Rural Missouri Magazine

Sounds of a Missouri Christmas

by Katherine Heine
Columbia Chorale and the Columbia Civic Orchestra perform Handel’s “Messiah” at Jesse Hall on the University of Missouri-Columbia campus.

A mother lulls her children to sleep with the prayerful cadence of “Silent Night” and, for a moment, forgets about ribbons and lists. Thunderous organ chords rouse feelings of hope as church congregants lift a unified voice to proclaim “Glory to the Newborn King.” Trumpets of a brass band toot the playful melody of “Jingle Bells” for an audience of singing children.

Christmas music is the pulse of the holiday season. From reverent carols to toe-tapping tunes, the ever-present beats embody holiday sentiments of hope, joy, peace and goodwill.

Each year, Missouri’s diverse blend of bell choirs, city bands and church ensembles spread Christmas tidings with performances of classic hymns and contemporary favorites. Whether you are drawn to the deeply religious Festival of Lessons and Carols in Fulton or the light-hearted, jazzy arrangements of TUBACHRISTMAS, the state’s musicians offer holiday performances in tune with every musical taste.

John Senne had no intention of playing tuba in the high school band in 1933, but watching the 90-year-old’s spirited, articulate performance in TUBACHRISTMAS, one might assume he was born with the bulky brass horn in his hands.

“The band director needed two sousaphones to complete an ensemble for competition, so he asked me to just stand there and pretend to play,” Senne recalls. “But I told him, ‘I’ll do you one better. I’ll learn how to play the thing.’ And that is what I did.”

Above: Don Sparlin of Rolla participates in the 2006 TUBACHRISTMAS event held in Rolla.

Senne joined fellow tuba and euphonium players at Rolla’s Havener Center in 2006 to perform a selection of Christmas favorites written specifically for the unsung baritones.
The amalgamation of tuba players from across the region rehearsed only one hour before they dazzled an audience of tuba enthusiasts and curious onlookers with the festive “boom, boom, boom” of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

“If people haven’t been to a TUBACHRISTMAS event, they should definitely come out for the experience,” says Jared Shulse, who coordinated Rolla’s performance. “Usually tubas are the boring arrangement in the background of the harmony. But TUBACHRISTMAS music is arranged in tubas’ range, so we’re playing the melodies of ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas.’”

The special events are held across Missouri and around the world. This year, tuba and euphonium players of all ages will gather in St. Louis, Boonville, Maryville, Columbia and Kansas City during December.

Created in 1974, TUBACHRISTMAS honors the influential tuba player, William Bell, who was born on Christmas Day in 1902. American composer Alec Wilder, who ironically died on Christmas Eve in 1980, arranged the traditional music that more than 33,000 tuba players blare around the world each year.

For a listing of TUBACHRISTMAS events throughout the state, visit

Handel’s “Messiah”
Jane Smith had always listened to recordings of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” during the holidays, but had never seen the oratorio live until Columbia Chorale performed it at Jesse Hall on the University of Missouri campus in 2006.

The chaplain at Fulton State Hospital says she was captivated not only with the music, but with watching the gifted musicians manipulate their instruments to play the complicated movements.

“The ‘Messiah’ is a great way to do Christmas that doesn’t involve tinsel,” Smith says. “I’ve always been touched by the biblically based words, but I couldn’t believe the performers’ giftedness. I especially liked when the music would just involve the sounds of the single bass, the single cello and the single violin.”

Chorale artistic director Alex Innecco says the brilliance of the “Messiah” is how dramatic, yet accessible the music is for audiences. Brazilian-born Innecco has changed each year’s performance slightly since the group began performing the movements with the Columbia Civic Orchestra in 2002.

“The ‘Messiah’ is three hours long, and as beautiful as it is in its entirety, we are competing with TV and busy schedules, so we pick and choose parts of it to create about a one hour and 40 minute performance,” Innecco says.

The chorale also hosted a “Messiah” sing-along at the Missouri United Methodist Church. Solos were sold on eBay to raise money for the group’s mission to promote high-quality choral music in the community.

Tenor Paul Peterman, who has sung with the chorale since August 2006, says audience participation in the sing-along developed a deeper appreciation for “Messiah.”

