Look, this story is going to make NO SENSE to anyone who didn’t attend my alma mater for undergraduate, so … you’ve been warned.
I love The Muppet Christmas Carol. It came out during my freshman year in college and I’m sure I watched it at home over the holiday, as did pretty much everyone else I knew.
I went to Bob Jones University for my undergraduate degree, which is just a whole ball of wax that I won’t get into today. A few things were true for me that second half of my freshman year:
1) I was really quite lonely, being 500 miles from home and not really fitting in with any particular group of friends yet. (Got that sorted out later my sophomore year; life got much better.) Now I also realize I was going through some major culture shock as a first-gen college student from a poor family now at a private college. There were plenty of other kids like me around, but my roommates were all from higher social classes and the culture gap was huge.
2). Winter months suck everywhere, and they suck in the South too. Walking in cold rain everywhere just….sucks. February classes suck. Everything sucks.
3) Another girl from my hometown was at BJU and we were across the hall from each other. We weren’t really “friends” as much as we were both fish out of water trying to figure out college and new social groups. So we tended to eat together, go to events together, etc. DB was deliciously sarcastic, a trait I appreciate much more now that I’m looking back on it.
Trying to explain “Vespers” to y’all
I told you this would get weird.
Being a fundamentalist Christian place, BJU was “all in” on doing church A LOT. So we had required services on Sunday mornings, then a Sunday School group with our peers, then lunch, then just enough time to haul up to the big auditorium for “Vespers,” an afternoon program of drama and choral numbers.
… I don’t know how to explain it. Did you grow up in the 80s with only 6 TV channels? Did you ever get stuck at your aunt or grandma’s house and they were watching the religious TV channel and Day of Discovery came on with those 1970s people in weird orange dresses would sing hymns outside in Cypress Gardens, Florida, then some dude would talk about the Bible for a while? No? You’re saying it was just me?
Well, that. But throw in like, a knock-off live-action TV drama about a Bible theme too.
Vespers was serious stuff, y’all. You had to go (or you’d get demerits); you went 2x a month, and it took a solid 90 minutes out of your Sunday afternoon nap. If you were unlucky enough to get stuck with the 4:00 Vespers slot, you had to kill time between lunch and Vespers, and your day was all broken up. Plus you were expected to go to church in town that night too, with services starting at 5 or 6pm. I say these things out loud and figure maybe I should just write a book about how bizarre this period of my life was.
So the Muppet Christmas Carol was in our minds when DB and I rolled into Vespers the last weekend in January.
The first Vespers of a semester was always a bit of a shitshow: the directors of this high-stress, only-mattered-because-the-pond-was-small production were usually faculty in the speech department or maybe some hapless graduate student trying to wrap up a MFA.
The choirs changed personnel every semester, so they’d just gotten the music a couple weeks ago and had practiced only a little. Some Vespers directors were much better than others; I think this one was directed by a lady on the speech faculty that I had already decided I didn’t like very much.
To say the program was lackluster would be an understatement. I had an entire SEMESTER’S worth of experience in Vespers by this point, so… 6 shows?, and I *knew* this was a steaming pile of awful. We buckled in for the long hall; we were already not in the mood and had purposefully lagged to be the last in the crowd seated and ended up being seated in the balcony of Rodeheaver.
Ah, the balcony. The dark, dank, sharply sloped den of wickedness, where little light penetrated once the house lights went down, and couples could hold hands or snuggle without getting caught. (Touching someone of the opposite sex, at any point, for any reason, was strictly forbidden and punishable by demerits and worse.) There DB and I were in the pit of evil, sulking about our cold trudge across campus to watch a dumb show that we didn’t want to be there for.
I always had hope for the musical numbers; I’m a choral nerd at heart so usually those weren’t bad. But this week, even those were really rough. It was the choir I had noticed usually seemed a bit sub-par. All the choirs at Bob Jones who sang regularly in public had a particular color-coordinated wardrobe which was maintained by the (incredible) production staff of the Rodeheaver stage.
(Look, BJU is weird as hell but the seamstresses in the Costume Department were absolutely brilliant. I was in two operas and the dresses I wore fit me better than any garment I’ve worn since.)
I think this choir was wearing gold dresses made of what can only be described as a marriage of someone’s seat cushion and the curtains at Biltmore.
The curtain rose on the 40 members arrayed on risers, with huge vases of colored frond-grass piled up in various spots across the stage.
(This is where the Muppets finally come back around.)
DB punched me in the arm and whispered “This is our island in da sun!”
The song that the Muppets who work alongside Bob Cratchit in Scrooge’s horrible office sing after he threatened them for complaining about the cold! The muppets dance around, waving colored fronds, pretending it was a tropical paradise and not a capitalist hell! 35 DEGREES? IT’S A HEAT WAVE!
And there it was! Reproduced, more or less, and accidentally, in front of our sarcastic 18-year-old eyes.
(Not that the director had intended her fluffy, colored grasses to remind immature audience members of a Muppet show, but that’s exactly what it did. I have no clue what they were singing. I can’t tell you anything else about the program, honestly.)
DB and I began to laugh and then cackle, and then tears streaming down our faces.
We snickered and cried through the rest of the program, desperately working to hide the meltdown lest some narc GA or faculty member was sitting up there in the balcony crowd.
Disney offers this clip on its website for all of us to enjoy:
DB and I drifted apart pretty rapidly after our freshman year. She’d found her friend group and pre-law major, and I went my own way. But for YEARS, we would laugh about this.
I still laugh about it. If it got too cold in my classroom, I would sing and dance “This is Tahiti in the summer!” which confused the hell out of my students who probably had never seen this movie and definitely didn’t have the patience to sit through this story.
Thank you, Ms. Speech Lady Whose Vesper Sucked in January 1993. You brightened that dark semester. You didn’t mean to, because yours really was probably the worst Vespers I ever had to attend, but the joke has carried me through a few decades now, and for that I am thankful.
You can stream The Muppet Christmas Carol on Disney+ or buy the DVD on Amazon (that’s my affiliate link – thanks for clicking it; I get a couple pennies if you do!)