The Singing Christmas Tree is one of a number of traditions that Belhaven can call truly its own. Students of last year, especially the singers, will not readily forget the falling of the snow as the 77th annual Singing Christmas Tree sent forth its first notes and the spontaneous, campus-wide celebration of life that followed. People from across Jackson gather yearly, and have for more than half a century, to enjoy the secular and sacred music that the chorus gives from an odd, pyramidal stair of platforms.
The Singing Christmas Tree is one of the most potent legacies of Mrs. Mignonne Caldwell, a voice teacher at Belhaven normally called “Miss Nonne.” Christmastime was celebrated at Belhaven before; caroling was a tradition before the tree. Girls would gather at a faculty member’s house for two hours of practicing, coffee, and cake. At midnight they would walk through Jackson, singing Christmas songs to their neighbors. It was also common for student organizations to “adopt” a local poor family and give them presents, fruit baskets, and clothing. But there was also a great Christmas Day feast with the president and faculty. In 1933, Mrs. Caldwell had the idea of an after-dinner entertainment where a chorus of girls arranged themselves in the shape of a Christmas tree and sang for the guests.
This happened every year for three years, until the people of Jackson started pressing the college for performances. The Singing Christmas Tree was moved outside and made a public event with free admission. A large wooden structure was devised to support the tree and the singers were given strands of lights to hold. Eventually these were colored lights that changed with each song. The Tree normally sang between the white columns, by the lagoon. In 1962 male singers were added, and the next year the whole spectacle was moved to the Bowl. Every year afterward had about 145-150 singers from students, faculty, and alumni, who visited Belhaven just to sing and attend the reception that was often held for them. It was a great honor for each senior soprano to be selected for the very top of the tree, where she would sing “O Holy Night.” In the 70s the city was sometimes so quiet and the air so clear that she could be heard from N. State Street.
Even without snow, it is always memorable. In one 1975 performance, a jet flew overhead while the chorus sang, “Angels from the realms of glory, wing your flight o’er all the earth.” Bettye Quinn, Legacy Faculty member, Associate Professor of Education, Director of Elementary Education, first heard the Tree when she was three, and it became her “life’s dream” to sing on it. She did not get the opportunity as a student, but in her earlier years as a faculty member sang regularly. The tradition of changing words in the songs to in-jokes is an old one. Singers used to prank their director, Mr. Ford, by including his name in some of the songs. Although accidents were rare, on the 20′ tree it was not uncommon for girls on the upper levels to faint. Tightly-packed as they were, falling was almost impossible, and it was apparently thought romantic by some girls in the 70s to be carried down afterward by male students.
The tradition has been a huge success. In the 70s and 80s the Tree was attended yearly by a crowd of about 20,000. Alumni brought the idea with them to other communities, and colleges across the country picked up on it. Belhaven made instruction packets and technical books available to various organizations interested in the idea. Postcards were issued with a picture of the Tree, and it was noted among various other Jackson attractions and quaint Christmas traditions in magazines. Today the Singing Christmas Tree idea, which once existed only in the mind of Belhaven instructor “Miss Nonne,” is popular worldwide, and a tradition of which Belhaven may rightly be proud.
Rex Bradshaw is a senior history major at Belhaven University. Rex digs through the Belhaven archives for lesser-known facts and stories from Belhaven’s history.