It's snowing as I write this. Snow always takes me back to winters and Christmases in the village in the valley where I grew up. As children, the first signs of snow would find us yanking our sledges from sheds and attics where metal runners had been rusting for eight months of the year. We'd hurry up the hill (every direction was uphill from the village) leaving a trail of rust streaks behind us in the snow. Near to one of our favourite slopes lived Monica Ward; a teacher from the village school. Her house stood next to a small grouping of three-hundred year old farm buildings.
The approach of Christmas was a time of high spirits in the school. The smell inside each classroom was of glue and poster paint as decorative creations came to life using glitter, crepe paper, cotton wool, pine cones and twigs. Those not involved in the making of festive adornments were rehearsing for the school play. Each class did a different play every year; usually written by the teachers themselves.
It was on such a day, probably 1977 or 1978, while Christmas activity was in full swing, when a curious thing happened. Monica Ward dressed up a girl called Frances in a headscarf and robe and sent her off, holding a star on a stick, to deliver a message to each classroom. Frances announced, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good tidings. Follow the star." She beckoned everyone to follow her and each class emptied out towards the playground where more classes of teachers and pupils waited, mystified.
And so it happened. No permission slips were signed, classroom doors were left open and everyone in the school just walked away. Everyone that is, except for Mr. Wainwright, the headmaster. Like the others he was bursting with curiosity but felt unable to abandon his school. The procession went across the main road, past the post office and down Birks Avenue to where the fields begin. Once over the humpbacked bridge that crosses the River Don the throng made their way up the hill, turning left at the milk-churn-stand to arrive at Whittaker's farm. Curiosity was running high as everyone came to a stop outside a small stone barn, "Why are we here?"
Monica Ward stood in front of the assembled company saying, "We're going to go inside the barn in groups. And, when it's your turn to go in, you need to be calm and quiet. Does everybody understand?" "Yes miss." Was the singsong reply from sixty or so little voices.
Inside the barn it was dark and cobwebby. As the children entered they were greeted by farm-owner Brenda Whittaker. Normally she was a person who reveled in being loud and opinionated but was now dramatically transformed. In Monica's words Brenda had become, all holy and quiet. Through the gloom the children could make out some bales of hay, and there, in the corner, clothed in a blue gown, was Mary with the baby Jesus.
In truth her name was Caroline, a young woman who had recently given birth to a baby boy. But her baby was now, to all intents and purposes, the baby Jesus. Monica Ward was not a religious woman but she did feel that some essence of Christmas was becoming lost in the frenzy of eating, drinking and gift giving. She wanted the children to discover a more profound meaning of Christmas: a simple message about a baby being born. She succeeded mightily.
The children stood in awe, gazing at the real nativity scene before them; a rare moment in life to witness the silent drama of perfect peace. In the cold and quiet of the barn they sang some carols. When non-religious Monica describes the atmosphere in the barn that day she unabashedly calls it holy.
Back at school Mr. Wainwright waited, wondering what had happened. Soon his teachers and pupils returned to him safe and unharmed.
Monica Ward made real magic that day. The ingredients were simple: a woman, a baby, some dress-up clothes and a barn. These, plus some imagination, a little co-ordination and a girl with a star on a stick were all that was needed to stir deep emotional feelings in the souls of teachers, children and a loquacious farm woman brought to her spiritual knees; compelled to surrender her ego by the scene she'd helped to create. It was theater at its finest.
As musicians we should never forget this aspect of what we do. There is so much more to performing than just getting up and singing some songs. What else can you add? Think about it. Allow ideas to come. Act on them. Find whatever ways you can to create magic for the people around you. Sometimes the magic is preplanned, other times a spontaneous creation; most often a combination of both. But you have to grab it from wherever it comes, shape it into a pleasing form and cast it out towards the senses of your audience. As entertainers we have the opportunity to live at the sharp end of the wand where reality and mystery touch.
Make some magic happen in 2014. It really does make life worth living.
Some years later Monica put a similar idea into action. This time she borrowed a donkey from a local farm and had her daughter Lorna, and a male friend, walk in robes and sandaled feet to St. John's Primary School. They arrived during Morning Assembly. All the children saw Mary, Joseph and a real donkey pass by the windows. Lorna knocked on the door and asked if there was a place they could stay. One of the teachers, Mr. Punt, was in on the game. He lived on a farm nearby and said, "Yes, I have some room in my barn, I'll take you there." And he led them away.
A few days later Monica talked to the owners of the donkey. They told her, "You should have seen how excited he was after you brought him back. He was thrilled to have done something different. It was like he'd been on a fantastic adventure and wanted to tell us all about it."
Pure magic. Oh, and remember Frances, the little girl holding the star on a stick? She became a singer.