Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Just like the Trapp family

Aloise Buckley Heath, William F. Buckley's sister, was blessed with ten children. I have a collection of her stories, Will Mrs. Major Go to Hell? Annually during the Christmas season one of the stories is re-published by National Review. One of my favorites has always been "A Heath Christmas Carol Program" from 1966.
With all the gaiety and caroling that goes on in our house all year round, it is only natural that we plan, early every December, a Christmas carol program, to put it on tape after it is absolutely perfect and send it to the children’s grandmother as an absolutely unique, unprocurable-in-stores Christmas gift. ....

Our carol program this year was to be not just Mother at the piano, John at the recorder, and nine children singing in unison. It was to include part singing, solos, duets, trios, and quartets, Buckley on the drums, ten-year-old Jennifer on the triangle, and a piano duet by Betsey and Alison, who are eleven and twelve and hate each other.

Our first difficulties I could see coming. Buckley played the drums, not with a gently medieval boom, or even with a gay 17th-century rat-a-tat, but as if he were soloing during a pause in a program by the Rolling Stones, which was impressive, to be sure, but reduced the singers to utter inaudibility. Jennifer ting’d on the triangle whenever it seemed to her that she had not tung for quite long enough, and Betsey and Alison, who have never entirely grasped the purpose of a duet, exchanged sidelong black-eyed glares and raced each other through “Jingle Bells,” Alison winning handily by a good two and a half measures. ....

Our repertoire was nearly finished when Pam addressed the group in less than a friendly tone.

“If anybody’s being funny around here, they just can just stop it right now.”

There was a blank silence. Long blue eyes met wide black eyes without the glimmer of a twinkle. Pam waited a minute, then she said: “Mother, let’s start over, and I’ll take the piano while you come out here and listen. There’s something peculiar going on. Now listen carefully.”

I listened carefully, and it was then I decided my children are either not quite bright enough to live, or else they are too gay to bear.

Do you know what “afforient” is? Neither did I till I heard Priscilla, who is 15 and who should know better, sweetly warble that the three kings afforient were, and I asked her. “Afforient,” if you are interested, is the state of being disoriented, or wandering, as one does over field and fountain, moor and mountain.

And has anybody ever wondered where the Ranger is on Christmas Eve? Has anyone, for that matter, ever given a single thought to the Ranger on Christmas Eve? Well, Betsey Heath has. “Away is the Ranger,” she will inform you, if you listen carefully. And obviously, he is away because there is no crib for his bed. ....

Have you ever wondered, in the long watches of the night, what Child is this who laid to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping? Well, it is the Child whom angels greet with Ann the Sweet, while shepherds’ watches keeping. Well, St. Ann was Mary’s mother, certainly sweet and probably dead, argued Alison. Why wouldn’t she be with the angels? As for the shepherds, what with their setting off for Bethlehem, well-known for its good and bad thieves, keeping their watches was a very friendly gesture on the part of the angels. Ann the Sweet probably thought of it. ....

Pam, even Pam, kept announcing in her clear, sweet contralto that God and sin are reconciled; but she realized immediately, when it was pointed out to her, that God was far more likely to reconcile Himself to sinners than to sin, even if the book hadn’t said so, which it had. 

Jim had to argue a little. He was the one who kept urging the shepherds to leave their “you’s” and leave their “am’s” and rise up, shepherds, and follow.

“What in Heaven’s name is this about you’s and am’s?” I asked him. 

“Oh-h-h, rejection of personality, denial of self,” said Jim grandly. “Practically the central thesis of Christian theology.”

“Of course, I don’t go to a Catholic college, but I think that’s Communist theory, not Christian theology,” I told him. “In any case, could you come down from those philosophic heights and join us shepherds down here with our ewes (female sheep) and rams (male sheep)?” ....

But I was too weary to go on. “Children,” I said. “Let’s just do one song absolutely perfectly. Let’s concentrate on ‘Silent Night,’ because that’s the one we know best anyway. ....

They lined up, looking very clean and handsome and holy, Jim and John at the back, Timothy and Janet on either side of Pam at the piano, and the middle echelon sensibly and unquarrelsomely distributed in the middle according to heights. Just like the Trapp Family, I thought to myself happily. Pam turned and gave them all a long and, I hoped, stern look, before she played the opening measures.

“Silent night, holy night,” nine young voices chanted softly, and I noticed Jennifer and Betsey beginning to break up in twinkles and dimples. “All is calm, all is bright,” they went on, John’s recorder piping low and clear. Buckley and Alison clapped their hands briefly over their mouths. “Round John Virgin, Mother and Child,” the chorus swelled sweetly, and I rapped hard on the piano. “Just who,” I asked, in my most restrained voice, “is Round John Virgin?”

“One of the twelve opossums,” the ten young voices answered promptly, and they collapsed over the piano, from the piano bench onto the floor, convulsed by their own delicate wit.

And that’s why we didn’t have this year’s Christmas carol program.

A story by the late Aloïse Buckley Heath is a NATIONAL REVIEW Christmas tradition. This, her last Christmas piece, was published two weeks before her death in January 1967.
Aloise Buckley Heath, "A Christmas Carol program," National Review, Dec. 27, 1966.

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