As Canadians and northerners, we share many memories of cold winters. At Christmas time, I often reflect upon one particular evening of a prairie winter in the early 1960s. Though the frost was cruel that night, the reminiscence is warm.
We were college students, most of us living away from home for the first time. Hanging a few strips of tinsel in our rooms didn't relieve the feeling of homesickness that had overtaken our dorm. What could we do to bring on the Christmas spirit, stave off our longings for home and maybe brighten someone else's life?
One of my friends suggested going caroling. That was it! Every student at our small college was rousted out for the occasion. No auditions. No voice lessons. No excuses. Warmth of spirit was the only requirement. And our enthusiasm served as an electric soul-warmer for those who seemed lacking in spirit of their own.
We divided into groups so our music would resound over much of our college town. The group I joined had nothing resembling four-part harmony, but we could collectively make a joyful noise. Bounding boisterously and carrying a tune in our hearts, we made our first call. "Deck the Halls," we tra-la-la-ed.
Soon we discovered that caroling brings a variety of responses. When you carol for people you know, you can be sure of open doors and open hearts; when you carol for strangers, you can't be so sure of the reception you will get.
Some folks remained in the safety and coziness of their homes, watching and listening passively through living-room windows. Others cautiously propped the door open enough to hear us, but not enough to let in the cold or their unknown guests. Some flung their doors wide and sang along; some, I believe, watched in silent reverie.
One stop on our journey was a three-storey apartment building. With no intercoms or security cameras to deter us in those days, we walked right in. Starting our performance in the basement, we sang mostly to closed doors.
After a couple of songs we headed for the main floor. Two doors swung open. One doorway framed a young couple, obviously expecting a child. In another doorway, two preschoolers clung to their parents' legs.
Surprise? Wonder? Curiosity? "Who are these strange bundled-up people? And why are they doing this?" the children's faces seemed to ask.
We sang Away in a Manger for the young ones. We continued with O Little Town of Bethlehem for our seemingly appreciative gathering. Mounting the stairs to third floor, we burst into It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, a song that suited the night.
One door on the top floor slowly creaked open. A stately gentleman, grey-haired and thin, held onto his doorknob. He became our audience of one. As we murmured about what to sing next, the elderly fellow asked, "Would you come into our apartment and sing for my wife? She's bed-ridden. I know she'd love to hear you. My wife used to be an opera singer," he added proudly, "and she's always loved music."
All eight of us stepped timidly into the couple's tiny, crowded bachelor suite. Books, records, china, antique furniture and mementos whispered stories to us.
I reminded myself not to stare for fear of invading their privacy. This was their home, their sanctuary, a hallowed place where the old-timer watched over his fragile partner. Her silver, bed-mussed head made only a small dint in her pillow.
Without a word he adjusted his wife's headrest so she could see and hear us better. Then he gave us a nod to sing. Our voices rose and warbled through Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Had our vocal chords been given extra grace and beauty for this occasion? Perhaps they had, for we sang rather well for such a motley and impromptu crew.
A smile flickered on the lady's gaunt, wrinkled, yet beautiful face. Her eyes sparkled softly. Tears rolled down her cheeks. Her husband requested Joy to the World and Silent Night, two of her favourites. As we finished our renditions, her eyes closed. Now the man shed his tears. Quietly we turned to leave, closing the door on the housebound couple.
The winter moon and stars shone down on us. It had become a silent night, a holy night for we had been in the presence of love that was gentle and mild. All was calm; all was bright as we headed back to our residence. We had found, and maybe even given, the Christmas spirit.