Every year since I was very young my family plays the BBC Broadcast of the Nine Lessons and Carols at Cambridge College over the radio and every year I always think to myself wouldn’t it be wonderful to see those lessons in person. Today, I achieved that personal dream.
My alarm beeped at 5:45 this morning. I woke up and peered out the window. It wasn’t raining but the only light I could see was the yellowish glow from the street lamps and I knew it was cold. Knowing that my little blue coat with the quirky red button would not be enough to keep me warm I layered my clothes and took my mittens and my gloves, my scarf, and my hat to help me battle the cold winter chill. The hostel was deserted as I crept down the stairs as quietly as I could. I reached the outside door and tugged, it wouldn’t give. I had a fleeting moment of dreary panic when I thought I was locked inside. I tugged a little harder and more frantically, looked around for an attendant and when I couldn’t find one started searching for a magic button to let me outside. There it was, right next to the door conveniently labeled “press to leave.”
Yesterday, I had spent most of my time in Cambridge acclimating myself to the city with one goal in mind: find the quickest route to Kings College so I don’t have to search at all tomorrow. My plan worked like a charm. I found Kings College this morning in my dark and sleepy state with no trouble. I didn’t even trip on the cobblestones. The brisk walk warmed me up and as I cued I remember thinking foolishly, “Oh this isn’t so bad.” How wrong I was.
By nine a.m. my lips were blue, my teeth were chattering, and I could not feel my toes. I was inside the college grounds by then so I knew I was getting in to see the service, but I was on the exposed side of one of the main buildings and the wind was exceptionally brisk. There were still four hours to go. The people cueing with me shared their blankets and food and good Christmas cheer. In front of me was a man and his son, Dave and Alex respectively, and behind me were Mike and Celine.
Mike and Celine were the first of my Christmas Miracles. When Celine noticed how cold I was, she offered me her shawl to tuck around my legs. Mike and I laughed at and bonded over some Indiana Jones references and off color jokes. Not only did they keep me warm physically, they helped keep my spirits up through the very cold weather. Around ten a.m. Celine phoned her husband to drop off some more necessities and she had him bring an extra pair of thermal socks to help keep my feet warm. I wore them all day and they were very warm and I was very thankful. My feet were nice and warm when I met the Mayor of Cambridge. Mike told me that the golden chain he wears is a symbol of the unity of his office, past down from one leader to the next.
At eleven, Celine had to leave to go get Cinnamon Sticks for dinner on the 27th. When she returned to the college grounds around noon she had two tickets to climb the St. Mary’s church tower. She gave them to Mike and me who had quickly become friends.
After we went up the tower, I’ll put pictures up later, Mike and I returned to the cue. With an hour left of waiting to us the senior members of the Cambridge Choirsters serenaded us with carols acapella style. I don’t think half an hour flew by so quickly all day. Those boys can sing; I think my soul melted a little bit in happiness.
The hour soon passed and the cue was let into the chapel. I managed to wake up early enough to get in the cue soon enough to be let into the part of the church where you can actually see the choir sing. There are only 150 seats in that part of the chapel and I was one of the last ones let in. As an added blessing there was a single seat open as if God had intended I sit there. Not only did I see the Carols but I sat in the part of the chapel actually called The Choir practically next to the Cambridge Choirsters.
I was on the left side of the hall around the edges of this picture and about three rows back:
God blessed me again by placing me next to a student from Ohio studying as a Fulbright Scholar in France. He too had listened to the BBC broadcast since he was young and he’d always wanted to see the service live. It was nice finding a kindred spirit there for the same reason I was and just as foreign. We did talk most of the way through the organ preludes, though and we may or may not have taken some stealthy pictures inside the chapel just to prove we were there. However, by the last organ prelude I was calm and beginning to feel overwhelmed.
