The song of another Christmas

The chords of Christmas - of bell, organ, or voice - reverberated ''here forever.''

When our friend Rose apparently left for good, the dearest event - of all that continued in my thought about her - was a few moments of singing before an evening meal in our child-disarranged home at Christmas. Five orderly guests sat about our small second-floor family room, and I was accompanying the yuletide songfest by playing Simplified Christmas Carols on our untuned piano.

Whatever harmony there was in the singing came more from the unity of the occasion than from the confluence of voices. It was motley song, and even to a professional singer as generous as Rose, it must have been a trial.

When we came to a pause, Rose saved the day.

''May I just sing one little ballad for you all?'' she asked.

I froze at the piano for fear she would ask me to play something beyond Grade One.

''May I sit on the piano bench?'' she said.

I readily moved onto the arm of a sofa.

Instead of turning to the keys, Rose sat in the opposite direction, facing us.

She slowly spread her hands to each end of the bench, looked down nostalgically at the recently vacuumed old rug, took in a deep, gentle breath, and proceeded to sing a cappella the purest and sweetest English Christmas ballad. I'd never heard it before, have not heard it since, and was so enchanted by its embodiment of the beauty and love of Christmas that I cannot now remember the title or a single word.

When Rose finished, we sat in silence.

She broke the spell herself by casting another one: ''I last sang that in a shelter beneath the streets of London during a particularly savage air raid. I'd had to leave my husband behind - alone in an upstairs apartment.''

At times we may all feel that some good thing - some moment like this - has left forever and will never recur. There's been a discontinuance. But we may also sense the immortality of such a moment.

I was once the smallest boy in the large choir of St. Mark's Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore, and the grand occasion of the year was the midnight service on Christmas Eve.

St. Mark's then seemed as much High Episcopal as low Methodist, and prided itself on this special program - as close in tone to those of Canterbury as to those of the tiny wooden churches founded by my ancestors in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

By ten o'clock on that festive night - an hour early - the floor of the high Gothic nave filled with parents and friends. Hundreds of brightly lit red poinsettias banked the gilded limestone altar - a pool of startling color in the otherwise somber sanctuary.

Pivoting mechanically, two choirboys in starched white surplices (red bows at their necks) lighted the oversized altar candles. Then they carefully stepped down the aisle, lighting candle after candle at the ends of the pews.

At eleven the organ broke forth with the piercing processional, ''O Come, All Ye Faithful.'' A harp joined in as the organ waned, and was soon rolled over majestically by the mellow beating of tympani.

With Old-World ceremony the crucifer - a high school football player in long white sashed robe and long white gloves - entered the street end of the aisle, his nose close to the staff of the cross. The harp accompanied in the first verse the lead - and smallest - candle-bearing choirboy, my head covered in golden curls.

The older choirboys followed, then the women's choir, then the men's, then a dozen orphans playing ''Softly the Stars Were Shining'' on a dozen shiny piccolos, then two trumpeters and two trombonists - all were now well into the church, advancing toward the choir stalls.

We sang verse after verse, and when the verses were through, we started all over again.

The pieces selected for the night by Mr. O'Dell, the music director (we called him ''Digger''), always had a haunting, minor cast to them and symbolized to us boys that Christ had come forth from a foreign, Oriental, and miraculous land.

An hour later the recessional left the congregation in a rapt, silent spell, all eyes fixed curiously on the minister, who stood stonelike before the altar. He would raise both hands slowly to the vaulted blackness, shout, ''Rex Gloriae! Rex Gloriae! Amen and Amen!'' and fairly tear down the aisle in pursuit of the trumpets.

Well, this was the stuff not only of formal worship and high drama, but for me of considerable inspiration. When my family moved away from the neighborhood of St. Mark's for good, I was sure that intensity of Christmas color was gone forever.

Until I attended the Christmas service at Harvard's Memorial Chapel one snowy evening.

True, it was somewhat understated compared with St. Mark's, but the choir impressively entered to ''Adeste Fideles'' - Nikes, Adidases, and assorted Beanboots peeking from beneath their black robes. In the congregation the old grads sang lustily in Latin without need of text from verse to verse, ''Cantet nunc io . . . .''

A mighty serenity gripped the chapel just before the last verse when the organ played a solo interlude to give us a chance to catch our breath. Then everyone chimed in with a spine-tingling final verse - the choir now in place and singing descant behind a bank of brightly lit poinsettias.

Indeed, few things good are lost completely, and many things reappear in some form in the most unexpected of places at the most unexpected of times.

Someday a winter bird may fly to my feeder and take my thought back to the time Rose sat on our piano bench, singing an English Christmas ballad. Or in the choirs of some English church at evensong, I may hear the strain of one small choirboy, and I will know I have heard it before. Or even by a rushing stream in Vermont, the thickness of the rocks upon which the water drops may produce just the right timbre.

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