The Sound of Christmas
December 19, 2015
For me nothing evokes memories of Christmas-past more than hearing the refrains of familiar carols. I am confident that if asked, “What was the first carol you learned to sing?” the answer would be, “Away in a Manager.”
In my mind’s eye, I am a preschooler standing with my peers at the front the Stoughton Universalist Church, dressed in holiday finery, my parents sitting proudly near the front smiling encouragement straight at me, and waiting for the cue to begin singing this simple lullaby. It doesn’t take much effort for me to transfer my own little girl and boy into a similar spot, singing the same sweet carol, and I, as the parent, watching with swelling pride.
Christmas without music is unthinkable. I grew up hearing the familiar tunes we sang in church and in my school classrooms, using small booklets of Christmas Carols provided by local businesses. As a child I used them at school performances and community gatherings, and also to follow along as I listened to carols on our radio. My schoolmates and I memorized several verses of favorites such as “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “We Three Kings,” “Joy to the World,” “Oh Come All you Faithful,” “ Oh Little Town of Bethlehem,” and of course my favorite, “Silent Night.”
As I grew older, I continued to enjoy participation in the junior choir at church and later in several different adult choirs. I added my alto voice to organized school choruses from junior high all the way through college. Shortly before retiring and moving to Tennessee, my daughter Kristen encouraged me to join her in the Wallingford Connecticut Community Chorus. This shared experience remains one of the most enjoyable times in my life, especially participating in a performance of Handel’s Messiah with a full orchestra.
An important part of this memoir, The Sound of Christmas, is the back-story, which began four generations ago and credits my children’s great-grandmother, Jennie Mulford.
Jennie Yeager and George Mulford eloped and married in 1907 when she was just eighteen and he was six years older. According to family oral history, they met when he was a salesperson demonstrating songs for a New York publishing company. He came into the store where Jennie worked and where she played for customers from printed sheet music .
After they married, George managed a local movie theater in Montgomery, New York, where, in addition to his managing job, he performed in a vaudeville act. Jennie, then the mother of two-year-old Ruth Vivian, played the piano accompaniment for the silent movies.
George and Jennie Mulford returned to Brockton, Massachusetts where George managed the Globe Theater before becoming a Nabisco products salesperson. Sometime before 1920, they gave up their careers with theater promotions to raise a family of three girls and two boys. One of these girls became my children’s grandmother, Ruth Mulford Clark,
Jennie, however, never stopped playing the piano. She continued to stay current, listening to the latest hits on the radio. She had the remarkable ability to listen to a song once, and then sit at her piano and play the song flawlessly from start to finish without a musical score. In addition, she was able to transpose any song into a different key.
I witnessed Jennie’s impromptu performances on many occasions and can attest to her abilities. I fondly recall family gatherings where we made up stories similar to the long-ago silent movie plots wherein villain wants woman to marry him; she refuses; villain takes woman and ties her to train tracks; along comes hero just in time to rescue woman! Oh, how much fun to listen to the music as she made the stories take shape.
Jennie died in 1969. She was a widow for eight years by then and lived alone in a small apartment near her three daughters. She was found dead, slumped over the keys of her piano, having played one last song. Everyone felt that it was a fitting ending to her life.
Kristen now owns the piano that belonged to her paternal great-grandmother, Jennie Yeager Mulford. The original bench still holds sheet music passed down through the generations. Kris’ father, John Clark, and I both took piano lessons in our youth, but he was more accomplished than I was. Still, he never reached the level of talent shown by his maternal grandmother Mulford.
When I married Jennie’s grandson, he and I shared the hope that our children would carry on the love of music that we knew. He, too, had sung in many choirs, and choral groups. John’s father had sung in a barbershop quartet, and his aunt had voice training at The Julliard School.
We encouraged our children, Kristen and Jonathan, to develop their musical talents, and both seemed to have inherited the musical gene from Jennie Mulford on their father’s side of the family. From an early age, they both loved to sing and enjoyed being part of church choirs, school performances, and vocal groups.
Kris took piano lessons for a while, but never developed the skill of her great grandmother. Jonathan didn’t show an interest in piano, but did express an interest in learning to play an instrument. When his opportunity was available in fourth grade, he chose the clarinet. Each week Jon received a group lesson given by the school’s teacher for instrumental music. Space in a room off our home’s basement proved to be a good location for his assigned practice sessions, and it was far enough away from the main part of the house to ensure both privacy and sound deafening.
Jonathan was approaching his ninth birthday at Christmas in his fourth grade year. He had been playing the clarinet for just four short months, and from a mother’s perspective, I thought he was showing wonderful progress. My positive viewpoint was rewarded ten-fold on the morning of December 25th.
We had been up for several hours, and presents had been unwrapped. I was about to begin the preparations for our traditional Christmas morning breakfast when Jonathan asked me to wait a minute because he had a special present he wanted to give to me. Unaware that one of the gifts had not been opened, I agreed to wait. He left the room, and his father, sister, dog Queenie, and I waited in the living room for his return. He came back wearing a smile a mile wide, carrying his clarinet.
Jonathan took a spot in front of the fireplace, looked at me, and said, “Mom, I know that your favorite song is ‘Silent Night,’ so I learned to play it for your Christmas gift.”
If the tug on my heart had been visible, you would have seen it popping out of my chest! I sat perfectly still, rejoicing in each note he played. As the final strains of “sleep in heavenly peace” squeaked out, so did the tears I was holding back!
In spite of the fact that his sister rolled her eyes and groaned, and Queenie began to howl after the first measure, my clapping in genuine celebration at the conclusion of the piece kept that grin on his face. I rose from the coach and gave him a much too-tight hug, telling him with complete sincerity how very special he and the gift were to me and that I would never forget the moment.
And so, it is music that prompts my memories of the joys of my Christmases past. And--after all the years of unwrapping a multitude of long-forgotten gifts--the one gift that remains most vivid comes back to me with joy each time I hear the familiar opening notes of “Silent Night.”