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…)

Advent Stories: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Paris, 1966

Mother Thomas More (Dr. Mary Berry)

Dr. Berry conducting in 1999.

It’s ridiculous, really. In my life, I have fled Belgium on the last train to Paris to escape invading Nazis. I have worked midnight-hour shifts at an infirmary in Rome during a deadly typhoid epidemic. I have fought with the distinguished heads of Cambridge University for years to be allowed to study a nearly-dead form of ancient music.

And yet here I stand, working on a simple academic article, not knowing what to say or how to say it. Bested by an empty page.

You see, I’ve solved a mystery. Just a small one. Outside of my little corner of the world, you may not have even been aware of it at all. But you’ve heard of the song being questioned, surely: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” a favourite of Christmas services and concerts the world over.

The translator of the song, John Mason Neale was, like me, an English musician and a scholar. Unlike me, he was an Anglican. His particular controversy was founding the Society of Saint Margaret, a group of women trained to nurse the poor and sick. Too Catholic, the naysayers of the 1800s said, as if it was the pope who gave dignity to women and instructed true believers to serve the least of these, rather than Jesus.

Neale’s bishop disapproved, his congregants muttered, and others went farther. Death threats. Stoning attempts. He was once physically attacked at a funeral for one of the women he had dedicated his life to serving.

I would have liked Neale, I think. I know what it’s like to disagree with my superiors, with the masses, with the mindset of an entire generation.

His friend Thomas Helmore is credited with the music that accompanied the translation, though he in turn attributed it to “a French Missal,” a medieval liturgy similar to the Gregorian chants I’ve dedicated my life to studying. (more…)

Advent Stories: The Angel

Fear not!

I figured I should get that out of the way. It’s not the best opening line, but when humans are constantly fainting or having near heart failure every time they see you, you learn to do a little advance damage control.

I realize an angelic appearance can be a little startling at first, but every single time? Come on. When faced with something you don’t understand, you always reach for fear. It’s your way of protecting yourself from the unknown, I guess, but it seems strange to me.

I’ve had more chances to terrify people these past few months since the days of the patriarchs. Not that that’s my goal—although, okay, I’ll admit, it is fun.

No, the point, the whole focus of my existence, is being a messenger of the glory of God.

Sound familiar? It should. That’s your purpose too. It’s just you humans get so caught up in the tiny externals of your little lives that you forget why you’re here.

I’m doing it again. That condescending thing. Sometimes, I have to remind myself, we’re not that different: me, an ancient, heaven-dwelling, genderless, warrior-messenger and you, a weak, mortal human born to live on Earth for a hundred years at most and doomed to fall and fail a thousand times before then.

See? Practically the same.

For example, we both…ah…we’re almost….

Nope. I got nothing. But I’ll think of it, I promise. (more…)

Advent Stories: The Scribe

Some of my best friends have been dead for hundreds of years. It sounds strange, I know, but when your sole occupation is reading and re-reading the sacred texts, you begin to empathize with the writers. There are days when I feel as if I could turn to Jeremiah and say, “At what point does lament become sinful bitterness?” or debate politics with Elijah.

But they never answer. It’s probably for the best. If I really started hearing voices, well…maybe what the others say of me would be true after all.

You see, the prophets, they understand loneliness. They understand captivity. Theirs was Babylon or Assyria, mine is Rome.

Here in Jerusalem, Herod keeps us, scribes of the Hebrews, in his collection of soothsayers and pagan priests, to bring out when the whim strikes to advise him on the will of the gods. As if there could ever be more than one.

These visitors from the East upset him. It was all the court could talk about for days, their magnificent procession into Jerusalem, the city of kings, looking for the ruler of the Jews. Not Herod the Pretender, but our Messiah, the deliverer the prophets speak of.

They saw a star, of all things. Very strange, it seems to me, but what do I know of how God chooses to work? He lit a bush on fire to get Moses’ attention. Why not a star?

“Where is he?” Herod demanded of us. “Where do your holy texts say your king will be born?” (more…)

Advent Stories: The Innkeeper

Pay your taxes, they said. Come to the land of your fathers and be counted, they said. Make Judea great again, they said—Herod the Great’s, that is. But did they tell me about the stress it would cause? No. Me, a hardworking innkeeper in a respectable three-camel town in the middle of nowhere, suddenly overrun by every half-wit peasant whose mother gave birth within a ten-mile radius of Bethlehem.

Nobody thinks of the little guy anymore, that’s the trouble. As I always say, “All roads lead to Rome, all dirt paths with potholes lead to Bethlehem.” And they were jammed with travelers this week for the census. Every room in my inn was full to bursting, every scrap of food eaten, every dish in my house dirtied three times over. Good for business, bad for my back. I’m not young anymore, you know.

My wife and I, we raised the prices a bit, of course. Not nearly as much as those traitorous gouging tax collectors. But as I always say, “When in the Roman empire, do as Romans do.”

I was full up like every other inn when the knock came. Too late for new customers, but I opened the door anyway. There was a man and his pregnant wife—near ready to burst, I’d say—on my doorstep. “Do you have a room for us?” the man asked, almost pleaded. “We’ve been turned away all over the city.”

Now, I’m an innkeeper. We know well the warnings about refusing strangers. We’ve had our ears tanned with vivid stories of Sodom and Gomorrah and Rahab in Jericho. I grew up thinking any traveler I met might be an angel, or, even better, a spy.

Life disappointed me there. I’ve never had any person of note stay in my inn. Probably never will.

But seeing that woman and her child, well, it reminded me of what my dear mother always told me—there is always room. You can stretch the soup a little farther, wear the blankets a little thinner, pack the common rooms a little fuller.

You can decide if she was hospitable or just profitable. As for me, it was my duty, yes, my sacred honor not to turn away that young couple. She looked so tired, and he looked so…all right, if I’m honest, he looked about ready to punch someone. If I’d shut the door in his face, I think he’d have beaten it down.

But I don’t hold it against him. Taxes and a long road trip will do that to anyone.


I let them stay out in the stable, the cave out back where the guests tether their animals for the night. Oh, it was clean enough…mostly. Manure has to go somewhere. But there was a roof of sorts and what you might call a bed—I threw down some new straw before getting back to the guests. (more…)