Thompson, CT: Singing on Sacred Ground

Yankee classic from December 1995 If the tawdry, materialistic displays that too often mark a modern Christmas make you feel like the Grinch, then travel with me to Thompson, Connecticut. It is an evening in early December, and the Old Town Hall, […]

By Tom Rawls

Jul 16 2008

Yankee classic from December 1995

If the tawdry, materialistic displays that too often mark a modern Christmas make you feel like the Grinch, then travel with me to Thompson, Connecticut. It is an evening in early December, and the Old Town Hall, at the northwestern edge of the five-acre Thompson Hill Common, is ready for the historical society’s annual Christmas concert.

Thompson Hill occupies the high ground in Thompson, a town of 8,700 in the northeastern “quiet corner” of the state that was once rich in mills on the Quinebaug and French rivers. Around the common, a few lights can be seen, but now the air is still, quiet. The weather remains surprisingly mild. The ground is bare of snow.

In each of the Old Town Hall’s six windows a candle burns, beacons guiding the people of Thompson’s scattered villages. Some come by car. Others amble across the common from nearby residences, calling out hellos as they make their way up the steps of the historic building. Inside, the food is set up — silver urns of coffee, a punch bowl, gingerbread cookies. Barbara Loy, the president of the Village Improvement Society, which is responsible for maintaining the common, arrives in a red shawl. “After this, if you’re not in the Christmas spirit, you’re hopeless,” she says.

The evening features readings, a children’s chorus, and soloists. There are some traditional songs, but mostly religious carols with, of course, audience participation. As is always the case, the women join in willingly while many of the men seem able only to lip-sync the words.

The two Provost girls, garbed in white as Sweden’s Santa Lucia with crowns of lights adorning their silky dark hair, pass out bags of candy. Following their two songs, folk singers Peter Lange and his teenage daughter, Rachel, are rewarded with vigorous applause. The audience chimes in with a lively version of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

Finally Ted Reynolds, a one-time dairyman who used to rehearse by singing to his cows, concludes the evening with “White Christmas.” Full-voiced and elegant in a tuxedo, he is joined during the finale by the entire audience, including one young man at the back who had not sung a note earlier.

Two weeks later, at 4:15 on a Sunday evening, a crowd of 100 people has gathered on the common. They count down — “5-4-3-2-1” — and the lights on the Christmas tree near the eastern edge of the common glow to life. The crowd cheers.

The common is at the center of Thompson Hill’s National Historic District, 440 acres containing about 130 buildings, 100 of which were built before 1935. As the viewer’s eye travels around the common, it is arrested repeatedly by this striking mix of buildings.

“This is like stepping back in time,” Barbara Loy says of living on Thompson Hill. The Loy home and art gallery is next to the Vernon Stiles Inn, a tavern built in 1814. Some years later, Thomas Dorr, the instigator of Dorr’s Rebellion in Rhode Island, avoided pursuing lawmen “by use of the complicated series of stairways in the old tavern.”

Across the street from the inn is an imposing brick Federalist building; it is the home of Jane Vercelli, president of the historical society, and her husband, Peter, and two sons. “The common is sacred ground to those who feel a strong belonging to what this village represents. It is a place that is not an anachronism, but is alive. It is a place where people do know each other, where people watch out for each other.”

Then she adds, “The village has a band of guardian angels” — people who are committed to maintaining its historic character. For example, the Vernon Stiles Inn was on the auction block following a fire 25 years ago, and the rumor was that it was going to be torn down and replaced by a gas station. Instead, a retiree from Massachusetts bought the inn and restored it, reopening it as a restaurant. “Extraordinary things have happened at times when they were needed,” Vercelli said. “The angels have been here.”

Every person in the crowd holds a candle with a wind shield, and people gather in small groups to light them. While flames flicker in the wintry wind, Jane Vercelli jingles her leather strip of sleigh bells, and Peter Lange begins the caroling. Singing “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks,” the group moves from the Christmas tree to a nearby creche. Fashioned from pine slabs, it is populated by the church’s Sunday schoolers done up in Biblical garb. The Loy family’s Great Pyrenees stands in for the sheep.

One year when someone put up a creche in the Texas capitol building, the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue, arguing that the tableau violated the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. Ann Richards, who was later to become governor, commented at the time, “Oh, I hate to see them take that creche out of the capitol. It could be the only chance we’ll ever have to get three wise men into that building.”

No such difficulties trouble Thompson Hill. The sacred ground is church land, and the gathering carolers admire the still life composed of wise children.

Following another song at the creche, the carolers move off the common to a house behind the Vernon Stiles Inn. Paul Morgan emerges to a serenade of “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” Morgan is the “guardian angel” who rescued and restored the inn 25 years ago. Barbara Loy shakes his hand and kisses his cheek. He doffs his cap.

The carolers walk south, their candlelights strung out. They entertain an elderly woman standing on her porch with two alert Dobermans. As they gather in front of another house, Peter Lange’s voice again rises up to lead them, and their voices are no longer tentative. Singing is like running before the wind. It is something we can do naturally, and even if we do not sing with any particular skill, we let our voices ring with simple gladness at the gift of song.

The singers have found their’ natural ease, their voices lofting the carols to the residents around the common. When the group arrives, finally, at the Vernon Stiles Inn, they stand on the porch and sing “Silent Night.” Entering and passing among the diners, they offer “Away in a Manger.” The carolers wind their way to a reception room, where mulled cider and Christmas cookies await them, and they conclude with “The First Noel” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

“Singing is tied directly to my soul,” one of the carolers says after the last notes have died. “These songs carry through the years. When I hear ‘O Come All Ye Faithful,’ I’m a kid again. Then I’m in a huge cathedral where I first heard it. I can sing a carol, and it brings back all my Christmases.”