Christmas Eve in the Jungle

In 2015 Jake and Whitney came to spend Christmas with us in Vermont. I can’t remember why, but Patrick had to stay in Brooklyn by himself. The four of us went to the traditional family homestead in West Brookfield to attend the annual Christmas Eve service at the West Brookfield Meeting House. It’s massive hulk of a structure that has been serving the community since 1839. Lit by kerosene lamps and candles, decorated by evergreens, and heated by a woodstove.

The full story, first published in Vermont Magazine in 2012, appears following the video as do the song lyrics. Two notes of explanation. The reference to having “lived through the end of the world” refers to the end of the Mayan calendar which occurred just days before Christmas Eve, but was widely rumored to be a cataclysmic event. “Bob Small” was the lay minister who presided over the service for many years. He had a lovely tenor voice and took great pride in ending the service with his solo singing of O Holy Night. He passed away a few years before this song was written.

Here Jake, Whitney, and I do an impromptu rendition, while Patrick looks on glumly from Brooklyn.

Sharing West Brookfield’s

Cathedral of Wood

If there is a sacred moment for the residents of West Bookfield, it is during the singing of Silent Night at the end of the nonsectarian Christmas Eve service in the spare, 1839 wooden church building.

There’s no glitter, no flashing lights. The space is sparsely decorated with greens, the cold of winter barely fended off by the heat from the Sargent, Roundy & Osgood woodstove made a hundred years ago in nearby Randolph. The only light is from candles and a kerosene chandelier. A child takes a candle and passes the flame. It continues, one by one, until each person is illuminated by a single flame. The space flickers in communal light. Little has changed since 1839.

It’s Christmas in Vermont

West Brookfield is set on a dirt crossroads between towns. It features a dozen homes in a high valley dominated by a family-owned dairy farm.

Most of the structures were built in the 1800s. Of note are the one-room schoolhouse, and the white, clapboard church that is just the right scale for the union of human and spiritual life.

These are tough times for churches in rural Vermont. Aging congregations in combination with scandals, lawsuits, and changing attitudes towards spirituality have resulted in a declining need for the structures built to serve yesteryear’s needs. Moreover, maintaining these graceful masterpieces can be expensive and challenging.

This challenge was faced, and met, by a coalition of community members who in 2010 purchased (for a nominal sum) the structure from the Congregational Church of Christ with the intention of repurposing it as a community center.

“West Brookfield doesn’t really need this building as a place of worship,” said a church representative, “but it does need it as a community center.”

Forming a viable and sustainable community organization is a challenge anywhere, but especially in a small, rural community with widely diverse economic and social interests. In the case of West Brookfield the community includes white collar professionals, retirees from the Flatlands, elderly Vermonters living on fixed incomes, young families struggling to make ends meet, idealistic organic farmers, and conventional dairy farmers coping with impossibly low milk prices.

Vermont 251 in 365 | Brookfield Vermont | Photos of Brookfield VT

To the credit of local residents, differences were cast aside and a non-profit organization was created to keep the building viable. Several times a year residents gather for work parties to tend to maintenance and grounds, and the center hosts a variety of events from concerts to potlucks and the signature event, the Christmas Eve service. Nearly eight years since its reincarnation as a community center, all is calm and all is bright in West Brookfield.

In an email dispatch to members of the community, Tina O’Donnell, who seems to be centrally involved in all-things-West-Brookfield notes that “another Christmas Eve is right around the corner. This year’s celebration will begin a half hour earlier, at 6:30 pm in order to give kids and their parents some extra time to prepare for Santa.”

A glance at the program is filled with recognizable names. Lynn Wakefield will light a fire in that ancient woodstove in the morning and the austere wooden meeting house will be further-warmed with decorative swags on the doors, a Christmas tree, and, of course, the community gathered inside.

Soon school kids will fill the hall with “Jingle Bells” and “Up on the Housetop” followed by performances by carolers and fiddlers and story tellers, all of whom are local, volunteer, and uniquely connected to the community.

115 Eagle Peak Road Brookfield, VT

The public is invited to what O’Donnell calls “our cathedral of wood,” a reference to a carol written by a former resident, first performed in 2012, just after the supposed “end of the world” that some thought was portended by the termination of the Mayan calendar.

The world did not end, however, and the flame burns brightly in the simple yet elegant structure that at 6:30 pm on Christmas Eve is guaranteed to be filled with soft light, the smell of evergreens, and the spiritual warmth of friends and family.

Cathedral of Wood

It’s late in December, the Solstice has passed, we’ve lived through the end of the world.

The geese have flown South, and we’re praying for snow.

We’re glad that the kids have returned.

We’re done with the stockings, the packages wrapped, we’ve wished all our colleagues good cheer.

So from this perspective the world’s looking good as we share this Cathedral of Wood.

Fa-la-la … Joy to the World

Fa-la-la … Midnight Clear

Fa-la-la … Let’s All Deck the Halls

We gather to celebrate holidays here.

Pond Village to Snowsville, we all heed the call. We may have our different gods.

But for the time being we gather as one, to raise up our voices in song.

The hills of West Brookfield are silent as night. Candles and stoves are aglow.

But from this perspective the world’s looking good as we share this Cathedral of Wood.

Fa-la-la … Joy to the World

Fa-la-la … Midnight Clear

Fa-la-la … Let’s All Deck the Halls

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Stephen Morris, 2012

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