“The Starry Night,” painted in 1889 by the Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh, remains my most revered painting. It hasn’t anything whatsoever to do with the Yuletide season. And yet, in my mind, it has everything to do with it.
Van Gogh was in an insane asylum at the time, and he painted this masterpiece while looking at the night sky through the barred window of his room. His memory and his imagination supplied the rest. Not only do I greatly admire this work, but it also a constant reminder that the line separating genius and insanity is often a very thin one.
In my imagination, it was just such a starry night that inspired Melchior, Balthazar, and Kaspar to begin their journey to Bethlehem.
In my mind, also, the season of Christmas and the season of Easter can never be separated, either. At Easter time, it is Michelangelo’s overwhelmingly powerful “Pieta,” a sculpture that, as the poet Robert Frost said of poetry, strikes the right reader/viewer with a mortal wound, one from which he/she knows he/she will never recover, that rivets itself un the memory.
Most of all, however, Yuletide, for me, brings memories the delightful “Round the Table Carol Service,” which I first experienced as a member of the East Liberty Presbyterian Church choir in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. East Liberty was a modified Gothic styled church that had one of the wealthiest congregations in the city. Of the church’s three full-time ministers, one was Dr. Donald D. Kettring, its Minister of Music.
From his days as a student at Union Theological Seminary, he had brought with him the idea of the Round the Table Carol Service, which he had learned from his mentor Dr. Clarence Dickinson.
The event was held annually in the church’s sizable dining hall. There were two performances, one in the afternoon, and one in the evening, both of which filled most every seat available. Based on the idea of an old English feast, this feast would be a feast of song. With big red bows adorning their usual choir attire, the members of the 50-voice choir filed in and took their assigned places at two u-shaped, decorated, candle-lighted tables. Because lf the lighted candles, each singer had a glass of water at his or her place.
Then, the church’s two pastors, each wearing a dark suit and red robe, were escorted into the room room and to their assigned “thrones” by young folk dressed as pages. The senior pastor would survey the hall and proclaim “Let the feast Begin!”
The next hour would be filled with song and dialogue, not all of it serious, by any means, all centered around a theme that Dr. Kettring had chosen for that year: The Year of the Scroll; The Year of the Tree.
It was a charming and delightful way to usher in the Yuletide season. I still miss not doing one each year.