Right now, some readers – those I went to high school with – are thinking, “WTF? Is he referring to our Miss Rep?” Yes I am. Miss Rep was one of two people who significantly influenced my love of the Christmas season. (The other was my mom.)
Miss Rep was the choir director at the suburban St. Louis high school from which I graduated in 1963. (not a typo) It was known to be a strong high school choir, if you liked the Robert Shaw sound. Every year we performed Christmas Vespers in the high school auditorium, an event that was much more than a Christmas concert. It was a church service that celebrated the birth of Jesus… in our public high school auditorium.
Think about that in the context of 2021. The choir gave two performances during school hours for the student body, and two Sunday afternoon performances open to the public. Needless to say, that would not – and should not – happen today.
But it happened back then, every year. Consequently, Miss Rep’s Christmas Vespers is an important part of Christmas memories for many of my classmates.
Vespers was an elaborately staged and choreographed production that included student actors and dancers, in addition to three choirs and an organ. It was the identical service every year, including the organ prelude before the service. We all knew that when we heard “What Child is This?” on the organ, the processional was next.
The music followed the same order each year. The same costumed characters – shepherds, kings, beggars, elegantly dressed men and women – all slowly came down the aisle during specific songs, making their way to the live nativity scene on stage to worship the baby Jesus. We even had special staging effects: a small choir of angels magically appeared, as if suspended in the sky above the shepherds, and sang “Glory to God” from Messiah. I will not reveal the secret of that staging.
The music selections were standard Christmas carols, mixed with lesser-known songs. I still remember the words and tenor parts to those other songs, most of which I have not heard since high school.
My point is that Christmas Vespers was a moving service, an important part of my Christmas from 7th grade on. I attended for several years after I graduated. And there is still an annual gathering of choir alumni, appropriately held in a local church. I attended that event several years ago. While they attempt to sing every Vespers song, the sound of 40 or 50 very old voices trying to hit the demanding notes of “Birthday of a King” is nothing like it was in 1963.
I don‘t know when the school stopped doing Christmas Vespers. (Someone must have left a copy of the US Constitution lying around.) I do know that Christmas Vespers should never have taken place in a public school.
There are questions that never occurred to me back then, questions I would like to ask Miss Rep today, if I could. (She died 40 years ago.) For example, how does she think the Jewish kids in choir felt? They spent all of that time and energy celebrating a religion they did not share. What about the kids and families who by choice were not part of any religion? And how did the school district justify tax money being spent on an elaborate Christian church service in the high school auditorium?
Of course, Miss Rep isn’t the villain here. Like most of us back then, and like our parents and board members and state legislators, Miss Rep was just doing something she did very well, something nobody questioned back then. It was the accepted norm.
Something this old liberal, non-religious guy will never question or forget is the strong impact Vespers and Miss Rep continue to have on my Christmas celebration. Merry Christmas, Miss Rep.
And to all a good night.