Main Piece: “At the end of the Christmas term in December in school…um…everyone would have to sing in the choir. So a big choir was assembled and everyone had to sing in it in a carol service…so we’d sing a lot of carols. And then afterwards, we would have a nice dinner which was probably the only nice dinner we’d have that term. And then we would each be given a Christmas pudding to take home to our families.”
Background: The informant says the tradition went on about 100 years before he attended boarding school (in England) and continued until the school no longer existed. He says he enjoyed singing the carols because this was the time everyone began to feel Christmas had arrived, even though it was still a week before Christmas. The informant says, “everyone loved the frivolity and the presents they’d get on Christmas.” He remembers that the dinner was infinitely better than the typical dinner, but would fall short of a nice Christmas dinner today. The meal included meat, potatoes, and vegetables. The dinner was noteworthy to the informant because it was the best dinner all term and he enjoyed everyone’s company before they left for winter break.
Performance Context: We spoke over the phone.
My Thoughts: Because the informant was not fond of the typical boarding school dinner, the Christmas dinner was especially exceptional. The tradition was rooted in routine: singing in the choir followed by a dinner that remained the same meat, potatoes, and vegetables, and sending each boy home with a Christmas pudding. It is remarkable that this tradition persisted as long as it did. The informant recalls his anticipation of this annual dinner as it was much more luxurious than what he was used to. The dinner (singing carols, eating a nice meal, enjoying company) brings to mind a classic retail image of Christmas.
My informant was in theater and choir in high school. He told me about one particular joke that his choir director liked to tell during their concerts. This is his description:
“My choir director in high school would always tell the same joke during our concerts. I think he learned it from his college a cappella group, and the joke was, ‘What’s blue and looks like a bucket? A blue bucket. And what’s red and looks like a bucket? A blue bucket disguised as a red bucket.’ And I never really thought it was funny, and he told it at every single concert whenever there was an a long transition onstage and it was just silent and awkward in the house, and he would just tell that joke. Then after he passed away halfway through my sophomore year, at every concert since, someone if there’s ever an awkward silence will say, ‘What’s blue and looks like a bucket?’ And we’ll all laugh, but the new choir director doesn’t get it at all. And that’s actually very funny, because he doesn’t get it and we all do, which is probably mean.”
Humor is often used to alleviate tension. In this case, my informant did not always think this particular joke was very humorous, but he appreciated his director’s attempts to fill some awkward silences. This piece of folklore was initially used to lighten the mood of the audience; it also fostered a sense of community, because people who were members of the choir or who attended the concerts regularly could be in on the joke. They knew it was coming, and when it inevitably did, they could laugh together. In contrast, the new choir director was seen as a bit of an outsider, because he did not fully appreciate the context of the joke and never thought it was funny in the way that the rest of the community did. In addition to separating the choir and the devoted concert attendees from the newcomers, this folklore evolved into a token of remembrance. After the death of the old choir director, students told it to honor his memory in a way. It is a small example of how people sometimes use humor to cope with death. Instead of paying somber tributes to the former choir director at every concert, they tell a joke and make people laugh; they are able to fondly remember one of his silly habits together.