My childhood encompassed the late eighties through the nineties. I also grew up in a small town in North Dakota. In those days and in that place, Christmas was a big part of not only my church life, but also my school life.
My first Christmas concerts date back to my days of preschool, in the home of my teacher, Margie. Margie was a retired schoolteacher, but never stopped sharing her love with children. She wore very high heels, lots of jewelry, and lipstick. I loved her. I wish I had even faint memories of singing in our little classroom in her basement, but I’m afraid I only “remember” the pictures I’ve seen.
In elementary school, I had the same music teacher from first grade to sixth, Mrs. Reinhiller. Under her direction, each class put on a Christmas concert every December. For every one of those years, just like my older brother before me and I’m quite sure my much younger brother too, each grade stood on the same three-level risers in the high school gym to perform. It was there we belted out sweet songs like “The snow is gently falling …” or the classics “I ain’t gettin’ nothin’ for Christmas …” and “All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth.”
In fifth grade, we also put on a Christmas play. We even had to try out for roles. And me being me, a serious tomboy and never one to say, “That’s the way it is,” and settle, I tried out for the roll of what was to be a boy. The character’s name was Roadie Vallay, but I made her my own. A cowgirl with a funny voice. She was the sidekick to Tex, played by my childhood best friend, Nevada. I really enjoyed it. But my acting career was limited to that and one other big show in high school.
When I was a sophomore, our church youth director and one of my dear friends, Jackie, wanted to put on a play. It would be fairly elaborate, with the characters beginning the show while attendees ate dinner in the gathering space. It would later move into the church and conclude outside under the stars. Jackie asked me to play Mary and asked a senior (my brother’s class) named Darby, to be Joseph. I had a little hissy about having to play such a close and hugging role with Darby. Jackie thought I was kidding and had some crush on him – I think Mom finally told her: I wasn’t really kidding. (Absolutely no offense to Darby. My 15-year-old problem was clearly dramatic!)
Darby and I spent a lot of time together for probably two months. I worked hard to memorize lines and we often rehearsed. I can’t remember a lot of the specifics, but we made a good pair, and it was a unique and beautiful show that parents and old ladies alike really enjoyed. Even the dads seemed to be having fun.
And the absolute best part was that Darby continuously called me the wrong name throughout the night. Seriously, how can you forget “Mary,” when you’re Joseph?? I remember getting embarrassed and frustrated at him, but it garnered a lot of laughs.
I believe that was the last Christmas program I ever performed in. I quit playing the trumpet around that time, only had a piano recital from 4th-6th grade, and my limited 5th and 10th grade acting careers were over. And I never joined choir.
Somewhere along the way, someone told me I had a bad voice, that it was too “low.” I know who and when. And it convinced me to never, ever, open my mouth to sing. Except in my car. Music has been one of the most important parts of my life as long as I can remember, but I vowed to never sing in public.
Until last year in December. I cold called a woman who directed the music at our church, and asked if she’d give me private voice lessons. Turns out she could and would. For one year, I’ve worked on claiming another voice. A voice I didn’t know I had. A singing voice. And I can actually sing quite high.
I won’t be a part of any plays, pageants, or solos, but learning how to comfortably sing for me and for my speeches, has been a true joy. And knowing that I started the process in the Christmas spirit and after my illness, is a memory to add to my collection alongside Roadie and Mary.
My wish for you this Christmas season is that wherever you are and whatever you’re battling, may you feel connected with your voice. The one that allows you to speak your thoughts and to offer words of kindness. The one that gives you confidence as you begin your walk into a new year. The one that tells you you’re enough, you’re worthy, and that you’re special. That voice that can sing or cry, depending on what you need. The one that tells you can make it, no matter what.
Take some time in front of your tree or the bright beautiful lights outside to think about the power of your voice. And commit that you’ll never let someone convince you that it’s the wrong tone or tempo.
And thanks for allowing my voice into your home, by way of this blog, the Brain Fever podcast, or Unwillable. I hope it has spoken to you on some level. And if you’re still up for it in 2023, I’m sure I’ll be talking about something.
God bless to you all and know of my love and friendship. And have a Merry Christmas and joyous New Year!
“Oh morning stars together, proclaim thy holy birth. And praises sing to God the king, and peace to men on earth.
"Then darkness wakes, the glory breaks
As Christmas comes once more." ~ O Little Town of Bethlehem (Garth Brooks’ rendition is life changing)
/ / The JM Stebbins blog is an autoimmune encephalitis blog from autoimmune encephalitis survivor, Jackie M. Stebbins.
Jackie M. Stebbins is also the author of, Unwillable: A Journey to Reclaim my Brain, a book about autoimmune encephalitis. / /