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December 24, 2008

Keeping Christmas

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Tomorrow we celebrate Christmas. The pageantry, art, decorations, traditions, and music of the season – especially the music – have all the ingredients for great family memories.


Of course, the holidays mean different things to different people. Much of the meaning for me is steeped in my religious upbringing. Another component of how we feel about the holidays harkens back to our childhood memories, or reliving the season as parents through the eyes of our children.


Over 50-years later, with much of my childhood a distant memory, I still feel that there is nothing better than the sound of children’s voices rejoicing in the holiday spirit.


I learned much of the story of the birth of Christ and the meaning of Christmas from Christmas carols. I understood at an early age that going door-to-door singing carols was a way of being evangelical in a manner that was, well – less preachy, sanctimonious, and overbearing.


Much of the history of caroling in the community is an oral tradition that is handed down from generation to generation, according to an article by Sam Abramson on the web site “How Stuff Works.”


Mr. Abramson corroborates other historical accounts that report that “Carols commemorating the nativity, or birth of Jesus Christ, were purportedly first written in Latin in the 4th and 5th centuries, but they didn't become associated with Christmas until the 13th century.”


He credits Saint Francis of Assisi “with incorporating upbeat Latin hymns into Christmas services. The energetic, joyful carols were sung in sharp contrast to the somber Christmas music of the day.”


I was fascinated to read that, according to Mr. Abramson, historical accounts report that the practice of caroling groups singing for charity dates back to a time when poor citizens would “sing for their supper” – in exchange for food and drink.


Furthermore, the carolers would go door-to-door singing throughout the neighborhoods because it wasn’t until the 16th century that the troubadours were allowed to perform in churches.


This is all very consistent with the oral history that was passed down in my family that dates back to the early 1700s in Frederick – and then what became Carroll – County.


Moreover, according to research for the Historical Society of Carroll County, by historian Jay Graybeal, an “interesting Christmas custom of the past in Carroll County, which is no longer practiced, was masquerading or Kris Kringling.


“In the weeks proceeding Christmas, the young people of the community would prepare their costumes and skits. Dressed in costume they would go door-to-door providing entertainment. In return, the household which had just been entertained by the Kris Kringlers would provide refreshments.”


One of the earlier references in the local newspapers about caroling can be found in the old Westminster newspaper, The Democratic Advocate, on January 3, 1873. The article indicates that not everyone in the community was well behaved in their Christmas celebrations.


“Christmas – The day was generally observed, and pleasantly spent by many in making Christmas calls. From early in the morning until late in the evening, 'Young America' amused themselves by firing crackers, blowing horns and enjoying themselves generally…”


I was reminded of the rich tradition of music for the holidays earlier in the month, when my family continued a tradition of traveling to Princeton, NJ, for “An Evening of Lessons and Carols” in the magnificent Princeton University Chapel.


My niece, a graduate of Linganore High School, attends the Westminster Choir College at Rider University. Other members of my extended family attended Westminster a number of years ago.


For those who are not aware of this wonderful college, it was established by John Finley Williamson in 1920, in Dayton OH. Through a series of events, it moved to Princeton in 1932 and has continued a storied history in helping develop artistic, cultural and music talent for the United States and world stage.


The Princeton trek is well worth the time and effort. If you can only imagine being in the presence of hundreds of our nation’s most talented young voices coming together to celebrate the holidays in the huge gothic chapel.


If that were not enough, one of the readings from this year’s performance really caught my attention. It was a recitation of Dr. Henry Van Dyke’s “Keeping Christmas.”


Dr. Van Dyke, 1852 – 1933, was an 1873 Princeton graduate, who went on to be an accomplished author, Presbyterian minister and a professor of English literature.


Dr. Van Dyke’s “Keeping Christmas” begins with the words: “There is a better thing than the observance of Christmas Day, and that is, keeping Christmas.”


The verse is a series of questions, such as: “Are you willing to forget what you have done for other people and to remember what other people have done for you?


“To ignore what the world owes you, and to think what you owe the world?


Dr. Van Dyke goes on later in the piece to implore: “Are you willing to stoop down and consider the needs and desire of little children?


“To remember the weakness and loneliness of people who are growing old?


“To stop asking how much your friends like you? And ask yourself whether you love them enough?


“Are you willing to believe that love is the strongest thing in the world – stronger than hate, stronger than death – and that the blessed Life which began in Bethlehem nineteen hundred years ago is the image and brightness of eternal love?


“Then you can keep Christmas. But you can never keep it alone.”


Hopefully you will not spend Christmas Day alone. Hopefully you will spend the day with loved ones and friends.


Hopefully you can keep Christmas.


Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at:

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