9: A Simple Gift of Song

9: A Simple Gift of Song

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas in Canada

A Simple Gift of Song

There is nothing in the world so much like prayer as music is.

~William P. Merrill

Christmas, for my family, was a magical time, and our home was filled every day of the season with the music of Christmas. In my early teens I discovered, quite by accident, that I was very musically inclined. My parents ensured this was developed and one of the instruments I learned to play was the flute. I learned to play classical, jazz and other styles and grew as a musician throughout my teens. During this time a new and exciting “folk group” had been introduced at our church. I didn’t consider myself to be a singer, but I longed to play my flute with this group. One day my opportunity came.

I was at the church when I happened upon the leader of the group, Cora. When I told her I played the flute she responded, “I’d love to hear it.” I immediately left the church, climbed the ten-foot fence behind it, crossed the five sets of railway tracks between the church and my home, and then returned the same way with my flute. I played for her, and she invited me to become part of that ensemble. I was elated.

I loved to play. In classical ensembles, rock bands, school bands… wherever I could play any or all of my instruments. But no situation brought me greater joy than playing with our little church folk group in a suburb of Toronto. And no time of the year was more precious, more wonderful, than playing at the Christmas midnight mass with this group.

Our participation in this service became a tradition for quite a few years. A couple of months before Christmas we would begin to rehearse our Christmas music. We learned traditional carols, and then Cora would introduce something new — or even something very old — to enhance the program. On Christmas Eve we would begin to play before the service as people were arriving, and then we played throughout the service. I can honestly say that nothing has ever matched the sheer joy of this event.

Early in this experience we began to play “What Child Is This?” which is based on the old English folk song “Greensleeves.” Each year we would perform it, and I was blessed to play a flute solo between the third and final verses. A simple rendition of the melody, it was very easy to play. For the first couple of years I simply played it, but never noticed anything special.

Then one year, Joe, an elderly member of our church, who I had known for many years, approached me. Joe suffered from a terrible skin affliction that made people avoid him, but I knew there was nothing to fear. A week before Christmas Joe asked, “Are you going to play the flute this year?” I said yes and he continued, “And are you going to play ‘What Child Is This?’ ” and again I answered yes. Then he said, “Peter, when you play that song it just makes Christmas for me.” This man was lonely and isolated, but the look in his eyes hit me like a truck at full speed. Somehow this one song that I played a solo verse of each year had come to really mean something to him.

Over the next year, other friends mentioned that “What Child Is This?” and the flute part really meant something to them. One described how the notes would seem to “float above the crowded church,” and how everyone seemed to be truly listening when that happened. I wasn’t sure how to handle this. This wasn’t a complicated or impressive part that I had learned and performed at a conservatory recital, nor was it some glorious original piece that I had composed to great acclaim. This was the melody of an old folk song, performed simply. But when I played this simple tune, it seemed to somehow reach all kinds of people at the Christmas celebration.

Nearly a year after Joe had spoken to me I was sitting with the choir while the Christmas music was being planned. As expected, “What Child Is This?” was again included. I said nothing, but as it was mentioned I found myself overcome with emotion. I felt the strongest bond I had ever felt to a number of people who apparently considered that moment when it was played to be something of a “shining star” over their Christmas. While it was me they thanked, I realized that anyone could have played it. I felt an incredible rise in my heart, that I had been given the privilege of playing this song; I knew this was my gift.

For a few more years I continued to play it, and then I went off on my musical career. About seven years later I returned and reunited with a small group of church friends. For several years we once again provided the music for the Christmas midnight mass. To my great joy “What Child Is This?” was always included, along with my simple flute solo. During my years away I had found my voice, written my own Christmas songs and played a variety of instruments, but nothing meant as much to me as the flute solo in that simple song.

Joe has long since passed, likely now dwelling in the company of He whose birth we celebrate. Cora and I keep in touch, and other friends have come and gone. I now live in the United States but I still keep in touch with some friends at my old church, now surrounded by further suburbs of the growing city of Toronto. Perhaps I can go back one day, even Christmas Day, and once again share that gift of song with friends and family there. The gift of that song has never left me. Like the shining star over Bethlehem, it has guided me to places I never knew possible.

~Peter J. Green

Kenmore, New York

More stories from our partners