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O Holy Night

Jeffrey Churchwell Published on 07 December 2012

“Come, thou Holy Spirit, come;
And from Thy celestial home
Shed a ray of light divine.”

—Reverend Edward Caswall

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Back in ’71, there were three major pop talents in my mind and culture: Donny Osmond, Michael Jackson and me, Jeff Churchwell. With much less fanfare than the other two, after supper night after night I would take Ma’s biggest hairbrush and sing to a coliseum full of adoring fans – and everyone within earshot up and down Cardinal Street.

Shamelessly, I would warble opposite the full-length mirror attached to my small bedroom’s large Victorian chest of drawers. In the limelight of a single 40-watt bulb, Michael and Donny’s number one rival crooned out Top 40 tunes like “I’ll Be There,” “One Bad Apple” and hundreds more as if the songs were my very own.

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At the impressionable age of 12, between 7:00 and 9:00 every weeknight, all the inspiration needed blared out of my tinny speakers from the local AM radio station, WKTY, to me. It was known as the “KATY 580 Pepsi Request Line.” Monday through Friday, I held a concert in my mind until the ol’ man tromped up the stairs to clear out the crowd, fold up the chairs and pack up the amps.

But that’s not where my singing began ... or ended. Back when I was just single digits old, my Southern Fundamentalist parents towed me to the Calvary Baptist Church three times a week and showed me where both song and theology of “Give Me That Old-Time Religion” prevailed.

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I’m not sure if I started singing because of the zealous spirit of the congregation or because of the strict proctoring of the ol’ man; nonetheless, it wasn’t very long before I was chanting as passionately as any of the other hundred or so convened who were simultaneously celebrating our Lord as well as escaping the fire of a potential Hell.

When Ma heard me sing, she smiled and said that I was good. Even the ol’ man fractured a grin once. But it was my parents’ friend and fellow parishioner, Helen Gajewski, who turned from her pew in front of us during the collection one Sunday and half-whispered to me, “You have a wonderful voice. You ought to get up there and sing.” “Up there” meant onto the platform behind the pulpit where pastors from the past and present preached the word of the Lord.

As a little kid, rarely did I infiltrate to the front of the Calvary Baptist congregation. Once, I did stand and recite the 66 books of the Bible: “Genesis, Exodus ...” etc. That won me $10 to put toward summer Bible camp.

But my second appearance was much more profitable.

Fundamentalist Baptists – two words that infer much more, politically and socially, in 2012 than it did in 1970 – run church services all about the same. We greet. We sing. We praise. We announce. We tithe. We sing. We listen – but that’s where most Presbyterian and Catholic services end.

But the Fundamentalist finale is different. The heads bow. The organ plays. The pastor extends – yes, he extends the opportunity for any lost, bereaved, unsaved wretch to walk down that aisle and give his or her life and soul to the Lord Jesus Christ and forever follow Him and His teaching – in front of the whole congregation.

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And so it was for me as it has been for millions before and will be for millions yet to come. The somber, soul-searching sound of the organ, the quiet serenity of my soul’s self-evaluation, the life-changing opportunity for redemption – yes, they all combined to induce me to make my second, but most important, appearance up front when I took that slow, soul-saving walk down the aisle of the Calvary Baptist Church on February 16, 1969.

So, with my life assuredly in God’s hands, Pastor Ken Owens asked me if I wanted to be part of a Sunday’s “special music” portion of worship. Shocked and honored, for the first time in my 10 years I answered, “Yeah” without asking the permission of the ol’ man.

That next Sabbath, I sang “At Calvary.” In a couple more, I bellowed “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder.” I didn’t trip on the steps going up to the podium. I didn’t hit any flat notes. Everyone except the ol’ man would smile. Some church deacons would even add a public “Amen” when I finished.

So it didn’t seem to me to be a big deal when asked to sing for our annual Christmas Eve service. When I asked what Pastor Owens wanted to hear, he just said, “I don’t want anything about Santa or reindeer.” Good enough. But my ma thought it was a big deal. On December 22, 1969, she purchased for me a new green shirt and new red clip-on bow tie. She made me get a $5 haircut. She called friends and family. She even got more film for her Polaroid Instant camera.

My ol’ man? He came and commanded, “You’re singing ‘O Holy Night.’” Good enough.

Ya know, that song’s pretty old. It started as a poem written by some French poet named Placide Cappeau originally entitled “Minuet, Chrestiens,” which is French for “Midnight, Christians.” In 1855, it was John Sullivan Dwight who created the song version that has been notably sung by greats from Pavarotti to Mariah Carey to ... Jeff Churchwell?

