Monday, December 31, 2012

A Garden of Song at Christmas

We sang "Good King Wenceslas" on Christmas Day at my brother's house in Smithtown, New York.
My daughter sang it as well at a Christmas party she attended a little less than halfway around the world, in the Beirut apartment of a good friend who works for the UN.
The UN has a big presence in Lebanon because of its troubled border with Israel and the need to provide ongoing subsistence for the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, and other countries. And though we may not hear much about them, Christmas parties take place in these 60-year-old "camps," in the West Bank, and among Israel's Arab population as well.
As always, we sang lots of Christmas songs at my brother's house. For years, decades, my whole life probably, my mother's stalwart presence at the piano was the enabling factor for our Christmas caroling. Sitting straight on the bench, she sight-read through the songs, switching from songbook to songbook, complaining at times that the song she was looking for wasn't in the book she expected it to be in, or that her glasses weren't the right ones for the job, or exclaiming -- very occasionally -- "this is hard!" when faced by a cluster of flats in the key signature for the left-hand. Then she put her fingers on the keys, worked up the introduction whether we singers wanted one or not, then nodded decisively when it was time for us to start singing.
We generally came in late.
I tried to stand close enough to the piano to read the lyrics printed under the lines of the score. One knew the words, generally, of the most familiar songs -- but, so often, one didn't know them exactly enough to belt out a line with sufficient confidence -- "Oh, Holy Night!" -- and then..? "The stars are shining brightly" --? Then what? Something to get us to..."our dear savior's birth" --?
So voices go in and out, depending on who remembers what from each song. We know this about each other. It's not about perfection.
"Good King Wenceslas went out," we sing, "on the feast of Stephen." Stephen? Is he one of the shepherds or the hot chef at the nouveau Mediterranean diner? Why is this song a Christmas carol?
"When the snow lay round about/ deep and crisp and even."
For the matter who was Wenceslas and was he king of something more substantial than Marvin Gardens?
His song may be in English, but the king who cared about a poor peasant looking for fuel in the snow wasn't English. He was Czech. The notion of the Bohemian duke as "the righteous king" gained popularity in England and Bohemia centuries before the Reformation, the Countereformation, the Inquisition, Henry VIII, and the establishment of the Church of England.
My mother died last year. She was ninety. This is our second year without her at the piano.
Daniel, the youngest of her six grandchildren, took over the piano duties this Christmas. John, my brother and generous Christmas host, xeroxed lyrics to about 20 carols, stapled them together, passed them around, and we sang a bunch of them, including all those long overlooked (and to some minds unnecessary) second, third, fourth and fifth verses.
"Angels we have seen on high...." da-dum da-dum da-dum. This song has lots of "glorias." I like the glorias. We feel like angels singing them.
Daniel, a college freshman, has some challenges sight-reading this music, but persists. The high point point, of course, is singing "The Twelve Days of Christmas," something we do each year. It's a tradition. It says we're all here. Of course, we're not. Mom's not....
Afterwards, we say 'Mom would be proud.'
The day after Christmas, Mom's birthday, with Daniel and his parents heading home after breakfast to beat a storm, our son Saul the crackerjack classical guitarist takes over the music for day-two's "Twelve Days." Cousin Alan and his wife are present this day to help fill out the numbers. Alan, a powerful baritone, plays his part with gusto -- it's good to have a singer you can hide behind when the correct number of lady's dancers temporarily escapes you -- but the day proves unexpectedly tough sledding for me.
...Meanwhile in Beirut, Sonya is facing challenges of her own.
The electricity in her apartment goes out on Christmas day, unexpectedly. Power goes out at scheduled intervals every day in Beirut; fuel rationing is national policy. But this power loss affects only half her building -- her half. When nothing happens, she calls the power company, at regular intervals, but no one there will venture any concrete information about whether a repairman has been sent and when the power will be restored.
Instead, the male voices at the company turn the conversation to (1) her nationality, (2) her reason for living in Lebanon, and (3) her marital status.
With no estimate for power resumption, the landlord rigs a temporary expedient by running an extension cord from the last floor with power through the window up to Sonya's floor and the floors above her.
Sonya continues preparations for her own holiday party. But with power still out as the time grows near, she makes plans to move the entire party to a friend's apartment. With an hour to spare, the lights come back on.
It's hard to believe, but our daughter goes to (and hosts) more Christmas parties in the Middle East than we do in the good ol' USA.

"Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath'ring winter fuel."

"Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither" ...the good King commands.

We get our fuel needs met through the power grid rather than pine logs these days, but the man surely knew what he was talking about.