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Friday, May 24, 2024


Dec. 25, 2003 – About 5:15 a.m. Christmas morning Bettie and Sig Fossdal wandered into Emancipation Garden. They gazed at the brightly lighted fairyland surrounding them and sat on a nearby bench to await something they had not heard for 26 years.
They didn't have to wait long. Soon the silence was broken by the Voices of Love marching into the garden and awakening the morning with song. As dawn broke over the 27th Annual Challenge of Carols, the Fossdals sat in wonder. "In all these years, we've never been able to do this before," said Sig Fossdal, "because we always have our big party on Christmas Eve, and after we say good-bye to the last guest about 3 a.m., we can't really get down here a couple hours later."
"Why, they're so wonderful," Bettie Fossdal said, while swinging along with the Party Hardy Carolieres in a singular version of "Day-O:" "Me wife get lost in Tortola, man, and daylight come and I want to go home." The Fossdals both agreed, "Now, this will be a tradition."
It's been a well-loved tradition for so many years, even the old-timers can't say how long. The carolers go out on Christmas Eve, and continue all night long, bringing song and cheer from house to house throughout the night until they wind up singing in the garden Christmas morning.
In 1899 Luther Robles founded the Excelsior Choir, to be followed by names that are familiar in the local caroling world today: Alec Lloyd, Esther Marks and Elias Abraham. According to Glenn "Kwabena" Davis, leader of the popular Voices of Love, the carolers would be greeted by gifts of guavaberry, dumb bread, and ham and sweetbread.
Each year's Challenge of Carols is a time for fellowship, with the good feeling almost palpable throughout the crowd, as old and new friends greet each other, more often than not, singing along with the choirs. Cherri Carty and Dr. Bert Petersen were taking their turn dispensing dumb bread and cheese, sweetbread and bush tea to any and all.
The crowd of perhaps a hundred or so became suddenly silent as an unscheduled performer took the bandstand that morning. Richard Howard, standing about six feet tall and dressed in a black sports jersey, black pants and a Santa hat, began to play his flute. The crowd wasn't mute for long as Howard played a lyrical flute solo, interrupted several times by cheers and clapping.
Howard then sang "Oh Holy Night," as the crowd listened and hummed along, many with tears in their eyes. With a little bow he descended the bandstand stairs, shook hands with friends in the crowd and beamed a large smile.
"I haven't done this before," he said, "it's the first time … Now it's in my right moon." Howard then added, "I've been singing all my life, this morning I felt like saying hello to Jesus."
Whether the moon was right or not, the affection for Howard, who can frequently be heard playing his flute in the Long Bay area, was evident.
"He used to play flute and percussion with Stevie Wonder," said Hectito Francis, "and he still has something." According to another fan in the crowd Thursday morning, Howard taught music at Wayne Aspinall Junior High School (now Addelita Cancryn) in the early seventies and was well known in the music community.
At the Challenge Christmas morning were some visitors who had not expected to be there at all. "It's a great way to start Christmas, particularly after the week we've had," said Canadian Donovan Arnaud, who was there with his wife and three teenage daughters.
Arnaud is one of the many guests from the Royal Olympic Cruise Lines' Olympic Voyager, which has spent an unplanned vacation in the V. I. (See Voyage to Amazon detoured to St. Thomas.)
Arnaud said, "This is a wonderful tradition, it's very unique. We'd never see anything like this at home. My daughters are loving it."
Arnaud offered that back in the family's hometown of Ottawa it's about 2 degrees Celsius now. Although the family has no idea when Voyager will be leaving, Arnaud says, "we're not disappointed. We love St. Thomas. We'll see the Amazon another time."
During the Challenge, the Party Hardy Carolieres dedicated two songs: one to Magdalene Bryan, who couldn't make the early morning ceremony ("Know that we love you," the choir leader said); and one to Gail Francis, who the choir leader described as "a dear friend we lost last month."
Elise Leval was moved by the dedication to Bryan. "She is a wonderful friend," Leval said, "I've spent all night long with her Christmas night for years." Bryan at one time headed the Office of Management and Budget, Leval said, "back when things were better."
Participating in the carol challenge were the Voices of Love, Bethel Baptist Church Choir, Guardian Angels, Party Hardy Carolieres, Hapless Hopeless Caroliers, Lucinda Millin Home Chorale, Merry Carolers, Morgan's Quartet, Salvation Army Songsters and Torch Bearers, Unlimited Praise and the V.I. Boys and Girls Choir. Louisa McSween read poetry, and, of course, Howard provided flute and song. This year the Challenge was carried live on WSTA with Irwin "Brownie" Brown doing the honors.
A highlight of each year's program was the honoring of choirs and individuals who contribute greatly to "sharing and bringing the spirit of the season to others." This year's awards and their recipients were: The Esther Marks Award presented to Unlimited Praise; The Alex Lloyd Award to the St. John Singers; The Luther Robles Award to Magdalene Bryan; and The Governor's Award to Louis Taylor Jr.
Another honor bestowed that morning was that of being named "honorable choirs conductor" — the individual chosen to lead the massed choirs in their final number. That honor this year went to Leroy Trotman, who concluded the event by conducting "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."

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