During the winter of my eighth year—in the days when music and art were still part of the standardized elementary school curriculum—the day came when my music teacher announced to my third-grade class that we had been chosen to sing Christmas Carols at the Winterhalter Elementary Winterfest.
Rumor had it that if a Jewish child said (or sang) the words “Jesus Christ” or any part or modification thereof, something very, very bad would happen to him or her. Though at that time in my life, I followed the religious persuasion of my parents and considered myself Jewish, I knew from looking at him in the picture that hung over my friend Brenda’s bed that Jesus was a wonderful man who would never dream of hurting anyone, let alone a little child. Nevertheless, when Mrs. White gathered her sheet music from her desk and walked to the piano, a flurry of notes passed among my classmates that described, in no uncertain terms, the peril of betrayal for Jewish children—you know who you are!—and urged us to hum verboten lyrics in time with the music.
Mrs. W. tucked the folds of her shirtwaist neatly beneath her ample derrière, cleared her throat, and called us to attention. “Boys. And. Girls,” she said, delicate fingers poised above the piano keys, “We will now sing ‘O Come All Ye Faithful.’ Page six in your song books. Please remember to use your best vocal instruments.”
We all knew what was coming. Mrs. W. bobbed her head from side-to-side in time to the music and played the opening bars of “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Hearts raced. Throats went dry. Several kids began to cough. Dickie Kurtzman’s asthma kicked in and he started to wheeze. Debbie Greenblatt crossed all ten of her fingers, her arms and her legs, put her head down on her desk and began to whimper. The tension in the room was really, really thick.
When the moment of reckoning came, my classmates pursed their lips and intoned the telltale hum. Even the Christian children sang “Hmm-umm the Hmm” just to be on the safe side. I, however, sang “Chri-ist the Lord” as loudly and joyfully as I could using my best vocal instrument.
Nothing bad, of course, happened to me. But later that night, several of my classmate’s mothers called our house to make sure my parents were aware of the serious risks I’d subjected their sons and daughters to, and I was forbidden to watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on TV.
Every Christmas since then, usually when I first hear “O Come All Ye Faithful” on the car radio, this story delivers itself from my unconscious. I hear the call for faith and love and solidarity the song champions. I drape the story around my shoulders—my Supergirl Cape. I summon my best vocal instrument and I sing, once again, “joyful and triumphant” as loudly as I can.
Margaret Wolff is a writer, storyteller, art therapist, and retreat leader. Her work celebrates the ways in which the collective wisdom and storytelling reveal the truth and beauty of our inner lives and connect us—heart to beating heart—to each other.
COMING HOME: Finding Shelter in the Love and Wisdom of Paramahansa Yogananda (White Pearl Press, May 20201), is a curated collection of 14 modern-day stories of spiritual awakening that reflect “the most creative and transformative experience life can offer—developing an intimate partnership with the invisible God of one’s heart.”
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