Alpine Christmas Traditions
By Marvin Payne

Cherie Call (the elfin singer/songwriter from Arizona, not the realtor/trapeze artist from Kentucky) is the real deal. Of course, maybe you already know that. Last night I listened to her from backstage at a tradition. The tradition is the eleventh year of “An Alpine Christmas,” hosted by violinist/arranger April Moriarty and pianist/songwriter Todd McCabe here in our home town/village. (It really does require a year or two to establish a tradition. “First Annual Traditional Turkey Grab/First Aid Fest” doesn’t quite cut it.) You don’t have to live in Alpine to be in this tradition-hence the happy inclusion of Cherie Call, who lives in Spanish Fark.

This mention of one of the Romance Language nations reminds me.

French poets of yesteryear used to talk about something they called “la ligne donne.” In English, this means “the given line.” In American, this means “the line (of a poem) that the poet has been given by the Muse.” The idea is that in every poem (or lyric) that’s any good there’s a line that sort of buzzes with inspiration. Certain influential French poets who weren’t well acquainted with the job description of the Holy Ghost attributed this to the Muse, who, by all accounts, was not LDS.

Backstage at the gig last night, Cherie sang a song called “Gifts.” It was inspired by a certain Christmas of yesteryear when she and her mother were alone together on the blessed day because the Family Gathering with presents and a nativity re-enactment and all that stuff had happened earlier in December to accommodate the departure of Cherie’s brother to the mission field. (Isn’t that a delightfully rural image? I’m glad the Savior talked about fields and amber waves of grain ((was that Him?)) and the thrusting in of sickles-it just wouldn’t have felt the same if He had said something like “The market is bullish, so consult the brokers with all thy might and receive dividends.”)

Cherie’s mother woke her up on the traditional Christmas morning that year with the awe-stricken words (I paraphrase) “Behold! There are many gifts downstairs!” And there were. Opening the first, with sticky fingers because the packages were all secured with Elmer’s glue which hadn’t yet dried (QC issues among the elves-Santa take note ((I know Santa is reading this, because the editors of Meridian Magazine have recently assured me that my column is read not only by countless real beings throughout the Universe, but by mythical persons as well)) ), Cherie found a cheese grater (I paraphrase) that she had often seen on the kitchen counter.

The second was a bottle of lotion that she recognized as having previously occupied the bathroom cabinet. She and her mom went on to open presents containing books that had been on the shelf in the living room for decades. You get the picture. (Or maybe she got the picture-you know, the one of the dogs sitting around a table under a green-shaded light, smoking cigars and playing poker with a 1984 calendar underneath it-that was, after all ((well, after a good many)) the year BYU footballers won the National Championship and Bryant Gumbel began his decline as a respected broadcaster. People hang on to things like that. Certain people.)

Note to International, Inter-planetary, Inter-galactic, Pan-dimensional, and (newly-added) Mythical Meridian Readers: The “nation” in “National Championship” is the USA. Please forgive us Wasatch Front writers for assuming that everyone would just buy that. Football, like the gospel, democracy, and good judgment, is not the sole property of the USA.

In Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” the Earl of Kent, casting about for the perfect nasty name to call a churlish (this was back when people were, occasionally, churls) messenger from the bad guys (bad girls, actually), was pleased to call the guy a “base football player.” (The messenger to whom these words were spoken answered with some craven ((this was back when there were craves as well as churls)) mumbling, but what was really in his mind was “Why don’t you make up your mind?”) Shakespeare was English, I understand, not American, and lived way before there was an NFL, which stands for. No, let’s not go around that block again.

It was a really fun Christmas for the Sisters Call. It made Cherie think of the homemade gifts we sometimes give, the kids’ clumsy and colorful outlines of their hands, stuff like that. Things that Wal-Mart wouldn’t bother to put a price tag on-things that are worth worlds. Things that when grown-ups offer them, they apologize. And she wrote the song “Gifts” about that. And I was liking it a lot, and then she got to the final verse about the final gift. In the opening lines are these words: “I told Him it was broken, but it was all that I had.” Then she went ahead and bravely offered her hand-wrapped heart to the Savior, who cherished the gift. It was just what He wanted!

When she came backstage again, hung up her sweet koa guitar, and sat down, perhaps not even knowing what a glorious gift she had just given all of us, I told her about “la ligne donne,” and that “I told Him it was broken” was it. I was so glad that April and Todd had nurtured a tradition in which she could be included, and that she consented to be included.

They were gracious enough to include me, as well. Probably because I live around the corner (three corners, actually, but easily walkable). I felt honored to be there with April and Todd, Cherie, Jim and Jesse Clark Funk, Dan Beck, James Rhodes, and Isabelle Johnson. Stellar company.