What happened next I was unprepared for. The silence following the organ prelude was stifling but when the first notes of Once in Royal David’s City rang out through the chapel I smiled and started to cry a little. I remembered making Santa Lucia Buns back home and I knew my family was listening to the service along with me maybe preparing for the open house. I couldn’t have felt closer to them than at that moment. I also realized a dream I have had since I was a small girl. The service was so much more magnanimous and moving and meaningful than I ever expected. I felt like God had crafted this specific service just for me to hear.
The Choirsters don’t keep the same program each year and this year they selected two carols that have particular meaning for me. The first was Riu Riu Chiu and the second was The Holly and the Berry. I like the version of Riu Riu Chiu that The Monkees sing and The Holly and the Berry means a great deal to me because it’s one of the Christmas songs that is played only on Christmas day. Since I won’t be home this year, hearing that carol has a dual importance: It’s at the Nine Lessons and Carols that I got to see and I get to hear it with my family.
The entire church was lit by candlelight. The vaulted and elaborately carved ceiling made some of the best acoustics I have ever heard. The voices that sang the notes were beyond beautiful with hardly a note sung incorrectly. When I was singing with them I felt like my notes meant something, like they were going somewhere and weren’t just black dots on a page. God blessed me and I could feel it. I just didn’t know yet how much. Yes, this story does get better.
Of two things I am certain:
Miracles do happen and Christmas Magic is real. It isn’t some Hollywood stunt. It actually happens.
When I left the service wiping tears from my eyes, I ran into Mike and Celine again. I was going to give them their socks back but Celine told me to keep them because I had to walk home and it was cold. (Insert Mr. Bean’s voice, “Look Teddy, Christmas Socks,” here) We walked out of the college together and I was about to walk back to the hostel when Celine asked if I wanted to come to Christmas Eve dinner at her house with Mike and her husband and children.
Tonight I spent my evening in a warm house eating Croatian stuffed peppers, drinking wine, and talking to a wonderful family. I told the children all about Zombies and Humans, the game we play over Jan-Plan at Colby with Nerf Guns, and they were really interested. We pulled Christmas Crackers and I got a bouncy ball. The youngest child, David, told me all about the Cold War. I learned things about the Cold War from an eight-year-old boy that I never learned from experienced teachers.
To sum up - I wasn’t alone on Christmas Eve and when Celine asked if I wanted to spend Christmas day lunch/dinner with her and her family I couldn’t say no. I won’t be alone on Christmas Day. God provided for me a chance to realize a dream but he also ensured I wasn’t alone on Christmas. This family is my blessing and Christmas Miracle. It truly is a Merry Christmas.
Aix-en-Provence is a magical land of sweets, Christmas lights, large outdoor markets, and revolutionary parades through the streets of an old city. Within my first hour in Aix I was force fed macarons, sampled regional olive oil, and was introduced to the second most beautiful street in the world after the Champs Elysee. Within my first five hours I visited the outskirts of the city where I drank wine and ate the thirteen traditional Christmas desserts.
On Sunday my two host mothers Becca and Sarah decided it would be a good idea to take me to the center of town and leave me there for a few hours while they go to a brunch. On our way we got stuck behind a procession of people playing revolutionary music and wearing, as Becca put it, fancy dress which immediately piqued my interest. When I hear the sound of drums and fifes I am compelled to follow it, my own personal pied piper. I was lead to a square where groups of people representing all of the surrounding regions of Aix were playing their fifes, drums, and shooting off their blunderbusses during the presentation of the Pomp, a regional bread, to the Mayor.
There was flag throwing and traditional dances and lots of fife and drum music with amazing costumes. One of the flag throwers got his flag stuck in the tree and spent five minutes as a finale trying to retrieve it by throwing another flag at it. After the ceremony a very very drunk beggar/busker decided to take advantage of the milling crowd by badly break dancing for money. Taking that as my cue to leave I wandered around side streets and successfully bought a baguette for lunch. I watched a busking unicyclist fall off his unicycle. It was funny until he didn’t get up but why he was cycling on a hill in the first place I will never know. Again, I left to wander and discover nooks and fun places.
In the end the day was tasty, exciting, and new. Conclusions: France loves Christmas and I want to learn French.