to whom it may concern
By Virginia Holman
Whose idea was it to go caroling down our small country road? Most likely, it was suggested by my wise and kind aunt, who understood the need for children to be occupied with tasks to keep us out of trouble. My cousins, who were also my next-door neighbors, and I were thrilled and soon bored anytime that school let out for the winter holidays. So in late December, she’d send us down the lane to where the bayberries grew thick and wild to harvest the waxy fruit, which had the sharp aroma of pine mixed with rosemary. Field guides say that wax myrtles and bayberries are different names for the same plant, but our old bayberries in Virginia to this day yield larger berries and have more fragrant foliage than the wax myrtles of North Carolina; who knows why? My cousins and I would pick and talk for hours until our hands were sticky, our hair full of leaves.
After my aunt fixed us lunch, we’d be sent to gather more berries; by the third trip, with our buckets not even half full, we’d refuse to collect any more. My aunt would fill a speckled enameled pot with water and simmer the berries until her home smelled like Christmas, and her large windows overlooking the Chesapeake Bay clouded and dripped with steam. She’d hover over the pot with a spoon, and as the fragrant wax floated to the top, she would skim and skim. Later, in a double boiler, she’d re-melt the bayberry wax, add in a little paraffin, and we’d make small candles to give as gifts. Sometimes we’d dip a long weighted wick into the wax, and repeat until we had long tapers that looked more like stalagmites than anything you’d see in a store. The best candles were made by filling buckets with sand, making depressions with shells — conchs and clams — that we’d then fill with wax.
Making candles with my aunt and cousins remains one of my fondest childhood memories, perhaps because we held them while caroling, lighting them at each home as we wandered our country roads, gathering a few neighbor kids to join us, as we ran through the dark streets, knocked on doors, and then burst into song. As I recall, a couple of us had holiday songbooks from school, and the rest just went along for the ride. My most high-spirited cousin filled in any blanks in her memory with sentences that fit the rhythm and meter of the carol. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” she’d sing in her clear alto, “to whom it may concern!” Our neighbors, many of whom were distant cousins (something that happens when families stay in one place for a few centuries), tolerated us with good cheer, offering cookies and cider as we blew out our candles, ran to the next house, and offered another imperfect, out-of-tune, yet heartfelt holiday song.
Soon after, my family left that small town behind. By the time I was in my mid- 20s, my mother, who had a long battle with schizophrenia, had been hospitalized and then placed in an assisted living home, where she was protected but not at all well. To cope, my sister and I had cultivated prickly, aloof exteriors and a barbed sense of humor meant to defend us against anything overly sentimental. Holidays were, as they are for many, a suspenseful tightrope walk between a painful past and a hopeful future. My father had long held dual roles in our lives as provider and nurturer, and it was he who kept hope and faith going in our household. Because we could not seem to settle on a particular church — our family was Episcopalian and Baptist — my father took us to First Unitarian, a welcoming font of acceptance in our conservative Virginia community.
At the time, First Unitarian was unlike any other church in it that accepted not only Christians, but also Jews, Muslims, agnostics and even — gasp — atheists. For couples whose families held different faiths, like the Israeli woman who was married to a Palestinian man, having a single house of worship that accepted each person was a rare and wonderful thing. If our church sounds like it was exotic or motley, it really wasn’t. It was just a lovely, welcoming group of people from many backgrounds, all of whom wanted to worship within a warm community, and it mattered little if everyone believed the same things. People came together to discuss their backgrounds and their struggles with faith in an earnest and thoughtful way. No matter what the individual beliefs, love was always the bottom line.
Even so, the holidays could be tricky. Our minister labored each year in an effort to fully include each member’s beliefs and traditions in holiday celebrations. This was admirable, though oftentimes hard to accomplish, at no time more than during our Christmas or solstice celebration, in which we sang modified carols, Hanukkah songs, and on one baffling occasion a slightly reworded version of The Beatles’ tune “Let it Be,” which replaced the words “Mother Mary” with the words “Holiday Spirits”). This was meant to evoke the spirit of the season, but the modification, (“When I find myself in times of trouble, holiday spirits come to me…”) wound up making Holiday Spirits sound vaguely Dickensian.
By the time my sister was in college, my family had gone from being active members of the church to only attending now and again. At the end of a particularly challenging year for our family, my young husband and I went home for Christmas. My sister and I looked forward to the warm camaraderie of the Christmas Eve service, but we were too cool or guarded to really admit it. We were too busy making each other laugh in anticipation of the music portion, and we huddled in a corner of my father’s house after Christmas Eve dinner, making up silly Christmas carol modifications and making each other giggle. My father’s fiancée, a truly lovely woman, was joining us for the first time at our holiday service — though she and my father had dated for several years, my father was still working hard at impressing her — and we weren’t making it easy on him with our antics.
We almost skipped the church service that year because my father was so annoyed with us, but my sister and I rallied and pleaded and the five of us bundled up and headed out into the cold night. The music portion was exactly as my sister and I remembered, and our future stepmother looked a bit amused and perplexed at the modified lyrics. Perhaps she’d thought we had been exaggerating. Each year at the end of the evening, there was a welcoming ceremony for the new children in the congregation, a lovely moment when the congregation lit one another’s candles and held each other in the light of love. My father, still grumpy with our earlier behavior, said with a wink, “It’s time for the blessing of the animals.”
That year, one family requested to sing a song to their newest family member, a baby they had just adopted. The family gathered together at the altar — a father, a mother carrying the baby, and a little boy. The father was a bit shy, and he said into the microphone something along the lines of, “We weren’t sure what song to sing, so we wrote this song.” Then, without musical accompaniment, the family sang in wavering voices a simple singsong tune as they welcomed their newest member.
“Baby Noah, welcome home
We love you, we like you.
Mama loves you, Daddy loves you
Jake does too.”
I started trembling and weeping, overcome with emotion. I looked at my father and sister and husband and future stepmother; they were weeping too at this moment of unexpected beauty and profound love.
Perhaps the people gathered in our Unitarian church weren’t singing the songs the way they were written, but we were singing together. On that holy night, one of many in a holy season, we listened to a family sing a song wholly their own. As they welcomed a new child into their family, we were awed to be invited to witness such an intimate tenderness, and to see love made manifest, in the truest spirit of the season.
Author and creative writing instructor Virginia Holman lives and writes in Carolina Beach.