Christmas began with singing in those days.
I don’t mean Christmas Day; I mean the Christmas season. It began before the snow fell and before the decorations went up in the malls and department stores. Sometimes it even began before Halloween.
It began on the day when the music teacher would take out some fresh sheets of music and begin passing them out as we sat in our neat choir formation, arranged by voice and by height. On that day, we learned the songs that we would be singing at the Christmas concert, and a little collective flutter of excitement arose among us – the thrill of something new and the promise that Christmas would come again that year.
The concerts piled one upon another as November gave way to December, seemingly endless rehearsals finally giving way to candlelit processions to the tune of Lo How a Rose e’er Blooming, Church Sunday School concerts with music and drama intertwined, and an outing to the concert hall at least once for Handel’s Messiah, maybe another time for the Menno Singers.
I was not always a huge fan of the oratorio. The first time I attended one, I tested my parents’ patience and complained afterwards of the “long song.” For years after that, when my parents wanted to get out of the house without me they would simply tell me they were going to a “long song” and I would settle and be nice for the babysitter. My parents seemed to be such inordinately ardent fans of the oratorio that I have, in later years, come to wonder whether it became something of a euphemism for them.
Nonetheless, as a Mennonite child one of the necessities of growing into adulthood involves developing a palate for choral music, and for Handel’s Messiah in particular.
And I did.
Mennonites — or, I should say, more than just a few branches of the Mennonite family tree — love choral music. Back in the nineteenth century, when schisms were all the rage among us, a few branches lopped themselves off rather than accept instrumentation and/or singing in harmony. But for a great many of us out there calling ourselves Mennonite, singing in groups and in harmony is just part of who we are. If you’re a Mennonite and you’re tone deaf, well, we wouldn’t apply the Ban for that, but we may look at you just a little askance.
But, oh, how we love our Handel. If Mennonites had saints, I swear we would make him one. Even though he wasn’t Mennonite. Or Anabaptist. Or, as far as we know, even sympathetic to Anabaptism. But he dissented against the dominant Church of his day and that’s almost enough to make him one of us.
Over the course of my five years of Mennonite high school (I didn’t fail a year; we had five years in my day in my part of the world), my choir pretty much worked its way through the best of the choral bits of Handel’s Messiah, two a year. It wasn’t just Christmas music for us. Sure, we prepared one of the big choruses for the Christmas concert, but then we also found another one for the year end concert which may or may not have coincided with Easter. It didn’t matter. Everyone loved Handel, whatever the time of the year. Because you can never get enough of Revelations 5:12, or Malachi 3:3.
But even if it was good for every part of the year, it was also part of Christmas, like the piece of infinity captured in a single moment of time, or a single season anyway. For as long as there have been “Sing along Messiahs” storming the concert halls at Christmastime, we were gathering as congregation members with well-worn scores to finish off a first advent or a Christmas Eve service with an amateur rendition of “For unto Us a Child is Born” or the “Hallelujah Chorus.”
Strangers visiting these services are always agape at the oddity of 90% of a Church congregation systematically rearranging itself into choir formation. And we return our amazement at the realization that a lot of non-Mennonites don’t even know whether they sing tenor or bass, soprano or alto. That’s almost like not knowing how to spell your own name.
You need to get through the congregational singing without stopping for a drink in the middle but singing is hard on the throat and a drink is needed either before or after. This little drink is a very slight variation of one called the Hallelujah. I figure that if you get a number of them lined up beside each other, by height and by voice, you’ve got yourself a Hallelujah Chorus. I’ll let you work out arranging your glasses by voice. Do note that this is a drink to savour with company. It’s not a solo piece — it’s a chorus — so bring your friends over for this one. And be careful. It’s an easy little drink, deceptive in its power. One will clear your throat for singing but two could have you swaying in the choir loft, and the Messiah isn’t really that kind of song. Wait until after the Worthy is the Lamb and all of the Amens before having a second.
The Hallelujah Chorus
1 oz cognac
a few drops unsweetened cranberry juice
1 1/2 oz Noilly Pratt vermouth
3/4 oz rum
a few drops of grenadine
Shake it all in a shaker with ice and serve in a pretty glass. Drink and sing.