“The sing-along was such a holistic experience,” says the environmental chemist for the U.S. Geological Survey. “When we perform, I usually get a sense that people are enjoying the music. But when audience members joined in the chorus parts, I felt like the meaning of the music was coming to life.”

Columbia Chorale will perform “Messiah” on Dec. 8-9. For more information, go to the group’s Web site at or call 573-449-7464.

A member of the Columbia Handbell Ensemble concentrates during a 2006 concert. Since 1988, the group has performed across the state during the holiday season.

Sweet Silver Bells
The delicate chimes of a handbell choir sound like poetry in motion and have long been a crowd favorite during the holiday season.

One of the longest running community handbell groups, the Columbia Handbell Ensemble, has held holiday concerts in Missouri since 1988.

“Bells are so versatile,” says Edward Rollins, co-founder of the group and associate pastor at Columbia’s First Baptist Church. “Some bell arrangements are quiet, deeply spiritual and thought-provoking, yet others just make your toe tap and make you feel good inside.”

Rollins says he has enjoyed his more than 20-year involvement with church bell choirs, but that the religious focus of song choice often excludes contemporary favorites like “Up on the Housetop.”

The community group transitions from classical carols, such as “Carol of the Wise Men” to off-beat jingles including “Shiny Stockings.”

The ensemble of about 13 volunteer ringers from mid-Missouri travel the region to play for schools, civic clubs and churches during the holiday season. For more information about the group’s December concerts, e-mail Rollins at or call him at 573-442-1149.

Adley Kent, left, and her sister, Sadie, give a performance during Hermann’s 2006 Kristkindl Markt event.

Kristkindl Markt
A man dressed in buckskin strums “Silent Night” on a mountain dulcimer next to band members picking the accompaniment on fiddles and mandolins. The colonial sound drifts through Hermann’s historic Hermannhof Festhalle during the town’s annual Christmas market, Dec. 8-9.

“‘Silent night’ is probably one of my favorites to play because I play the melody on my dad’s 80-year-old harmonica,” says Ron Beights, a founding member of The Booneslick Strings band. “We’re just a group of guys who started playing old-time music together at black powder reenactments.”

The group entertained people as they strolled past hand-crafted furniture or stopped to sample bratwurst at the Kristkindl Markt in 2006.

Joan Treis, Kristkindl chairperson, says that although the market incorporates all the arts into one weekend, music is a focal point of the Christmas season and the festival.

“When the performers started to play, everyone just loved it,” Treis says. “Some people go sit and listen, but others enjoy the festive tunes as they shop and eat.”
Flautist Sadie Kent accompanied her sister, Adley Kent, as she strummed classic carols on her harp, which she affectionately named “Fitzwilliam.”

Passersby seemed enchanted with the melding of the harp’s Old World sound with the flute’s dainty notes. The pair played for a few hours before joining the rest of the crowds to watch open-hearth cooking demonstrations and to explore local artists’ displays of weaving, painted ornaments and metal sculptures.

The event, which runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Dec. 8, and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Dec. 9, is free.

The Hermannhof Festhalle is located in downtown Hermann at 237 East First St. For directions or more details, call 800-393-0100 or visit the Hermann Arts Council Web site at

Festival of Lessons and Carols
Moving scripture passages accent the dramatic carols sung by student choirs and professional musicians during the Festival of Lessons and Carols at Fulton’s Westminster College.

The Church of St. Mary the Virgin’s deeply spiritual holiday service, which has been held for the past 20 years, is patterned after an annual festival held at Cambridge University in England.

“It is a wonderful opportunity for people to celebrate the birth of Christ in the intimate setting of an historic church,” says Westminster chaplain Rev. Brad Sheppard.

The 12th-century structure was moved stone by stone from London to its present site as a memorial to Winston Churchill’s visit to Westminster College.

Each year, the church’s members invite a different professional group to perform at the festival of carols each year. But the service’s inclusion of international student readers, student solos and Westminster College choirs has remained a constant since its inception.

“The musical talents and song choices change from year to year so that people who come each year will have something new to look forward to,” says Sheppard. “We’ve had performances from Celtic harpists and the Prairie Strings Quartet.”

The service will be held at 5 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 2, at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin on the Westminster campus in Fulton. For more information, call Rob Crouse, Westminster’s director of college relations, at 573-592-5319.

