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December 11, 2021

During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have considered what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. During this holy season, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to your place of worship or to your favorite charity. Thank you.

Mr. E.P. Todd was the principal of Cooperative Elementary School for many years. I, along with all seven of my brothers and sisters, were students at the school while Mr. Todd was the man in charge. He was a kind man with a tender heart and a firm hand. Mr. Todd was loved by pupils, parents, and teachers alike.

After his retirement, this remarkable man, who had made such an impact on so many children, lived into his nineties. One Christmas, after my siblings and I were all married adults with children of our own, we learned that Mr. Todd’s wife was seriously ill.  After our Neely Family Christmas Eve gathering, Dad suggested that we all go caroling at the Todd home. Without hesitation, we piled into vans and minivans for the opportunity. The night air was cold as we gathered in the carport outside Mr. Todd’s home. We sang one carol after another. Mr. and Mrs. Todd came to the backdoor. She was in a wheelchair. He opened the door and smiled with tears running down his cheeks.

When we finished the last carol, Mr. Todd passed peppermints around until he ran out.

“You have made our Christmas,” he said.

The experience certainly helped to make ours.

Saint Francis of Assisi is credited with originating the custom of outdoor caroling. He would gather a group of singers and move through the streets, lifting the songs of Christmas.

Indoors or out, carols are an important part of the celebration. For example, at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, England, the Christmas Eve service is a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. The Festival was introduced in 1918 to bring a more imaginative approach to worship. It was first broadcast on radio in 1928. Now it is heard by millions of people around the world. The service includes carols and readings from the Bible. The opening carol is always “Once in Royal David’s City.” The first verse is always sung a cappella by a young choirboy.  

As Christmas approaches, the sounds of carols fill the air. Not only can the music celebrating the birth of Christ be heard in churches and cathedrals, but it can also be recognized in the background at shopping malls, used car lots, and restaurants. Television commercials and the radio play the familiar songs of the season.

Much of the music of the holidays projects the happy attitude, “’tis the season to be jolly.”  In the grocery store I have heard the late Burl Ives encouraging shoppers, “Have a holly, jolly Christmas.”

For many people, like Mr. and Mrs. Todd, the Christmas season is anything but jolly. Each Christmas, one Minister of Music encouraged church members to go Christmas caroling to those in the church who had been recently bereaved. One Sunday just before Christmas, in the midst of a gathering recession, five men, all married with children, told me they had lost their jobs that very week.  Four of those five unemployed men went caroling with their families. Caroling is a significant ministry for the singers and for the hearers.

A woman who lives alone suffers severe bouts of depression and anxiety, especially at this time of year. She told me recently that sometimes at night, the whole world seems so dark. When she starts having heart palpitations, she sings Christmas carols. She told me, “I especially love the line, ‘a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.’ Just singing carols seems to help.”

The events surrounding the first Christmas were hardly reason to be jolly. A young teenage woman traveling by donkey found shelter in a stable where she gave birth to her first child. A carpenter was called upon to serve as a midwife for the woman he loved. Shepherds were minding their own business on a hillside near Bethlehem when all heaven broke loose. They were terrified. Then, angels sang the first Christmas carol, “Glory to God in the Highest!”  

On Christmas Day 2007, the Associated Press published the story of Bud Marquis. Bud, then 79 years old, lived near Homestead, Florida. The news story reminded readers that Bud was a forgotten hero. On December 29, 1972, Eastern Airlines Flight 401 was preparing to land at the Miami International Airport. Just after 11:30 P.M., following an uneventful flight from New York, the jet carrying 163 passengers and thirteen crew members began its approach.

The light on the control panel that indicates whether the plane’s nose gear is down had not yet illuminated. The pilot informed the control tower they would have to circle while crew members solved the problem. Air traffic controllers gave their permission. The crew was instructed to maintain an altitude of 2,000 feet.

The pilot thought he had engaged the autopilot. He had not. Instead Flight 401 went into a slow descent.

About twenty miles west of the airport, the crew received permission to turn back and make another approach. It was then that the pilot realized that the big jet was just a few feet above the Everglades. Seven seconds later, the plane’s left wing dug into the swamp going 227 miles per hour, sending it spinning like a pinwheel.

On that moonless night, Marquis was gigging frogs from his airboat. The city of Miami was just a distant pinpoint of light.  From ten miles away, Marquis saw a fiery orange flash.

Bud Marquis had served for years as a state game officer. He knew how to pick out island silhouettes in the dark and how to feel the changing terrain beneath his boat. Speeding across the saw grass and mud, the airboat reached a levee where Bud thought he’d seen the flash.

When he cut his engine, he heard a voice crying out, “I can’t hold my head up any more!”

Jet fuel seeped into his boots when he jumped into the water to pull the man up. He could see passengers still strapped in their seats, some turned facedown in the water.

In the alligator-infested swamp, a flight attendant gathered survivors around her. When they heard the airboat, they started singing Christmas carols so rescuers could find them. Bud heard the carolers and headed toward the improbable music.

Using a flashlight, Marquis motioned helicopters hovering above the wreckage toward a nearby levee.

On that dark December night, Bud Marquis pulled survivors from the water, taking a few at a time to the levee. He ferried arriving rescuers in to the wreckage site.

Ninety-four passengers, three pilots, and two flight attendants were dead. Investigators marveled that anyone had survived. In all, seventy-seven people were rescued, many of them by Bud Marquis.

For Marquis, the events of that night so long ago were vividly etched in his mind. He would always remember the sound of carols that dark night in the swamp.

Many folks have memories of a dark Christmas. After our son Erik died, that year was a difficult time for our family. We simplified our celebration, not decorating as extensively as we had in the past. A fresh wreath with a red bow was on the front door. A stately Fraser fir tree in the living room reminded us of the beauty of the season. Our Nativity scenes and Advent wreaths helped us focus on the gift at the heart of Christmas. But it was the music that carried us along, bringing comfort and joy to our souls.

We celebrated Christmas Eve with my larger family at my parents’ home. Little did we know that my mother was spending her last Christmas with us before her death the following April. On Christmas night, Clare prepared dinner for our family. We invited Mama and Dad to join us.

After a delicious meal, dessert, and coffee, I heard a knock at our front door. When I answered, I was surprised to see my good friend and colleague Ron Wells. We had served together on a church staff in times past. He was a remarkable Minister of Music. At the time, Ron was in a battle for his life against cancer. Yet, there he was at our front door, seated in a wheelchair, and surrounded by his wife, children, and grandchildren. The moment I opened the door, they started singing. Our family gathered on the front porch that cold Christmas night to listen to the carols. Tears came to my eyes just as tears had come to Mr. Todd’s on a Christmas years before.

The carols of Christmas bring hope and healing to broken hearts and troubled souls.

Phillips Brooks wrote, “Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

From Bethlehem to the Everglades, hope and fear still meet in the dark places of our lives. The deep longing for hope is reason enough to sing.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.

His novel, December Light 1916, is a cherished holiday book.

It is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.

He can be reached at

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