Dec. 25, 2004 "Glory in the highest to the God of heaven!" sang the Voices of Love from the stage at Emancipation Garden. "Peace to all your people through the earth be given," answered the Hapless/Hopeless Carolieres from the steps below, as the echo caroling rang in the 2004 Challenge of the Carols Christmas morning.
The carolers began their brilliant choruses about 5:30 a.m. after a night serenading the community which traditionally winds up in the garden among friends, family and anyone else with an eye to starting the day with the true spirit of Christmas love, friendship and sharing.
As the sun peeked through the colorfully decorated lignum vitae trees, people poured into the garden to sit on benches, on the grass, or to take their favorite spots on the round center wall.
Friends, old and new greeted each other over steaming cups of bush tea, dumb bread, ham, cheese and sweetbreads; the morning is truly a community affair.
It's been a well-loved tradition for so many years, even the old-timers can't say how long. The carolers go out on Christmas Eve, and continue all night long, bringing song and cheer from house to house throughout the night.
Clarice Kuntz, a member of Voices of Love appeared to be holding up well, at first.
"I can't wait to get home to my bed now," she said, "and if my husband wants anything to eat, he'd better cook it." However, the last was said with a big smile. Kuntz has been singing with the Voices of Love for more years than she can remember, and her husband hasn't gone hungry yet.
"We started off in Pollyberg, then up to the governor's house, then to Mahogany Estate to the Harleys, and I can't remember after that."
In 1899 Luther Robles founded the Excelsior Choir, soon followed by names that are familiar in the local caroling world today: Alec Lloyd, Esther Marks and Elias Abraham. According to Glenn "Kwabena" Davis, leader of the popular Voices of Love, the carolers would be greeted by gifts of guavaberry, dumb bread, and ham and sweetbread.
Long-time Christmas morning participants Polly and Fred Watts, had taken their usual wall spots Saturday morning. "We were going to bring chairs," Polly said, "but Fred said, 'no, we'll take our places on the wall'". The Watts have a musical group of their own, "Harmony Dem." "I keep thinking each year we will get together and join in," Fred Watts said,"Well, maybe next year."
The Watts were joined by former St. Thomians, Steve and Leslie Rockstein. Steve Rockstein had been photographer and design editor for the V.I. Daily News, but he left to work for the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1998 when the Daily News changed hands. They looked happily around the garden, obviously enjoying the warmth both personal and climatic.
Bettie and Sig Fossdall, good as their word, made their second trek to the event. Though they have lived on St. Thomas for 26 years, last year was their first for the caroling. In previous years, they had their big party on Christmas eve and couldn't face getting up at 5 a.m. The party's timing changed, their Christmas morning changed. "And here we are again," Sig Fossdall said, happily sipping on some bush tea.
Simon Caines, Legislature executive director, resplendent in a pink and green holiday shirt, arose with a big smile. "Isn't it wonderful?" he was asked. Pausing, Caines said, "I have to admit this is my first time. But it won't be my last," he quickly added. "I've been up since nine o çlock yesterday morning, but this is worth it!"
Leona Bryant, looking the very spirit of Christmas in a bright red blouse, was the star of the morning. Irvin "Brownie" Brown, who along with Addie Ottley was master of ceremonies, said he had a "surprise" announcement the awarding of the Spirit of the Christmas Carol award to Bryant, whose name is synonymous with tourism in the Virgin Islands. Bryant was Tourism Commissioner for 15 years, and had a popular talk show on radio station WVWI for several years.
Brown said Bryant was honored for her manner "the way she gives of herself."
For once, the former talk-show host, was speechless. "I'm emotionally unstable right now," Bryant said, "I just want to thank you and bless every one of you."
The crowd was brought to its feet, and they stood in absolute silence, as Lorna Freeman Dennis sang "Ave Maria" a capella. Dennis's crystal clear voice held the crowd, some moved to tears by the clarity of her tones.
Freeman, a native St. Thomian, sang with the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra at the Reichhold Center in October.
Gov. Charles W. Turnbull presented the Governor's Award to Yvonne "Bonnie" Francis. Other honors were the:
Esther Marks Award to the Leonard Dober Elementary School.
Alec Lloyd Award to the Christchurch Methodist Contemporary Gospel Singers.
Luther Robles Award to Edwin David, Stephen "Smokey" Frett and Candia Petersen.
The Hapless/Hopeless Carolieres and the Voices of Love dedicated their choruses to Viveca Tuitt De Castro, who died earlier this year.
Also singing in the morning were the Bethel Baptist Church Choir, Guardian Angels, Lucinda Millin Home Chorale, Merry Carolers, Morgan's Quartet, Salvation Army Songsters and Torch Bearers, Christchurch Methodist Contemporary Gospel Singers and the PMP Past and Present Chorale.
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