Thompson, CT: Singing on Sacred Ground
“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.”