In my strongest childhood Christmas memory, I’m standing in a soggy graveyard with a dozen other 6 year olds, wearing tissue thin robes and singing Silent Night while a nasty wind howls around us. The grave we are singing over is that of John Freeman Young, who had translated Silent Night from the original German into English in the mid 1850’s. John Freeman had been a Park Avenue clergyman in New York when he translated Silent Night. But then, in 1865, he got promoted to Bishop, which must have been a thrill. Only the Bishopship he was promoted to was Florida, with it’s Cathedral in Jacksonville, a Deep South city if there ever was one. And John Freeman got his promotion the year after the south lost the Civil War. This must have given him pause, but he went on down. At least he had that Silent Night thing to talk up and it seems to have gone Ok. He served out his life in Jacksonville and for years after the children’s choir of St John’s Cathedral suited up and sang Silent Night over his grave on Christmas Eve come hell or high water. (Or freezing NorEaster wind, which is usually what came.)
The adult involved in all this was the Cathedral’s choirmaster, Mr Leland, and he had a bone to pick about Silent Night. It was that part where it says – Sleep in heavenly peace… It was the way the peace starts on one note and then moves up to another that slayed Mr. Leland Most people slur the “peace.” I remember singing it that way myself. There was something satisfying about that gentle glide from the lower note to the higher, like a Christmas moon rising majestically in the sky. But Mr Leland thought that was all wrong. He wanted the “peace” to be two distinct notes: first note: peee , full stop, second note: eeece. He said slurring it made it sound like a trombone! The way he said the word trombone made it seem like the most foul sound imaginable. Mr. Leland was adamant. If anyone in the choir slurred the peace, he would stop everything and make us go back to the beginning. Even in a graveyard in a howling wet wind. And so the main memory of this memory was the heightened vigilance of myself and my fellow singers, that none of us would screw up. I don’t know if I understood God well enough to know that I could actually pray for help with things, but if I did, it was “Dear God, don’t let any of us slur the peace…”
My other distinct memory from around that time was overhearing a mother of a fellow choir member delightedly recounting how she had taken her little daughter downtown Christmas shopping; it was the first time her kid had seen black families with their children. And her daughter had said, “Look, Mom, little maids.” This doting Mom was so delighted with the cleverness of her child, she laughed out loud. But my Mom did not. She had been born in south Georgia but went north to grad school. Now she worked as a social worker for the VA in those post World War II years and she adamantly understood her patients to be war heroes, no matter what their race. I remember, so distinctly, my mother not laughing, her moving away with some awkwardness. I thank you, Mom, for that memory.
Running away to California like I did, it was easy to imagine my earliest church locked in that time. But years later, when we returned to Jacksonville to have our daughters baptized at the Cathedral (grandmother insisted) our youngest went just a little bit feral during the service, toddling over to the communion rail and using it to practice walking. She was restrained about it after I dragged her back several times. Still I could not hold her without howls and I didn’t want to remove her from a service that was all about her. Afterwards, a middle-age Black man came up to me, introduced himself as a member of the Vestry, and kindly reassured me that his youngest had done exactly the same. He was so welcoming and lovely. Looking around, I realized that the segregated church I had grown up was now fully integrated and everyone seemed happy. I thank God and all the clergy and parishioners of St John’s Cathedral who lived that miracle into being.
And I thank God that I lived long enough to see it, a definite part of the Age Advantage on this Christmas Eve when I’m so worried about racism coming back like it used to be. I’m wondering again about John Freeman Young assuming his bishopship in a rebel city the year they got beat. In those years after the Civil War, former slaves in Jacksonville worked hard and got strong. It wasn’t all roses, but Black Literacy soared, Black members were elected to the city council, a Black college was started that’s still there today. I wonder what the Yankee Bishop thought of all that? Was he sympathetic? Did he help? Why do I think he might have? Because he struggled to translate these words – “Glory streams from Thy Holy Face ~ With the dawn of Redeeming Grace.”
I want to wish all of us a goodly shot of Redeeming Grace over the holiday season and as we move on into this year. And please, dear friends, remember to reach for heavenly peace because it is miraculously strong stuff. Just look at all it’s gotten us through so far.
Originally posted 2016-12-25 09:49:56.