Column: Christmas season starts with familiar music

Willem Lange. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Willem Lange. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

By WILLEM LANGE

For the Valley News

Published: 12-06-2023 3:44 PM

My friend the late Walker Weed, of Etna, was the oldest member of the Geriatric Adventure Society, and easily the most experienced. When he offered an opinion or a pronouncement, I listened. He opined one day that if you ever have had an especially good experience — say, a traverse of the famous Haute Route — you shouldn’t do it again, because inevitably the second trip will disappoint in comparison with the first. I’ve never forgotten that bit of advice.

Still, there are some things worth repeating, and they come up with regularity. School reunions, for example. They generally occur every year, with particular emphasis on the classes that graduated a multiple of five years before. The cynical among us might say that reunions are largely the creation of “Advancement,” or fund-raising departments. But I’ve always found them quite enjoyable, even though in recent years my own class has produced few survivors able to get there. So I go.

There is one tradition, however, that's been celebrated every year since well before I first sang in it over 70 years ago. It was presented in the school chapel just before Christmas vacation. With the chapel windows blank in the early winter darkness, the interior glowing dimly with candlelight, and the ancient and familiar music from the school choir, chamber orchestra, and organ filling the darkness, it’s a lovely way to invoke, both literally and figuratively, the light shining in darkness.

I’m not quite sure how or where it started, but sacred music has long been a staple of my old school. It certainly helped that the school’s founder, Dwight L. Moody, was a world-famous 19th-century evangelist who traveled with an equally famous singer and hymn leader. One of the first self-proclaimed fundamentalists, Moody named the school after Mount Hermon on the Israel-Syria border, then considered to be the traditional Mount of Transfiguration. Very few of us students, I suspect, appreciated the symbolism while we were there. Looking back in later years, however, I’ve found it quite obvious. The place and the people there changed my life.

Still, in spite of the lovely memories of the Christmas Vespers concerts I’d sung in while I was there, I’ve never gone back. The weather was daunting, or my family didn’t feel like going, or I felt too busy. This year, finally, was different. I don’t know why; maybe the fear that there won’t be too many more chances. So when the announcement arrived on my computer, I copied it into my schedule, made a reservation, and reserved a local motel room. At noon Sunday I headed south two hours, and my friend Bea headed west two hours to the Inn at Crumpin’ Fox (don’t ask; just look it up), dressed properly for a reception, and drove a few miles in the dark over roads much changed in 70 years (I got lost) to this year’s celebration.

It wasn’t just the roads that were changed. The kids, too, didn’t look like us; their robes were changed from severe black to blue with a logo (probably the result of uniting the boys’ and girls’ schools some years ago); the music sounded to my old traditional ears more eclectic. But the huge old stone chapel still soared above us; the mighty organ pipes still filled the front wall with silver and the air with great vibrations; Handel still resonated with the glory of the Lord. It might have been just my imagination, but everybody seemed happier than I remembered. I wondered if today’s students still sing, during the interminable stretch of fall term, “Hark, the herald angels shout, 76 more days and we’ll be out.” I hope they do.

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The service ended, as I’m guessing it always has (and as Christmas services seem to almost everywhere) with “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful” and the immortal tune and words written by an obscure German church organist long ago, “Stille Nacht.” We left through a vestry full of happy students cheerfully accepting congratulations and best wishes for the holidays, and drove a few miles in the rain (my phone told me it was snowing hard back home) for a delightful post-concert, late-evening Scotch and pasta with the school archivist (a particular friend) and his wife (another), who’s the liaison appointed by Advancement to my sadly diminishing class.

Next morning after breakfast in the dining hall, Bea went east and I went north. On the way, I pondered Walker’s advice. But remembering how welcoming everyone had been, from the headmaster to the lady dispensing muffins, I’m thinking I may be back to welcome in the Advent season again in what feels like a second home.