two of the singers actually jingled bells they had brought with them. He opened his eyes and stared and stared at us.
And so, on to the “mall thing”. I will say that, although I don’t frequent malls to begin with, this day is probably the last day I would have chosen to visit any mall. The parking lots, and the mall itself were packed with shoppers, hoping to be inspired just a week before the holiday that causes them to give.
Some, obviously, were enjoying the shopping. Many, however, had “that look” on their faces; the “concentrated; obligatory; let’s get this gift buying over with” sort of expression that makes me question the wisdom of this December Debacle.
I hoped that what we were about to do would ease their pain, if only a little!
Inspired by a project born in another state, the Arizona Music Teacher’s Association decided to bring a “Random Act of Culture” to southern Arizona’s busiest mall on the busiest shopping day of the year. Fresh from my lunch of hummus and Greek salad, I wandered over to the large rotunda. There was an organ playing Christmas carols; not a terribly unusual thing in a mall in this season. It seemed there were many onlookers lining the railings from the floor above, and as I and my colleagues merged and mingled with the shoppers, we became aware that it was almost time. The organ stopped. And then it started again, at four times its previous volume. A conductor appeared on the landing between the floors. As the organ completed the introduction, several hundred voices, all mixed in with the shoppers, began to sing. Chills ran up my spine. Although under very different circumstances than in my morning activities, I still felt that I and the others “ministered” to these shoppers, perhaps victims of our consumerist culture; perhaps only trying to bring happiness to their families and friends.
As I contemplate my day, I’ve let go of feeling that any one group was more deserving than another. We’re all in this together, doing the best we can. As I was driving home from the mall (after taking 38 minutes just to be able to leave the mall!) I noticed a bumper sticker on the car ahead of me: “Don’t Postpone Joy”. Indeed.