Away In A (Burr Farms) Manger

This Wednesday (December 14, 8 p.m.), Temple Israel hosts a forum on the challenges of “the holiday season” for Jewish and interfaith families.


The event comes a few days after Staples’ Candlelight Concert. A tradition for over 70 years, the event opens — as it always has — with the haunting hymn “Sing We Noel.” It ends — as always — with the “Hallelujah Chorus,” as ebullient and glorious a paean to “the Lord God omnipotent” as you’ll find anywhere.

But traditions change. The Candlelight Concert now includes Hanukkah and African songs, plus other evocative music.  (There’s also a production number filled with schmaltzy Christmas tunes, Santa Claus, reindeer, and the occasional dreidel.)

Georg Friedrich Handel wrote the "Hallelujah Chorus" -- not Hanukkah music.

In fact, for over 2 decades Staples’ choral director was Alice Lipson — whose husband and daughter are rabbis and cantors. Alice conducted the “Hallelujah Chorus” as lustily as anyone — and made certain that, while her students knew they were singing pieces rich in history and beauty, they could opt out if they so chose. None did.

Back at Burr Farms Elementary School in the 1960s, it was all-Christmas, all the time. In music class, we sang only Christmas songs. There was “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph,” sure — but also heavy-duty carols: “Adeste Fidelis.” “Away in a Manger.” “The First Noel.”

I had no idea what I was singing, but no matter. It was beautiful music.

And I got more than a music education at Burr Farms. Our classrooms had Advent calendars. Every kid — Catholics, Christians, Jews and Muslims (just kidding) — thrust hands in the air, begging to be the one to open the window that day.

A big part of my elementary school education.

The big event was a nighttime Christmas concert. Parents, students, younger and older siblings stood outside, in the cold air — around an evergreen tree, decorated with ornaments and topped with an angel — singing carols. I even remember someone pointing out where the Star of Bethlehem might have been, though perhaps that is pushing it.

When the Christmas carols were over we all went into the “cafetorium” for hot chocolate, the only secular part of the night.

I didn’t think twice about any of that. For one thing, I was in 1st or 2nd grade.

For another, we started every day with the Lord’s Prayer.

Over the loudspeaker.

That ended in 1963, when the Supreme Court outlawed prayer in school. I have no idea if there was any discussion about that in Westport — if, in fact, parents knew it was going on, or thought anything about it.

The Westport of my childhood was a multi-religious place. Temple Israel was built in 1959, with a membership of 250 families. We were certainly not Darien, and even at a young age I recall my parents being proud of our town’s pluralism.

But you’d be hard pressed to find any evidence at Burr Farms Elementary School, back in the early ’60s.

Not that anyone noticed. We were too busy exchanging Christmas cards and presents in class.

(For more information on Wednesday’s Temple Israel “celebrating the holidays” event, email, or call 203-227-1293. “Drinks and a nosh” will be provided.)

30 responses to “Away In A (Burr Farms) Manger

  1. God bless you, Dan.

  2. Nancy Powers Conklin

    Thanks, Dan. My memories are almost exactly what yours are. Not only did we sing Christmas songs at Christmas, but many, many Thanksgiving songs, which are considered hymns. Songs like, “We Gather Together,” “Come Ye Thankful People Come,” among many others. We even sang Christmas songs on the bus home! It was another world and another time.

    • “We Gather Together” — great call. I remember it well. THANKS for reminding me of that. I still think of that hymn every Thanksgiving!

  3. Dan – I don’t want to split hairs, but Catholics are Christians……

    • Not all Christians are Catholics so it’s a fair enumeration. If you don’t want to split hairs, why do you? Really!

      • Because saying “Catholics, Christians, Jews and Muslims” is like saying “cats, animals, vegetables and minerals.”

        • So?
          Maybe Dan thinks Catholics are really special and deserve redundant recognition.
          Back to your subconscious need to split hairs… Have you seen anyone about this tendency? PTSD?

          • The Dude Abides

            Proud of your tenacity, VET

            • Thanks, Dude,
              I’m just splittin’ hairs with Siobhan.

              Siobhan, welcome to ballbusterville. Delighted you like to joust on 06880. Make it more interesting !

              Please note that it is written that it was the Christians, not the Catholics, who were fed to the lions. Huge difference ! Ha ha ha.

              Merry Christmas 🙂

  4. Thanks for the column Dan. I grew up in nearby Tarrytown but I had a very similar experience. I came from a mixed religious parentage and even though not “christian” the Hallelujah Chorus was my favorite piece of music to sing. It was challenging, majestic and just plain gorgeous. It was a thrilling experience coming together through art. And if that ain’t religion, I don’t know what is.

  5. I was a few years behind Dan at Burr Farms, but I can tell you that, by 1972 (in 4th grade) we were singning about Drehdles (“drehdle drehdle drehdle, I made you out of clay. . .”) and singing and dancing the Horah (“come now, let’s do the Horah . . .”) along with the usual Christmas fare. Coming to Westport from an Illinois town without a jew in sight, it seemed downright multicultural to me. Of course, as young kids we too thought nothing of it, reallly.

  6. Thanks Dan. Nice memories.

    Why can we not have a moment of silence in the schools or other events? Encouraging people to slowdown and to be quiet is healthy for the mind, body, and spirit no matter what you believe or do not believe. People Thinking….. that would be nice.

  7. Interesting insight into a memory that I have lost. We Boomers were certainly aware of the diversity, far more racially and economically then now, back in the 50’s & 60’s. But it was hardly a factor. We treated eveyone with the same biting criticism and sharp tongued remarks as everyone else.

