Family Singing at Christmas
Betty Mason Arthurs
Memories of my family and our love of music and singing together, now that my parents and one brother are gone, help to overcome my sorrow of missing them at Christmastime and bring me joy. I share a memory from Christmas Eve long ago.
My family stomped their boots on the porch of the old, two-story nursing home. Soft-colored lights and garland adorned the porch railing and reflected off the powdery snow in the early evening. Through the front windows I caught a glimpse of red and green crepe paper streamers draped over the staircase railing and the small Christmas tree in the foyer. It was Christmas Eve.
Giggling with excitement, I pushed open the heavy oak door. “Come on. The nurses are expecting us.” I urged my family forward and shut out the frigid air in Albion, New York.
I was home from college on holiday break in the 1960s. Mark, my middle brother had just arrived on leave from the army and Don, my oldest brother, and his wife Margie, had driven 30 miles over icy roads to join us. Mom’s chili supper warmed our stomachs and Dad, his blue eyes shining above his red wool scarf, couldn’t stop grinning. Our celestial family-choir was ready.
“So glad you’re here.” Yvonne, the evening nurse, shook our cold hands.
“I told our patients you were coming so anytime you want to start singing is fine.”
The smell of antiseptic and the supper of roast beef mingled together in the air. In the room to my left, I could hear Mabel’s gentle snore for she was already tucked in bed for the night. Joan slumped in her wheelchair in the bedroom to my right, staring at nothing while her roommate Bessie snuggled with one of her baby dolls, rocking it to sleep.
For me, the elderly patients in every room were my friends. During the summer I worked with them as a nurse’s aide; the other months I pursued my nursing studies. Because of tight quarters in the Victorian-style house, we stood in the foyer to sing.
Our family tradition every Christmas was to go caroling at a nursing home, sing in church, or perform in school musicals. For us, music permeated every part of the holidays. My brothers went on with their own lives to college and careers, but every time they managed to get home, we sang. If all we did was carol around our old piano, it was a tradition we loved.
We burst out in song, “Hark! the herald angels sing.” Don and Margie sang the melody. Mark and Dad belted out their sweet tenor. Mom and I carried the alto. It seemed like we split the air with three-part harmony up to heaven. Music had bound us together through the good and bad times as a family. Could we bring some joy to the lonely patients this cold winter’s night?
“Joy to the world, the Lord has come” and “O little town of Bethlehem” we sang even louder, infused with an inner joy Christmas brings. We sang song after song, until finally “Silent Night” ended our winter serenade. Then we quietly spread out, going our separate ways to greet all of our listeners. We held fragile hands, gave hugs, and kissed wrinkled cheeks.
Mabel, now awake, her face beaming like a white candle lit in a holy place, took my hand and whispered, “Oh, that was so beautiful. Thank you.” Bessie stood up from her rocking chair and squeezed me along with her baby doll. “Pretty, pretty,” was all she said. Joan, sat up straighter in her wheelchair and tried to talk as I bent to hug her.
Yvonne opened the front door for us and said, “Thank you for coming. It meant so much. We don’t get many singers.” Calling out “Merry Christmas” we stepped out the door. Several called back in feeble voices, “Merry Christmas.”
Back home, Dad turned on the lights of our tree and we munched on Mom’s sugar cookies and drank hot chocolate. We reminisced and laughed about past holidays, recalling when our ginger cat attacked the tree and it crashed in a hail of broken ornaments. Mark and I tied the tree up with rope.
In a few years I married and finally our musical chorus had a bass, my husband John. Then Don’s children and my children joined us with their sweet angelic voices. Singing, whether together or in our own parts of the country, bonded our family.
Now that my parents are gone and my brother Mark too, I treasure the memories I have of singing together, especially the Christmas Eve we sang in the Albion nursing home and touched the hearts of lonely patients.
What are some of your Christmas traditions? Do you hang stockings or bake and decorate Christmas cookies? Please share them with me in the comments below.