alums sing

Knoxville High choir alums mix in with their former choir mates to sing "O Holy Night" at Monday's winter concert.

December of 2000 was surely the snowiest of 20 Decembers I’ve spent in Iowa. And the 23rd of that month was like too many days before it, with single-digit temps and drifting snow.

It was a great Saturday for a cup of cocoa, maybe after sledding with the kids for 30 minutes (or when frostbite set in — whichever came first). This explains why we chose to move into our new home that day.

For three years, we’d rented a nice home on the crooked road to Melcher. Leaving it — at least on this cruel day — was a bit like parachutists who jump out of perfectly fine airplanes. Only colder.

But it was time. We’d spent most of that month painting and packing while paying to upgrade every inch of flooring in the house. For too long, we’d paid good money to a good man who was ready to reclaim his home. And, most importantly, we had a convoy coming.

Who needs professional movers when you have my wife’s family? Four pickup trucks and a livestock trailer hauled most of our stuff. They churned through axle-high snow up our driveway as our front room quickly filled with boxes.

It was plenty dark by the time my wife went to fetch our kids from her sister. I had just one job left. I forged a path through the boxes and, in the corner, I set up our Christmas tree. Laura soon returned with the kids, then ages 6, 3 and 1. Christmas, and a long chapter in our life, could begin. Amid our exhaustion, what a gift to share!

A few weeks ago, I visited the Marion County Writer’s Workshop. The group was given an intriguing suggestion: Write about the worst Christmas ever.

My only challenge seemed to be picking from so many disastrous and dysfunctional Christmases past. For better or worse, life got too busy to write that week and worse since. Those ghosts’ chains rattled unheard.

Since then, I’ve had much to ponder. It’s the most wonderful time of the year for some. But other families are torn by grief, depression, poverty, addiction, abuse, violence and more. In those weeks, I watched one home burn to the ground and visited another where a beloved woman died a violent death. I can’t imagine what Christmas is like for those families; I can only pray for them.

I pray for grace, for them and for the world. Grace is a gift, and I felt it abundantly Tuesday night. That kid who once was one year old is now 18, out of the nest but home for the holidays. He’ll likely find some other town to live life, but for a few graced moments, I was blessed to watch him be part of a unique Knoxville moment.

At the end of every Christmas concert, Knoxville High choral music teacher Jackie Duffy invites choir alumni to the stage to sing “O, Holy Night.” Up they come, some in Christmas sweaters, many familiar faces fresh off their first final exams. They mix among the robed choir members and, without rehearsal, sing flawlessly.

The trick, of course, is that the alums have performed it at least four times before, but it’s still amazing. It’s still grace. It’s a homecoming. It makes this town seem like home.

This month’s weather has done little to remind me of that December long ago. My weariness brings me back a bit. But a sublime moment can bring memories home, whether your tears are of joy or of longing.

This Christmas, wherever our paths have led, I hope we experience what those young singers voiced: “a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.”

Pat Finan is the managing editor of the Journal-Express. He can be reached in the newsroom at 641-842-2155 or via email at

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