Today’s Christmas-scene-from-a-book is a look at carol-singing on hospital wards, a tradition that continues although carol-singing in other contexts is less common.
You can find (endless!) more Xmas books via the labels at the bottom of the page.
The Plague and I by Betty MacDonaldpublished 1948
[The author is in a TB ward in Washington State in the USA in the 1930s. It is Christmas]
We drank hot chocolate, talked and laughed furtively and listened to the clear sweet voices of carollers coming up the drive.
There were several groups of carollers and they wandered around the grounds stopping by the porches and under the windows and singing all the lovely familiar Christmas songs… They were apparently volunteers from church groups or good-hearted local people, for their voices were untrained and discorded occasionally in a homely, friendly way.
As they moved around the grounds the songs came to us now loud, now faint like songs from a campfire or over still water on a summer evening. When they sang under the windows of our ward, the melody was interwoven with sounds of deep sorrow, weeping and long broken sighs, for some of the patients were spending the second, third, even sixth Christmas away from home and a few knew they would never be home for Christmas.
But in spite of wet snow and thick dark the carollers sang with spirit and vigour, and ‘Joy to the World’ came streaming joyously in every open window and soon drowned out the sighs and strangled sobbing, When the carollers left, the ward was perfectly still, frosted with peace and good will.
commentary: I read (and blogged on) this book last year, at the suggestion of my friend Lissa Evans: it was one of four books about TB sanatoria that I read in quick succession: each more horrifying than the last one. The Plague and I is relatively light-hearted and meant to be entertaining, but at its heart is a huge desperate sadness – it deals with incurable (at that time) terminal illness. The treatment offered was dispiriting and hard to bear, and everyone there is separated from their families.
Not a spoiler: Betty MacDonald recovered, and went on to write The Egg and I, a phenomenal bestseller in 1940s America.
And this moment at Christmas is both touching and hopeful. This is exactly why I love descriptions of Christmas carol singing in books….
The picture is from the Athenaeum website, by Nikolai Pimonenko.