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Kid Christmas 3: The Worst Christmas Cantata Ever

December 12, 2016

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There were six of us.  Bruce, Gwen, Brent, Brad, Brian, and Brock.  The winter season had started, and everyone should be happy, right?  We were all elementary age, but even then we knew something was wrong.

Dad was away more and more.  Through the summer months his presence became so unusual that we almost took it for granted.  We figured it must be some sort of work obligation, and would actually cheer whenever he came home – a once-weekly treat!  The joy lasted for only a few minutes, though.  Gwen was soon ushering us outside and down the driveway as far as possible.  Mom and Dad were in a high-volume screaming match which would last for a torturous amount of time.  We had no air conditioning, so the screeches resonated through the screen windows to the edges of our tiny rural neighborhood.  The neighbors were kind; they pretended that nothing was going on.  Some even took us inside until Dad would finally stomp across the back porch, huff into his old dented Volvo and speed away.  I don’t recall him ever staying overnight.

The snow came.  Dad didn’t.  It was over.

Christmas holiday was coming together.  Mom was falling apart.

We kids were soon having private sessions together upstairs, locked in the bedroom.  Twelve-year old Bruce took charge.  “We’re going to make a good Christmas, and everyone is going to be a part.  Even Brock.”  Brock was pre-school age, but he happily agreed, not really aware of the conversation.  He was immersed in a Charlie Brown book he had found under Brian’s bed.  He couldn’t read the words, but Snoopy’s antics were enough for him.

“I’ll make cookies,” said Gwen.  “Sugar cookies, with the sprinkles on them.”

“I will decorate our room,” piped in Brian. “I know how to make a paper chain.”

“I’m going to make Mom a pair of moccasins,” announced Bruce.  “I bought the kit in a Scouting magazine.  Brent, what are you going to do?”

Brent had been thinking.  I sat near him, watching.  He was meditative, and I was fascinated.  I was his clone; I would do whatever he did, and his mind was whirring.  When it whirred, it would be something good.  I remember the time he decided he would collect the play money that Mallo Cup tucked in the bottom of their candy wrappers.  He saved enough to send them in and win a big fat box of fresh, new Mallo Cups, all his own.  Sheer genius.

He stopped and looked up.

“I’m going to be part of the Christmas choir,” he said.

Bruce’s eyebrows raised, and for a number of good reasons.

First, our church – Sand Beach Independent Bible Church – was probably no more than fifty in attendance. There was no choir.  The volunteer music director was forming an ad-hoc committee of warblers in order to present a Cantata.  I had no idea what a cantata was, and what made that different from a regular choir presentation, but it sounded interesting.  Still, this newfound choir was small, and Brent would stand out.

Second, the average age of the Choir sign-ups was approximately sixty-nine.  Brent was ten years old.  This would make for an interesting sight.

Third, Brent couldn’t sing.  There was that.

This deterred him in no way.  He was determined.  Do it for Mom.  I was captivated.

“I’m going to sing in the choir, too,” I announced proudly.  This was met with silence.  I had no musical talent whatsoever.  However, the enthusiasm couldn’t be contained.  The Christmas Cantata was on Christmas Eve – what a present for Mom!

Soon, everyone went to work.  Bruce hid himself away in a corner of the basement, sewing with a large needle and thick leather stringing.  When Mom was away, Gwen would pull together a batch of cookie dough and start making cookies.  Soon she realized she needed help in designing the cookies, and asked for our help.  This was a serious mistake.

Gwen:  I said trees and Santas and snowmen.  Brian, I didn’t say fireplugs!

Brian:  That’s not a fireplug, it’s a snowman!

Brent:  Look, it’s just like Play-Doh!  I made an airplane!

I followed Brent’s lead and veered off-course, realizing that with food coloring you could make anything you wanted.

Gwen:  WHAT is THAT? Two caves?  Why is the stream green?

Me: No, it’s a giant nose!  That’s snot coming out of one of the nostrils!  (Brent falls off the chair laughing.  Brock and Brian scream in delight.  Gwen banishes me from the kitchen.  The Christmas Nose never made it to the oven.)

Baking was out.  Music was in.

I decided to concentrate on the choir try-outs.  Maybe I wouldn’t make it…?

“Don’t worry, “ Brent assured me.  “It was easy.”

I walked in.  Donna the choir director – a thirty-something with blond hair, thick glasses and a determined smile – nodded to me.  She needed every singer she could get.  “Let’s try the key of C.”  I had no idea what she meant.  She plunked a note on the piano and I tried to imitate it.  I know it was bad.

I kid you not, that was all I did.  She smiled and said, “You and your brother meet us early before the Sunday evening service for practice.  Come an hour early.”

So for the next few weeks, Brent and I would trudge the four miles from our house to the church in order to arrive early for practice.

And, boy, the practices were a hoot.  I had no idea what the notes meant.  I think Brent figured out that he could imitate Mr. Simmons next to him, if Mr. Simmons would stop falling asleep. Everybody else kept talking to each other between each song and Donna looked harried. Time was running out, and everyone in town knew our little church was having a cantata (I love that word).  Her musical directing future was on the line, so she had to make good.

