I received my first holiday party invitation of the season the other day. It was an online creation with clever graphics and a one-click RSVP. Christmas cheer is sure to be found. But the real star on my December calendar is an event that has occurred in my parents' Toronto home for 53 years.
Invitations are sent every year but hardly necessary, since friends call in the summer to ask when they should mark their calendar to show up and sing at the Langford Carol Party. Always held the weekend before Christmas, at its height there were up to 100 guests.
What began with a close circle from university days has exploded to a guest list that reads like a map of a remarkable life: colleagues, neighbours, volunteer and church friends, famous guests, musicians, the newly widowed and newly single. Babies are A-list. Mom holds them up and the crowd coos. Grandchildren dash about, spilling drinks. Engaged couples are guests of honour, as are students home from university and out-of-town friends, all introduced to the crush of guests over a microphone.
There is no way to be anonymous in Mom and Dad's house. There is never enough room: Jostled and jumbled together, we joke about the warmth of the season. When I was a child, I imagined the walls expanded for the endless stream of guests. Today, those walls remain solid in the house where the five of us kids grew up.
Mom will be 80 next June but here, perched at the baby grand, she is still the pretty teenage concert pianist. She cues Dad with a nod to hurry up and sing. And sing we do.
Dad is the bandleader at the mike as he announces pages from their carol books, collected and annotated by the two of them decades ago. Often Dad introduces a carol with a historical note on the song's origin. Guests themselves have helped the book evolve by sending in modern carols and carols in other languages. We sing them all, interrupting only for a joke, a snippet, another welcome as the door breezes open.
Mom assigns families to sing lines in The Twelve Days of Christmas. Someone usually flubs to great hilarity. We Three Kings were once Dad's frat brothers, but now anyone is fair game. Few are given warning before being invited to sing, yet no one refuses – applause is certain.
Buoyant cheers erupt for my singer sister Sarah's moving rendition of O Holy Night, but singers, professional or merely eager, share equal billing with the instrumentalists. My sister Mary has been playing the violin at the party for almost 40 years. Under the piano, young guests dig into a basket of bells, soon jiggling with enthusiasm, if not precision. The violinists and accordion player beam down at them and Mom's hands, belying her age, dance to this perfect musical madness.
Neighbours would complain at the din except they're all at the party. Amid the swell of sound, we begin to resemble one another, faces flushed, toes tapping.
Then Dad is on the mike announcing that food will be served upstairs and down in the rec room. Grandchildren of various sizes pass crispy cheese rolls and gooey mushroom toasts. The lineup begins for jellied salads and huge hams. Plate after plate of cookie trays appear. They haven't changed in 50 years – nut smacks, chocolate mint sticks, pecan snowballs, apricot chews, gingerbread and buttery shortbread that looks much neater than the days when our five pairs of hands did all the rolling, icing and sprinkling. One year, my youngest sister Jane decorated all the Christmas tree cookies red.
The punch lacks booze but I can't think of anything more potent. Dad's secret recipe evolves as the bowl gets low. My brother John, who likes to park himself nearby to greet thirsty guests, adds more frozen limeade and apricot juice throughout the night. It is swigged by all until the singing resumes once again.
When the last carol fades, guests are each given miniature candy canes from a basket at the front door, next to the cans for the food bank and socks for the church drive. Mom collapses into a chair and kicks off her heels. Somebody brings her a plate of food. A debrief begins – five decades later and each party brings some new revelation to share.
It may be a party for a crowd, but in the end, it's my parents' enduring gift to one another, a gift that says we've had another good year. We have our family and friends. Let's sing about it.
As adults now with families of our own, my brother and sisters and I never miss it, although we are no longer dressed in matching red. Many of the carolers sit on chairs as needed, and more than one familiar guest is missing from the annual chorus. My teenage children are the ones wearing red now, albeit in shorter and barer incarnations. Once they sat waving jingle bells on their Grandma's knee, watching her fingers work the keys. Now they stand alongside their grandparents and cousins and sing. Like me, they know all the words.
There may be swankier holiday soirées. Martinis and neat little nothings passed around on skewers are impressive, but I wonder if they'll be around in 50 years. The true spirit of the season is hiding in my parents' piano, ready to burst forth with the first exuberant note.
Anne Langford lives in Toronto.