A Memory of Advent
by Dan de Angeli, Class of '76
Imagine a great hall without furnishings crowned with a dome of glass. Imagine little children and not so little children filling it with their voices, unanimous in song. Kimberton Waldorf School has just such a space. When I was a student there years ago, "The Court," as we called it then, became the gathering place for the entire school on the four Monday mornings leading up to Christmas. We called this time "Advent" and celebrated the coming holiday with songs and stories.
Most of the year this space was empty, but on the first day of the Advent calendar, all the students would come bearing greens and add them to a growing pile in the center of the Court. Upperclassman would proceed first, followed by each successive class, all the way down to the nursery school kids. As the court filled up with each class, the circle around the greens grew until the youngest children could reach out and touch the greens. From the center of the greens stood a red pole from which a circular wreath hung horizontally, and from the branches of the this simple wreath emerged four candles, one for each of the four advent celebrations. By the following week our German teacher Mrs. Kimmich would have arranged the greens into a tableau that told the story of Christmas with little ceramic figures.
The songs we sang we had learned from our music class, so no scores were needed. We knew the words and had sung the songs for years. Our voices would raise up to the great glass dome, small voices and large, little childrens voices and basso profundo teacher voices, all in unison. "Glo,ho,ho,ho,ho Ho,ho,ho.ho,ho ria! In Excelsius Deo!"
After a few songs, one of the seniors would emerge out of the ranks and come forward to tell one version of the Christmas Story. At the end of this story came a tense moment. Tradition dictated that it fell on the storyteller to light the next candle on the advent wreath. It was no small matter to tell a story for the whole school. For some of the storytellers, it was the first time they had ever spoken alone before an audience. Then to be able to strike a tiny match and light the candle with a steady hand seemed the hardest part of the whole performance.
Over the years, matches had been lit and gone out, lit again but failed to light the candles. There had been wet matches, small flame matches, or no matches at all. A shaky hand seemed almost unavoidable, though one year there was a senior boy who delivered his story, lit the candle with perfect calmness, but then failed to fully put out his match and burned his hand, at which moment he said a word that would have certainly earned any of us an after school detention. There was always a collective sigh of relief when the candle was lit and the storyteller could return to the safety of his place in the back row.
As young student, I wondered how the storyteller was chosen. The pressure to stand before the whole school at such close quarters, and to tell a story that conveyed some essential truth or element of magic seemed immense. Did they volunteer to do it, or did a teacher tell them to do it? And how did they know the best story to tell? By the time I was a senior I discovered that it was something one indeed offered to do, and I was very excited after many years of advent celebrations to be a storyteller myself. I practiced my story. I worried that my voice would quaver, or my audience would yawn. At the event I did my duty, and the whole thing was over so quickly that I can't now recall what kind of story I told. I certainly was not given a detention for my performance that day.
Since that time I have been back to school, which has long since turned the court into a library, and now the students have a beautiful place to sit and read, but as a library it is quiet and the voices that rang out there have moved to the Gym where Advent is celebrated with an Advent spiral. Like many adults Christmas has lost much of the magic it had for me as a child, and the same relief I felt then when the candles were lit I feel now when the holidays are over and we can get back to the routine. But I still remember now that feeling of raising my voice with my classmates and the memory of it allows me to hold onto a small special piece of Christmas in my mind's eye.