  8. As the father of a one time Staples ‘Christmas mouse’ along with his 3 mostly in tune singing brothers, the Candlelight Concert was one of the most warm communithy events in Westport. Let us hope that PC does not destroy the event that had no real boundries and brought together everyone who cared about each other.

  9. Having three daughters who all participated in Westport schools’ music programs and the Candlelight Concert, plus a dog who made a brief appearance one year, the Concert was indeed a wonderful way to launch the holiday season and feel a real sense of community. In fact, we still attend when the schedule allows. One incident at a holiday meal one year I attribute to the Westport school system music program. My youngest daughter, about 10 at the time ,pointed out that we were missing a “dreidel” for the gravy bowl That was not a word in my grammar school vocabulary having grown up on a farm in upstate NY.

  10. Although schoolwide recognition was non-existent, in 1962 my Burr Farms 2nd grade teacher Mrs Torno recognized holiday celebrations in non-christian cultures in class. I remember kids singing “dreidel”; drawing holiday ornament pictures of candlelabras; and some kids bringing in presents for either Hanukkah or Christmas. There was a japanese child in my class named Shane Yanigasawa, too. During Thanksgiving time, I first learned positive aspects to Indian tribes from her teaching it. Mrs. Torno was an unusually caring, marvelous 2nd grade teacher and a very special human being!

    • THANKS, Scott. Mrs. Torno was a much-loved teacher — sorry I didn’t have her! Her husband was a wood shop teacher at the original Staples High School on Riverside Avenue (now Saugatuck Elementary School), who went on to open Torno Lumber — which is still located on the Post Road, near Calise’s.

  11. I went to Coleytown as did my children, so my memories might be combined. But at Coleytown, possibly because Rabbi Rubenstein seemed to be around all the time because his daughter was in your class, Dan.. I was a year earlier. We were extraordinarily ecumenical in those days. The Rabbi was at my Catholic church too. The most amazing thing though is that the Catholic kids, like me, had nuns come in school and teach us religious instruction one day after school!! I would love to know from any Coleytowners back then if there was a recognition of the Jewish holidays in our day. The holidays sure were fun!! I don’t think we had an advent calendar because I didn’t know what one was until I was much older. (Italians had their own Christmas traditions all involving food, not paper)

  12. Carl Addison Swanson

    Indeed, all religions were appropriately celebrated during my tenure at Coleytown from 1953 to 1959, when many of us were redistricted to Bedford Elementary (now the Town Hall). At such time, much of Gault Park was predominantly Jewish and attended Coleytown. On point, however, I don’t remember any specific holidays that were honored but certainly there was an awareness and acceptability. Wonderful Westport!!

  13. Wow, Carl. You had to know my brothers. I think all four were there at the same time you were.. the Palmieri boys. Didn’t we always have the Jewish holidays off as well? We were all friends…and some of us are still in touch. I remember thinking how great it was that all religions were represented and I scoffed at the idea of going to Catholic school.

    • I do believe I was beaten up by at least one of your brothers, Mary. Perhaps two. I think my previous point was that we did not make any distinction regarding race or religion back then. It was the Wonder Years. While it was hardly an angelic atmosphere (the verbal assaults could come from anywhere), it was a happy time. Westport was a great place to grow up. I think it still is?

      • ACK! I suspected those shenanagans from them.. but this is my first confirmation of it. It was a time when this was what kids did.. and parents were proud of it! SHAME!! I apologize for them! Two are gone.. Joe and Vinnie.. but two are alive and I can work on a real apology if you want!!

  14. Great piece, Dan. Takes us back to a more simple and almost magical time.

  15. LOL. great piece!

  16. Cathy Webster

    Wow, Dan, this is a great piece of history!
    Thanks to Mrs. Whitely, every Burr Farms student of my era (1971-1977) learned the Horah and the choruses sang several Hanukkah songs. And we did also sing carols around the big evergreen tree in front of the building. And through my years at Coleytown JHS and Staples’ Dr. George Weigel, there were always songs of Jewish origins at Candlelight. My family still sings “Light the candles, say the blessing, tell the age old story. Maccabeans went to battle, now we praise their glory” (this from 1982? It’s like yesterday…) thanks to one Candlelight selection.

  17. Dan. I enjoyed this article, although I don’t remember the Christmas concert or the hot chocolate—-where was I? I also thought we were singing about dreidels back then. Diller

  18. Dan,

    I, too, think your memories of singing only Christmas songs in December at Burr Farms School are a bit selective. I remember at least a token Chanukah song or two in the mix every year, back to “On this night, let us light, one (2, 3, 4 etc) little candle fire(s); ’tis a sight, oh so bright, n little candle fire(s)” in kindergarten (after all, it was a counting song, too), not to mention “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel, I made it out of clay” (what a clumsy way to make a dreidel — but I digress!), “Chanukah, Chanukah, festival of joy”, not to mention “Chanukah, Oh Chanukah, come light the menorah…” There was always a Chanukah song somewhere in each Staples Candlelight Concert (“El yivneh HaGalil”), though perhaps not for each choral group.

    All told, singing Christmas songs was not a bad way for a Jewish kid to first learn about Christianity, and I still enjoy a good Carol Sing — and take a certain pride in knowing the words to more of the verses than many who grew up in the tradition!

    Best Regards, and Happy Holidays!

    Scott Brodie
    (Charter Burr Farms Student 1957-1964; Staples, ’70.)

  19. Dan—You may have been right. Toro did make more then one concert at Staples.