What Christmas Music Means to Me
As far back as I can recall, not surprisingly, it’s been the music that has driven my mind crazy come August or September, when I anticipate what I’ll get to listen to later on that year. My stock answer, when asked what my favorite season is, has been a running joke of “the next one”. I’m always looking forward to what’s next, and though sometimes I find it to be a short-coming, as it regards seasons, I see nothing wrong with it. I’m forever getting excited for the first blossoms, the next rain storm, the falling leaves, and the first few (it’s New England, after all) snowstorms. Once any of these overstays its welcome, I’m ready to move on. And so, as we approach Halloween, and the store displays tell me to think about Christmas, I begin to dream of my favorite albums, hymns, carols, and anthems.
Following Household Rules
The first thing to note is that when I was growing up there were very few rules in my home. The few I recall were “no throwing balls in the house”, “no snapping your gum in the mouth”, and “no Christmas music until after Thanksgiving dinner”. That last one was so sacrosanct, for whatever reason, that it wasn’t until I was a few years into adulthood that my wife and I declared that we were going to break that rule, and extend our holiday season by a few weeks, driving to the mall in King of Prussia, PA, seeing Elf, and listening to Christmas CDs the whole Veterans’ Day weekend. Boy did it feel strange and good all at once to break free from that nonsensical yoke. Since that first year, we have typically Christmasized our lives a bit before Thanksgiving.
As a kid, then, it was just about the most exciting thing you could imagine to work our way through that Thanksgiving dinner, because we knew that immediately afterward, we’d get out the Disney songbook we’d bought at a rummage or book sale. It came with four lyric sheets, complete with cute pictures of Mickey and his pals. My mother would play the piano, and the rest of us three would sing along, over a small cup of mints. I recently unearthed a bootleg cassette I surreptitiously made one year. I had known that tape to exist for many adult years, but never found it until earlier this year. I was going through a phase of digitizing a lot of my audio tapes, and popped this one into my deck. I quickly realized it was damaged, and dove for the stop button, fearful that I could lose everything on this one-of-a-kind artifact from my childhood. I performed surgery on the tape, carefully removing its film from the shell, and transplanting it into a separate, less mildewed frame. I knew that all I needed was one successful play, and I’d have it archived in digital format for the ages. I was very nervous as it creaked its way along, and some 45-minutes later, I had something, at least. The years and living conditions had not been kind to this relic, and it’s still quite difficult to make out a lot of the dialogue in between songs. The few things I’ve taken away: My dad was quite the crooner in his drinking days. He had a nice rich, baritone table voice. My sister and I were a couple of goofballs. Jokes that fell flat, soaring descants which got reprimanded, and an admittance that I didn’t want to “sing sweetly”. At one point, my sister (I think, we had the same voice at that point in time) says that maybe we should sing “to save us all from Satan’s power when were gonna ashtray”, to which my mom reports back “I don’t think so…” bringing me to my next observation: My mom was a grouch! Sheesh, it seems like she was only doing this for our sake, as so many mother’s throughout history have before and since. And if it weren’t for that withering cassette, I’d have remembered nothing less than the fact that my mom had put in the effort. That’s what stood in my memory, until perfect recall was reintroduced to me. No big deal, though.
Christmas Records, Terrible and Good
Back in those days, we probably had about a dozen Christmas records. My mom would take horrible care of her records. It wasn’t until years later (I’m talking within the last few, in fact), and the vinyl renaissance, that I came to realize that records can actually sound very nice. During the whole period where audiophiles argued about vinyl vs. digital, I thought they were all mental, since my only reference point were the dusty, scratched LPs my mom had owned. There were some great albums in our collection, and I’m pretty sure that I have digital copies of nearly all of them now, either through conversion or repurchase. Most notable in defining who I am, and what I love about Christmas was John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together, a 1979 release which has been on burn rotation ever since we first got a copy of it. It holds the distinction of being the album which I own in the most formats (vinyl, cassette, compact disc, and digital conversion). The melodies and lyrics of this album are the most sincere I have come across. I get choked up every single time I hear the line from “Noel: Christmas Eve, 1913” which reads “And [the shepherds] sat there and they marveled, and they knew they could not tell whether it were angels, or the bright stars a singing.”
On the far end of the spectrum is a very goofy album that will also forever represent Christmas childhood to me, Sleigh Ride Jingle Bells. No where on the record does it say the group’s name. It took me years to determine that it was the Caroleers whom I coveted, and the internet led me to even more ridiculous albums by the group.
It needs to be stated that of this early library of Christmas music, some is legitimately good. That Muppets album, for instance, is well-produced, well-composed, and is the Muppets, after all. The same goes for Andy Williams, Bing Crosby, etc. Some of the music, however, is legitimately bad. There is nothing good about the Caroleers or the Peter Pan Singers. Yet they still get at least a few spins each year. Why is that? Read on for more thoughts.
The Warmth of the Church
But, it can’t go without saying that a great deal of my Christmas musical memories come from live performances throughout my youth. We were avid churchgoers, and the Christmas Eve service meant more than anything to me in the world in December. Every year, for many years, my father would sing “O Holy Night” at this service, forever cementing it as one of the finest songs, Christmas or not, ever written. Sure, I know I have quite a slant on it, but that’s how I feel. There were a number of years, where I couldn’t listen to anyone else sing it but him. (I remember first hearing Harry Connick Jr.’s bold re-envisioning of the traditional arrangement, and I wanted to throw the CD across the room as a blasphemer.) I’ve since gotten over that, and have come to enjoy many versions of the piece. It remains one of my favorite parts of Christmas.
