How One Night of Carolling Brought My Small Town Together

When I was growing up in Vanderhoof, B.C., the whole town would come together in the high school gym for one night of song—and a virtuoso whistling performance from the town's barber.

Carol singIllustration: Jeff Kulak

The Carol Sing

Come December, you’d see the signs everywhere, taped to the steamed-up glass of Woody’s Bakery, bold-lettered on the door of Taylor Bros. Hardware, papering the windows of Diamond Jim’s Video, Jewelry, Used Books and Pellet Stoves. Come one, come all, proclaimed the posters tacked on telephone poles and storefronts. Come to the Community Carol Sing!

This was one of the nights when the whole town of Vanderhoof, B.C., gathered, a ritual on our municipal calendar, announced many weeks in advance on the front page of The Omineca Express-Bugle. And it would run alongside advertisements for “Midnight Madness,” Vanderhoof’s holiday spending spree, where all the stores stayed open until the stroke of 12, sidewalks bustled with people scrabbling for bargains, and Aunt Evelyn seemed always to be careening around a snowy corner in her van, hollering the hourly surprise specials—Co-op’s got butter for a dollar a pound!—to my mother, whose hand I gripped as we navigated the steady flow of shoppers.

Our town’s social life followed the rhythm of the seasons, each shift in weather signalling a reason to come together—the summer air show, the fall fair and rodeo, the greasy carnival that rolled into town every spring. In a town our size, small in population but sprawled out over kilometres, any event was cause enough to make the drive into the valley, to close the wide acres of pasture and forest that separated neighbours.

But the Community Carol Sing, our winter tradition, held a promise that set it apart from the other events. Every element—the darkness, the cold, the streets and buildings strung with lights—tilted the world away from the ordinary and toward the miraculous. From across the tracks and both sides of the frozen river, traffic rumbled over the roads and down into the valley, a northern caravan of exhaust fumes winding toward the local high school. Into the gym we tromped, hundreds of us in heavy coats and boots, snow melting into puddles where we trod. The gym that usually echoed with cheers, sneaker-squeak and the thud of a bouncing basketball now lay in darkness except for a few flickering overhead fluorescents and the blinking strings of coloured lights strung up along the walls, hoops and scoreboards.

As we bustled and climbed into the rolled-out bleachers, the crowd’s small-town small talk buzzed in the wide-open room—gruff discussion of the cold snap moving through, who bought the old Schultz farm off Braeside Road, whose dog bit whom and why and how, and what to do about the falling price of lumber.

Jammed shoulder to shoulder, our crowd was the town’s true cross-­section: loggers and cops, accountants and hairdressers, seniors from the care home and runny-nosed kids sweating in their snowsuits. In one huge room, the stoic Lutherans and turtlenecked Anglicans, the equally reproductive Mormons and Mennonites, the wild Pentecostals and rosaried Sisters of St. Joseph (“Don’t stare at the nuns,” my mother whispered)—we all came together, ready to sing.

I’d been raised in communal song, surrounded by the voices of the congregation at the evangelical Mennonite church. When I stood beside my mother in the pew, holding one corner of the heavy open hymnal and following her lead, the music enfolded me so that I became a swaddled thing within it. But gathering on Sunday for a church service and plodding through a hymn with the voices I knew well, many of them belonging to family, was different. To be one in a crowd of people who were familiar but still mysterious, to share a bleacher seat with the tall, curly-haired woman from the produce section at the Co-op grocery store, or to spot, one row up, the man with the goitre, that turnip-sized bulge on the side of his neck—to breathe alongside these almost-neighbours, almost-strangers made the occasion seem magical.

When the spotlight rose on the low podium, and the high-school band lifted their instruments, and when the music teacher raised his baton, we rose, too, as the opening bars of “Deck the Halls” drummed and trumpeted us in. And we sang, our voices surging at every fa-la-la, hushing into “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” then vaulting back up into “Jingle Bell Rock.” To the right, my first-grade teacher and her stern-browed husband. To my left, a row of fidgety cousins, an aunt, an uncle. And leaning in the doorway, some of the Stoney Creek men who stood on the corner by the Reo Theatre and sometimes called me Blondie when I passed. Together, we belted it out, one raucous choir breaking into four-part harmony whenever the choruses came around, then returning to the simple, unified melody of the verses.

The true high note of the evening always came near the end, when the town’s barber, John Zandbergen, made his way to the front. When the speakers swelled with the canned orchestral backing track, he leaned into the microphone and began to whistle.

What song he whistled, I don’t recall. But how he whistled—that was unlike anything I’d ever heard. His breath took the melody and flew it upward, lilting, spiralling as if on wings, a pirouette, a twirl, a whirling silver trill that rose and dipped like some strange bird sprung loose from its winter cage and freed into the sun. John Zandbergen—the town barber!—whistled that gymnasium into wonder. The nuns, the fussing babies, the mayor and his council, the truckers and trustees and housewives and ranchers—all of us. His hands fluttered at his face, trembling the tune, soaring it, unscrolling it, flying it lofty and alight, then winging it down to rest in a clear held note that faded into silence.

We rose to our feet. We clapped and clapped for this man, this ordinary human whose whistling made anything seem possible. If that song could rise from a man who daily razored the stubbled jawlines of cussing truck drivers, who buzz-cut every fidgeting farm boy in town and trimmed the wild eyebrows of old men, if by some strange miracle his song could rise like that, then so could anyone’s.

The Community Carol Sing closed with a final rousing stand-to-your-feet and sing-as-you-leave song. As we made our way back to the parking lot in a collective shuffling of boots through snow, more than one man, low beneath his breath, whistled as he walked to his pickup truck. The breath of all that whistling scrawled the air with a little rush of warmth, the winter night bending to the lowly tune beneath a sky heralding stars to guide us along the icy road for home.

Can you guess the world’s oldest Christmas carol?

Excerpted from Every Little Scrap and Wonder by Carla Funk. Copyright © 2019 Carla Funk. Published by Greystone Books. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada