A Heath family Christmas-carol program always seems like a good idea . . .
None of the Heath children was born on Sunday, but many of them almost were, which may account for the fact that, although bright and bonny and good and gay they are not, bonny and gay they indubitably are.
They may get A2 in handwriting and D4 in word analysis; they may get “wholeheartedly enthusiastic” in sports and “constantly inattentive” in social studies, but they are the bonniest crew — not in the whole country; that’s ridiculous, I always tell people — in New England. Though, I admit it, I don’t know the rest of the country very well.
It is regrettably true that they forge their father’s name to undone-homework slips (remember those A’s in penmanship) at eight; that they fall in love with and torture members of the opposite sex at eleven; and that by the age of twelve they have discovered that you can smoke into the exhaust fan of the first-floor lavatory with absolute safety, whereas smoking out of the third-floor bathroom window means Mother calls the Fire Department. (They learn about cigarettes young because when we catch them smoking, we beat them.)
And gay my children unquestionably are. They rollick into the house from school, burst into paroxysms of laughter at the extraordinary coincidence of their reunion from various carpools, plan their far-flung wickednesses in gales of muffled giggles, are scolded with eyes twinkling above insufficiently suppressed grins, and fall asleep in the midst of a choked chuckle at 8, 9, or 10 p.m., according to whether their bedtime was at 7, 8, or nine.
And they sing. Lord, how they sing! They sing alone or in unison, in harmony, cacophony, or competition, and if two of the stubborn ones simultaneously embark on “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” and “Silent Night,” an immediate popularity contest ensues, as other children drift into the room and join in one song or the other. If the singers are equally popular, you just have to break it up. (Not by saying, “Break it up,” you understand. Who’s listening? What I usually do is play “The Stars and Stripes Forever” very loudly on the piano.)
With all the gaiety and caroling that goes on in our house all year round, it is only natural that we plan, early every December, a Christmas-carol program to put on tape after it is absolutely perfect, and send to the children’s grandmother as an absolutely unique, unprocurable-in-stores Christmas gift.
One reason this always seems feasible in early December is that around then the children are infinitesimally better behaved than usual. I myself attribute this to the fact that their father and I are, not infinitesimally at all, worse. I have even discussed with Ben the potentialities of our being worse all the time, for the children’s own good, but he insists he is the same at Christmastime as he is the year round, which, as I occasionally — well, maybe a little more often than occasionally — point out, is a clear admission that he is impossible all the time.
In any case, there’s no question that, around Christmastime, the children are more cooperative. All of them will stand and concentrate, instead of two reading comic books and three wrestling under the piano. They all willingly sing, “fa-la-la-la-la, la-la! la! la!” even though most of the boys, and all of the girls under twelve, say it makes them feel silly. All in all, it seems an ideal time to plan a Christmas-carol program, and I do so in spite of a) an unbroken record of failure, and b) the boys.
Boys, as anyone with fewer resources than the director of the Vienna Boys’ Choir knows, are an insuperable obstacle to group singing. I am convinced that Baroness von Trapp had hers wired for sound.
In our family, 21-year-old Jim is the only dependable boy. He has a soft, melodious tenor voice, he sings fa-la-la without shame, and he whacks the little ones when they fidget. Seventeen-year-old John, who also has a nice voice, is, unfortunately, musically gifted, and refuses to waste his talent on mere singing. He plays the descant to the carols on his recorder, and if there is not a satisfactory descant he composes one, which is lovely, but it leaves Jim alone and lonely down there below middle C. Buckley, at 13, sings a high and piercingly sweet soprano, but he is under the impression that a listening world will believe his voice has changed if he emits all sounds an octave lower than is normal to him. And he sings that way until his ribs are so sore from his brothers’ and sisters’ pounding that he can barely sing at all, which, as I keep pointing out, may be good for discipline, but not for Christmas-carol programs. Timothy, who is a crotchety eight, refuses flatly to make any concessions on the part of the language as it is spoken, to the language as it is sung. “Glo-o-o-o-o, o-o-o-o-o, o-o-o-o-o-o, ria” is not for Tim. He sings “Glo-,” compares the marble in his right pocket with the marble collection in his left pocket, and rejoins the chorale unerringly on “ria,” but neither pleading nor pummeling will induce him to vocalize all those finky “aws.”
