December has just begun, but Daniel Lefler already has what he wants this holiday season.
"I'm wearing crushed velvet, and it's awesome," said Lefler, a Haddonfield Memorial High School senior.
Not only that, he's getting to wear a jingle hat that tinkles every time he moves his head. For the next few weeks, Lefler will get to publicly cavort with his friends and, best of all, they'll be singing madrigals, a beautiful a cappella musical form with origins in the 16th century.
"The holidays aren't the same without madrigals," Lefler, 18, said.
For the singers at the handful of schools in the region that have groups dedicated to performing this ambitious type of music, the holiday season is an especially busy time. Even the school groups that don't slip in some old holiday chestnuts find themselves in demand by community organizations that want the intricate choral music at their seasonal events.
"Sometimes my madrigal group will do a dozen extra concerts in a season," said Helen Stanley, who has directed the group at Gateway Regional High School in Woodbury Heights for around 30 years.
In addition to performing at venues such as community tree lightings, senior citizen events, service organizations' holiday parties, and their schools' winter concerts, some madrigal groups really do it up with versions of a Renaissance feast.
At Haddonfield, the students, with the help of committed parents, put on an annual Madrigal Dessert Theatre. This year, on Dec. 14 and 15, Grace Church's hall will be turned into a royal court. There will be the traditional wassail toast, a comic play, and the madrigal singers performing in full period costume. That explains Daniel Lefler's jingle hat; he is this year's court jester.
But dressing up is just part of the fun. The singers are in most cases accomplished young vocalists who thrive on the challenges of performing multipart harmony arrangements without instrumental accompaniment, not to mention singing songs in several different languages.
"You have to have a fabulous work ethic," said Paula Meyer, Haddonfield's choral director. Over the last 11 years, her madrigal singers have performed at the White House and other prestigious locales. This year, they placed second at a competition at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire.
The Silvertones, Strath Haven High School's elite choral group whose members perform madrigals along with other music, do a singing tour of Italy every other year and get many community requests, especially around the holidays.
"They're the varsity team," said choral director John Shankweiler. "They would be the starting varsity team."
The groups vary in what they perform, and some are more involved in the period garb than others. But the students all share a passion for music.
"All the guys have to wear tights, so they really have to love music," said Abigail Sparrow, 17, a Haddonfield senior who joined her school's madrigal singers this year.
For music-loving kids, it is also fun.
"I just love the camaraderie," said Emily Mulholland, 17, who will play the queen in Haddonfield's performance. "We all love music. It's the thing we share, and through this, all of us have become better friends."
To Athena Theodoris, another Haddonfield madrigal singer, the music-making is almost therapeutic.
"It alleviates a lot of stress for me," Theodoris, 17, said. "The other day, I tried to imagine life without music. I couldn't do it."
Cindy Lefler, mother of Daniel and younger brothers Jacob, who is also a madrigal singer, and Ben, who hopes to become one, might not have imagined writing the plays for Madrigal Dessert Theatre - among other things.
"I never thought I'd be teaching my boys how to put on stockings," Lefler said.
But in a community where teenagers received some bad publicity not long ago for incidents involving drugs and alcohol, Lefler is proud of youngsters like the madrigals and the positive light they shed.
"My kids are dear, sweet boys, and all their friends are the same way," she said. "The worst they do is sing themselves hoarse."
But, they hope, not until after December.
"My entire year last year, I was hoping I would be the jester instead of the king," said Daniel, who is already a veteran of community theater.
The crushed velvet and the jingle hat are all his, but the fulfillment of the wish is bittersweet. As a senior, this year's show will his last.
"Next year, the holidays are going to feel weird without the madrigals," he said. "I'm going to have to come home and see the show."