It’s always the same. It’s always beautiful. It’s always filled with the joy of being alive. And as the carolers’ voices wishing "Joy to the World" greet the sun just peering over the hills, it’s always like the first time. Magic.
Claudia LaBorde said, "I can’t remember our first time. Al’s been singing in Party Hardy Caroliers for what seems like centuries. And it’s such a beautiful way to start the day." Al LaBorde is one of the original members of Party Hardy.
And the sun did once again break over Emancipation Garden a little after 6 a.m. Wednesday. And the garden was like a fairyland, the lignum vitae trees blossoming and gaily decorated with the ornaments the schoolchildren make each year. And the carolers did march into Emancipation Garden to lend their voices to the 37th Challenge of the Carols.
The Voices of Love marched smartly in little dance steps to the gazebo belting out carols as though they had not been doing just that since 10 p.m. Tuesday. Led by choir director Glen "Kwabena" Davis, they had been singing all night long bringing cheer from house to house ranging across the island from Dr. Fletcher Robinson’s annual house party in Frenchman’s Bay to Margie Magras in Frenchtown with Mafolie and Mariendahl along the way.
"We’re not finished yet," said caroler June Gloria Gifft, with a broad smile. "We will go to Seaview before we go home."
Singing in this group is not for the weak of heart or stamina. Gifft said, "We need some young members to train in our traditions." Let that be a challenge to the more stalwart members of the island’s younger community.
The choirs lent their voices to the morning’s mostly traditional song and included the Party Hardy Caroliers swaying in their crisp white, complimented with the bright red plaid scarves; the Salvation Army Songsters & Torchbearers; the Bethel Baptist Church Choir; the New School of Music; the Fourth Dimension Band; Oswald Harris Court Boys & Girls Club; Pinney’s Merry Christmas; the Merry Carolers; and the Berth C. Boschulte Junior High Flambo Combo, which took the Esther Mark Award this year.
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 Davis, the carolers would be greeted by gifts of guavaberry, dumb bread, and ham and sweetbread.
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.
It’s a time for fellowship, where old and new friends greet each other, more often than not singing along with the choirs, while breakfasting on a feast prepared by the Petersen family – mother Candia, sister Barbara, and brother Bert – aided by local personalities like Finance Commissioner Angel Dawson.
Folks gathered together under trees, on benches, or in their own chairs like veterans Polly and Fred Watts, or Mary Gleason perched on a wall with Claudia LaBorde, sharing the special camaraderie felt by the many folks who wouldn’t dream of greeting Christmas morning any other way.
A highlight of each year’s program is the honoring of choirs and individuals who contribute greatly to sharing and bringing the spirit of the season to others.
This year’s awards and their recipients, presented by masters of ceremonies Vernon Finch and Sen. Myron Jackson were: the Alexander "Alleck" Lloyd award to the Fourth Dimension Band; the Luther Robles award to Dr. Fletcher Robinson for his annual Christmas Eve open house; the Honorable Choirs Conductor to Albert Lynch; honorable mention to Keith "Mawuli" Benjamin for cover design; and the Governor’s Award presented by Gov. John deJongh Jr. to the St. Thomas/St. John Chamber of Commerce for its contributions to the community. The governor presented the award to his wife, chamber board member Cecile deJongh, with a kiss which prompted Jackson to say, "This is a first. The award doesn’t usually come with a kiss."
After the awards, the Voices of Love and the Party Hardy Caroliers joined forces, bringing the audience to its feet and holding hands as everyone sang "Let There be Peace on Earth," concluding with a moment of quiet as folks slowly let go of one another’s hands with warm smiles. And the morning was over but not the magic.