EAU CLAIRE — Multiple Christmas Eve events in the area will offer a sense of holiday connection during an extremely challenging year.
At 10 p.m. Thursday, residents of Eau Claire and Altoona are invited to go outside their front doors, light a candle and sing “Silent Night” followed by “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” To keep in tune and on time, 98.1 FM radio will be playing accompaniment for the songs over its airwaves.
That socially distanced event will occur a few hours after a similar one in Augusta. At 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve, community members will step onto their front steps and ring bells for two minutes to symbolically support Santa flying his sleigh.
Both celebrations want to create a sense of camaraderie even though people won’t be in close proximity to one another.
The idea for the Eau Claire event dates back a couple of months, when First Presbyterian Church Rev. Kathy Reid Walker saw plans for a similar musical event in a different location. Reid Walker pitched the idea to locals, who seemed responsive, so she is promoting it now on behalf of the church.
“Silent Night” would normally be sung during a candlelight worship service at First Presbyterian on Christmas Eve, so this event should resemble what people would usually do on that date. Instead of gathering together at a church, the lyrics will hopefully be sung by individuals outside their respective homes.
“The idea was to fill a void,” Reid Walker said. “People need something right now to be able to come together and feel like we’re doing something … We can still sing together.”
Reid Walker doesn’t know what to expect when the time comes on Christmas Eve, but she would “be so thrilled to come outside at 10 o’clock and hear all these voices.”
In Augusta, a different festive sound will occur for two minutes earlier in the evening. The bell-ringing event is jointly organized by members of the Augusta High School National Honor Society and the Augusta Senior & Community Center.
The aim is to create a safe sense of community and “make people feel like they are unified and taking part in something bigger, even if you can’t necessarily hear the bells,” said Kyle Shult, Honor Society historian and a junior at Augusta High School.
Barb Pritzl, director or the Augusta Senior & Community Center, saw a similar idea online and adjusted it to fit Augusta.
The Senior Center paid for the bells and also took gift bags with bells to local businesses and a few other community members.
Honor Society students spent a few weeks decorating the bells, which are gold or silver with red or green string. The bells were distributed to all Augusta students ages 4 through 18 and given to the senior center for community members to pick up. Bells were also distributed to everyone in Augusta who receives food from the county Meals on Wheels program.
Emily Mayer, Honor Society president and a senior at Augusta High School, mentioned the event to people in other communities, so she hopes they do it as well.
Becky Larson, Augusta school counselor, agreed.
“It would be amazing if everyone would grab some form of a bell across the whole area, and even in other cities and states, to be able to bring us all together in unity,” Larson said.
Larson, Mayer and Shult live in the country, so it may seem odd to ring bells on their front porch, but they said knowing other people are doing the same thing at the same time is special.
“If I’m sitting out two miles away from the school and I’m ringing my bell, it still feels like it’s a sense of unity and community because I know that the people in town are doing it,” Mayer said.
This year marks the first time for the events, which were borne of necessity. It might be tough to gauge their success since they will involve people spread across miles, but ideally the events can momentarily decrease the loneliness experienced by so many people in 2020. Indeed, Pritzl said the Augusta event will be worthwhile “if this helps even one person to feel less isolated.”
The community singing might only occur this year, but Reid Walker said continuing it in the future is possible if people are receptive. The Augusta bell-ringing may also be a one-time thing, but organizers said it could serve as the start of an annual communal event.
During a particularly turbulent, devastating year, the events offer a brief refuge and chance for connection.