Month: December 2017

Advent Stories: Go Tell it on the Mountain

Tom Rutling

December 1870

Nashville, Tennessee, Fisk University

By all rights, this oughta be a pretty miserable Christmas. There’s no money for coal, we’ve eaten enough cheap beef that I swear I’m part cow, and the whole freedman’s school is probably headed toward collapse in a year or two.

But I got chocolate tonight. Actual chocolate, can you believe it? Oranges too. And so the world doesn’t seem so bad after all. Good ol’ Mr. Spence was feeling generous tonight, after we sang for him and his wife and some rich white folks at a Christmas social they had.

Mr. White—that’s George White, school treasurer, music instructor, and the tallest man at Fisk University, you can’t miss him—is starting up a choir. A cantata, he calls it, where we’re going to sing songs the proper way just to prove we can. I’m the star tenor, of course. Only because bossy Maggie Porter can only sing one part at once, though. I swear if she could do more, she’d take over soprano, tenor, bass, and director besides!

Mr. White’s got grand plans for some kind of fundraising tour. As if Mr. Spence would let him get away with that. Another one of his crazy schemes that’ll never take off, like as not. But it got us to put together a decent program for the school’s social, so that’s something, anyhow. Afterward, Mr. White let us into the kitchen for some sweets, then rushed on back to meet and greet with donors and such. So there we were, a dozen of us young people, all on our own.

And everybody knows that’s when the real singing starts.

Now, I’ve got nothing against that white music. Some of the songs, hymns and things, they’re real nice. But they’re missing a little something, something that’s in the songs we learned before the War, when we were still slaves. Those, we only sing when it’s just us about.

Not like we’re ashamed of them or anything. Well, some of us are, maybe. They don’t have proper grammar and such like they’re teaching us in school. Mostly, though, it’s because they’re too special. Private. Not the thing for concert halls…but just right for the Fisk University kitchen on Christmas Eve.

Some call them spirituals because folks took the words straight out of the Bible. Hardly a one could read a Scripture if you put a book in front of them, and they wouldn’t admit it if they could, that being illegal and all. But some slaves got dragged to the fly-buzzed Negro gallery of their masters’ churches every Sunday, and they heard enough. (more…)

Advent Stories: O Holy Night

Helen Fessenden (1941)
James E. O’Neal (2007)

Helen in the late 1800s when she first met her husband.

HELEN: The year was 1906. Ships bobbed in the Atlantic that stormy Christmas Eve, monitoring the primitive radios that could only deliver a litany of dots and dashes, the stutter-slow letters of Morse code.

Until the charged air filled with…music. Something no one had heard before. Operators blinked in astonishment. What magic was this?

And then the deep, rich voice of Reginald Aubrey Fessenden introduced himself and read from the gospel of Luke. “And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.”

Hundreds of miles away, in Brant Rock, Massachusetts, surrounded by wires and meters and the radiating heat of the microphone, Fessenden smiled, raised a battered violin to his chin and began to play, even singing along for one verse. The strains of the beloved carol “O Holy Night” broke the silence in the first ever radio broadcast outside of a laboratory.

“O night divine” indeed.

I was there too, watching. Celebrating my husband’s achievements, even if I didn’t understand the years of technological labor it had taken to get there. I remember it like it was yesterday. My Reginald. The first broadcaster.

JAMES: The Christmas Eve Broadcast of 1906. It’s like one of those Hallmark Channel holiday movies, you know? All that was missing was an unexpected snow and George Bailey hearing the program from the bridge and deciding that life was worth living after all.

Except after months of research for the centennial, I’ve concluded that it’s all a lie. Or most of it, anyway. (more…)

Advent Stories: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1863

Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow

The older brother is the mature, responsible one, the younger carefree and reckless. That’s what everyone says.

But not in my family. One look at our family photograph, taken when my mother was still alive, and you can see at a glance: Ernest, the small, timid, logical one who preferred books to athletics. And next to him, favoring the viewer with a smile despite the photographer’s warning to the contrary, Charley, the golden boy, the ace scholar and champion sportsman…and now the Union army lieutenant.

Well, he was a lieutenant, anyway.

It’s been 25 days since we received the telegram that every family dreads. I remember that clearly because it came on December 1, the first day of Advent, the season of expectation. It sounds terrible to say, but I’d been expecting the news ever since we heard the causalities from Antietam. Our boys, our Boston-raised, tried-and-true Yankee boys cut down by the hundreds, thousands even.

But I didn’t expect Charley’s first letter, tossed on the table like an afterthought over a year ago. Father’s hands trembled as he read it. “I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer.” That’s what Charley said when he ran off to join the Union army, as if he was compelled by an irrepressible instinct and couldn’t help himself. Then he went on about duty and love of country and sacrifice.

Even then, at sixteen, I knew it’s not the son who leaves who sacrifices. It’s the one who stays.

The telegram informed my father that a reporter friend of his had chanced upon Charley among the wounded in a Virginia hospital.

Of course, Father wanted to go to the capital right away, where the worst cases were being taken. I left my classes in military engineering to go with him, battling miserable December weather to scrounge a ticket on a late-night steamboat from Fall River to Washington City.

At least the prodigal son had the decency to come home and save his father and brother the trip.

Do you know how many times I wanted to blurt that out, every hour that the swaying of the steamboat and the muttering of the other passengers kept us awake? But I didn’t, not once, because I’m the son who cares about what his words and actions do to our father.

I just moved his armchair closer to one of the lounge’s small stoves and prayed. Not that Charley would live, but that Father would. (more…)