Postcard from the Artistic Director: Happy Holidays (in May...)

This week’s postcard is a report on the ‘field research’ that Artistic Director Lisa Bielawa and the SFGC team did in our own Chorus School community, learning about the holidays celebrated by our hundreds of families from a broad diversity of cultures. Dear SFGC Friends and Families,

I heard a lot about you all on my last trip to SF! Our Dean Virginia Peden and I had the chance to visit all of the Levels in SF and the East Bay, to chat with the girls about something that is probably far from most people’s minds these days: the holidays. I was curious about what kinds of holidays our chorus families celebrate. In public life, the holiday season is always such a super-stimulating, constant stream of Christmas-themed music, with some Hannukah themes and some secular, generic American holiday music, stories and images too. In my professional singer community in NYC, some people can make up to a third of their annual income just singing in December! I have had several years like that myself. Many of these professional carolers have entirely different private faiths and family traditions at home, and our own choristers and their families represent just such a richness of diversity – so I was curious to find out more about our singers’ home experiences of holidays, either right around the annual Davies holiday concert or – in some cases – at another time of year.

I learned a lot! I learned about the Iranian new year, or Nowruz!

Nowruz is a 12-day holiday season that starts with a grand Spring Cleaning, or “shaking the house,” then is ushered in by a jolly old man (much like Christmas’s Santa) called Uncle Nowruz and his assistants – the Haji Firooz, men dressed all in red. Instead of the familiar decorated Christmas tree that we see everywhere in our cities, the Iranian symbol is a decorated “Haft Seen” table with seven objects/symbols representing the seven essential elements of life.

Also in the Spring, the Celtic pagan holiday of Beltane has similarly colorful celebrations, with a Fire Festival and Green Men. (For those of you musically-minded readers out there, can you figure out what time signature the drums are playing at the beginning of this video?)

The choristers whose families celebrate Christmas have a broad range of different cultural and family traditions surrounding that time of year. I learned about the tradition of Luminaria, which flourished in “New Spain” (Mexico) in the 16 th century, after the Spanish merchants had witnessed festive lanterns in China!

I learned about Filipino Christmas traditions – weeks of morning masses! Sometimes months of preparations! And lots of holiday music in Tagalog. Here are some young women to help us hear the sounds of Filipino Christmas (with a little Jingle Bells thrown in….)!

In Swedish families, St. Lucia’s Day (patron saint of the blind) has a special role for girls to play: wearing the crown of candles to light the spiritual path to the new year:

And of course there is Ma’oz Tzur, or Rock of Ages, the timeless Hannukah song that has been performed and recorded in every possible style, all over the world – but my absolute favorite is this one from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. Who says that scientists can’t also be great singers?!

Whatever you celebrate, whenever you celebrate, I wish you the best in your family festivities throughout the year. The families of our choristers are our own extended family, and it’s been great fun to learn more about you!

To those of you who are observing Ramadan, or celebrating the Ascension of Baha’u’llah, Shavout, or Ascension Day this week, here’s wishing you a meaningful holiday, and I’ll see you all in a week or so!