I am one of those lucky people who, along with 60,000 of my fellow fans, will be attending one of the three nights of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert next week. This is a family tradition, starting from when I was old enough (8 years old) to attend the concerts with my father. My mom sang in the ‘MoTab’ for twenty years, from the time I was six until I was twenty-six, and this 15-20 hour week commitment on her part has my dad saying he was a “bishop’s wife” for twenty years. In fact, my mother’s singing in the choir was one of the best feminist examples I could have had growing up in my very traditional family, an example where my stay-at-home mother shared her non-maternal talents outside the home, and where my sole-provider father cared for all the children, tucking us into bed on weekly rehearsal nights (every Thursday, many Tuesdays, and more when they were planning for an event, tour, or recording a CD), and getting us up and ready for Church early on Sunday mornings. Annual choir tours were three weeks long, with my mom, and sometimes my father, leaving for Australia, Hawaii, Eastern (then-communist) Europe, Western Europe, the Southern US states, and many more places to be missionaries for the Church through music.
I love the Choir. I love each director and what he brought to the Choir. How I used to thrill when the men of the choir would file into the Tabernacle, singing in unison, “Oh Come, Oh Come Emanuel.” The Christmas concert has changed a lot over the years. The Orchestra at Temple Square has been added, much to my delight. Having the Christmas concert at the Conference Center has allowed it to become more pageant-like, with dancers and special guest singers and narrators, generating DVD sales and bringing tens of thousands to the concerts, although with over 1 million ticket requests, most who register in the free online ticket lottery come away disappointed.
As proud as I am to have watched my mother participate and give service in this way, there is one part of her career that I don’t remember fondly. And that’s Sunday Christmas. The first time it happened was in 1988. I remember the heavy storm that hit that Christmas morning. Christmas at our house was delayed since my mom had to be up at 5:00 to record the live broadcast for Music and the Spoken Word. She wouldn’t typically be back until 11:30 or later, but this time she got caught in the storm on her way back from that morning’s broadcast and her car was stuck. The house stood in stormy gloom, presents under the tree long waiting for my mother to return and get Christmas started. Hours passed, and my dad left to see if he could help get her car unstuck in the heavy weather. After the afternoon wound down and chaos set in from both parents’ absence and visiting relatives running around the house, my siblings and I wandered toward the tree and unwrapped our gifts without our parents there to see it, most of the family’s experience of that holiday sacrificed on the altar of her Choir calling and the live broadcast that called her away that Christmas. I was young and enamoured by the powerful storm, and I received my gifts all the same, but I still vividly recall my mother’s absence that day. In our home Christmas could not be the same without her there. There were at least two other Sunday Christmases I recall where similar events were repeated as my mom performed at the live Choir broadcast instead of being with the family on Christmas.
I know it is pretty selfish and self-pitying to be thinking about one stormy Sunday Christmas of my childhood that was less than ideal while my mother served in her calling in the Church. I realize that there are many worse things that could happen to a young child on Christmas. But what is also silly about it is that every time Christmas falls on a Sunday, the Choir has had to perform a live broadcast to a small and dwindling audience, made up mostly of Choir and Orchestra on Temple Square members’ families who have made the journey downtown to support the mandatory performance. Despite the record number of concert goers, I’ve heard the report of the performers themselves: only a few adamant and dedicated tourists make it out that early, and performers are required to attend all performances. Holding a live broadcast on a Sunday Christmas disrupts 470+ families (360 from the Choir, 110 from the Orchestra, and more for other performers such as the bell ringers).
For the record, Music and the Spoken Word does not have to be done live. The Choir does pre-recordings sometimes before they go on tours or when they have other conflicts. It is simply that Christmas morning is not considered to be enough of a conflict to merit a pre-recording of the broadcast, despite all the extra time in rehearsals, CD recordings, and concerts that happen in the preceding weeks when the Choir is already together and in uniform, and a 30-minute broadcast done at one of these gatherings could save hours of commute time and preparation.
So this year, Christmas falls again on a Sunday. I’ve had a vast array of experiences on Sunday Christmas, and I’ve attended 3-hour blocks of church where stake presidencies have insisted on sticking to the correlated (non-Christmas) lessons and even declared that ward choir programs were prohibited from sacrament meetings. I’ve had years where it was only sacrament meeting, and so much music was provided by the choir and congregation that it filled my soul with Christmas cheer. But whatever my family decides to do for this Sunday Christmas, I can tell you there will be one place we won’t be: the live broadcast of Music and the Spoken Word scheduled in the Conference Center. Even though my mom has long-since retired, I feel I owe it to those families to stand up and say that Choir, Orchestra, and Bells members should be at home, or at Church, with their families this Sunday Christmas. I love them enough that I would like them to have this gift of family one Sunday every 5-11 years when it also happens to be Christmas.
[ETA: Update 12/8/2011: The live broadcast on Christmas morning has now been cancelled. You can read more here: http://mormontabernaclechoir.org/pages/ChristmasDay2011]
What are your favorite and not-so-favorite memories of Sunday Christmases? What will you be doing this year on Sunday Christmas?