Music is a big part of the Christmas season. Radio stations change their play lists to primarily holiday favorites. Television specials feature the biggest names in the business singing the familiar sounds of the season. School groups and organizations perform concerts consisting of the most well-known carols.

For more than two decades, the Ashland Area Community Choir has spread the magic of Christmas music to the residents of Schuylkill County and surrounding areas.

On Dec. 15, the group will continue the tradition with "We Wish You Christmas." The free concert will be held at 3 p.m. at Zion's Reformed United Church of Christ, 2400 Centre St., Ashland. Freewill donations will be accepted.

"We get a core group of people you always see there. It's the thing to do before Christmas," Vicki Urbon, choir member, said.

The annual Christmas concert began with the group's formation in 1987. The group, made up of the combined choirs of the churches in Ashland, performed a concert for Thanksgiving that year. The Rev. Joseph Kean of St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church requested the choir put together a concert for Christmas.

Twenty-six years later, the group continues to perform a concert during the holiday season. They have also held a concert in the spring for the last few years, according to Urbon, although that's not an annual tradition.

"In the beginning, we had up to 60 to 65 members," Urbon said.

The choir is directed by Betty Chappell, who has been at the helm of the choir since it was formed.

Chappell comes from a musical background. She studied piano at New England Conservatory, Boston. She is also the organist at St. John's Episcopal Church and serves as organist and choir director at Bethany Evangelical Congregational Church, both of Ashland.

She said work on the concert begins in late September. In addition to directing, Chappell plans and prepares all the music.

One of her tasks is to fit the music into the time frame of a concert. She times each piece to the exact second and adds them up to create a show that is about two hours in length.

"Betty's work is just unbelievable and everyone who participates is truly dedicated," Urbon said.

Today, the group's membership has dwindled to between 40 and 45. However, that hasn't hindered the choir's dedication to delivering a top notch Christmas concert. This year's show will feature musicians in standout roles, as well as the addition of an interpretive dance.

"At different times we have different things," Chappell said.

Urbon said the concert is split into two sections: religious and contemporary music.

She said many accompanists are scheduled to perform with the choir. Miriam Maurer, organist at Zion's Reformed United Church of Christ, has accompanied the group since it was formed in 1987. In addition to Maurer, Glenn Roberts, Pottsville, will play drums on "African Star Carol," flutist Vicki Miller, Bloomsburg, will join the group for "Christmas Nightingale" and a brass quarter and timpani will help with "Joy to the World."

Urbon said the choir will perform an original composition by Peter Malinchock, Frackville, and Bruce McCormick, Fountain Springs, based on "The First Noel."

Keith Messersmith, Ashland, will be a soloist on "A Star was His Candle," and organist Mark O'Hearn, Ashland, will play during the offertory.

Urbon said the group will be singing the humorous "12 Days After Christmas."

"It's funny, really funny," she said.

The concert will feature two special talents.

An interpretive dance will be performed with "Christmas Dreams." The dancers are Erin Noon, a senior at Mahanoy Area High School, and Molly Noon, 18, a senior at North Schuylkill High School.

Also, Urbon will sign "I Wish You Christmas."

"Betty likes to have me sign one or two songs per concert and I have been doing that for years," Urbon said, adding she taught herself the communications skill about 20 years ago.

A few hundred people are expected to attend the concert, which was moved to Zion's Reformed United Church of Christ this year to accommodate the large crowd.

"We couldn't be more pleased with the attendance we get," she said.

Urbon said light refreshments will be served after the concert during a time for fellowship with choir members and attendees.