During Ste. Genevieve’s Country Christmas celebration, Les Petit Chanteurs, or “The Little Singers,” sing the hymns of their ancestors.

Country Christmas Walk
Close your eyes during the Ste. Genevieve Catholic church’s annual Festival of Carols concert and let the orchestrated hymns and sweet bell tones in the aged sanctuary whisk you away to the pews of a European cathedral.

“The sound quality of the church (founded in 1759) is the best I’ve played in,” says John Wibbenmeyer, director of the Ste. Genevieve Wind Ensemble. “The ambiance of the church and the way the music bounces off the ceiling makes you feel like you are back in time.”

The annual concert is expected to draw about 400 people from across Missouri and Illinois to experience the mix of secular jingles, such as “Jingle Bells,” and sacred classics, including “Angels We Have Heard on High.”

The town’s handbell choir, symphonic wind ensemble and community choir participate in the festive concert, which traditionally concludes with the “Hallelujah Chorus” and encores with “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”

“The first year we did the concert, we weren’t sure if people would come, but when we walked out to play, it was standing room only,” Wibbenmeyer says. “The last few years, if I leave a favorite song out, I hear about it at the grocery store. I’ll never forget to include ‘Sleigh Ride’ again, that is for sure.”

The concert is the culmination of the town’s grand Country Christmas Walk downtown. The event celebrates the sights, sounds and flavors of Ste. Genevieve’s French colonial heritage with French carolers and interpretive talks through the town’s many historic markers.

Les Petit Chanteurs, which translates to “The Little Singers,” harmonize Old World French and German carols during the celebration’s tree lighting ceremony. The young choir features local children singing the hymns of their ancestors.

The Strolling Happy Hatters sing carols along the historic downtown streets as French Militia men encourage visitors to shop for handmade gifts, taste delicate holiday French cuisine and meet Santa Claus during the holiday parade.

For more information about the annual Country Christmas Walk, Dec. 1-2, call the Ste. Genevieve Chamber of Commerce at 573-883-3686.

The Christmas parade in West Plains showcases the talent of many local high school marching bands.

West Plains Christmas Parade
A winding procession of colorful floats, coordinated marching bands and candy-tossing elves is the premiere event to herald the Christmas season.

While many towns host holiday parades in early December, West Plains’ 50-year-old Christmas parade nestled in the heart of the Ozarks is one of the state’s most spectacular holiday showcases.

Santa flies into town each year on a helicopter to kick-off the festivities with a Kiwanis pancake breakfast, which is free for kids 10 and under.

“Everyone just loves watching Santa Claus land in the helicopter,” says Kris Norman, West Plains Chamber of Commerce president. “Santa then takes pictures with children during the pancake breakfast before he heads to take his seat on the parade line.”

South-central Missouri’s largest Christmas parade starts about 1 p.m. along four-lane Porter Wagoner Boulevard. Miles of commercial and family floats mosey along the road to the big band beats of about eight middle and high school bands from West Plains and surrounding communities.

“We are the largest city within 100 miles, so the parade is a great opportunity to give bands from smaller towns the opportunity to showcase their talents,” says Norman, who expects about 5,000 onlookers. “The school bands are always a highlight of the parade. The kids practice so hard and play so well. Everyone likes to support their efforts.”
Rocky Long, West Plains High School director of bands, says the band plays some songs up to 20 times throughout the nearly two-hour parade to ensure that onlookers get an earful of beloved Christmas tunes.

“West Plains has a great tradition of parades. We are not your standard run-of-the-mill parade. Our parades feature a lot of local musical talent, and it is set in a great town with a lot of charm,” says Long. “We have families, schools, community organizations, churches and businesses that have been sponsoring floats or musical entries in these parades for generations. It is a real town event that everyone shows up to watch.”

Once judges finish tallying votes for the best floats in a variety of categories, the prizes are doled out and the downtown is opened to visitors to participate in a downtown stroll.

“The downtown stroll is a great finish to the parade,” Norman says. “The stores stay open later, and we have music and caroling to welcome people to the friendly town.”
For more information about West Plain’s Christmas parade on Dec. 8, call the West Plains Chamber of Commerce at 417-256-4433.

Heine is a freelance writer and former Rural Missouri intern.

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