When our sons were young, my husband and I began a tradition of taking them to a play or concert on the weekend or two before Christmas. For several years, after Mister Rogers featured two principal dancers on his tv show, both boys were fixated on the Nutcracker Ballet. In those days, we economized by choosing a production by Walnut Hill School . We figured that at age four and seven, the kids wouldn’t notice that the ones executing the pas de deux and the grand jetés were mere high schoolers. We settled on the matinee, and burgers at Friendly’s afterwards. The next year my father-in- law gave us tickets to the Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker. So decked out in reindeer sweaters and corduroy pants, the boys not only enjoyed orchestra seats at the ballet, but were delighted to shake hands with the fully costumed Nutcracker prince and Sugar Plum Fairy as well as one of the mice, at a fancy cocktail reception in the Boston Four Seasons Hotel.
All too soon, the boys became too macho for the ballet, and my husband suggested Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. By this time a “fancy” dinner– any restaurant that did not serve pizza as its specialty dish–became part of the holiday theater experience. We drove to Providence, saw an Angels in America– inspired Christmas Carol (ghosts of Christmas past, whirling overhead on a pulley contraption; female Ebenezer Scrooge), and got soaked clear through our coats walking in a downpour from the parking lot to a snazzy Italian restaurant –wine for the parents, pizza for one boy, and pasta for the other. The next year, we went to Christmas Revels at Harvard’s Sanders Theater, and afterwards, tucked in to TexMex food. Our younger boy loved the Revels—the costumes, the audience participation singing, the period instruments, and most of all, the antler dance. But the older one, by now in his early teens, decidedly did not. He rebelled, the next year staying home in bed with a fever–or perhaps he meddled with the thermometer to escape revelling. We got a last minute babysitter (our church rector’s son, as I recall) took our ten year old and skipped the dinner out that year.
A Child’s Christmas in Wales went over pretty well with the boys the next year, or perhaps what they really liked was dinner at Legal Seafoods on a bustling night in a suburban mall. At the play’s intermission, the kids asked us to buy them nosewarmers-–worn by the actors in A Child’s Christmas, and sold at intermission to benefit the Boston Repertory Theatre. We suggested they spend their own money; they decided to forego the nose warmers.
Over time, the holiday outing metamorphosed–or faded–into dinner and a movie, and once the firstborn went off to college in Maine, the tradition fell off altogether. At first that made me sad: it was another sign that our children were forging their own ways in the world and did not want to adhere to their childish ways. They had plans of their own, and these excluded their parents.
But with the disappearance of our foursome’s family ritual, there came a new one: the empty nesters’ holiday outing. This year at summer’s end, my husband ordered tickets for Stile Antico, an early music group of twenty-something singers from Britain. For two hours last night we sat with a couple hundred others in a grand, marble arched Catholic church in Cambridge. Until a few moments before the concert began, frigid air from the street flew into the narthex and into the back of the church where we sat in straight backed wooden pews, still bundled in our coats and woolen scarves. An enormous advent wreath, at least six feet in diameter, was suspended from the ceiling where the transept and main aisle intersected, its wide purple and pink ribbons stopping just short of the tallest concertgoers’ heads.
“First one to see someone you know gets a prize,” I whispered to my husband, who responded, “Bet we don’t know a soul here.” A striking woman with long white hair gathered back walked by, and I recognized her as a former administrator from the college where I teach, but that didn’t count because I didn’t really know her, nor she me, before she retired a decade ago. Almost immediately after that I spotted a former student from several years ago—long enough that it took me half the concert to remember her name. She didn’t see me, so that didn’t count either.
The singing began. First, the women’s voices, clear, strong, sweet, emanating from a place I could not see from our pew near the back of the church. Then men’s voices joined the women’s, as the singers quietly took their places in the chancel. The women wore fashionable black dresses, the men, black shirts and pants. But the singers were merely the vehicles for the music, and to a lesser extent, the words— Tallis, Byrd and plainchant. The music made by these thirteen young voices swallowed up the Latin prayers. As I looked out over the audience, the music went into my head on the wings of the church Latin I had learned as a child and adolescent before the days of Vatican II, when the great theologians and bishops banished the Latin Mass to a few outlier parishes. Old, familiar phrases— qui tollis peccata mundi, misere nobis, magnificat anima mea Dominum, swirled around my head, and then as the singers repeated and repeated the words, the sound fused with the words, then made its way into my head and my heart. I was no longer sitting in a cold church a stone’s throw from the Harvard yard, with hundreds of strangers in wool or down jackets. I was somewhere else, where human voices were so excruciatingly lovely and moving that it seemed the closest one could ever get to choirs of angels, or whatever you might call otherworldly, near-perfect beings. These voices became pure sound, capturing me, eliminating all distraction, bringing wonder, then calm.
As though jolted from deepest sleep, loud applause brought me back from where the voices had taken me. We ducked out of the church just as Stile Antico finished an encore, a 16th century Spanish motet. Cold and hatless, we walked back to the car, threading our way past pubs overflowing with ebullient young patrons in Santa suits or elf costumes. We were forced us back into the twenty-first century.
Over the next few days my husband and I enacted our own rituals from the years when we first met, the time Before Children: last minute book buying at New England Mobile Book Fair, reviewing our gift list to be sure we didn’t favor one grown son over the other; lugging the Christmas tree up from its bucket of water (usually iced over) in the garage; giving the living room its annual deep cleaning, from under the carpets to the corners and crannies of the sofa.
Today is Boxing Day, and the trick is to stay more than a step ahead of the December blues. The leftovers from Christmas dinner are stowed in the fridge. The cousins from Maine left this morning. Two lone pieces of pie sit covered with plastic wrap on the kitchen counter. Most of the detritus of Christmas–the bows, the gift wrap, the boxes–has been sorted into recycling bins in the garage.
At 5 pm it’s fully dark. I turn on the outside Christmas lights and make myself a cup of tea. The house, so full of laughter and talk of politics and music and jobs this time yesterday, is silent. The days are growing longer, imperceptibly, but confirmed by the daily newspaper’s almanac: ” Sunset, 4:17 pm. Day of year: 360.”
Before we know it, we’ll be cutting forsythia to force its brave yellow blossoms from tall, spare branches, early notes of spring.