The Littlest Angels in the Christmas Program

Since we live at the opposite ends of two adjoining but wide states, I missed it, but last week was my grandkids’ school Christmas concert. The oldest is in band for the first time this year. His mother told me, “They played ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Hot Cross Buns.’”

We both laughed, remembering other elementary school band concerts, including her own. The newest students always industriously sawed and blew their way, note by careful note, through “Jingle Bells,” “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and “Hot Cross Buns.”

Not exactly the New York Philharmonic, or even the Black Hills Symphony. Still, playing recognizable songs, in unison, was a noteworthy (if you’ll pardon the expression) accomplishment for a bunch of fourth-graders just starting to learn their instruments. Besides, even Al Hirt, Yo Yo Ma, and Charlie Daniels had to start somewhere.

I always enjoyed my kids’ school programs. I wish the grandkids lived closer, so I could go to theirs. It’s great fun to watch the budding “American Idol” contestants who wave at Mom and Dad with gusto, sing with such enthusiasm that you can see their tonsils from the fifth row, and obviously love every minute on stage.

Then there are the other kids. The ones who look down at their shoes, twist their dresses or shirts in sweaty little fingers, and may or may not remember most of the words to “Jingle Bells.” Yes, it can be funny. But most of the humor disappears if you can remember how scary it can be to stand up in front of an audience when you’re a shy little kid.

My first public performance came when I was four years old. Along with several other unsuspecting preschoolers, I was given a poem—two whole lines—to memorize and recite at the school Christmas program.

As I remember it, there was a supper of some sort before the program. I remember looking up at the stage in the old Dixon town hall (an actual stage, with a curtain and everything), knowing I was going to have to get up there in front of all those people, and being absolutely petrified.

One of my fellow sufferers—er, speakers—trotted up onto the stage and rattled off his poem two or three times before the program started. Then, when it was his turn to speak during the program, he refused to budge from his safe spot in the audience. Maybe he was as scared as I was. Or maybe he figured, with some logic, that he had already done his oratorical duty for the evening.

I was amazed that he had the guts to defy the authorities and exercise his right to remain silent. It hadn’t occurred to me that non-participation was an option.

What I remember most vividly about being on stage was being shocked to hear one of the other little kids recite my poem. Here I had gone to all the trouble of memorizing my two lines, not to mention the agony of standing up to recite them—and I wasn’t even given the courtesy of being unique. I was affronted.

What I don’t remember at all is reciting my own poem. I must have done it—probably twisting my skirt in my hands and looking down at my feet, almost certainly inaudible to anyone past the first row. Or possibly I spoke up reasonably well and was audible as far back as the third row.

Either way, I suppose people in the audience thought it was cute.

To this day, I find Christmas programs more enjoyable when the littlest kids don’t have solo speaking parts, but stick with group singing. When you’re so small and the audience is so large, it feels a lot safer to be just one anonymous little voice in the chorus.

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