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Random holiday musings…

December 16, 2018

As a student at Thomson High School, I played in the band. Christmas parades were the worst with fingers numb, feet hurting, long frigid waits ahead of the start moment, and more. I became bored halfway through the march and got fancy. I would flick my wrists and spin my cymbals. Pretty flashy, eh? Yeh, until the leather broke and my cymbals went spinning, Frisbee style, into the crowd.

I elected to join my great friend and terrific baritone David Johnson in a performance of Handel’s Messiah in a rural north Georgia church. The organist was beyond horrible. After about five excruciating measures into the famous overture, David turned from his soloist’s chair and glared at the poor organist for the rest of the piece. It didn’t get better.

I lived on campus for a number of years at Berry College. I used to relish the quiet and peace that enveloped the campus between semesters, and I would often hike in the forest that rings the academic buildings. That is until one pleasant December afternoon I was walking and singing a song only to be stopped by the presence of a hunter clad in an orange hunting vest slowly rising out of the leaves. I stopped, turned and winter hiked no more during deer season.

I sang a Messiah at a tiny college in south Georgia. The auditorium was packed and the chorus was well prepared. I stood and sang my first phrase, “Thus saith the Lord!” Dead center was a teenager who evidently had never heard a male classically trained voice. At the first sound of my voice, his jaw dropped open, and he clenched his eyes in a painful grimace. I sang the rest of the afternoon just to him. Everyone’s a critic.

Back in the day, we students in music school always sent our private teacher a Christmas card. I remember the exact moment when I got a return Christmas card from my graduate school professor. I beamed all the way from the mailbox to the stoop, and I still have that precious card and its included sentiment.

When I first started teaching, I received numbers of cards from my students. As the years went on, less and less, then the final years at Berry College, none. Now I get a handful of Christmas cards from former students, and I treasure each one.

Christmas was my late father’s favorite season, and I don’t know if he ever forgave the bride and I for spending one holiday in northern Italy. He couldn’t fathom our being away from the family. The bride and I decided to have one last big trip before we started our family, and we settled on Italy. We had Christmas lunch in Venice with a Belgian air traffic controller and his wife. Venice was frigid, but the celebration of Christmas traditions in Italy cannot be matched.

Christmas Eve services at St. Peter’s were always packed. Members of the congregation beamed as returning sons and daughters joined them in the pews for magnificent Anglican anthems. Yet, each Christmas Eve was daunting in terms of two services, an intimate dinner with friends in between, and the accompanying emotions and expectations within and without the choir. My little family was usually one of the last to leave the church, and the quiet of Christmas Day enveloped us as we walked to our vehicle. The Rome night air was usually crisp, but we were still warm from the community hearth that was St. Peter’s Church.

The bride and I, still energized from our evening’s work, would settle into our home on Rome’s east side and talk about the services we had just led. We would always turn on the television and watch the service from that “other” St. Peter’s in that “other” Rome. Watching the Pope and all his retinue always gave me a connection with the world.

Back in my day, we would always close the Berry College Lessons and Carols service with “Hallelujah” from Messiah. Each year, as the Concert Choir prepared the famous work I would ask how many were singing it for the first time. Always, approximately 40 percent would raise their hands. On the appointed night at the beautifully decorated Berry College Chapel, the expressions on the choristers’ faces always gave me a reason to be thankful for a rich career. Those beautiful singers didn’t know it, but they gave me a true “Hallelujah” moment.

Grateful, I am.

Merry Christmas from the Rio Grande.

Former Roman Harry Musselwhite is the author of “Martin the Guitar” and is an award-winning filmmaker.

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