Year after year, the magic never wanes as Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, is awakened by the sweet voices of the choristers marching into Emancipation Garden on Christmas morning. It is truly magical with the lighted trees slowly fading as the morning sunrise take over, bathing the garden in a golden light to celebrate the 39th celebration of the Challenge of Carols.
When the proverbial Voices of Love, in red sweatshirts this year, and the Party Hardy Caroliers, clad smartly in their traditional white accented with the bright red plaid scarves, march in, you know the day is finally and officially here.
Fresh as though they’d just stepped out of a bandbox, most of the choristers had been singing for their supper all night. Bed was still a long way off.
Slowly the garden filled as folks begin wandering in, claiming the benches they have filled for years, greeting one another with fond hugs exchanged while everyone lines up for the Petersen family’s breakfast.
Years ago mother Candida Petersen said she had to walk to Gottlieb’s Gas Station for a cup of hot tea. She decided to do something about that and began serving dumb bread and cheese and bush tea out of the back of her pickup.
The simple meal has now grown into a proper feast. The Petersen family and friends were already preparing the morning’s feast before 6 a.m. Candida, Dr. Bert, former Finance Commissioner Angel Dawson and company were busy serving up everything from porridge to roast turkey, ham, salt fish, dumb bread and cheese, of course, and gallons of fragrant bush tea.
The indefatigable Therese Hodge stopped by in the middle of her run for a sip of hot tea, while her running colleague Roy Wattlington had a bit more substantial breakfast.
The caroling has been a well-loved tradition for many years – even the old-timers can’t say how long. There is very little written history of caroling in the territory.
In 1899 Luther Robles founded the Excelsior Choir, to be followed by names that are familiar in the local caroling world today: Alec Lloyd, Esther Marks and Elias Abraham.
According to Glenn "Kwabena” Davis, leader of the Voices of Love, the carolers would be greeted by gifts of guavaberry, dumb bread, and ham and sweetbread, as they are still today.
In 1924 the Excelsior Choir celebrated its jubilee, but the tradition fell by the wayside during the war years. In the mid 1970s, Davis, Vernon Finch and Dorothy Elskoe got together and brought the tradition back to life, filling the nighttime streets and the early morning garden once again with glorious song.
Veteran chorister Sylvia Flagg exemplified the spirit of the day. She said she has been carrying on this tradition for the last 15 years or so. The 66-year-old great-grandmother said she had been up since church let out last night.
"I love to do this. We visit everybody’s home and they feed us so well,” she said. Flagg has a 46-year teaching career under her belt as well, first at the Peace Corps School and then the Moravian School.
Notable by their absence Friday were Polly and Fred Watts, longtime veterans of the Christmas carol challenge. Fred Watts passed away early this year, and Polly now lives in Florida. The two, who years ago founded Harmony Dem’, have been as much a part of the Christmas ambiance as the decorated lignum vitae trees, under which they always sat.
Radio host Addie Ottley introduced the youngsters’ Church of God of Prophesy choir, a first-time entry, as ranging from 4 months to 14 years. The 4-month-old, however, was not very vocal, swaying in her mother’s arms.
The choirs participating included the Party Hardy Caroliers, the Voices of Love, Banco Popular Choir, Bethel Baptist Church Choir, Calvary Baptist Church Youth Committee, Church of God of Prophesy, Hapless Hopeless Caroliers, the Merry Carolers, and poets Marcia Degraff and Louisa McSween.
This year’s awards and their recipients, presented by master of ceremonies Vernon Finch and Myron Jackson Finch, were:
– the Alexander "ChAlleck" Lloyd award to the St. Thomas Reformed Church;
– the Esther Marks Award to the Julius E. Sprauve School choir;
– the Luther Robles award to the American Legion Post 90 Choir;
– the Honorable Choir Conductor to Juan Harrigan’
– and the Governor’s Award to WSTA Radio 1340 Lucky 13.
The 2015 Challenge of Carols is a presentation of the Emancipation Garden Christmas Card Inc. It is sponsored by the West Indian Co. Ltd., the V.I. Port Authority and the V.I. Lottery.
The Christmas Card planning committee includes Glen "Kwabena” Davis, president; Vernon A. Finch, vice president; Monique Richards, secretary; Sandy Elskoe, treasurer; and Yolanda Thomas, correspondent.