After hearing about the Graham Elementary Christmas program, I saw a video from the concert on Facebook. The 4th and 5th grade choir beautifully combined the traditional and the contemporary by singing “Silent Night, Holy Night” while signing the lyrics for the deaf.
I enjoyed their enthusiasm and their spirit of inclusion, but I also noticed in the video a riser full of first graders. So innocent and delightfully natural, they twitched and wiggled, while one little girl swished the skirt of her purple dress in time to the music. Visions of Christmas Programs Past began to dance in my head.
Over the years the Scott kids participated in countless Christmas programs. We performed mostly on the stage in the gym at Concord School in productions preceded by practice at school and at home – and by hasty, school night trips to Robert Hall’s in Springfield for appropriate outfits.
Planned by our classroom and music teachers, each year’s Yuletide presentation was a clever medley of sacred and secular music around a theme and based on the abilities of each class. One sister and I remember the Christmas tree the classes formed on the bleachers, with her added recollection of flashlights used to represent tree lights. Another sister recalls the Finkes kids – Heinz, Reinhold, Sonja, Trudy – moving from Germany to our district in the 60’s. Reinhold was plunked right into my sister’s third-grade class where he had to learn English, but the next year he sang “Silent Night” in his native language for an appreciative audience.
We often sang standard Christmas carols, with “Away in a Manger” a frequent favorite. Unfortunately, young singers often easily misunderstood the lyrics of some of those songs: “the cattle are lonely,” “hark the hairy angels sing,” “ten lawyers leaping.”
Then there were more child-friendly songs including “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” as well as “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” songs sung and enjoyed by continuing generations.
Little did I know that another elementary favorite would pop up during my college years. As a student at Otterbein I often passed Hanby House; and I lived for a year in Hanby Hall, both structures memorializing Benjamin Hanby, the author of “Up on the Housetop.” Hanby, whose family lived in Westerville when he attended Otterbein, was residing in New Paris, Ohio, when he penned the Christmas classic in 1864.
Other poems and songs somehow stick in our minds. One sister can to this day recite the entire “I just hung up my stocking” poem that she and her third-grade classmates performed in unison, and I can still accurately deliver the Finnish version of “O Thou Joyous Day” my fifth-grade class sang. And talk about “sticking.” Somewhere along the Christmas program line, I portrayed a grandmother – complete with shawl and rocking chair – reciting “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” to a group of first graders seated on the floor around me. Those kids called me Grandma until the day I graduated!
The Christmas star of our family, however, would have to be my brother, who performed the title role of Santa and the Spacemen. As Santa, he survived a kidnapping and discussed delivering presents to children on all the planets in the solar system. Quite the undertaking for a fifth grader – and our mother, who helped him learn all those lines.
However, my all-time favorite Christmas program is not one that I actually saw; I only read about it. Years ago, I found in a German edition of Reader’s Digest an anecdote, here condensed and translated back into English:
Walter, at nine, was still in the second grade. Although he was slow in his thoughts, his classmates loved his kindness, particularly when he protected smaller students. Walter longed to be a shepherd in the annual Christmas program; because of his size and minimal number of spoken lines required, however, his teacher cast him instead as the innkeeper.
The night of the play, the auditorium buzzed with an audience full of parents and a stage full of angels and wise men. When it came time to turn Mary and Joseph away, the innkeeper dutifully delivered his lines. Although Joseph pleaded, Walter insisted there was no room.
As the Holy Family trudged away, tears began to roll down the innkeeper’s cheeks – and this Christmas pageant was transformed. Walter’s face brightened: “Wait! Come back! You can have MY room!”
Some audience members felt the play had been ruined. But many, many others considered this performance more filled with Christmas spirit than any other they had ever experienced.
One of my former students, now the mother of three daughters, last week described – with shining eyes – her favorite part of the Christmas programs of her childhood. Organized by their beloved music teacher, Jackie Gross Mason, the annual program traditionally concluded with the children, glowing candles in hand, lining the perimeter of the Graham South gym and singing in sweet, echoing voices: “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”
That is what I wish during these unsettled days. For the children singing seasonal tunes; for those reciting poems and portraying traditional Christmas figures; for all of Jackie’s once-upon-a-time performers, their faces bathed in candlelight; for little girls in swishy purple dresses and Walters offering their rooms – and for you, dear readers: Let There Be Peace on Earth…
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.