Dec. 25, 2005 The sun slowly broke through the low pink clouds, the sky a pure blue, the streets almost deserted. Suddenly the quiet filled with song: "Angels we have heard on high / Sweetly singing o'er the plain."
Christmas has officially arrived in Charlotte Amalie. The Voices of Love and the Party Hardy Caroliers rang out the familiar lyrics over Emancipation Garden before 6 a.m, welcoming all to the 29th Challenge of the Carols.
Party Hardy Carolier Vernelle de Lagarde, dressed in bright white with a bright red plaid scarf, said, "I don't remember how long I've been doing this, it must be 30 years, I guess."
The event is steeped in tradition. In 1899 Luther Robles founded the Excelsior Choir, which soon included names familiar to 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.
It has 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.
And this Christmas morning, that tradition continued. Except now the treats are for anyone who gets out of bed and comes to the garden to join friends, family, strangers, tourists, and anyone else with a heart for the community.
It is a true community event. Enjoying some cheese and sweetbread were Ann and Johnny Greaux. "This is my very first time," said Ann, a retired nurse. "I've lived here 30 years, but I was always at the hospital before. This is wonderful, it's beautiful."
The garden was filled. People were sitting on all the benches, on the circular bench in the center of the garden, some in chairs they had brought along, some standing chatting with friends. The lignum vitae trees were decorated, as they are each year, by the different schools. Under a tree hung with imaginative mocko jumbies by Berth C. Boschulte Middle School, Leneta McCormick and her son, Casey, marveled at their good fortune.
"We just got here yesterday," the elder McCormick said. "Casey read about this in one of the guidebooks and decided we had to come. And it's a wonderful way to start Christmas morning." She said they are staying at the Ritz-Carlton, where they are awaiting 16 more members of their family for an annual reunion.
Lawrence Benjamin, nibbling on some sweetbread, took some time out to discuss his role this morning. Benjamin, choir director of the Frederick Lutheran Church (and possibly the most well-known voice and conductor on the island), was facing a first this Christmas morning: He was selected as the choir conductor for all the choirs' finale of Angels We Have Heard on High.
"The thing is," Benjamin said, "you don't know the choirs, and you have not rehearsed. You have to see if you can get them to sing as one choir, and they have been singing and partying all night. But, I love it — this is so much fun to be part of the community."
And, tired or not, the choirs sang as fluidly and melodically as though they had been rehearsing all year.
Davis, president of the event's planning committee and choir director of the Voices of Love, found the morning a mixed blessing. While he was happy at the event, the group was honoring the memory of three members lost in the last year. All the members wore memorial boutonnieres to honor Georgia Gottlieb, Hugo England and Annie Betty Fahie.
Meanwhile, Leroy Blue Robinson was enjoying himself, perched on the center wall, dressed in a bright red shirt and spanking white shorts. "I usually come down for this morning," he said, "for about 10 years now. What I'm waiting for is Celestino, he's the show."
Robinson was referring to Sen. Celestino A. White Sr., who traditionally attends the affair on his pet donkey, shouting out cheer to one and all.
Though the caroling tradition fell by the wayside during the war years, it was revived in 1976 by Davis, Vernon Finch and Dorothy Elskoe. And the ensuing years have made up in spirit for those missed.
Leona Bryant, looking vibrant in a red outfit, and Addie Ottley emceed the affair, chronicling all the many groups, which ranged from the tiny Salvation Army Songsters and Torchbearers to the 30 or so Party Hardy songsters, who swayed and swung their way to the stage and had every foot tapping.
Honors given out this year included:
The Esther Marks Award to the Rising Stars Youth Steel Orchestra;
The Allick Lloyd Award to Lucinda Millin Homes Chorale;
The Luther Robles Award to the Great Britian Unity Band; and
The Governor's Award to the Bethel Baptist Church Christmas Choir.
Other choirs participating were the: Guardian Angels, the Hapless/Hopeless Caroliers, Harmony Rangers, Lucinda Millin Home Chorale, Unlimited Praise and the V. I. Boys Choir and New School of Music.
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