Monday, December 15, 2014

Frank and Dean and the Lennon Sisters on a sleigh ride: Christmas music's not all about the music

I was a very little child in the late 1960s, and my family, like many of that time, had a hi-fi. The parent of the stereo systems of the '70s, the hi-fi was essentially a piece of furniture with a turntable in the middle and speakers on the sides. It looked like a coffee table with a trap door on top.

I wasn't allowed to touch ours, but I didn't care, especially this time of year. All I cared about was that someone kept the turntable spinning at all times, and that the records playing were Christmas ones.

In my house, the Christmas preparations started in earnest around my birthday, in mid-December. We would decorate the tree that night, and the Christmas music would start at the same time. One of the adults in my house would stack the albums one on top of the other, and when one was done playing, the next one would drop onto the turntable and start on its own, a convenience we considered pretty high-tech at the time. We probably had about 10 Christmas albums, and they'd play nonstop.

I remember a couple of Rat Pack albums -- Dean and Frank singing "Winter Wonderland" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," and maybe a couple of different arrangements of "Jingle Bells." I also remember Lawrence Welk and the Lennon Sisters and Perry Como, and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, and some compilation album that featured a version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" sung by Tom Jones and woman who sounded like she wasn't quite sure of all the words. The Beach Boys' version of "Rudolph" was on that album, too, and we played it until the grooves were gone. 

A couple of years later, we acquired the Charlie Brown Christmas album, and that quickly became the favorite. And a year or so after that, our household acquired its first eight-track tape player, and with it came more Christmas albums -- the Partridge Family's holiday compilation, most notably, followed by tapes from the Osmonds and the Jackson 5.

I loved the music; I've always loved music. But as I think back, what I really was enjoying was everything the music signaled: the season. The break from routine. The fact that everyone was together, and everyone was in a good mood, and baked goods sat on every available surface. The house smelled sweet, and for a couple of weeks, I felt that sense of anticipation a person feels when something good is going to happen.

Fast-forward a good 40 years, and some semblance of that anticipation remains. I'm listening to a local radio station play non-stop Christmas music, and I'm taken back -- not to any particular day or event, but to the kind of memory that starts deep down inside and builds on itself as it takes shape.

In it, I'm small and dressed in some sort of Christmas regalia, and we're preparing the house because all the relatives are on their way. There's a velvet ribbon in my hair, and I'm sneaking cookies from a tray because I've been told, chubby girl that I am, that I've had enough. 

But the admonition isn't a stern one; after all, it's Christmas. The contentment hangs over the rooms of the house, the ones in which people start to gather, and it mixes with the smells of the delicacies of the day. In the background, I hear the music -- Nat King Cole, maybe -- and I settle down in a chair to watch. 

In my mind's eye, they're all back again: Aunt Sue is already there, having come to us the night before. Grandma walks in with Grandpa, and Nana and Papa and cousin Louise are behind them. Aunt Mim comes in, and Uncle Russ and his mom, Mrs. Landers, and cousin Fran. They carry cookie trays and packages; I note that some are small, and I hope for books. 

There are air-kisses along with real ones that leave lipstick on my forehead. My grandma's coat is camel-colored with fur at the collar and cuffs, and my father uses it to form the base of a pile he starts on his bed. By the end of the night, the pile will be as tall as I am.

Someone turns up the music so it can be heard along with the laughter. It's the Lennon Sisters, and people sing along. It's lovely weather for a sleigh ride, they sing, and I remember wondering what a sleigh ride would be like, and thinking if a sleigh was like a sled, I wouldn't like it much, as I hated tumbling off and feeling snow against the skin on my back. 

But this is what I recall most, as I'm back in that day: The song is a backdrop to the certainly that I never want to be anywhere else, never want the warmth to dissipate, never want life to change. I'm a quiet little girl, serious and solemn, but I never stop observing and never stop assessing. And what I assess in that moment, with the Lennon Sisters playing, is that I am wrapped in goodness, protection, and love.

There's a happy feeling nothing in the world can buy
When they pass around the coffee and the pumpkin pie
It'll nearly be like a picture print by Currier and Ives
These wonderful things are the things
We remember all through our lives 

I watch some more, and the tears well in my eyes. The chocolate and red sugar and dates melt together in my sweaty little hand, but no matter; after I sneak a bite of whatever goodness lies in my palm, I lick my fingers clean.

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