There are hymns and songs that are unmistakenly a vital part of this time of year. Below, readers of The Byzantine Catholic World share their special musical memories of Christmas past and present.
Music has been an integral part of my family’s life for as long as I can remember. Blessed with growing up in an extended multigenerational family, I especially enjoyed our holiday celebrations, which always included singing around a food-filled kitchen table.
Church hymns and carols of the season, along with beloved Rusyn folk songs — all filled with a rich, instinctive harmony of exuberant voices in soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone. But my most cherished memory of Christmas music is a singular moment on Christmas Eve 1983.
I was home in Johnstown, Pa., for the holidays, as always. My aunt had just finished bathing my 88-year-old grandmother, who had been in gradual physical and mental decline for the past year. Rarely verbal by then, she sat silently in the living room as I combed and braided her long hair to wrap in the traditional bun she always wore.
“It’s Christmas Eve, Baba,” I said.“Everyone’s getting ready for Midnight Mass. I’m going to sing with the choir. All our favorite Christmas songs. In Po Našemo, too.”
Then I began singing the Tropar in Church Slavonic. I only got as far as “Roždestvo Tvoje Christe” when she started singing with me in a soft but clear and steady tone. I hadn’t heard her speak in quite a while, let alone sing. A flood of emotions filled me as we finished the hymn together. I leaned over, kissed her cheek, and said, “Merry Christmas, Baba. Christos Raždajetsja,” and she smiled.
I returned to my apartment and job in Harrisburg in the New Year. That was the last Christmas I shared with my beloved baba. She fell asleep in the Lord on January 20, 1984, but I hear her and feel her presence with me especially every time I sing our Christmas Tropar.
Veronica Varga, St. Mary, Johnstown, Pa.
A special Christmas memory connected with music is our dad teaching us the beautiful Byzantine Catholic Christmas hymn, “Heaven and Earth” (Nebo i zeml’a).
He taught us the hymn in church Slavonic along with many other of the beautiful Byzantine Catholic hymns and Marian hymns.
We thank both our parents, Jim and Pam Vasilchek, for taking us to church and for teaching us the traditional spiritual songs and hymns of the Byzantine Catholic Church.
We now enjoy teaching our young children these hymns in English and Slavonic.
Emily Vasilchek, St. Michael, Campbell, Ohio
I used to collect Christmas LPs, but to my dismay, when we moved to a smaller dwelling, I had to part with hundreds of them. I still do have a huge collection of hundreds of Christmas CDs, and among those my favorites are Andy Williams’ “Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” Perry Como’s “Christmas Dream,” Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song,” and my favorite, the original Harry Simeone Chorale’s “Little Drummer Boy.”
I would get pretty upset when radio stations would cut off the end of that recording and not play it to the very last “ding” of the triangle, so when I had my own Christmas radio broadcasts back in the 70s & 80s, I made sure that I played every tune all the way from start to finish and didn’t cut in with banter or an abrupt segue or commercial!
But the really sentimental tune which probably isn’t known very popularly but brings a tear to my eye is “Christmas Bride” by the Ray Coniff Singers. Chokes me up every time!
The real old-country classics, however, which take me back to my childhood are the “Christmas in Croatia” and “Christmas in a Croatian Village” recordings by the Duquesne University Tamburitzans in the early 60s. My Dad and Mom would play those LPs on our stereo record player over and over, and I never grew tired of hearing each song!
They were so joyous and full of life and spirit. Decades later, I had the honor and privilege of converting those old recordings into CDs for the D.U. Tamburitzans and create a sing-along booklet so that many generations could enjoy these beautiful renditions for years to come.
Finally, one of my more recent joys was to have gathered the Archeparchial Choir back in 2006 to record an album of Byzantine hymns and carols – “Rejoice! Christ is Born!” – which contains so many beautiful traditional Byzantine Ruthenian songs, a number of which my father-in-law John Fejka used to sing during the Nativity season as the lead cantor at Holy Ghost Church in McKees Rocks.
He joined the heavenly choir in December of 2007, as have many Archeparchial choir members since we first began singing together in 1998. Our time together was precious, and it also brings a tear to my eye to recall all of the wonderful years that we sang together representing the Archeparchy of Pittsburgh at the “Christmas Celebration” at Heinz Hall each December until the annual event’s finale in 2010. Many stories, many tears of joy, many more memories to be made!
