In the small town where I now live, there are a series of independent coffee shops. It was a scandal when the local satellite of a national food chain remodeled and installed a Starbucks. The coffee shop I favor has a very eclectic decor. Old Formica tables, very few matching chairs, dark old wood floors and an old sofa with books and magazines on the table in front of it. There are several groups of people who meet there for coffee quite regularly in the mornings. Another gaggle of groups meet for lunch and the after school hours find it filled with moms and kids getting snacks while waiting for church group (Wednesdays), music lessons, sports practices, or other after school activities to begin. The local university supplies a steady stream of students throughout the day.
On the front door is an unofficial calendar of a selection of the events pending in the near future. It was one of these that caught my eye the other day. The local university is presenting a madrigal dinner right before Christmas. I was immediately transported backs about twenty, no, wait, THIRTY years ago.
The end of the semester was in sight at the Big Ten University I was attending. Only finals loomed large before us. The pressure was on for the home stretch before Christmas. This can put a major crimp on the Christmas spirit as you are toting books to the library to pour the last bits of important knowledge into your brain and hope that it is enough to carry you through to the finish line.
So Christmas was far down the list, right next to the ho ho ho’s at that particular period of time. Though I am sure that Christmas cheer was catching on elsewhere.
That is when Pete called.
As a freshman, I had become a little sister at a local chapter of a national fraternity. Think “Animal House” on steroids. Though I had drifted away from the house and the antics inside, I still kept in touch with a couple of the saner members of the frat. One of them was Buzzy.
Buzzy built his own small pipe organ and played classical music in his dorm room. He opened up a whole world to me well beyond the standard classical selections we were introduced to in secondary school.
One of the other guys was Pete.
He was a soft spoken, hard studying and very smart and directed guy. He was several standard deviations off the mean of the typical profile of the fraternity brother. He was the kind of guy that always had interesting topics of discussion ready to launch at me. He was the kind of guy girls like to have as a friend.
It was the weekend before finals. He had two tickets to a Madrigal dinner to be held at the student union on Saturday night. Would I like to come?
As I had a serious shortage of hot dates, it sounded like an interesting thing to do. I agreed.
We met at the frat house, across the street from my dorm and walked to the quad and the Student Union.
The room we were directed to was transformed from a large meeting room to the 15th century. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Garland was draped everywhere, sending a soft pine scent throughout. The lighting was entirely candled.
Above us, in each corner of the room were musicians. Tamburo, Crumhorn, Lute, Recorder, Sacbut, Harp and several other instruments were filling the room with lively, festive music as people began to gather. We were not, however, allowed to enter.
First, four sentries in authentic costume marched out, and placed their heraldry trumpets to their lips played a processional and marked the occasion to begin.
A small, puckish gentleman came forward. He introduced himself as the king’s fool. He then informed us that we were to come in and be shown to our seats as we awaited the arrival of the king and queen and their court.
Led to our seats, after settling, the servants quickly filled our cups with Mead. Again the heraldry sounded and we arose as the court filed in donned in the medieval garb of royalty and singing a song from the period.
The fool was the master of ceremonies. As each course was served and during the interims, period songs, some skits, tales of courtly love served to explain the history, customs and ceremony that was both unfolding before us and allowing us to suspend our disbelief and participate.
To say it was magic was an injustice. The prestidigitation was subtle and drew us all into the period. We WERE at a medieval court, honoring the lord and lady and dining on fine fare.
But the best was yet to come.
The ceremony was heading toward its closing. As the servants brought in the flaming plum pudding and the wassail, the lights dimmed and the king arose and sang “Good King Wenceslas”.
It was over far too soon. The court adjourned in a formal recessional singing to us all, acapella, “Silent Night”. They bade us good evening.
The return to the modern world and present time was done softly and gently. The lights came on slowly as the candles were snuffed. It was with great reluctance that we stood to leave.
But, the magic hadn’t ended.
As we were leaving the union, back in modern space and time, for the long walk home, it was snowing.
Not just snowing. It was the kind of snow that falls ever so gently, drifting slowly from the night sky; kissing the ground and everything and everyone with large fluffy flakes. The kind of snow that is too dry and soft for snowballs or any other form of spirited frivolity. Just large flakes that accumulate ever so gently and make you stop and gasp at the silence and the serenity of the moment. Each snowflake was a gentle temporal blessing and acknowledgement of the presence of God, the peace of the world. Pierre Teilhard De Chardin called it an “evolutionary moment that inspires us to unite with God.” As each flake touched my cheek, I understood the angels were kissing me ever so gently.
I understood that at that moment. I can recall the feeling perfectly. It brings an indescribable serenity and peace. The Alpha and the Omega. Finals didn’t have any relevance. We had been “transported” back in time to see the traditions of Christmas superseded mere mortal and temporal concerns. My heart was full.
We said very little on the way home. I think Pete was as immersed in the incredible beauty and magic that the evening had presented. He walked me to my door and gave me a peck on the cheek.
I lost touch with Pete pretty soon after that. Graduation came and the disconnect was complete. But as Christmas roars around the corner and the commercials begin to blare and the have to’s begin to loom, I find myself thinking of that evening and the enchantment we were lucky to experience. It stills me to the core. It brings back a memory that will be treasured as long as I live. It brings a true understanding of what Christmas can be. When we pause to breathe.
Every time I think of that evening, I thank Pete, wherever he is.