In Shenandoah Chapel, Carols Reign

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The Old Bethel Chapel near Virginia's Shenandoah River is within sight of the Allegheny Mountains. The chapel dates to the 1830s and now is only open for one service in August and the traditional caroling service before Christmas.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Well, now we have a story from NPR's Noah Adams that is both warm and very chilly and both dark and light. Noah takes us to an annual gathering in the Virginia countryside to sing Christmas carols.

NOAH ADAMS: This was Sunday at five o'clock. Sunday, the winter solstice. Darkness would soon close the day that had the least light of the year. Imagine the beginning of winter back in 1833, an icy wind at sunset, families from the farms walking or riding horses or in buggies. Along the ridge here above the Shenandoah Valley, they gather at a handsome country church. A latecomer would see the warm light and could hear the pump organ leading the voices.

(Soundbite of song "Hark The Herald Angels Sing")

Choir: (Singing) Hark the Herald angels sing Glory to the newborn King…

ADAMS: Today, some nearby neighbors do walk here, but the parking lot is full as almost 300 people come to sing. The number grows every year. They call this church Old Bethel. Once there was a congregation. Now the church is mostly unused. It's a revered landmark. There's an ongoing restoration led by a board of directors. The building has never had electricity. There is no heat. It's only open for one service in late summer, the occasional wedding, and every December for the music.

(Soundbite of song "Hark The Herald Angels Sing")

Choir: (Singing) Hark the Herald angels sing Glory to the newborn King…

ADAMS: The church has tall, 24-pane windows. They are dimming with frost, but from the balcony, you can see the first ridge of the Allegheny Mountains disappear as it gets dark. Inside, people hold small candles. Candles are on the window sills, sitting on glass plates that look like ice. There are two kerosene lamp chandeliers. They have a softer glow reflected in the polished brass of the hand bells that await to be played. The carol singers all keep their hats and scarves and gloves on. The service is short.

(Soundbite of church service)

Unidentified Man: And may the Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon us and give us peace, both this night and forever more. Amen.

Crowd: Amen.

ADAMS: The annual carol singing at Old Bethel is over. The cars and trucks leave. Candles and lamps carefully are blown out. The doors locked. The deep cold will resettle, and this Virginia country church will stay empty and dark, waiting for a wedding. Noah Adams, NPR News.

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