“Let’s try the tenors, and be sure to mark your songbooks on your entry.  Use your pencils, “ she said importantly.  I had no idea if I was a tenor, but everyone else was scribbling something in their songbooks, so I scribbled as well.  I drew an airplane crashing into the title words of What Child is This?  I showed it to Brent and he snorted.  He drew an octopus monster eating the first stanza.  We were having a great time.

The weeks went by and we didn’t improve. People kept talking and giggling. Brent and I kept scribbling.

Snow came.  It was the third week of December.

“Look, the last number, really give it energy, lots of power, to end on a strong note.  Please everyone stop talking, please,” said Donna, looking even more harried if it were possible. Her glasses seemed off-kilter.  “This is our last practice.  Where are our basses?”

Mr. Gerhardt shook his head.  “Bass.  Singular.  You only have one, remember?  Balfour ain’t here.”

“Well, where is he?” asked Donna.

“He had to take his medicine,” said Mr. Gerhardt.  “Then I think he forgot about the practice.” Everyone shrugged their shoulders and went back to talking.

Mr. Simmons snored. He seemed relaxed.  Donna didn’t.

Brent and I dutifully kept at marking our songbooks.  I penciled a picture of a Christmas tree in flames along the margin of Silent Night.  Brent responded with an excellent drawing of a wild-eyed Santa climbing the notes in the middle of the songbook between two narrations.   Remembering what Donna said about a last burst of energy, I finished up with marking a reminder for the final number:  Belt it Out, Baby!  Brent snickered appreciatively.

“Leave your songbooks in your seat and just pick them up as you file in during the opening instrumental,” said Donna, wiping sweat from her eyes.

The night arrived.  It was Christmas Eve, and it was snowing hard outside – a picturesque scene that belied the panic in Donna’s eyes.  Brent and I were innocent of the possible disaster to come.  After all, Mom was in the audience.  The auditorium was filled, with extra metal chairs brought in.

Pastor McClure gave a friendly down-home Yuletide welcome.  At the opening number, the choir of ten walked in, smiling to the packed crowd of eighty-two.  As I reached my choir seat, I reached down to pick up my songbook.

This was not my songbook. 

This was not my songbook.  My scribbled, cartoon-filled songbook was gone.

I looked about nervously and met Brent’s eyes.  I could tell he was in the same dilemma.  Somebody had moved our songbooks around.  Our Octopus, Crashing Airplanes and Wild-Eyed Santa songbooks.  We viewed the rest of the choir and gulped.  Someone was in for a surprise.

Donna smiled and raised her hand.  We smashed into the opening like a herd of wild boars who had just been electrically cattle-prodded.

We started with Joy to the World with a dissonance that sounded like somebody had knocked over a metal garbage can filled with lug nuts.  Even I knew it was bad.  The congregation winced but remembered that This is the Season, so they endured.

Oh, it was bad.  The pastor looked like he was watching a train wreck.

We mauled Away in a Manger.  We butchered Angels We Have Heard on High.  You don’t even want to know what we did to the Carol of the Bells.  I’ve heard better melody in radio static.

Mr. Simmons was finally awake and singing.  He was better off snoring.  It would have been more on key.

Then something else happened within the choir.

Brent and I noticed two widow ladies – Mrs. Pike and Mrs. Hattie – bobbing their heads in puzzlement as the Cantata continued.  They seemed not only surprised but confused.  Brent whispered:  “They have our songbooks.”  I was horrified.  They saw the octopus.

They saw the crashing plane.

And the crazy Santa.

And soon they would see Belt it Out, Baby.  I was wondering how soon we could get change churches, or at least move to Taiwan to escape the embarrassment.

But…

… I noticed that they were smiling and glancing at each other.  They realized the mistake as well.  At a pause in the music they glanced back at us.  We winced, and then returned their gaze … and we all smiled.  Hey, they were kids once, too.  And this was Christmas, a time of warmth, of happiness, and a bit of cutting up.

The final song was approaching.  Joy to the World, once again, with feeling.  And that’s what we gave it, knowing that despite the fact that Dad had left for good, that we were dirt-poor and scrabbling for homemade Christmas gifts, and that this choir was a hodge-podge of tone-deaf country folk – well, there was a fact that took us above all this:

We had a Peace that lifted us above all of this.

That Peace reminded us that all of this was only temporary, and that one day in a distant Kingdom, all would be made right.  And, really, that’s what we were singing about.  The Kingdom beyond, and the anniversary of the Birth that made it all possible.

And Joy to the World came out okay.

The cantata was complete. Pastor closed in prayer.

The snow came down.  Mom cried and hugged us.  Everybody else hugged each other, exchanged little bags of hard candy and Christmas cards, and hugged each other again. They shook the pastor’s hand, folding in a dollar or two, and trudged happily out in the snow, humming.  Everything was okay.  We really had a great, grand time.

But in January, Pastor announced that during the holidays, Donna had moved to Missouri.

I wonder…?

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