Darlene Fejka, St. Gregory, Upper St. Clair, Pa.
As a lifelong member of St. Elias in Munhall, so many of my fondest Christmas memories revolve around the singing of Christmas carols at our liturgies….especially the ones in our founders’ Hungarian language.
In my early teenage years, we often went caroling to the shut-ins of the parish. Miss Peggy Katrincsak, the daughter of one of our first cantors, Professor John, was our leader. She taught us carols in Hungarian and then packed us all into her car to visit the various homes.
Miss Peggy was a small, red-headed spitfire and we often wondered how her feet could reach the pedals of her car, but we made our rounds and were warmly welcomed wherever we went…..sometimes too warmly.
We were often offered homemade cookies and wine and Miss Peggy would tell us we had to take a sip so as not to offend our hosts!
But we always made it safely home with cherished memories of the people we visited. I later learned that her father, Cantor John, had started the old traditional “Betlehemsek” again in this country in 1917.
Miss Peggy also taught us songs to sing at a program held at the Carnegie Library of Homestead Music Hall. It was a program of carols sung by various area church choirs called “Carols Around the World “. Our selection was one of the most beloved carols in the Byzantine tradition….”Angels from Heaven”..which we sang in Hungarian.
This program at the library was almost a precursor to a program held at Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh for many years by the Christian Leaders Fellowship, an ecumenical group of area Christian leaders to which our Archbishop belongs.
My love of our Byzantine music led me to join the Pittsburgh Byzantine Archeparchial Choir at its inception.
This choir sang for many years at this wonderful event where we sang together with choirs of various denominations. Participation in this choir expanded my language skills so I can now sing carols in many beautiful languages.
Every year the choir has a Christmas event which showcases our traditional Byzantine carols…in both English and Slavonic.
I am now the cantor at St. Elias. I hope the cantors John Katrincsak, Andrew Rotz, John Repasi, and Linda Gregory (granddaughter of John Katrincsak) taught me well. I am trying to keep our traditions alive by singing the same carols they did every Christmas, both in Hungarian and English. Hopefully, future generations will remember with fondness the singing of these carols and keep the traditions for years to come.
In thanksgiving to God for all of His blessings, St. Elias parishioners collected food donations during the holiday weekend for those less fortunate. All the donations will go to the Rainbow Kitchen in Homestead, Pa.
Parishioners at St. Elias were treated to gold chocolate coins to commemorate the generosity of St. Nicholas.
Mary Caryl Planiczki, St. Elias, Munhall, Pa.
“We are the carolers from Saint John’s and we are here to. ‘Wish you a Merry Christmas; We wish you a Merry Christmas; We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!'”
That was how we used to introduce ourselves when we went Christmas caroling from Saint John Chrysostom Church in the Run in Greenfield in Pittsburgh, a few decades ago when I was a teenager. Then we would sing a few more traditional carols in Rusyn/Slavonic and some contemporary carols in English, especially if there were children at home.
We would start at the church about a week before Christmas. We would bundle up in warm clothes because we walked to the homes of many parishioners, beginning down there in the valley and then eventually up into the Greenfield neighborhood. On some streets we went to nearly every house because so many of us lived close to each other and close to the church. It might take us two or three nights to get to everyone.
It was something we looked forward to not only each year, but also to being old enough to go because it was something the “big kids” did. It is probably one of my fondest memories of the Christmas season because it was so different from what most people did for Christmas. I don’t think it’s something that could ever be repeated. People don’t live close to each other and to the church like they used to and people don’t walk places like they used to do either. I guess it’s similar to the decades before those decades when men used to dress up as shepherds and would carry a model church building and tell the Nativity story in song in parishioners’ homes.
For my family today, my mom and brother and sisters and I still sing the traditional carols when we celebrate Christmas. It’s another tradition that won’t always be repeated because not a lot of people today learn the traditional carols. I hope I don’t sound sad. Perhaps I sound nostalgic, which is what someone does when he’s six decades old. They are actually good happy memories that are only a song away for me.
Father Stephen Wahal,
Saint Michael, Donora, Pa.
Saint Mary, Monessen, Pa.
Holy Ghost, Charleroi, Pa.
