Through the years, we all will be together.
So hang a shining star upon the highest bough
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now
November 21, 2021 — Christmas music is one of my favorite aspects of the holiday season. And the station I listen to for half of November and most of December has returned “Holiday Traditions” plays Christmas oldies, mainly from the 1970s and before. I heard Snoopy’s TV Christmas special music on my first listening venture, Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas” and an excellent version of “Silver Bells.”
I know all the words to these old songs; they somehow never seem to leave me. So why can’t I remember where my keys are but know every version of “What Child is This?” As a child, I played Christmas carols on the piano for about half the year. Until arthritis in my hands got the better of me a few years ago, I could still play a wicked “Winter Wonderland.”
Yet, as we grow older, the holidays change, as do we. Music and festivities remind us of happy times, which morph into memories of those no longer with us. This is both a curse and a blessing of living into seven decades. What a great blessing to have the loving memories of aunts and uncles, three grandparents, and a parent. Yet, I feel the loss more poignantly over the holidays. I can’t help but look back when I hear familiar carols and songs.
My best childhood memories came from when I was tiny. We visited both my father’s and mother’s sides of the family. My dad is the youngest of six — all five gone — Dad is about to turn 91. His family was so large that they often met at the community center in a rural town. My aunt, a self-trained musician who owned four organs and a piano, cooked up performances with the children. We sang familiar songs. Some of my cousins were very good — some of us were tone-deaf. We made up in enthusiasm what we lacked in raw talent or the ability to sing on key. These gatherings of my father’s side usually happened on a weekend adjacent to the actual holiday.
My family of origin attended our little Lutheran Church for Christmas Eve with its tradition of towel-headed children in Sear’s plaid bathrobes as the original First Family. We were Baby Boomers, with many shepherds and angels. I was never cast in a lead role. Always too tall for Mary. We sang “Away in a Manger,” which today brings me tears as I can hear my mother’s sweet voice in my mind. (Six weeks before Mom died, she and I watched a holiday special on Christmas night while everyone else played cards. She couldn’t remember my name but remembered all the words to every verse of Martin Luther’s famous Christmas carol.)
My brother probably doesn’t remember all the words. He is two-and-a-half years younger and almost always squirmed out of Christmas Eve service by getting sick approximately one hour before the event. My maternal grandparents and a parent would be there to cheer me, while the other parent stayed home to comfort the desperately ill child. But, sick as he was, my little brother always insisted I bring him the requisite bag of goodies, a peppermint stick, an orange, Brach toffees, handed out to all children after the service.
My maternal grandparents left for Florida days later after celebrating my brother’s birthday and his miraculous return to total health. When I was ten, my grandparent left before Thanksgiving. My mother frequently traveled the day after Christmas, taking my brother or me. I learned about Christmas lights in
palm trees and the view from the Maas Brothers Tea Room in Clearwater. All the boats on the bay were decorated in holiday lights, and it was a very different scene from snowy, rural northeastern Indiana. We drove through Belleair and luxurious neighborhoods in Countryside to see holiday lights and watched the boat parade.
I had a perfect Christmas Eve in 1990. I cherish those memories (and we have a 2-hour video that no one wants to watch but for me.) Our son was about eight months old; his cousin was five months old. We lived in our first home, a small two-story house with a driveway just big enough to accommodate two cars. We put out crude luminaries on either side of the driveway, brown paper bags of sand with tea lights inside. My brother’s family arrived on a snowy, dark evening, tired from a 10-hour trip from Iowa. My parents came from South Whitley. Each of the babies had a Santa Claus suit — my nephews wore an expensive suit, my son’s was from the local K-Mart. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite fit him right in his baby belly, making him look genuinely like a rented store Santa.
My father read the Christmas story from the Bible (the Luke version), and then, for reasons I cannot explain, he read “Casey at the Bat,” a family favorite. The babies did not cry until time for bed; they cooed and laughed. We put them on the carpeted floor in their Santa suits. Soon, their chubby legs were moving as if riding an imaginary bicycle. So funny that this event entertained six normally sane adults for hours upon hours. The younger of the two boys will have his first child early next summer. I wish him the magic of that day with his child.
Holidays today are not always easy. We are a nomadic society. My father moved 90 miles away from his family in 1949. My brother and I added to the chaos when we moved away from home in the late 1970s. Our son also moved away from home after high school, a thousand miles away. We see him most holidays, but seeing the wider group gets more complicated. Families grow — that’s what we call a good problem.
The secret to a happy holiday season is finding joy in what is and not what could be—that game of “what if” is harmful to my soul. So, God willing — we will see many family members at some point over the next five weeks. And I will listen to holiday music every day. I allow myself to wallow in good memories. And we will have ourselves a merry little Christmas if the fates allow.