Dost Thou Remember?

Staples High School graduate Catherine Webster now lives in Oklahoma. Her congregation — First Unitarian Church of Oklahoma City — is celebrating the tricentennial of the carol “Joy to the World.” On Facebook, she wrote that last Sunday’s service focused on the idea that music transcends the intellect, and speaks directly to the heart and soul.

During the lay reflection, Catherine described the traditions of Staples’ Candlelight Concert. It was a joy, she said, to share both “Sing We Noel” and “Welcome Yule” with her beloved community. Here are her beautiful, heartfelt remarks:

Dost thou remember the Prophet of old
Who that most wond’rous story told
How of a virgin pure and mild
Should be born a perfect child?
The seer spake true: The virgin so fair
A son from Heaven doth declare
Sing we Noël, Noël, Noël.

If this song is unfamiliar to you, fear not: I bring good tidings of great joy! It’s exceedingly obscure, and you won’t be hearing it any time soon on KMGL’s all–holiday line-up.

But for me, it’s a Christmas classic. Every vocal music student from my high school back in Connecticut has learned this song since the 1950s. The 100-voice a cappella choir has used it as a processional for the annual Candlelight Concert, literally for generations. And will again next weekend (I checked.).

This is music that speaks directly to my heart, and the setting also adds to its power.

The Candlelight Concert is timeless. This shot, from 2011, was taken by Lynn U. Miller — a Staples choir member in the early 1970s.

In the dim of the high school auditorium, the school orchestra would play the instrumental introduction as the choir, robed in blue with white stoles, processed down the 3 aisles and surrounded the audience with the warm light of flickering (electric) candlelight.

Once everyone was in place, the orchestra played a big downbeat and the choir members would turn to face the audience. A high school teacher commented that he always associated that turn with the future that his soon to be former students – the graduating seniors — were facing, full of hope, candles aglow.

My family started to attend this concert in 1966, when it was already a long-standing tradition and considered the high school’s holiday gift to the town of Westport.

I had just turned 1 year old that year. We continued to attend the concert as youth from our church, babysitters, our friends’ older siblings and – finally – my brother and I made it to high school to take part.

In 1979, the annual concert was already 39 years old. Some of those performers — now with their own children out of college — will return this weekend.

Although clearly a Christmas carol, performing this song touched the hearts of my many Jewish friends and the several others, like me, who identified as non-Christian.

The power of the song, and of the tradition, transcended a particular theology and unified us. I know I was not the only student who felt the weight of history as we took our places, continuing the tradition that our elders had established, helping to continue and preserve it for those not yet born.

In an online forum related to my hometown, a woman who graduated in 1958 commented: “Can anyone explain why every time I see a post about Staples’ Christmas Candlelight concert I immediately start to sing ‘Sing We Noel,’ and get all misty-eyed?”

To which the original poster replied: “Because once you’ve been part of it, it’s part of your soul.”

It is certainly part of mine.

Antonio Antonelli, in the 2018 “Sing We Noel” processional.

So is the introit that the choir sang in the lobby prior to the processional. Unseen but not unheard, many of us held hands as we performed this number, which has for me a truly ancient feel. Here’s the final verse:

Welcome be you that are here
Welcome all and make good cheer
Welcome all another year
Welcome Yule!

(The 79th annual Candlelight Concert is set for tomorrow — Friday, December 13 — and Saturday, December 14. All tickets have already been distributed.)

The “Sing We Noel” processional — a part of every Candlelight Concert since 1940. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

15 responses to “Dost Thou Remember?

  1. Sharon Cribari-Saccary

    I was in the staple chorus. I loved it. I purchased the album from our concert in 1969. I still have it. Great memories.

  2. Heather Brothwell

    I wish I hadn’t read this. It sounds beautiful and I would have loved to have gone but apparently Tickets are not to be had.

  3. Debbie Wilson Hoult

    Thank you George Weigel for introducing me to this back in the late 60’s….how many ‘Candlelighters’ are still singing? I am in the UK…..

    • Dan…and Mitch Latin… Thank you! Mitch and I are two in the group picture of Choir singers. I loved everything about music in Westport. It is truly in my soul and defines me. I have been performing ever since, and teaching music for over 30 years. The very best of memories. Happy holidays and happy concert season, Candlelight or not.

  4. Dan. I actually teared up reading. My last concert was 1969 and I felt it in your words. I must go to a concert! Thank you for providing a very special memory.

  5. Great memories. Thanks for this.

  6. Jonathan Maddock

    As a boy growing up, we always attended the Christmas Concert at Staples, especially with three older sisters (8, 9 & 10 years older, so I started attending when I was 5 years old!). I thought it was marvelous, and always wanted to be a part of it.
    Years later, I was. I sat in the orchestra three times, the first of which was John Ohanian’s last time participating as a conductor. I feel very connected to the roots of this wonderful tradition.
    I live in New Hampshire now, and haven’t sat in the auditorium in decades, but I still get the chills thinking about it.

  7. I dost remember ! So very fondly. But I need help remembering the musical number at the Candlelight concert where class of ‘71 Janet Abrams was hoisted up above the audience. Also does anyone know what kind of candles they used in the beginning??

    • Margaret Rynshall

      Patty, in 1970 the production number was The 12 Days of Christmas. I was a “9 Ladies Dancing.” Kim Plaut might remember what part Janet played. Maybe she was the Patridge in a Pear Tree so was lifted up? She was tiny. Can’t remember all the details. The candles were the battery lit version.

  8. Mary Cookman Schmerker

    Once again just seeing the words “Dost Thou Remember” starts me singing and getting all misty eyed. My graduating year, 1958, we performed in the “New Staples” auditorium for the first time although our classes were still held at the old location. I still have the records (33 1/3) from my three year at Staples 1956, 1957 & 1958. Thanks Catherine Webster and Dan. This is a wonderful post . I have to go now and get a box of tissues and sing……….

  9. The processional has always raised goosebumps for me with its lovely music. It evokes deep emotion as I remember my children processing down that aisle, then turning to face the audience and sing.

  10. Michael McGovern

    So cool seeing my daughter Grace in the first picture (far right)! Eight years ago just unbelievable. My 3 older kids all did choir and Orphs, and my oldest son Mikey is still singing – his choir is backing up Andrea Bocelli at MSG next week!!

  11. Jane Schaefer Johngren, Staples 1961

    I too thank you, Dan, for helping me relive this Staples history again. I loved attending the 75th anniversary concert a few years ago, and talk all the time about the terrific musical education I received as a Staples student. I sang for years in college and afterwards in excellent choral groups in Albany and Oneonta, NY. I gave it up some years ago, but wish I hadn’t, since my voice is definitely not what it used to be. BTW, I think we used real candles way back when, much as that seems terrifying today. There certainly weren’t battery-operated candles at the time.

  12. I sang back in the late 50s with Mr.
    Ohanion and I weep every time I see
    them with their candles coming down
    the aisles. Love that they keep that
    tradition.

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