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Church choir brings good cheer to Mantecans
Esther Gonzales, right, daughter Camela Harris and granddaughter Aurelia Harris get busy in the kitchen serving piping-hot Mexican food to the carolers on Monday. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO

The night was cold. But the Christmas carolers, which included bundled-up young ones being carried in the arms of their parents, were oblivious to the nippy weather.

Beneath a proudly waving Old Glory, whose rhythmic thump-thumping sounds in the evening breeze was the only accompaniment to the choir’s a cappella performance, the group belted out Christmas carols to their appreciative audience gathered in the front patio of a home at Primavera in Manteca.

At the end of the al fresco performance, a beaming Esther Gonzales flung open her white-washed patio gate and warmly welcomed the visitors inside her spacious home.

It’s a scene that has become a yearly tradition at Christmas time for Gonzales and her extended family since Christmas of 2004. But Monday night’s Christmas caroling was the first time the friendly and gregarious Gonzales has prepared hot chocolate and piping hot Mexican dishes for her equally appreciative guests. She is a good cook whose tasty and crumbly empanada has become close to legendary among her extended family and close friends. But for this evening gathering, Gonzales got expert assistance from her daughter Carmela Harris, whose culinary talents were obviously picked up under the family’s genetic tree.

The informal dinner was also Gonzales’ way of expressing her appreciation and thanks to the singing group made up of choir members from St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Manteca, plus some members of their families who “tagged along” that evening. Also, since her home is the carolers’ last stop for the evening, Gonzales said she wanted to serve something hot to the carolers after being out in the cold. The group went caroling to about a dozen houses on Monday.

“I like it. I enjoy that,” an enthused and thankful Gonzales said of the carolers coming to share traditional Christmas carols at her home.

“You only live once, so enjoy everything day by day,” added the smiling mother and grandmother many times over whose Korean veteran husband, a paratrooper during the Korean War, passed away barely a year ago.

Two other daughters, Doreen and Glenda, and several grandchildren as well as a great-grandchild were also on hand to spread holiday cheer that evening and help serve food and drinks to the guests.

While Gonzales has hosted the carolers for the past three years, the choir has been doing their annual Christmas caroling several years longer than that. Jackie Bylow, a longtime member of the choir, said they’ve been doing it mostly at the homes of people they know around her neighborhood and at the home of her brother and sister-in-law, Tom and Belinda Berry.

Gonzales, whose house is at the other end of town from where the Bylows live, was added to their caroling itinerary at the request of her daughter Glenda.

Bylow said her daughter Kristy and Glenda happened to work together at the the District Attorney’s Office in Manteca. Glenda and daughter Riley had been doing Christmas caroling with another group, and when that folded they asked if

they could join Bylow’s group. And that’s how the Gonzales connection started, Bylow explained.

The two women also happen to share a common experience, which has cemented their friendship. Bylow also has just lost her husband, Melvyn, who died las year. He was also a longtime member of the choir and was part of the caroling group as well, Bylow explained.

Another choir member who joined the carolers Monday was Brad Valencia who joined the group five years ago when he and wife Rebecca started worshipping at St. Anthony’s.

“It’s a beautiful church and it’s full of the Holy Spirit,” Brad Valencia said of the reason why he and his wife enjoy attending services at the church on East North Street and Fremont Avenue.

Rebecca does not sing with the choir.

“I just came along,” she said explaining her presence at the group caroling.

But, she said, “I like the idea that we can make people happy. It brings people together. I think it’s a community thing, for our neighborhood to feel good. That’s what Christmas is all about.”