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Christmas Comes To MBC

Christmas celebration came early at Mary Baldwin –  before the college closed for the holidays in mid-December, and three hundred girls packed up and boarded the train, heading home for the holidays.

Several weeks before that deadline, the music majors began preparing for a most unusual assignment. On the last evening before the Christmas break, the girls in each dorm would sing a special Christmas anthem, directed by one of the music majors, who would be graded on the quality of their performance. Day students were included, and our locker room served as a dorm.

Snatches of Christmas music drifted over the campus for several weeks as nervous directors assembled their groups, tested their pitch pipes, and applied what they had learned about choral singing to the Christmas anthems they had chosen. The performance would be a cappella and outdoors – they would strive for perfection.

A special dinner was served on the evening of the celebration. Day students were invited to this affair also. I don’t recall all the dishes on the menu, but the dessert was a baked meringue topped with strawberries – beautiful to see, delicious to taste, but difficult to eat properly with dignity. The crisp white meringue shell refused to be cut evenly, but shattered, scattering crumbs on the table linen and embarrassing this day student!

The girls at each table designed a centerpiece for the table, hoping it would win the prize for the most original design. I was certain my idea was a winner. We made choir boys out of salt clay – twenty-five of them! (I had just learned about this medium for working with children’s art in my education class.)  We applied black paint for hair, the long robe, and the bow on the white surplice. They were so cute, each standing with his arms extended holding a white birthday candle. We assembled then in a circle, surrounded with clippings of pine.

We didn’t win the prize. When the candles were lighted, their flames united, creating one huge flame that threatened to set the table on fire. Quick thinking smothered the flame with a napkin, the table was saved and our pride humbled.

Following dinner, we hurried to gather on the steps in front of our dorms, facing the center of the campus, which was sometimes covered with snow. Huddled together for warmth, we waited our turn to sing and listened to the music from other dorms. Crisp, clear notes rang out through the winter air across the campus. It seemed like the angel chorus singing to the shepherds on that first Christmas night. The focal point shifted to the next dorm and then the next until it was time for the Day Students to sing “Lullay, Thou  Little, Tiny Child.”

The grand finale featured Lelia, the beloved African-American maid who pampered the girls, loved each one of them. She stood on the steps leading down the hill to Academic building, and sang all four verses of Silent Night, her powerful voice filled with emotion resounding in the stillness of the night.

More than one girl wiped tears from her eyes. Christmas had come to MBC.

– Mary Jo Shannon

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