Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - December 15, 2023


I love music, but it seems the only song lyrics I remember are the ones of Christmas carols. Oh, I can remember a few words from the tunes of my favorite musicians - Bread, the Carpenters, John Denver, the Beatles - but I can sing several stanzas of almost any carol without any problem.

I thought of the caroling tradition when I received an invitation to friend Steve's annual Christmas party. He always decorates his home using a particular "theme" and this year's was 'FA LA LA: A Musical Tribute to Christmas." His invitation explained his choice:

... It's been said that "music is what feelings sound like." And at this time of year, music fills the air expressing the most special emotions we feel. The joy of memories that we treasure, the happiness we feel as we spend time with family and friends, the delight that accompanies the generosity that seems to be everywhere during this season of giving, and the feelings of fulfilment we derive from spreading love, good will, and hope. All of this has been captured and expressed over the centuries in some of the best music ever written.

... “FA LA LA” is the theme of this year's holiday party ... Our home is decorated with music instruments, sheet music and signage that reminds us of some of our favorite holiday music. And it's everywhere. The house is decorated in the colors of gold, silver and black (the colors of music instruments). Real instruments and sheet music are woven into the new eight-foot flocked tree, wreaths and garlands. Everywhere you look, you’ll see a reminder of your favorite Christmas classics and the things we love most about the season. ...

I stopped by to see Steve's decorations a few days before the party. My, oh my, he really decked his halls! His fireplace mantle glowed with gold and silver balls, garlands, and twinkly lights. A large wreath with a ribbon printed with musical notes hung above it. Enlarged copies of sheet music for various carols, including "Jingle Bells" and "Deck the Halls," were framed and topped with smaller wreaths. His tree was decorated with musical instruments, pieces of sheet music, and ribbon imprinted with musical notes.

Steve's tribute to holiday music made me think about my 4-H and Methodist Youth Fellowship days, when we walked from house to house in our hometown of Burns, Kansas to sing carols, mostly to elderly folks or those who were homebound.

Another fond memory is of our joyful, chaotic Christmas celebrations at the home of my late mother-in-law Rita and father-in-law Ken. At some point during our merry-making, we would head to the dining room to gather around Rita's organ and sing carols. My late husband Jerome would often sing the loudest, proclaiming that his favorite was "Little Altar Boy." To this day, I can't hear that song without thinking of him and his family. After Jerome died, Rita continued the tradition and daughters Mariya and Katie joined in.

One year, my Sertoma club here in Manhattan traveled in a refurbished "trolley" to give our not-necessarily in-tune renditions of our favorite carols to friends and neighbors. More recently, I had a couple of opportunities to sing carols, once when friends Dave and Susan and husband Art and I were returning from the annual Swedish Supper in Olsburg, Kansas, and again, when I attended the annual party of the Silver Creek Beneficiary Club.

Friend Bryce and his family participated in a different type of caroling when they lived in Cuernavaca, Mexico:

... Las Posadas [meaning "inns" or "lodgings"] are a tradition where two groups of singers -- traditionally neighboring families - position themselves with one group by the gates inside a home's property, and the other group outside the gate. The outside group represents Mary and Joseph and they knock on the gate and sing a song asking for a place to stay. The inside group sings their reply that there is no place to stay. Then the outside group comes in for a small party. This goes on for several nights at different neighborhood houses until the chosen night when they are admitted to a home, and a big party takes place. Tamales, pozole, cakes, and traditional warm drinks are served. ...

The Las Posadas celebration occurs between December 16 and 24 in several Latin American countries and commemorates the journey that Joseph and Mary made from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Usually, children dressed as angels and shepherds lead the procession while adults, some representing the Holy Family follow, all while singing Christmas carols. On each night, they are refused entry - just as Joseph and Mary were - although they are sometimes given small refreshments. On December 24, they are admitted to a home, where they celebrate the birth of Jesus with more singing and eating.

According to several sources, carol singing in Europe began thousands of years ago, but they were pagan songs sung at winter solstice celebrations, such as the ancient Roman pagan festival of Saturnalia, which honored Saturn, the god of agriculture. These traditions are thought to be the basis of many traditions we now associate with Christmas, such as displaying wreaths, burning candles, feasting, and gift-giving.

Early Christianity turned the pagan winter solstice tradition into a celebration for Christmas, with songs being sung in Latin. Eventually, songs in native languages developed, which led to their increased popularity. The carols spread to France, Spain, Germany and other European countries, and eventually throughout the world.

Today, carol singers can be found in town squares, shopping centers, hospitals, and assisted-living residences. And of course, some, like me, can be heard singing along with the car radio, music piped into department stores, or just randomly at home. Sometimes I harmonize with Art, who is prone to belt out tunes at almost any time. Heck, singing along with music is something most people enjoy, and for me, it is particularly enjoyable because I know the words!

"Deck the halls with boughs of holly, fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la ...!"

Top row: Rita plays while 13-month-old Katie "gets into it!"; mom giving instruction to Mariya; just six of the musical references in Steve's tree; Steve is proud of his creation. Bottom row: the mantel continues the music theme, including Fa La La; everyone at the Silver Creek Beneficiary Club party was given a verse sheet.

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