So there I was – an 11-year-old small-town boy with a new green shirt and a new red clip-on bow tie singing on the eve of the Savior’s birthday to over a hundred people. I was nervous but I took my ol’ man’s advice: “Don’t look at the people; look above their heads on the back wall.” Good enough. It just so happened that located there was a picture of Christ.

So, in 1970 with light, fluffy snow falling gently on the illuminated manger scene in front of my church, on the 40 or so cars parked in the lot, on the roads and highways leading to this temple of worship, it was a peaceful, holy night.

“O holy night! The stars are brightly shining.

It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth.”

Now, for me, Christmas Eve has been the same for the last 40-some years with nary an absence. From junior high to my mid-20s, keeping the tradition of singing “O Holy Night” on Christmas Eve wasn’t problematic. I was either near or single. I was sick for one of those but I still sang.

But I aged, married, moved and had a family – and though the Devil certainly wanted me to do otherwise, one Christmas Eve after another I was haulin’ part or all of my growing family two to three hours in my van. We’d meet my parents, then – as usual – we’d greet, we’d sing, we’d praise, we’d announce, we’d tithe, we’d sing, we’d listen. And then I would end each Christmas Eve church service the same:

“Long lay the world in sin and error pining.

Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.”

Yes, Christmas Eves have come and gone but treasured gifts of the memory are forever. 1996 was the first year that my blessed mother didn’t make it to hear her boy sing on this Earth. The Lord had graciously taken her from this world to a better one just weeks prior. But in her honor, not only do I still possess that original new green shirt and new red clip-on bow tie, but I also don newer versions of the same every season. I know that she watches and listens and smiles still – just from a different pew.

“A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”

Besides my very first performance, the most memorable occurred Christmas Eve 2004. The ol’ man, who seemed healthy as a horse just three months prior at the age of 80, was slowly descending. As the yuletide approached, I wasn’t thinkin’ about much else. The ol’ man was dying! I talked to the pastor and the accompanist, and both responded accordingly: “Let God take care.”

During that morning of December 24, 2004, the ol’ man’s physical self took a turn for the worse. By myself but not alone, I drove three hours to the hospital to side with both him and my siblings. With “O Holy Night” and other Christmas melodies cooing softly in the convalescent background, we greeted, we sang, we praised, we listened, we prayed, we called upon the gracious and merciful Lord and Father to quietly and assuredly take William Coy Churchwell into his arms in His time. We all knew he was ready.

At 4:00 p.m. that Christmas Eve, the ol’ man’s sacred soul was still living but the rest seemed extinct. He wasn’t talking. He wasn’t moving. He wasn’t seeing. He wasn’t.

But that’s the flesh for you – we should never count on it. Just when we thought there was nothing left – no life, no spirit, no Christmas – the ol’ man slightly, slowly turned his head to me and instructed as commandingly as ever he did when robust and healthy: “Get out o’ here and go sing.” Good enough.

“Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices.

O night divine, the night when Christ was born.”

Many months later, my brother told me that the ol’ man passed away about 11:15 p.m. – the exact time that I was singing. But I already knew it. I had felt it. Though, for the first time, I didn’t have one single family member present in a pew at the Calvary Baptist Church to hear me sing, I felt closer to them and God than ever. The ol’ man, a simple, world-weary, unsophisticated product of the Great Depression, was in Heaven with his wife and my ma, his parents and his 13 brothers and sisters. Good enough.

Now, folks, don’t you dare fret one bit about the ol’ man. Leaving this world to see God is a good thing. Leaving this world with your family gathered ’round to see God is an even better thing. But leaving this world with your family gathered ’round on Christmas Eve to see God could be the best thing of all.

Today, I’m still unsure of the concept of a “Christian self.” I’m careful not to blatantly and verbally profess Christianity. I believe it’s like weightlifting: Lots of folks say they pump iron, but you only know for sure by seeing ’em actually do it. Let it suffice to say that I do love God; I try my human best to do what He wants and then let Him take care of the rest.

What I am sure of is that I’ve sung “O Holy Night” for 42 consecutive Christmas Eves while going through seven pastors who’ve all been kind enough to allow the tradition to live on – and I don’t mean to let it stop. To me, these 42 “Holy Nights” and the ones yet to come have been and will be the most meaningful part of the celebration of His birth. The night is innately serene, meditative, angelic – just like the song.

“O night, O Holy Night, O Night divine!”

Needless to say, have a Merry Christmas – but, more importantly, have a Holy Night. PD

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