The History of the Holiday Sing

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Though all Friends Select students spend their school day in the same building, upper, middle, and lower school students do not interact on a regular basis. It is a rare event when all three divisions share one space, and it is even more rare to see these students collaborate. 

One annual event which brings the whole FSS community together is the Holiday Sing. For over 30 years, the Holiday Sing has taken place on the afternoon of the final school day preceding Winter Break. However, the basic idea of the Holiday Sing spans nearly a century and has changed tremendously over those years. 

The inception of the Holiday Sing also served as the advent of all music at Friends Select. In traditional Quaker practices, musical practice and performance were forbidden as a violation of the principle of simplicity. At some time in the early 20th century, though, Friends Select petitioned the Board of Trustees to purchase a piano for a holiday concert.

We can assume this inaugural concert was substantially more conservative and pious than the raucous caroling party we now throw on the final Friday before Christmas; in 1965, Latin was the show’s primary language. As recently as 1972, the majority of songs were traditional, mellow spirituals performed exclusively by various choirs. A depiction of the three wise men described in the biblical telling of the birth of Jesus Christ adorned that year’s concert program. 

Martha Eisenberg ’85 remembers a similar event: “We used to do a big holiday-time concert where we sang Christmas carols very formally for the parents — it was quite stuffy,” she says. An exclusively Christmas-oriented event was not the same as the Winter Concert, but it also does not resemble teachers’ descriptions of Holiday Sings from the same time period.

First grade teacher Anne Thomforde Thomas says that by the time she arrived at FSS in 1979, the Holiday Sing “was a well established institution, but only in the lower school.” This party took place in Bailey Circle with the lower school music teacher accompanying songs with piano, unlike the formal choral concert held in the Meetinghouse. 

As the school grew, so did the Sing. To accommodate a larger lower school population, the Sing was temporarily moved to the front lobby, where LS Music teacher Kazmira Heinbaugh led carols that Anne describes as “very Christmasy and not diverse at all.” Lower school teacher Debby Rickards, who started teaching at FSS 30 years ago, recalls “maybe one” Hanukkah song as a part of the annual program in the early 1990s. 

The first shift towards our current Holiday Sing came when it returned to Bailey Circle under the lead of former US Music Director Steve Weatherman. Together, Steve and Debby “added the funny songs and a Hanukkah song — and more and more middle and upper school students started trying to come,” according to Debby. Although these students were not officially invited and likely had class during the Sing, they would stand on the stairs and participate.

After some time, Steve left and former LS Director Derek Van der Tek took charge of the Sing. Anne says that Derek added diversity to the program by inserting the “Ochas Candelikas” Hanukkah song that Friends Select students also perform annually at the Lower School Winter Concert. 

Both Anne and Debby see this period as the point in time when the Sing took off in popularity. Derek and Debby would lead the sing, while Anne would play her violin. Derek often invited friends to play instruments, and according to Anne, students and parents brought instruments to play as well. Olivia Maltz ’20 remembers that when she was in kindergarten, “some of the adults would pass out simple instruments to a few of the kids. If you got one of those instruments, it was a big deal; everybody wanted to know who was going to get the instruments.” 

With over 500 students, as well as faculty and parents, the Sing became too big for Bailey Circle. In either 2009 or 2010, the Holiday Sing moved from Bailey Circle to the Race Street Meetinghouse, where it is still held today. MS art teacher Fred Kogan says that the impetus behind the move was “to make it an event where it was easy for everybody to be part of it.” Zach Levine ‘22 remembers that “we (lower school students) would usually sit with our families downstairs because they would all come to The Sing.” 

When the Holiday Sing moved to the Meetinghouse, the leaders needed to find a use for the facing bench. By the time former US Choir director Dan Schwartz arrived in 2013, the Choir sat on the bench and helped to lead the Sing. As the school tried to introduce a more diverse song list, Choir students helped to teach new songs to the student body. This year, instrumentalists will also sit on the facing bench: Aidan Pulliam ‘20 and Charlie Chen ‘23 will play their french horn and trumpet, respectively, during the sing.

As the Holiday Sing has evolved, so has its song list. After an era in which the aforementioned traditional carols dominated the program, the faculty made an effort to diversify the lineup. Debby says that she believes “the song list has changed because the teachers involved have changed.” Friends Select has become more diverse, so the song list has followed suit. Anne also sees that The Sing has become more secular. She says this change began with the introduction of songs like “Mr. Grinch” and “Let It Snow,” and has led to a mostly secular program in the past decade or so.