As a languid sun crept from the hills and stretched over the harbor Tuesday morning, the merry carolers who had been singing all night disregarded her reticent shine, marching into an Emancipation Garden that was already sparkling with Christmas lights.
It was 6 a.m., and the 36th annual Challenge of the Carols awakened Charlotte Amalie with sweet song.
Before the crowds arrived, the Petersen family (Dr. Bert, sister Barbara, mom Candida and their hardy crew) was busy setting up their annual feast – ham, turkey, dumb bread, cheese, salt fish, sweet breads and bush tea – a welcome bounty, an unsurpassed treat at the early hour.
Addie Ottley was already positioned before his mic to broadcast the morning, and the stationary choirs, who hadn’t roamed the night – the Salvation Army Songsters, the New School of Music, the Boys and Girls Club Choir – awaited the carolers, who marched in echoing the carols led by the Voices of Love with Glen "Kwabena" Davis, and the morning was officially under way.
The Challenge of the Carols 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.
The late Rufus Vanterpool has recalled that before he was old enough to be allowed to stay up late on Christmas Eve, he knew of the tradition. Youngsters would go to bed, arise at midnight, dress and go caroling with the grownups. Choirs were formed in every neighborhood, singing all night long from house to house, as they do today.
It has been a well-loved tradition for so many years, even the old timers can’t say how long. The carolers go out on Christmas Eve, and continue all night, bringing song and cheer from house to house, winding up at Emancipation Garden.
The celebration has its stalwarts, without whom the morning would be sadly bereft: Polly and Fred Watts, Rosary Harper, Carol and Marty Tuohy, Claudia and Al LaBorde, Mary Gleason and Scampi. All were happily munching on breakfast, sometimes singing along with the familiar music.
Thyra Hammond, whose name is synonymous with the local United Way, which she shepherded for years, said this was her very first time at the morning celebration. "It’s wonderful," she said. "I was so scared I’d be late, I got up at 4 a.m. I love it – the music, the people. I’ll be here every year now."
Actually it’s sort of like seeing Paris for the first time; once you’ve seen Emancipation Garden on Christmas morning, Christmas morning simply doesn’t feel right anywhere else. And it’s much a much easier slog than to Paris.
The morning also got a big "paws up" from the four-footed element. Scampi, a toy poodle given to partying, said it was just his thing. Mimi, a Yorkshire terrier, wished there were more food, while Papito, a Jack Russell-Chihuahua mix, said he just loved the music and being outdoors.
Meanwhile Vernon Finch and Davis kept the morning moving smoothly from the gazebo as choir after choir sang throughout the morning. The only thing missing was Finch’s Party Hardy Carolieres.
Finch said, alas, the choir was taking a sabbatical his year. "We will be back next year, twice as strong, with two groups," Finch promised.
Gov. John deJongh Jr. strolled through the crowd, greeting almost everyone by name, before presenting the Governor’s Award to Cornell Williams, International Capital & Management Company president. The governor lauded the company’s involvement with the community.
DeJongh said Williams is an active supporter and promoter of the Virgin Islands in health care, noting that ICMC sponsors Cancer Support V.I. and several educational and art programs. "If you are in the Virgin Islands, you have to be of the Virgin Islands,” deJongh said. “Mr. Williams is of the Virgin Islands.”
The governor continued, “His company has 92 employees, most of them Virgin Islanders, young people who have returned home to work.” Williams is “a contributor to our current history," deJongh said.
Williams was modest in accepting the honor. "I like the energy of the community,” Williams said. “We get lots of fun out of doing what we do, but we have a lot of work to do to catch up with the Christmas Card Challenge of the Carols planning committee and this presentation."
This year’s other honorees included:
– The Allick Lloyd Award to the Merry Carolers for their contribution, the oldest participating choir of the Challenge of the Carols.
– The Luther Robles Award to Edgar Baker and Glen Dickerson for their many years of directing and maintaining and decorating Emancipation Garden and Grand Hotel Square.
– The Honorable Choir Conductor to Malvern V. Gums for his years of training our youth in vocal art forms with his high standards of training.
For the second year in a row, Charlotte Amalie High School took the honor for Challenge booklet cover design. This year junior K’Quanisha Biscombe, an advance placement art student, was the artist.
Participating in the Carol Challenge were the Voices of Love, Bethel Baptist Church Choir, Hapless Hopeless Caroliers, Salvation Army Songsters & Torchbearers, New School of Music, My Sisters and Me, and Pan-in-Motion.