Carols by Candlelight

by Alissa

Before attending our first Carols by Candlelight–which, for the record, is a misnomer: they handed us fluorescent GLOW STICKS as we arrived–my idea of a good Christmas sing-along was standing around Chuck’s piano in Kalispell, harmonizing with my nearest and dearest before a walk in the snow to the truly candle-lit Christmas Eve service at the church up the street. After attending our first Carols by Candlelight, my idea of a good Christmas sing-along is still standing around Chuck’s piano in Kalispell, harmonizing with my nearest and dearest before a walk in the snow to the truly candle-lit Christmas Eve service at the church up the street.

But here we are in Carols by Candlelight country. Apparently Christmas in summer is cause for outdoor sing-alongs all over Australia, including a dozen or so possibilities in and around the parks, churches and public spaces of Newcastle. “Sausage sizzle”s, movie screenings, pop singers and local celebrities to be expected. Does this raise your eyebrows? How about the existence of a flashy pop tune called “Santa Wear Your Shorts Tonight” ? I’m not linking to it. Find it at your own risk.

We decided to test the waters by attending what we hoped would be a quiet neighbourhood version of the above in the churchyard of St. John’s Anglican, which is just around the corner from us. It turned out to be a gray and rainy evening, which at least put us in mind of winter and Christmas as we used to know it. We skipped the barbecue portion and arrived in time for the singing. We may have been the only attendees glad to be inside the church instead of outside on beach chairs with the mosquitos. Ace and I linked sweatered elbows. Octavia wore her rain boots, coat and umbrella (thanks, various kin!). We received our glow sticks and slid into a pew. The church dates to 1857, and the interior is simple but traditional–creamy walls, dark wood furniture and ceiling beams, stained glass windows, sky-blue roof interior painted with gold stars. The pews were packed with school kids in uniform, parents with camera phones, and assorted people who all appeared familiar with the uses of the glow stick. The girls in the pew behind us talked about overdoing it at a birthday party the night before [I threw up in the cab. I’m so ashamed. I’ve never been so sick in my life]. Ace activated Octavia’s glow stick for her. She hung it around her neck, dropped her boots to the floor, tucked her feet up into my lap, and then the program began.

Imagine a sacred-secular hybrid song list with live keyboard-guitar-drums accompaniment. Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Jingle Bells. Joy to the World. Nothing we had not heard in the grocery store for the past month already. After each couple of songs of congregational singing, a batch of children would get up to perform. When the first choir shuffled up, their director announced that most of the choir seemed to have been rained out. The eight remaining third graders did their best sing-along and dance-along to a canned version of “Santa Wear Your Shorts Tonight”. A batch of beginning orchestra students played something else, something sweet and traditional that is completely overshadowed in my memory by SWYST.

Chorus:

Saynta weah yoah shoats tonayt x6

Sample verse:

Brother keep smiling, Sister does too
we put our Christmas turkey on the barbecue
Mum is happy cos’ warm weather’s cool
and Dad is happy cos’ his swimming in the pool

The vicar/MC questioned the school kids on what they expect Santa would bring them for Christmas. [No idea. I don’t know. Something that sounded high-tech and expensive.]

What happened next was completely unexpected. The MC called up a priest visiting from Sudan and they did a mini-interview on Sudanese Christmas traditions.

It was brief. The vicar/MC tried to keep things light and accessible. The visiting priest spoke slowly, as if on a crackly long-distance call. He wore a long purple robe and carried a maraca in one hand, the microphone in the other.

What I recall him saying:

In Sudan, there are no Christmas trees in the church. There are no Christmas trees in homes. There are no Christmas trees. People have new clothes made, and prepare their homes. On Christmas Eve, they gather at church to sing carols and hymns, many of the ones sung here, and then the young people go out into the town, singing carols in the streets all night long.

After the interview, he sang a version of O Come All Ye Faithful in his own language. He shook his maraca slowly, and called out to the faithful. For approximately 11 verses. His voice rose and fell alone, surrounding us, meeting row after row of Aussies and their glow sticks. Halfway through someone turned out the lights. He sang on. People started shifting in the pews and murmuring. He consistently shook his maraca. The lights came up. He sang another verse. The MC hovered. He kept singing until the song was complete, whatever the words in his many verses may have been. I loved it. I could have listened to him all night–pulled back to Africa by his voice, his robe, his bearing. But he was here, one foreign face in a sea of Novocastrians who had eaten their sausages, recorded the kids, and were ready to  call it a night. And before he sang I thought we were far from home.

After the Sudanese interlude, we made yet another seemingly impossible transition and sang an Australian carol called The North Wind.

The north wind is tossing the leaves, the red dust is over the town,

The sparrows are under the eaves, and the grass in the paddock is brown,

As we lift up our voices and sing, to the Christ-child the heavenly King.

The tree ferns in green gullies sway, the cool stream flows silently by,

The joy bells are greeting the day, and the chimes are adrift in the sky,

As we lift up our voices and sing, to the the Christ-child the heavenly King.

After a cool/comical parting blessing (eight or so clergy from the Merewether/Newcastle Inter-church Council attempting to deliver a simultaneous benediction), we walked out to the chipper strains of Feliz Navidad–rushing away before we had to take in anything else.

Christmas is coming friends, even in Australia.

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