All this is a little hard on Pam, who is 19 and who, as the conscientious and efficient head of her school Madrigal Club last year, has much higher standards than the rest of us. Our carol program this year was to be not just mother at the piano, John at the recorder, and nine children singing in unison. It was to include part-singing; solos, duets, trios, and quartets; Buckley on the drums; ten-year-old Jennifer on the triangle; and a piano duet by Betsey and Alison, who are eleven and twelve and hate each other.*
Our first difficulties I could see coming. Buckley played the drum, not with a gently medieval boom, nor even with a gay 17th-century rat-a-tat, but as if he were solo-ing during a pause in a program by the Rolling Stones, which was impressive, to be sure, but reduced the singers to utter inaudibility. Jennifer ting’d on the triangle whenever it seemed to her that she had not tung for quite long enough, and Betsey and Alison, who have never entirely grasped the purpose of a duet, exchanged sidelong black-eyed glares and raced each other through “Jingle Bells,” Alison winning handily by a good two and a half measures.
Timothy and little Janet, 5, who were to solo as friendly beasts in the carol known only to the parents of small children, “The Friendly Beasts,” were less than cooperative. Janet refused to sing, “I, said the cow all white and red,” because she said cows were ugly and she was not; besides, everyone kept smiling at her. And Tim persisted in singing, “I, said the don-key, all shag-gy and brown,” as “I. Said the donkey. All shaggy. And brown. I carried. His Mother. Uphill. And down.”
After the special-effects numbers the group launched into the standard Christmas carol while Pam conducted and I concentrated on the piano. I have to concentrate harder than most people on the piano because of an abnormal tendency to play everything in D major. Our repertoire was nearly finished when Pam addressed the group in a less-than-friendly tone. “If anybody’s being funny around here, they just can just stop it right now.”
There was a blank silence. Long blue eyes met wide black eyes without the glimmer of a twinkle. Pam waited a minute, then she said: “Mother, let’s start over, and I’ll take the piano while you come out here and listen. There’s something peculiar going on. Now listen carefully.”
I listened carefully, and it was then I decided that either my children are not quite bright enough to live, or else they are too gay to bear.
Do you know what “afforient” is? Neither did I till I heard Priscilla, who is 15 and should know better, sweetly warble that the three kings afforient were, and I asked her. “Afforient,” if you are interested, is the state of being disoriented, or wandering, as one does over field and fountain, moor and mountain.
And has anybody ever wondered where the Ranger is on Christmas Eve? Has anyone, for that matter, ever given a single thought to the Ranger on Christmas Eve? Well, Betsey Heath has. “Away is the Ranger,” she will inform you, if you listen carefully. And obviously, he is away because there is no crib for his bed. After all, why should the Ranger stick around here, when he hasn’t even got a crib, much less a bed, for Pete’s sake!
Janet, canny little Janet, all of whose sins are premeditated and blatant, sang exactly what she intended to sing. “No L, No L, the angels did say.” It was a matter of the angels’ alphabet, she explained to me a little tiredly. “A B C D E F G H I J K M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z. No L, get it, Mother, No L!” I eyed her suspiciously, because more humor in the family we do not need, but I let it pass.
Jennifer settled my next problem, which had to do with the angels. Do you know how the angel of the Lord shone around? He shone around in a glowy manner, that’s how. While shepherds watch’d their flock by night, she explained, the angel of the Lord came and glowy showed around. How else?
