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Christmas Comes in with Songs and the Sun at Caroling Event

Dec. 25, 2006 — Year after year, the magic never wanes as Charlotte Amalie awakens to the voices of choir after choir welcoming Christmas to the island.
As a vibrant sun rose slowly through pink clouds, Emancipation Garden was filled once again with hundreds of people greeting one another with hugs and munching on dumb bread, ham, cheese and sweetbread. They washed it down with hot bush tea, ending with satisfied smiles.
"This is so good," said Wilmoth Christopher. Charlene Griffin agreed. The two moved to Fort Lauderdale a couple of years ago but came home for the holidays. "You can't get bush tea up there," Griffin said. "People don't know what you're talking about."
Everyone had eyes toward the bandstand, where the choirs began to file in for the 30th Annual Challenge of Carols, presented by the Emancipation Garden Christmas Carol committee. Glenn "Kwabena" Davis, director of the popular Voices of Love choir, heads the committee.
The venerable Party Hardy Caroliers filed in smartly stepping in their white outfits adorned with bright plaid ties. The Voices of Love preceded them in their traditional bright red sweatshirts.
Choir after choir took the stage as carols poured out in sweet, clear voices. Appearing amidst the carolers was community favorite Richard "Mousie" Howard, who played the flute to an appreciative audience, and followed up with a rendition of "Good Morning, Ah Come for My Guavaberry."
The event wouldn't be the same without Polly and Fred Watts, who think they've probably been at the garden every Christmas morning for most of the last 35 years, "except when our grandchildren were being born," Polly said. The Watts are musicians themselves. They founded the well-known musical group Harmony Dem and started October Sunday.
They brought a friend along Monday morning, someone who had first lived here in 1967 and has finally come back to stay. "I come back every Boxing Day," said Mike Kiddon, "but I've never been to this before. It's wonderful."
The caroling event has been a well-loved tradition for many years — even the old-timers can't say how long. The carolers go out on Christmas Eve and continue all night long, bringing song and cheer from house to house throughout the night.
The event is steeped in tradition. In 1899, Luther Robles founded the Excelsior Choir, which soon included names familiar to the local caroling world today: Alec Lloyd, Esther Marks and Elias Abraham.
"In 1924, the Excelsior Choir celebrated its jubilee, and shortly after, so did many others," Davis wrote in the event's program. "The old-time tradition was fading during the late 1930s and during the war, but was revived in the mid 1970s when Vernon Finch, Dorothy Elskoe and I brought the event back to life."
"Well," Christopher said later after reading Davis' account, "that's not how I remember it." Proving Davis' statement that "there is little written history of caroling in the Virgin Islands," Christopher said he remembers singing in the late 1940s.
"I was in the Mandahl Home for Boys then," Christopher said, "and I remember getting up to go caroling in the night. Rodney Varlack and John Bell, who later became a senator, were with me, too. I remember one other choir from then, too — the Bel Aire Choir."
Clarice Kuntz sat on a bench taking a minute out to enjoy some bread and cheese. A longtime member of Voices of Love, she was happy but weary. "We've been singing all night, and I still have things I haven't done at home — cooking, presents," she said, shaking her head and smiling. The choir sings all over during the Christmas season.
Kuntz enjoyed Howard's flute playing. "He was in my graduating class in 1968, at CAHS," she recalled. "I love to listen to him."
Honors given out this year included:
— The Esther Marks Award to the Eudora Kean High Music Department;
— The Allick Lloyd Award to Morgan's Quartet;
— The Luther Robles Award to Kidscope;
— The Governor's Award to Austin Venzen.

Lois Hassell-Havteyes was this year's Honorable Choirs Conductor.
Other performers and choirs participating were: The Guardian Angels, the Hapless-Hopeless Caroliers, Harmony Rangers, Hugo Peterson, Lorna Freeman Dennis, Louisa McSween, Lucinda Millin Home Chorale, Memorial Gospel Choir, Merry Carolers, Salvation Army Songsters and Torchbearers and the Vienna Cake Society.
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