mesame year on Christmas Eve, King’s Christmas Carols are broadcast live on BBC Two at 5.30 in the afternoon. And each year begins in exactly the same way. Alone in the cavernous silence, the voice of the chosen choir boy, loud and clear, rises the three ascending notes that begin the first verse of Once in Royal David’s City. The sound echoes around the chapel and in homes across the country, before the rest of the choir and organ swallow up the soloist for the second verse. For many people, these three notes signify the beginning of Christmas proper and the beginning of 48 hours of continuous and fanatical feeding. For me, it also means something else.
My elementary school had a Christmas carol service. Every year, someone from Year 6 leaving the class was chosen to sing the solo at Once in Royal David’s City, which would open the service just as he does on television. There were only 20 kids in my elementary school class, of which there were maybe five who could sing, a number that included me and one of my best friends.
My friend and I had seen older girls perform this sacred office in years past, we felt their relief to go through it without gasping for breath or their voice sinking into the high notes, and we had heard the praise lavished on them afterwards. . And so naturally, we both really wanted to sing the solo ourselves when our year rolled around.
I really knew it would be her; she was the best singer. But I still hoped it was me somehow. And so when she was cast, I was happy for her, but also sulky and envious, like any precocious 10-year-old with the prospect of glory in front of them.
When night came, she triumphed. In my mind, I see her walking down the aisle of the church. Now I can’t say for sure if I sang while walking or if I sang before walking, but in my memory it’s happening at the same time. The only light is candles, each child holding one. All the heads of the seated people turn towards her. I can only see her from behind from where I am standing, itching with childish envy and trying not to drip wax on my shoes. But I am happy too, because my friend is singing very well and because, after all, it is Christmas.
I would return to this church in 10 years. It would not be Christmas, but the other pole of the seasons at the height of a hot summer, and I would walk down that same aisle to take my seat. The air would be still, but with a different stillness, and the candles would burn again. This time it would be my own little voice filling the church, full of effort as I held the edges of the lectern. She would be there too, and I would go into the church alone later to put a hand on the box that held it and say the little that could be said.
How can a suburban church be large enough to contain these two scenes, not to mention the countless other minor ones we share? She and I try to remove our pirate clip-on earrings backstage before a school play. My bag of cans for the fall harvest festival is breaking apart, and we are rummaging through the benches for them. However, this is not just a problem with the shortcomings of this particular church. It’s a problem with my memories of her in general. How can I face the joy of meeting her and the pain of her death? How can I hope to reconcile these two extremes of feeling into something accessible?
It means a lot to grow up with another person. After the solo verse, as Once in Royal David’s City continues, he describes Jesus as the “patron of our childhood.” I never knew what that meant, and I still don’t know. But that phrase is attached to her now for me: it is inseparably woven into the pattern and fabric of those early years. Day by day as I she grew.
And it means a lot to keep growing without someone. Happy places turn sad, life ends, years go by. I think that once you’ve lost someone you love, grief presses on the window of all annual events. But there is something special about Christmas. It is time to take stock. What is different and what is not? Who is still here and who is not? In this year of loss and separation, this will be more true than ever. In addition to celebrating new life, love, and joy in togetherness, Christmas has always been a time of ghosts.
Every year I try to avoid Once in Royal David’s City. People understand if you cry about terrible things, but they would rather it didn’t happen at Christmas and if they ignored everyone. Or rather, I avoid Once in Royal David’s City in the company of other people. I listen to it on my own. I thought it would eventually lose its power, but so far it hasn’t. And although it hurts to hear it, I am glad at the same time. I’m glad that there is music that has the power to evoke your memory so strongly. I’m glad that Christmas can be a time to remember. I’m glad she was the one who sang the solo all those years ago, and that I could see her do it.
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