April asked me to write a song for it, something she’d never asked of a guest artist before. I wrote two. She wanted something that would reference other Alpine Christmas traditions. There are many. I chose just a few, not uniquely Alpinian (it’s hard to make an adjective out of a word that’s already an adjective-there are at least two place names in Utah that are adjectives: Alpine and Vernal and, happily, these two places, in varying degrees, are. Respectively.)

Alpiners carol. Alpiners leave stuff on your porch (in summer, you roll up your car windows and lock the doors in the church parking lot, or you’ll come out to a car full of zucchini). Alpiners stick candles in sacks of sand and line their streets with them, to light the way for the Christ child. Not scriptural, but pretty.

And Alpiners have Christmas Eve at the church. This is the oldest tradition (maybe not older than zucchini). A hundred sixty years ago (a period commonly, but not universally, used interchangeably with “yesteryear”), the Alpine Ward got together on Christmas Eve for the children to act out the story of the baby in a manger, to sing carols, and to receive a little bag from the bishopric containing an orange, some peanuts, and some candy. A century later the ward was divided, and the central concern was what to do about the Christmas Eve gathering. It was a big deal.

By the time we got to town, thirty-five years ago, there were three wards and each had its own. Then the challenge was who got the building when-and four in the afternoon didn’t feel to some quite like Christmas Eve. But the upside was that wards could share hay. Now there are three stakes, and about half the wards maintain the tradition-but hey, a stake-and-a-half isn’t bad. We, unlike Alpiners who live in the Eleventh Ward, the Fort Canyon Ward, the Vernal/Alpine Ward (because we’re both), the Up-The-Block-From-The-Relic-Hall Ward, the New-Half-Acre-Lots-Development-With-The-Snicker-Inducingly-Pretentious-Name Ward, or the more wholesomely named Van-Burgess’s-Former-Orchard Ward, live (the subject of the sentence was “We”) in what is happily known as the Alpine First Ward, and you can bet your banjo that we’re at the church on Christmas Eve.

(The nicest tradition, one that didn’t make it into the song, is a “Living Nativity,” conducted by the Hayes family in commemoration of their mom who died young, and hosted by the Watkins family, who just is totally generous. There’s a village of Bethlehem with busy Bethlehemites and Roman Soldiers on horseback and donkeys and camels ((you heard me-camels, three of ’em)) and carolers and this pretty authentic-tasting Judean hot chocolate and a real baby in a manger. The manger part is always hushed and warm, and tiny kids just stand there with their eyes shining in a way that would shame every Santa on the planet, whether they read Backstage Graffiti or not. Sorry, fellas.)

So, the song:

Cub scouts carol in the crystal night-
‘makes the sister widows smile,
’cause they grab a little tune and they hold on tight,
have a donut, stay a while.

We’re countin’ up a couple o’ hundred years
In this mellow mountain town.
That’s a lotta turkeys on the porch and grateful tears
As the Christmas snows fall down.

Candles in the sand, they light the way
For the holy Jesus child.
The store’s locked up, and we’re here to pray,
Christmas wishes runnin’ wild.

Shepherds in a line at the front of the gym,
A dolly in a manger, too.
I look in all your faces and I think of Him
And new stars bustin’ through.

All the gift I need is you. You’re all the gift I need.
All the gift I need is you. You’re all the gift I need.

Angels sing and wise men bring
An orange in a paper sack.
You’re givin’ me a moment with the King of Kings-
What can I give you back?

All the gift I need is you. You’re all the gift I need.
All the gift I need is you. You’re all the gift I need.

I said I wrote two. Here’s the other one, kind of a cowboy waltz:

Thank You for the baby star in the sky.
Thank You for the baby cry on the breeze.
Thank You for the baby tear in my eye.
Thank You for the baby Jesus.

Thank You for the baby sigh in the night.
Thank You for the baby promise it breathes.
Thank You for the lady holding Him tight.
Thank You for the baby Jesus.

There is love like a lion, hope like a storm,
cold like the grave in that cradle so warm,
and strength in the seedling like an ocean of trees.
Thank You for the baby Jesus.

Thank You for the baby lambs on the hill.
Thank You for the stable, and kings on their knees.
Thank you for the angels, calling me still.
Thank You for the baby Jesus.

There is love like a lion, hope like a storm,
cold like the grave in that cradle so warm,
and strength in the seedling like an ocean of trees.
Thank You for the baby Jesus.

You gave the Gracegiver to me, least of these.
Thank You for the baby Jesus.

I got these recorded and added to a Christmas CD I had in progress, along with a bunch of April’s wonderful playing, and the manufacturer had it for me at five. Cast call for “An Alpine Christmas” was at six. I did it by writing a bad check, which, among even the very elect, is an honored Christmas tradition. Well, gotta quit. I need to prepare a script for “Joyful Christmas Sounds,” a choral concert I get to conduct annually. This Sunday is its thirtieth anniversary. A tradition, I guess.

So everybody, Merry Christmas! And next month I’ll have for you the one-hundred-first traditional Backstage Graffiti column. Thanks for hanging on

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