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Challenge of the Carols Returns With Renewed Spirit

Dr. Bert Petersen hopes to drive home a point about Covid vaccinations at Emancipation Garden. (Judi Shimel photo)

The holiday tradition sprang alive Christmas morning in Emancipation Garden as the songs of choirs filled the bandstand for the 45th Challenge of the Carols. The four-hour event drew a gathering of residents, visitors and lovers of Virgin Islands culture.

The celebration featured songs by the choirs – Voices of Love, the Party Hardy Carolieres, the Merry Carolieres, and the Hapless/Hopeless Carolieres. Each has appeared at Christmas events in the garden throughout the years. 

Musical marchers with the Pan Around the Neck team finished off the morning with a steel pan tramp through the garden. Spectators followed merrily along, then later queued up to dance the Electric Slide before the David Monsanto Bandstand.

Volunteers working under canopies at the fringe of the park fried johnnycakes, sliced dessert cake and offered coffee and bush tea to performers, spectators and passers-by. Young Judah Gokool munched on one johnnycake while being towed along by his father, Joshua. Sisters Victory and Mercy closely followed along.

Joshua Gokool with children Judah, Mercy and Victory. (Judi Shimel photo)

Johnnycakes were his son’s favorite, the father said. It wasn’t clear whether the festive paper specs that covered the child’s face improved his aim towards the fried bread, but he took each bite with gusto.

Family members Bert and Barbara Petersen helped the morning fare along, later joining the Hapless/Hopeless choir in a set of songs promoting COVID-19 prevention. It was a serious message made light by comic relief.   

Bert, a medical doctor, brandished a giant vaccine needle and offered jabs to other choir members. Member Edgar Baker Phillips was transported to the bandstand on a gurney, equipped with an infusion bottle labeled Cruzan Rum. 

The carolers thanked those in the crowd who came to the event vaccinated and then delivered their renditions of COVID-19 free holiday tunes.

Voices of Love, minus their leader, Kwabeena Davis gave two presentations and one with Party Hardy. Selections throughout the morning included holiday hymns, spirituals and Virgin Islands classics.

Master of Ceremonies Vernon Finch said organizers of the original event – himself included – wanted to uphold the Christmas caroling tradition. It’s a tradition that he, Davis and the late Dorothy Elskoe maintained each year, even through the pandemic and the social restrictions it brought.

“Last year we had a limited version of Challenge of Carols and this year, we decided to have another limited; we’re bringing it out. As difficult as it is with the pandemic, we would love to share the joy, share the love,” Finch said.

Some of that love was shared on Saturday among those who have helped make the Challenge of the Carols possible. The Alexander Lloyd Award was given to drummer Tommy Pilgrim and guitarist Cliff Finch. Edgar Phillips received the Luther Robles Award. 

Guitarist Cliff Finch displays his Alexander Lloyd Award. Drummer Tommy Pilgrim was also honored on Saturday. (Judi Shimel photo)

Gov. Albert Bryan, Jr. bestowed the Governor’s Award to Virgin Islands Council of the Arts Executive Director Tashida Kelch. Bryan praised the council for its efforts to keep local music traditions thriving. 

He called the Council of the Arts “an active participant in making our culture and our history and our art relevant again.”

Gov. Albert Bryan makes a presentation to Tashida Kelch of the VI Council of the Arts. (Judi Shimel photo)

Music arranger Monet Davis was also honored for her contributions at the Christmas event. Saturday’s caroling showcase was sponsored in part by the VI Lottery, the Office of the St. Thomas Administrator and Emancipation Garden Christmas Card, Inc.

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