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, 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.