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.)
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 203-227-1293. “Drinks and a nosh” will be provided.)