I can vividly recall the moment my preschool classmates and I were ushered to the risers on stage at W.K. Kellogg Auditorium.
As the curtain peeled back, we were overwhelmed by stage lights that blurred all the faces in the crowd. A collective “awww” echoed through the packed auditorium at the site of 3- and 4-year-olds clad in angel costumes that our parents had sewn, with little halos dangling above our tiny heads.
Then, we shout-sang “Angels We Have Heard On High” into the microphones.
It was December of 1988, my first year at St. Philip. I would take that same stage with my classmates each December through my senior year, singing a variety of songs for the annual Christmas Program.
Cathy (Rae) Kunitzer, a 1962 St. Philip graduate, was the musical director at St. Philip Elementary and Middle School during my time as a student. Reached by phone at her home in Florida, I asked Mrs. Kunitzer to share memories of the Christmas Program as a student and later as director.
“I loved it. The sisters (nuns) were in charge of everything and we did ‘Christmas In Killarney,’” where I led the group of dancers out on the stage in our Irish costumes a did little jig,” she recalled. “As a teacher, I did my first Christmas program in the gymnasium at St. Philip. I had the kids doing a little bit of dancing and the parents were thrilled… There was always a Nativity scene at the end; once in a while we’d have a live baby. The parents were so involved in helping with the costumes and everything. That’s what made it all work.”
At Battle Creek Area Catholic Schools, there have been several iterations of Christmas programs, concerts and Nativity plays over the decades, with thousands of students sharing their talents, creating memories, and celebrating the reason for the season.
A TIGER TRADITION
This year, St. Joseph Elementary students will perform the annual Christmas Program on Dec. 19 at St. Joseph Catholic Church. Additionally, preschool students will present a Nativity Play, song and dance, and recite a poem for parents. St. Joseph Middle School students in grades 6-8 will perform a Nativity Play on Dec. 21 at St. Joseph Catholic Church. And members of the St. Philip High School Interact Club supported the annual community Rotary Christmas party by singing carols and helping serve lunch.
Angela Greenfield, music instructor at St. Joseph Elementary, rehearsed with TK-5 students for weeks in advance of the performance. Each grade performs a Christmas hymn, while a group of fourth and fifth grade students will present a Nativity play. Greenfield said the Christmas Program presents an annual opportunity for students to explore the performing arts, often discovering talents they may not realize they possess.
“I think the arts can bring a lot of different outlets for kids, for emotional reasons and getting the experience of talking and projecting their voices in front of an audience,” she said. “It builds confidence and self-assurance after practicing and rehearsing. It’ helps with memorization and lets them know that, when they are older, they have that talent to keep taking it further.”
‘TRUE MEANING OF CHRISTMAS’
At my house, we find “comfort and joy” in listening to Christmas music, singing along to favorites during car rides, while exercising or doing chores. This despite being subject to hearing Wham’s “Last Christmas” on the radio over 40 times and counting this year (yes, we keep track).
While songs like “Last Christmas,” “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” or “All I Want for Christmas Is You” regularly play over the airwaves or on our holiday playlists, I love the fact that many of the Christmas hymns we grew up singing in Mass or during the Christmas Program are finding new generations through pop stars like Taylor Swift singing “Joy to the World,” Pentatonix doing its a cappella version of “Mary Did You Know” or the classics such as Nat King Cole crooning “O Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles).”
Countless songs celebrate Jesus’ nativity, including “Silent Night,” “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen,” “Little Drummer Boy,” “We Three Kings,” “The First Noel,” “Hark! the Harold Angels Sing,” or “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”
Pope Francis once said, “Art is an impressive means of opening the doors of the mind and heart to the true meaning of Christmas. The creativity and genius of artists, with their work, music and singing are able to reach the innermost depths of the conscience.”
Through music and performance, BCACS students are given a platform to know the Faith, share the Faith, and live the Faith.
Nick J. Buckley is a freelance journalist and 2003 St. Philip High School graduate. He and his wife, Alexis (Rainier) Buckley (Class of 2004) have two children who attend Battle Creek Area Catholic Schools. To reach him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.