Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Wrong Little Town of Bethlehem

I spent the Christmas season of 1973 in Great Britain, splitting my time between Scotland and London.The Scots didn't tend toward elaborate Christmas decorations and displays then, although things may have livened up in the intervening years. London displayed a more Dickensian spirit toward the holiday, but the combination of a coal strike and the first oil embargo meant that all the colorful Christmas lighting couldn't be turned on for lack of electricity. Christmas, therefore, seemed different to me in many ways.

Scotland did not, however, let me down completely. Our residence hall at the University of St. Andrews partook of a delightful and delicious Christmas feast before everyone went home for the break. We didn't have a boar's head brought in, but we had some tasty dishes that were new to me and I enjoyed everything.  The final dish to appear was the Christmas pudding. Each table had its own pudding, and these were delivered flaming!! That seemed rather spectacular to me. I was enjoying myself immensely. I dug into my serving of pudding with enthusiasm. Suddenly I bit down on something hard. Uh oh. That's not a surprise that I welcomed. I reached into my mouth and retrieved a silver coin. What on earth? I'm muttering to myself when the friend sitting next to me said "Oh, you've got the sixpence!" Apparently, whoever found the silver sixpence in her portion of pudding would have good luck in the coming year. I laughed and put the coin in my pocket. I still have that silver sixpence!

I spent another pleasant evening before Christmas attending the St. Mary's College Ball. St. Mary's was the divinity school portion of the University of St. Andrews and was where I was taking all my classes. An older student named Iain invited me to the Ball, so I rustled up a formal dress and off I went. We had a grand time, and I felt like I was celebrating Christmas quite well.

All of this is to say that when I read notices of the University's Christmas Carol Service, I made sure to be in attendance. I looked forward very much to singing the old familiar carols.

The service took place in St. Salvator's Chapel, a beautiful Gothic-style building in St. Salvator's College (the undergraduate liberal arts division). Many, many people packed the chapel and sat ready to sing. The program listed a satisfying number of familiar carols. Interestingly, only the words were provided in the program, accompanied by the name of the tune we were to sing for each carol. In Great Britain, folks don't always need the music because they know the tune of Duke Street, for example, or Kingsfold, or Diademata. I was a little at sea here, but enough of the hymn tunes were familiar that I managed. I continued to hope for a familiar match-up of words and music. Finally, the title "O Little Town of Bethlehem" appeared next on the list. I was so happy! I even knew harmony on this one. I could sing with 'full heart and voice'.

Not so, not so. The carol began and the rest of the congregation burst forth into song. I had no clue what this tune was. None. I had never heard it. I couldn't sing a note. Whose idea was it to substitute the 'wrong' tune for such a beloved carol?

It's difficult enough to be thousands of miles away from one's family at Christmas, but to have even the most cherished and familiar carols sung to different tunes shook me up a little. I rallied, however, and vowed to learn the new music I'd just heard. I still can't automatically sing a hymn tune simply from its name, although I do know a few. But over the years, the "new" tune used for "O Little Town of Bethlehem" has become my favorite. Yet another souvenir of that unusual Christmas.

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