Have you ever wondered, in the long watches of the night, what Child is this Who laid to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping? Well, it is the Child Whom angels greet with Anne the Sweet, while shepherds’ watches keeping. Well, St. Anne was Mary’s mother, certainly sweet and probably dead, argued Alison. Why wouldn’t she be with the angels? As for the shepherds, what with their setting off for Bethlehem, well known for its good and bad thieves, keeping their watches was a very friendly gesture on the part of the angels. Anne the Sweet probably thought of it.
Some of them were taking an individual called Good Heed to the angels’ ward, many of them with the jellied toast proclaiming; though all of them sang the “Coventry Carol,” 20 of whose 28 words are “Lully, lully,” absolutely correctly.
If anyone is interested in the geography of Bethlehem, I can tell you categorically that it lies on the seashore, just below the town of Dul. We know it is below Dul because the carol states very clearly that Bethlehem is what in Dul see you below (sometimes written in dulci jubilo), and we know it is on the sea because among the deep in dreamless sleep the silent stars go by, so that had to be the stars’ reflection, see, Mother? Because they couldn’t very well shine among the deep, could they, Mother?
This is the kind of thing that happens when your children get B2 in Reasoning Ability and C4 in Independent Reading.
The older children, to give credit where credit is due, made their misinterpretations on a far loftier level. Leaving history and geography to their younger siblings, Pam and Jim simply revised the Christian religion.
Pam, even Pam, kept announcing in her clear, sweet contralto that God and sin are reconciled; but she realized immediately, when it was pointed out to her, that God was far more likely to reconcile Himself to sinners than to sin, even if the book hadn’t said so, which it had.
Jim had to argue a little. He was the one who kept urging the shepherds to leave their “you’s” and leave their “am’s” and rise up, shepherds, and follow.
“What in Heaven’s name is this about you’s and am’s?” I asked him.
“Oh-h-h, rejection of personality, denial of self,” said Jim grandly. “Practically the central thesis of Christian theology.”
“Of course, I don’t go to a Catholic college, but I think that’s Communist theory, not Christian theology,” I told him. “In any case, could you come down from those philosophic heights and join us shepherds down here with our ewes (female sheep) and rams (male sheep)?”
“If you insist,” said Jim, with the impudent grin of the 21-year-old whose dear mother is incontrovertibly in the right, and besides, it’s right down there in black and white.
But I was too weary to go on. “Children,” I said. “Let’s just do one song absolutely perfectly. Let’s concentrate on ‘Silent Night,’ because that’s the one we know best anyway. Pam and Priscilla can do the alto, John can do the descant, the rest of you just sing nice and softly, and Buckley, I don’t want to hear one single note below middle C.”
They lined up, looking very clean and handsome and holy, Jim and John at the back, Timothy and Janet on either side of Pam at the piano, and the middle echelon sensibly and unquarrelsomely distributed in the middle according to heights. Just like the von Trapp Family, I thought to myself happily. Pam turned and gave them all a long and, I hoped, extremely stern look, before she turned back to play the opening measures.
“Silent night, holy night,” nine young voices chanted softly, and I noticed Jennifer and Betsey beginning to break up in twinkles and dimples. “All is calm, all is bright,” they went on, John’s recorder piping low and clear. Buckley and Alison clapped their hands briefly over their mouths. “Round John Virgin, Mother and Child,” the chorus swelled sweetly, and I rapped hard on the piano. “Just who,” I asked, in my most restrained voice, “is Round John Virgin?” “One of the 12 opossums,” the ten young voices answered promptly, and they collapsed over the piano, from the piano bench onto the floor, convulsed by their delicate wit.
And that’s why we didn’t have this year’s Christmas-carol program.
*Above all, every word was to be as clear as a bell. Pam even taught us a little song: “Whether you whisper soft, or whether you loudly call, distinctly, distinctly speak. Or do not speak at all.” Whose melody we assimilated rather more quickly than its meaning.
– A piece by Aloïse Buckley Heath (1918–1967) is a National Review Christmas tradition. This article was first published in 1966.