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