For me, the special memory is of the Christmas carols we sang “po nasemu”…”in our language” Church Slavonic. They were what we inherited from our ancestors, both the language and the music. And a lot of people today don’t have that. It’s a huge blessing that the language and the music still exists and has defined us for hundreds of years.
Betty Ann Kvartek, St. Michael, Canonsburg
Hello! Fellow Byzantines!
Well, as Christmases come and go, we all have a certain song that kind of puts you in the mood. My favorites are mostly religious ones. I’m not much for listening to “Grandma Got Ran Over by a Reindeer” or “Snoopy’s Christmas,” etc.
I mostly like the Christmas songs when they are done in “symphony-style” (without the words). Just calm and smooth melody.
It makes you sit back and think about the years that have passed. Some good and some not-so-good. “Music” is God’s gift to the soothing soul.
We used to have a choir and I sang in it for 28 years. But it disbanded a few years ago, for various reasons. Mostly because of lack of participants. I really do miss singing my off-key bass with the others.
When I was young, growing up in a coal mine town called: Windber, Pa., all the kids from the same street played together, thus meaning there were about 25 of us. Girls and boys alike, we did everything together. Which was no different at Christmas time. We would all get together and go door-to-door caroling. This was a good source of Christmas money besides shoveling sidewalks!
Today is a different time. I told my grandkids these same stories and they laughed. They can’t comprehend yesterday’s world.
In today’s world, it’s way opposite in everything. Everything is all commercialized. Everything is about gifts and money and style.
Christmas has somewhat taken a back burner to things such as Halloween and alike.
Probably one of my favorite Christmas songs might be: Bing Crosby and David Bowie’s duet together. Harmony is very key to this song.
Yes! Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. But there is also the celebration of our Savior.
Mike Lashinsky, St. John the Baptist, Scottdale, Pa.
I hear Christmas!
I hear the Jaslickari (Bethlehem Carolers) from St. Mary’s Byzantine Catholic Church singing the Christmas Tropar in my Gnora Grandparents’ living room in Monessen, Pa.
I hear my Tirpak Uncles and Aunts singing “Nebo I Zemla” and “Divnaja Novina” on Christmas Eve after our Holy Supper.
I hear my brother Bob singing “Oh, Holy Night” at Saint Mary’s, Monessen, Christmas Eve.
I hear my parents singing “Rozdestvo Tvoje” (Your Birth O Christ) as they approached houses of family and friends for a Christmas visit. They would start on front steps or porches and sing the Tropar until the door was opened. Usually, the family joined in with the singing as they greeted each other with “Christos Razdajetsja!” (Christ Is Born!)
I hear my grandmother singing! On Christmas day, 1997, my Uncle George made a tape of his mother, Mrs. Hludzik and mother-in-law, Mrs. Gnora (my grandmother) singing Christmas Carols (Kolady). “When the Brilliant Star Shown” (“Koli Jasna Zv’izda”) is a highlight! There is also a section of the tape where my grandmother gives the Christmas toast, “Vincuju! Vincuju!” Having this tape is a family treasure.
As an alto in our Pittsburgh Byzantine Catholic Archieparchial Choir, I hear these carols and so many others, which bring me full circle in the wonder of “hearing” Christmas.
Mary Ellen Dudick, Peter and Paul, Tarentum, Pa.
Every year at Christmas when we sing the Troparion, “Your birth O Christ our God…” my mind goes back to 1957 and the 11-year-old me.
Saturday mornings, my mother would send me out the door to walk up Ninth Street hill in Charleroi to Holy Ghost Church for Catechism class. December classes were choir practice with Cantor Stephen Levkulich, getting us ready to go Christmas caroling to the houses of our parishioners.
As we stood together in all those kitchens, Cantor Levkulich would start us off singing, “Roždestvo tvoje Christe Bože naš, vozsija mirovi sv’it razuma: vo nem bo zv’izdam služašcii zv’izdoju učachusja, Teb’i klaňatisja Solncu pravdy, i Tebe v’iditi so vysoty Vostoka: Hospodi slava Teb’i.”
Not exactly “Jingle Bells!” Now, that is a really great cantor who could teach grade school children to sing “Roždestvo” and take them on the road!
Now in 2022, I still remember the words in Church Slavonic…but singing it in English, I need to use the book.
Dorothy Mayernik, St. Gregory, Upper St. Clair, Pa.