The Truth, Mainly - 12/25/1999

Hearing choir sing 'Ave Maria' in Latin was an epiphany
by Leon Satterfield

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 songs—like "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 our performance.

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 moisture around.

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 toMidnight 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 other.

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.

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 hard candy.

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 higher.

They were singing "Ave Maria," and a boy soprano was doing the solo.

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 laughing.

"Damn," one of us said as we crunched through the snow. "Boy howdy."

"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.


Lincoln English Professor Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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