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Christmas Vespers

A Report by Sofia Walker '11

Each year, Smith performs Christmas Vespers, an evening of music, readings, and prayer for the College and the community.

Two themes ran throughout Smith's Christmas Vespers on December 5th. One was stillness and silence; the other was the care we should have for those in need. Silence may seem like an odd concern for a musical celebration, but Dean Jennifer Walters explained that she "wanted to create the space for people to silently meditate during Vespers." After all, silence is the context that gives music sense.

The second theme, that of care, was honored by taking a collection for the Hampshire Interfaith Cot Shelter Program, a tradition begun over five years ago. Yvonne Freccero, one of the founders of the shelter and president of the organization Friends of the Homeless, read a passage from scripture at the ceremony. The selection, from Isaiah, exhorts us to share what we have with those in need. Freccero, who used to be the Smith College registrar, said that although she comes to Vespers every year, she has never participated before. "But I was very happy to do it, especially considering the passage I was reading."

Other scriptural readings focused on the nativity story. Dean Walters mentioned how appropriate an occasion it is for taking a collection for the homeless. "This is the story of a family out in the cold, with no place to stay." The audience certainly seemed to get the message; Walters said that Vespers usually raises several thousand dollars for the Cot Shelter. The Christmas story seemed to soften the mood in other ways. The sound of crying babies, usually so unwelcome at any performance, here seemed strangely fitting.

There were more beautiful sounds to be heard, however. The Smith College Chorus, Glee Club, Chamber Singers, Handbell Choir and Orchestra treated us to a program of Christmas music that ranged from widely known songs such as "O Holy Night" and "The First Nowell" to more obscure, but still traditional, pieces such as "As Dew in Aprille" and "Balulalow," set to music by Benjamin Britten. It was an appropriate mix for Smith's Vespers, which is modeled on musical religious ceremonies that date from the Middle Ages, but has also incorporated carols and prayers, a practice that first arose at King's College, Cambridge, in 1918.

John M. Greene Hall was festively decorated with wreaths and poinsettias, and the musicians also brightened the atmosphere with joyous songs such as "Wolcum Yole" or rousing ones like "This Little Babe." The mood could also turn to the serious, or even the eerily beautiful, as when the choir entered the hall in darkness, bearing candles and singing "Veni Emmanuel."

Jennifer DeBerardinis '11, who has been playing the handbells since her sophomore year, said that although she enjoys the secular music the choir often performs, Christmas is her favorite occasion for handbells. "It just feels like a sacred, pure bell-playing experience. I mean, Christmas is really what the bells are made for."

Rachel Holmes, a community member and student, expressed her gratitude for the Vespers celebration. "It's an absolute oasis of calm and beauty at a very stressful time of year." Indeed, the audience seemed more relaxed as they filed out, excited for the holiday to come, and regretting that the music was over.