We didn't sing "Ave Maria" in the church I grew up in.
I imagine we thought it was too papist. Sing "Ave Maria," we must
have figured, and the next thing you know the nuns will be teaching you
Latin and the priests will have you down in the basement digging that
tunnel to the Vatican.
Oh, we sang Christmas songslike "Away in a Manger," "Hark! The
Herald Angels Sing" (the exclamation point stirring us a bit), "The First
Noel," and "O Come, All Ye Faithful." We were suspicious of that last one
because the hymnal listed its subtitle as "Adeste Fideles"which sounded
foreign, maybe Spanish or French or even, God love us, Latin and thus part
of the Papist Plot.
I always preferred the secular Christmas songs myself. I associated
the ones we sang in church with the Christmas Eve program all of us kids
suffered through every year. I figured that's what Jesus meant by "suffer
the little children."
We had to wear bathrobes and we had a hard time remembering our
lines. And while we were trying to say them, we knew our skinny
preacher was putting on his Santa Claus outfit for after the program when
he'd give us our sacks of apples and nuts and hard candy we could break
our teeth on. His white cotton beard would be falling apart and his
stomach wouldn't stay in place. Knowing what was coming didn't help
So I preferred secular songs. The one that could bring tears to my
eyes was "White Christmas." The idea of all those poor wretches in Beverly
Hills, L.A. going without snow on December the 24th was almost more
than I could take.
We didn't always have a white Christmas in Kansas either, but it was
always cold enough we could have had snow if there'd been any
Little Catholic kids, we told each other, didn't get sacks of apples and
nuts and hard candy on Christmas Eve.. Little Catholic kids, we told each
other, went to Midnight Mass dizzy from their parents' wine. We thought
it was a dirty shame.
But I wasn't thinking about any of that on Christmas Eve, 1955. I was
21, a PFC in the US Army stationed in Germany, and I was with three
college friends. There wasn't a war going on and we were having a party.
It was a very secular party.
We started drinking about 7 p.m.Hofbrau beer and Mosel wine. It
was in this Gasthaus right next to a bombed-out building left over from
WWII. By 8:30 we were in a loud but friendly argument over the one bit of
German all GIs were taught then: "Wein auf Bier, das rat ich dir; Bier auf
Wein, das lass sein." We couldn't remember whether it meant you could
keep from throwing up by drinking beer before wine, or wine before beer.
In the interests of science, two of us would do it one way, and two of us the
The experiment was contaminated when some Germans invited us to
a private party in another room where they gave us schnapps and cognac.
By 11:30 we needed something to eat, so we went out into the snowy
streets to look for greasy weinerschnitzel sandwiches and coffee.
The Truth, Mainly
That's when we walked by this big Gothic cathedral that was about
the only building in town that hadn't been damaged in the war. There
were lots of people going in, a couple of them from the party we just left.
They said we should come too. We were cold, so we did.
The pews were full so we stood at the back with lots of others. It was
like being inside a monster Christmas tree ornament with candles all over
the place and candle light flickering off the statues. We smelled incense,
and somebody way up front was saying something I didn't understand.
It didn't sound like German.
Then it dawned on me. It was Latin. I was in the belly of the
beast. And on Christmas Eve when all the little kids in my church back in
Kansas were wearing bathrobes and getting sacks of apples and nuts and
And then a choir, from somewhere I couldn't see, started singing,
making noises I'd never heard before, gorgeous, ethereal noises that
sounded like they were coming from the balcony above us, or maybe even
They were singing "Ave Maria," and a boy soprano was doing the
It was prettier even than Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas."
I had an epiphany right there. I shivered and it wasn't from the cold.
I didn't know music could sound like that. Here's how good it was: even
after we were warmed up enough to go look for weinerschnitzels, we
stayed to listen to "Adeste Fideles"in Latin, "Silent Night" with German
words, and finally a tidal wave of exultation I later learned was by
Beethoven and called "Ode to Joy."
I won't say the music sobered us up, but when we left, we weren't
"Damn, " one of us said as we crunched through the snow.
"Yeah," the rest of us agreed.
Then we walked by the bombed-out building again, found a
weinerschnitzel place, and, without making much noise, ate.
Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.