The choir began its ticket vigil at 8:30 yesterday morning, but soprano Sheila Coleman-Castells didn't get to the Kennedy Center's Hall of Nations until just after 2 p.m., her 4-year-old, John-Paul, grasping her left hand tightly. Her other hand held an old Hecht's shopping bag containing four tangerines, two children's books and one very dog-eared score of Handel's "Messiah."
She quickly took her place on the red carpet among the accountants, therapists, librarians, government workers and dozens of others in line for one of the hottest tickets in town -- for their own performance. For two hours last night, the audience and choir were one and the same in the concert hall, as 2,600 singers, four soloists and an orchestra celebrated the story of Christ with a singalong of the renowned 18th-century oratorio.
"To me, if you're a musical Washingtonian, you need to say you've done this at least once in order to claim your heritage," said Coleman-Castells, 40, who drove in from Hyattsville.
She's now logged 30 singalongs and counting. Ten years ago when she was teaching English in Switzerland, she flew in on the afternoon of the performance and took a taxi to the Kennedy Center, suitcases in tow. And now that she has John-Paul, her child-custody agreement with her ex-husband requires that her son be with her every Dec. 23 so that he can sing along, too.
"It's my tradition," she said.
It's a Kennedy Center tradition as well, now in its 32nd year. The free annual event brings out pros and amateurs, singers and non-singers alike, children and retirees. They are, like Coleman-Castells, fanatics of a sort, for whom Christmas would not be Christmas without standing, as is traditional, for the Hallelujah Chorus or hearing the tenor aria that celebrates Christ's birth with the glorious runs of "Every valley shall be exalted."
It started for Coleman-Castells when she was 10, a kid with a voice from Northeast Washington whose grandfather served on one of the citizen panels that in the 1970s helped plan the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. With her parents' blessing, Coleman-Castells would take the bus across town by herself and wait for the "Messiah" ticket giveaway on the first or second Saturday in December.
Over the years, some things have changed. Now a divorced mother working as an educational consultant, she can no longer camp out all night in a line that snakes around the outside of the building.
So yesterday Coleman-Castells joined the last-minute crowd that hoped to pick up returned tickets 15 minutes before curtain time at 7:30 p.m.
They knitted, they read, they sipped iced tea, they ate Goldfish crackers and played Monopoly. John-Paul napped.
The singers recognize people they see only in one brief context from year to year. "It's family," said Carolyn Maassen, a music librarian from Springfield who was first in line, as a woman from Silver Spring and her daughter spread out their blankets next to her and recalled that they missed her last year.
The "Messiah," composed by George Frideric Handel in 24 days in 1741 and once sung for kings and queens, is now a popular Yuletide event around the world. The Kennedy Center performance has been the Rolls-Royce of singalongs since 1971, when Martin Feinstein, then the center's executive director, asked choral conductor Norman Scribner to fashion a December holiday festival.
The performance, abbreviated from three parts into what current conductor Barry Hemphill calls a "Reader's Digest" version, has always had spectacular drawing power. The music, a libretto of Old and New Testament texts set to virtuosic runs with rich chords, is glorious.
But there's something more: the restorative power of community singing, no matter how many mistakes by untrained voices that sing at this level just one night a year.
"There's something glorious about being in the midst of so many people singing," said Coleman-Castells, expressing the sentiments of fellow choristers. "In other kinds of concerts, you're really passive."
She says the mistakes -- and there are many -- are the best part of the experience because "they help to prove that, even with those glorious voices, we're all human."
Devotees of "Messiah" sing alongs cherish tradition. The late Paul Hill was the event's chief conductor and coach for 22 years until illness forced him to turn in his baton in 1993. Now Hemphill, director of the Arlington-based Metropolitan Chorus, serves as emcee and conductor, assisted by several local conductors. And Feinstein returns year after year to conduct the Hallelujah chorus.
Each year, Hemphill asks the singers how far they have come to sing, starting with 50 miles away. So far, Australia wins the long-distance prize.
"The one thing people crave is tradition," Hemphill said. "You know what's going to happen. It's like going to a warm, fuzzy place."
There's even a program with a synopsis of the history of the Kennedy Center "Messiah" singalong, because the people who attend "are traditionalists. . . . And they like to see themselves written about," said Mary Johnson, a spokeswoman for the center.
The experience is, for many, a great equalizer in all sorts of ways. There are singers who can't tell the difference between a quarter note and a whole note -- and rely instead on their ear.
For Coleman-Castells, who studied voice at Howard and Catholic universities, the choice of Hemphill as chief conductor was a powerful tribute to African Americans such as her with roots in Washington.
"Really, it's got nothing to do with a performance," Hemphill said. "It's got everything to do with participation."