Jennifer Williams loved the color red.
A 1993 graduate of Boiling Springs High School, she was known for her singing voice, Converse sneakers and courage in the face of adversity.
“The obstacles she faced as a student,” recalled Keith Roden, choral director. “She was in a major accident, but bounced back from that when she should not have.”
As an adult, Williams developed cancer and died Dec. 11, 2008, at her home in Mount Holly Springs. She was 33 when she died.
The tribute to her life could have ended with her funeral, but her classmates had other ideas. They wanted to celebrate the spirit of the girl they knew as Jennifer Chestnut in the context of the holiday season and a tradition that began in 1967.
Every year, the annual Holiday Choral Concert showcases the talents of South Middleton high school and middle school students with ensembles performing selections of sacred and secular music.
Since 1967, each concert has ended with high school chorus alumni taking the stage with current chorus members for the singing of the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s “Messiah.” The concert scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 19 in the Brenneman Auditorium will mark the 50th anniversary of what has become a seasonal staple for the Boiling Springs area community.
In December 2008, chorus alumni contacted Roden a week before the concert and asked if arrangements could be made for each chorus member to wear a red ribbon pinned to their robes in honor of Williams.
There was a scramble to make their request a tribute that included explaining the back story to the students before the concert and to the audience during the event.
“It was a powerful moment,” said Roden, recalling how classmates of Williams stepped onto the stage and sang their hearts out. “Jennifer was a special kid that stood out above all others.”
For 29 years, Roden has put together the annual concert with its signature finale. To mark the 50th anniversary, he is encouraging as many alumni as possible to attend the event next Tuesday and take the stage in celebration of a milestone.
“Please make a special effort to come out,” Roden said. “I would love to see the stage filled.”
Sierra Harvey, Class of 2018, is an alto on the chorus. She designed an illustration for a special T-shirt that is on sale to commemorate the 50th anniversary. Her work also appears on the concert program cover. Admission is free.
Roden, who is choral director for both the high school and Yellow Breeches Middle School and also is the music department chair, is not sure what inspired the start of the special “Hallelujah” chorus sing in December 1967.
The tradition was deeply entrenched in the community by the time he arrived at the South Middleton School District in 1988. Like any new choral director, Roden wanted to implement changes and leave his mark on the program. But he learned right away from the high school student body that the “Hallelujah” sing is not something to be messed with. Roden has embraced the tradition.
“For me, it’s a sense of community that connects the past with the present,” he said. “It’s a common thread from generation to generation.” The students Roden taught in the early stages of his career are now the parents of his current choir members at both the middle school and high school.
During the “Hallelujah” chorus, mothers and fathers sing with sons and daughters. College students join their younger siblings on the stage. There are people as old as 60 that Roden doesn’t recognize. And these alumni take the tradition seriously.
“They do not just come along for the ride,” Roden said. “They know it as if they had graduated yesterday. They spent four years in high school singing it. It’s part of them. This tradition is held in very high esteem by the school and the community.”
Not going away
While many schools across the country have moved away from performing sacred music at holiday concerts, South Middleton has kept it a part of the repertoire, especially the “Hallelujah” chorus.
“It’s a great example of the Baroque period of music,” Roden said of the masterpiece by German composer George Handel. “It’s a great teaching tool for me. It’s a challenging piece of music accessible to different levels of choir.”
Though normally associated with Christmas, the Hallelujah chorus is actually sung toward the end of the “Messiah” oratorio in a section known as “God’s Ultimate Victory.” “It’s a song of triumph,” Roden said.