Magic of Christmas concert Dec. 10 at the Merrill Auditorium in Portland. Sofia Aldinio/Staff Photographer

As the Magic of Christmas Chorus filed onto the stage, the singers’ buttons glinted under the lights.

From a distance, the audience at Portland’s Merrill Auditorium might have assumed the shiny pins were simply a festive accessory, similar to the bright red bow ties, meant to liven up their black choral garb. A closer look, however, shows a tribute to tradition. The one fastened to Mia Dodge’s gown says “More Than 40 Years.”

“I forget how many,” Dodge said with a laugh.

It’s been 43 years, in fact. Dodge, 74, is the longest-singing member of the chorus at the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s annual “Magic of Christmas” performance. The holiday showcase, which continues this weekend, is in its 44th year (including a digital-only concert in 2020 in response to COVID-19 pandemic). The event is as much a staple for those onstage as it is for locals who attend, as essential to the holiday season as the homemade fudge the sopranos circulate at intermission. (For sweet singing, they say.) The program changes every year, but some songs cannot be cut. And who would want to skip the jolly rendition of “Sleigh Ride,” when the musicians and singers don silly hats or sparkly reindeer ears?

Beth Eastman warms-up before the concert. She has been singing for 42 years with the Magic of Christmas Chorus. Sofia Aldinio/Staff Photographer

“It just becomes part of your Christmas,” said Beth Eastman, who is in her 42nd year in the chorus. “It wouldn’t be Christmas without it.”

For others, it is a tradition in the making. During the performance last Friday evening, music director Eckart Preu asked everyone to stand if this year was their first at “Magic of Christmas.” Dozens of people in the audience and onstage rose.


“Wow, where have you been?” he said to applause.

Preu gave credit to the veterans, too. Musicians and singers stood to show their participation for 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, 40 years – and more. Only a handful remained on their feet at the very end. Eastman, who is 67 and lives in Scarborough, was among them. So was Dodge, who joined the second-ever Magic of Christmas Chorus. She grew up in a musical home. Her mother, Rachael Brown, had both a pipe organ and a baby grand piano in her house in Gorham, and she was forever drafting her children into the local choirs she frequented.

“She sang tenor, I sang soprano, my sister sang alto,” Dodge said. “When we were growing up, we would sing around the piano.”

Eckart Preu leads the “Magic of Christmas” concert at Merrill Auditorium in Portland on Sunday. Sofia Aldinio/ Staff Photographer

Brown was a member of the inaugural Magic of Christmas Chorus, and she told her daughter it was so fun that she had to join, too. Dodge, who lives in Buxton, has been a part of the show ever since, and her husband and son have been in the audience as many years. Brown sang in “Magic of Christmas” until she was 90, only a few years before she died. Now, Dodge said, the tradition is one that reminds her of her mother.

“Anytime there’s music,” she said. “It’s a gift.”

Principal bassoonist Janet Polk has been part of “Magic of Christmas” since 1992. She likes the performances because they’re more relaxed. Polk’s red-and-green striped socks would probably not meet orchestra dress code in other months, and when else can you see professional violinists with silver tinsel on their bows? The orchestra does not often have an accompanying chorus, but for her, this group brings an important element to the orchestra’s holiday spirit. The orchestra had a rehearsal without the chorus in the days before the opening concert, and Polk said she felt something was missing.


Principal bassoonist Janet Polk warms up before a “Magic of Christmas” performance. Sofia Aldinio/Staff Photographer

“You listen to the holiday songs, and we can play them on instruments, which is what we do,” Polk said. “But there’s something about these songs that need words, the marriage of words and music together. Either they tell stories, or they create emotions, whether it’s joy or sadness or reverence. To have the chorus back there just singing their hearts out, just helping convey all this meaning, I think is essential.”

Phil Rowe, 65, only started singing 15 years ago. His wife has been singing her entire life and has a long history at “Magic of Christmas,” and he thought chorus practice could be a nice date night. Now, he is the manager of the Magic of Christmas Chorus, handling logistics and schedules for the 90-odd members. He hopes that soon his oldest grandchild will be able to join the youth chorus at “Magic of Christmas,” and his family could have three generations on stage.

“People really count on and use the ‘Magic of Christmas’ to really help usher in, hopefully, a wonderful period,” he said.

Hentus van Rooyen is in his first year as the chorus master for the Magic of Christmas Chorus, but he says it will definitely not be his last. A native of South Africa, van Rooyen is the director of music ministries at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Cape Elizabeth. When rehearsals started in October, he was amazed to learn that some members were driving three hours each way to participate.

Hentus van Rooyen, the Magic of Christmas Chorus master, leads the chorus in rehearsal before an afternoon performance. Sofia Aldinio/Staff Photographer

“The chorus is all volunteer singers,” he said. “They are just people from around Maine. It is wonderful how this has become such an important part of their holiday experience, and it is like a little community all on its own.”

A favorite tradition he discovered takes place off stage. The chorus practices for weeks at Sable Lodge Retirement Community in South Portland and then gives a special concert for the residents there. The season can be physically exhausting – “Magic of Christmas” is a total of 12 shows, not to mention other choir commitments and holiday events for the singers – but van Rooyen said the singers warm up for their sixth show of the weekend with the same energy they brought to the first.

“I’m looking forward to next weekend to do it all over again,” he said.

Hentus van Rooyan, the Magic of Christmas Chorus master, leads the chorus in rehearsal before the afternoon performance Dec. 10. Sofia Aldinio/Staff Photographer

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