The sounds of Christmas arrived in Charlotte Amalie on Christmas morning as the Voices of Love and the Party Hardy Caroliers rang out in heartfelt song in Emancipation Garden before 6 a.m., welcoming all to the 38th Challenge of the Carols.
The two groups and many others have been doing this for more years than anyone can properly remember.
In 2005 Vernelle deLagarde of the Party Hardy Caroliers said, "I don’t remember how long I’ve been doing this. It must be 30 years, I guess." Thursday makes it nine more years.
Clarice Kuntz of the Voices of Love had the same problem. With a broad smile, even after singing all night, she agreed with deLagarde. "It’s been a long time,” she said. "I wouldn’t greet Christmas any other way.”
The caroling has been a well-loved tradition for many years – even the old-timers can’t say how long. There is very little written history of caroling in the territory.
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 Voices of Love, the carolers would be greeted by gifts of guavaberry, dumb bread, and ham and sweetbread, as they are still today.
In 1924 the Excelsior Choir celebrated its jubilee, but the tradition fell by the wayside during the war years. In the mid 1970s, Davis, Vernon Finch and Dorothy Elskoe got together and brought the tradition back to life, filling the nighttime streets and the early morning garden once again with glorious song.
The morning is traditionally filled with the carolers’ voices wishing "Joy to the World" to greet the sun just peeking out over a pink sunrise.
It’s very busy in the garden even before 6 a.m. while folks pour in and get their favorite benches.
The Petersen family and friends were already preparing the morning’s feast, a tradition started by Candia Petersen several years ago when she found herself having to walk blocks for a hot cup of bush tea.
Now that bush tea is augmented by all manner of wonderful things – porridge, salt fish, dumb bread, ham and cheese, and sweetbread, among other treats.
Folks line up early gently vying for a spot in the friendly line, while everybody has a kind word for everyone else. It’s a thoroughly warm and old-fashioned way to greet the morning, bathed in the gentleness of old friendships.
Of all the music, poetry and awards given during the morning, one moment stood out, when masters of ceremonies Sen. Myron Jackson and Vernon Finch called to the gazebo 6-year-old Avery Cox and asked her what she wanted most for Christmas. Cox needed no prompting.
"I want to see my mommy,” she said, in the belief that her mother, Deidra Hewitt, was serving in the military overseas.
But her Christmas wish crept up behind her on the grandstand and appeared before the startled child. The tears flowed and there was not a dry eye in the garden as the two embraced.
It wasn’t as seamless as it looked. It turned out the appearance of Petty Officer Second Class Deidra Hewitt on the Emancipation Garden stage Christmas took a bit of doing.
Cox’s sister, Kalamis Maduro, was the only one in the family who knew of Hewitt’s plans, including the women’s mother, Avery Evans.
Maduro deserves an award herself for guarding the secret for so long. "It took lots of planning,” Maduro said, as the family surged around Hewitt, with hugs galore as folks on nearly benches looked on. The moment will long be remembered.
Hewitt herself was beaming, gathering up Avery and her little brother, 2-year-old Mychaih, holding them close. "I haven’t seen them for 18 months,” she said between smiles and tears.
Grandmother Evans, meantime, remained silent, offering an eloquent grandmotherly smile in comment. Hewitt has until Jan. 7, when she must report back to Manama, Bahrain, where she is stationed.
The choirs lending their voices to the morning’s mostly traditional songs included the Party Hardy Caroliers swaying in their crisp white tops, complimented with the bright red plaid scarves; the Bethel Baptist Church Choir; the Oswald Harris Court Boys & Girls Club; the Merry Carolers; the Banco Popular Chorale; and the Hapless Hopeless Caroliers.
This year’s awards and their recipients, presented by Finch and Jackson, were as follows:
– the Alexander "Alleck" Lloyd award to the St. Andrews Men’s Fellowship;
– the Esther Marks Award to the Gladys Abraham Elementary School Choir for their performances and serenades during the season;
– the Luther Robles award to the American Legion Post 90 Choir;
– the Honorable Choir Conductor to Calvin Jones;
– the Governor’s Award to Channel 12 WTJX – for its many years of sharing the challenge with the Virgin Islands and beyond through broadcast and social media;
– honorable mention to Keith "Mawuli" Benjamin for cover design;
– and the Spirit of the Christmas Card Award to Bernice Jackson.
The staging area Thursday was modified in preparation for the inauguration of Governor-Elect Kenneth E. Mapp and Lt. Governor-Elect Osbert Potter on Jan. 5, 2015.
The 2014 Challenge of Carols is a presentation of the Emancipation Garden Christmas Card Inc. It is sponsored Innovative and the V.I. Lottery.