Christmas is one of my very favorite times of the year. December normally swoops in on the tail of frigid winds and blustery weather. Unfortunately, that is exactly when it is time to drive to the airports and pick up family, who are swooping in on blustery tailwinds of their own.
Our small house bulges at the seams to reaccomodate the ones we love. We have been food shopping numerous times to be sure to stock our refrigerator with everyone's favorite things.
Air mattresses are inflated and disguised with a pile of quilts and pillows. Our dog squeezes in between the chair legs under the table to hide from the fray.
Unless Christmas conveniently lands on the weekend, the week that people come in remains a work week for us. That means that our students tiptoe around suitcases with their cellos and the sight reading portion of lessons becomes holiday duets.
For our family, the official musical week of the holiday season always begins with a trip to the Flynn theater in Burlington to see a musical version of “A Christmas Carol.” brought in by the Nebraska Caravan Theater. Our kids know every line by heart and the post performance walk to our car is essentially a re- production of the performance.
Next is something most musicians are familiar with, Handel's brilliant Messiah. Paul plays in the Messiah performance in nearby Stowe. It is a sing-along and he is an original member of the orchestra going back 21 years. He is sedately dressed in musician black while his family fills the pew closest to his seat wearing our ugliest of ugly Christmas sweaters and various sparkly attire. He can't miss us, voices withstanding.
Another budding tradition is to bring members of both of our cello studios to Woodridge Nursing home the week before Christmas. We arrived this year with around ten cellists, one violinist (we like those numbers) and two bassists. The music has three parts guaranteeing that anyone who would like to play can fit into one of the parts.
We begin arriving with our cumbersome cases in tow. Some of the residents are already seated. A few will be in regular chairs and many in wheelchairs. Often as we come in we will get a weak wave or a small smile to greet us. Sometimes we get neither, just a vague stare.
This year one of our students made a handbook with the words to the holiday music that we were playing. We moved hopefully among the residents handing them the books so that they could sing along.
I conducted the group and Paul sat in. We began with a very familiar piece and, as we started up I could hear voices begin to sing from behind me.
As we moved from piece to piece I became much more adept at the “conductor swivel” One minute I would face the musicians, the next I would spin and face the residents. Flapping my arms like some kind of a Christmas bird to keep the musicians in tempo behind me and to encourage the chorus in front of me.
As we continued, people became braver and more animated. We watched them begin to clap their hands to the pieces that were as familiar to them as the hands they were clapping. Some of the voices were tired and weak but others rose above the music, strong and clear. The best part was when we would forge on to verse three, one that carolers rarely sing, and all of us, including this conductor, were forced to keep repeating the phrase “fa la la la la” as it was the only line we could readily remember.
I found that as I continued to swivel between orchestra and musician the line began to blur. One side was laughing and singing, the other smiling and laughing. Music and laughter becoming the ribbon that was tying this package together.
As the clapping died down we packed up to leave. We had made a plan with our students to meet for pizza and so they were hefting cases onto their shoulders and lugging music stands down the hall toward the elevator. At the same time many of the residents were being wheeled down that same hall to their rooms. But, as there are only so many “wheelers' available at one time, many remained in the space with us. Now that the music had ended they sat silent in their wheelchairs. Smiles replaced by vague stares.
I found it difficult to leave them. I knew that I was headed to a warm space filled with holiday cheer and laughing friends. I knew that when I left the restaurant it would be with my husband and son and we would be going home to turn on our familiar Christmas records and sit by our beautiful tree and, I knew that, at one point, the residents had lived this life as well.
But no longer.
Often we struggle to find and then describe what can make holidays special and important. In this case, with those voices singing and faces smiling, no words were needed.