There were a few years in which I got to participate in the live Christmas music-making. One very early memory I have is singing “I Believe in Miracles” from the Christmas Eve on Sesame Street at a Christmas pageant at my boyhood church. There was quite a spell of stagnancy in the children’s music program after that, and I ended up singing in the adult choir in high school. We weren’t a great choir, but our director was very dedicated, and tried his best with the resources on hand. It seems like each year we would sing the same anthems (tradition, budget, etc.), including Leo Sowerby’s “The Snow Lay on the Ground” and a “Bring a Torch, Jeannette Isabella” whose arranger escapes me. One Christmas, the director bought a cantata by Gilbert Martin called Nowell Nowell Emmanuel. It was a big deal, but as it turned out, we weren’t all that capable of learning that much new music, and we only performed a couple movements. I kept my copy, and still play it on my piano year after year.
A Few Live Memories Outside of Church
At some point in high school, my history teacher took a group to see Messiah at Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts. It was my first real exposure to that full piece. It was a cold, snowy night. A perfect Christmas memory for me, as a budding choral musician. At some point around that time, my family took me to see The Nutcracker at a local school. I can’t remember much of this performance, except that it had a recording for the music. I don’t know who the dancers were or how old they were, and so on. I just remember that my mom had put in the effort to get me there, which was very thoughtful. In the same fashion, my mom would often organize trips to see the Air Force Band of Liberty when they would come to town with their touring Christmas show. We’d head to Nevins Hall in Framingham and if we were lucky, it might be snowing when we would leave. When I was in college, my dorm took a field trip to see Boston Ballet’s famous interpretation of The Nutcracker. It might have been my only time seeing it there. It was a very exciting experience, and felt very special. Many years later, my wife and I ventured to the BalletRox production of The Urban Nutcracker. This was awesome. I recall that the music was the same but remixed, there were many dance styles, and heightened energy.
Making the Music
As a kid, of course, you’re told when and how to perform. I remember being in many a Christmas concert at school, but the only piece I really have recalled all these years is “Russian Christmas Music” by Alfred Reed. My school had a dumbed-down version for tiny band arranged by James Curnow. It’s stuck with me, and I’ve tracked down recordings over the years. An interesting side note is that this piece is one of my best friend’s favorite memories from his childhood, many hundred miles away.
As I grew older, I played a lot more music with my own hands, amassing a respectable collection of piano books and musical scores. Christmas music, in fact, was one of the main reasons that I first got into playing fakebooks.
A New Crop of Recordings
I collected more and more albums. I had the great pleasure to live and work near the Princeton Record Exchange for seven years, and over those years, I repurchased CDs of all the vinyl and cassettes I had owned over the years. And with technological improvements, those that were unavailable on disc were suddenly capable of being reproduced at-home on CD-Rs made from those same aging masters I had feared would break or wear out. It was a golden age for me and my Christmas music collection. Or was it?
With some hundred albums at my fingertips, I eventually realized I had a bit of an addiction to Christmas music (this year’s iTunes Match volume has over 3000 tracks in it), and I wondered if I’d need to manufacture an end to it all. But something particularly interesting happened: I caught up. And what’s more, I’ve developed no interest for amassing more modern-day Christmas albums whatsoever. I’d always thought it funny that, for example, I adore Andy Williams’ Christmas music, but would never think of playing any of his non-holiday fare. This led me to believe and assume that I’d forever be buying albums of musicians whom I didn’t have a strong leaning towards at other times of the year.
But, in recent years, I’ve come to realize it’s a matter of nostalgia, not one of the music itself (in most cases). This has led me to no longer worry that I might start coveting the latest Christmas releases by Justine Bieber, Lady Gaga, or whoever else might contribute to the pile. But, I have found that is in no danger of happening. The albums I’ve purchased in the last few years have been new releases by artists whom I enjoy throughout the year (Kelly Clarkson’s comes to mind first) which I have come to love. But, I’m happy to be out of the period in which I was buying anything with the word Christmas in the title, just because (as such, there hasn’t been much playing of Vanessa Williams or the Starlite Orchestra for a while).
That all being said, there are quite a few tunes which have crept into my life in the recent years, mostly through deep diving on YouTube and the like. Check out Paul and Paula’s “Holiday for Teens” and the Sleigh Boys’ “Merry Christmas, Santa” (which I can’t find any trace of online right now) if you want to see what I mean. These are terrible songs, but I heard them in just the right frame to create “new nostalgia”, and so it goes.
Creating New Memories, Live
Now that I’ve lived out my dream of becoming a church choir director, even more memories are created each year. I fight and squeeze to get terrific new songs into our services, while respecting tradition, and trying to replay favorites from previous years. It’s not easy, Advent is so short! But, recent years’ special services have included John Rutter’s Magnificat, Harry Simeone’s Sing We Now of Christmas, Gilbert Martin’s Nowell Nowell Emmanuel (yes, that same cantata), and a host of single octavos which are forever engrained at Edwards Church, including Andre Thomas’ “Keep Your Lamps”, Marc Robinson’s “Prepare Ye”, and two additions just this past week, Lloyd Larson’s “He Come from the Glory” and Pepper Choplin’s “Bethlehem Procession” (which itself came to me by way of nostalgia for my time at First Presbyterian of Plainsboro, New Jersey). Amazing to think that so much of my musical life hinges on my awareness of respecting and creating memories.
Honestly, I’m relieved to be out of my habit of buying everything Christmasy. There were some pleasant additions to my library in that period, but for the most part, this was a period of buying crap to satisfy a desire which was founded inaccurately. It’s not Christmas music that I love. It’s Christmas memories, experienced through music which mean the most to me. I’m glad to have discovered that truth.