OK, you asked for this.
I like Christmas music. In fact, I love it.
Oh, there are lots of reasons to dislike Christmas music. It’s played too much at the mall starting at Halloween, for pete’s sake; and radio stations tend to beat it to death by ramming the same five songs down our throats. And some folks have to be too cool for school, and show how smart they are being contrarian, stating their disdain for Christmas music; while others who are not interesting enough in any positive way may feel the need to find attention by showing their uniqueness by lashing out at something others hold dear. Colin Kaepernick springs to mind.
There are other reasons to dislike Christmas music, should you so choose. I’m not saying any one particular person’s reasons are under indictment.
However, I’m going to venture out on a limb and say the reason radio stations dedicate a huge chunk of time to holiday music is because the vast majority of people like it.
And why is that?
Well… why do I like Christmas music?
First of all, because I like Christmas. I grew up in Ohio and sometimes the Christmas snow was so deep, as a child you would have to wade knee-deep through it to get to the car. Holy water at church was frozen solid at the Christmas midnight mass. We kids all got to hold real live lit candles in a procession through the church. (You wanna see adults on edge? Give 200 kids fire to play with in a centuries old gothic church after making them stay up til midnight. How we didn’t need fire extinguishers every five feet, I’ll never know.)
Occasionally, the snow was really deep. One particular the year we had what would’ve probably been called a blizzard if we lived anywhere else. Snowdrifts eight and ten feet high arranged themselves off our back porch—a two-story back porch. It was awesome.
On Christmas eve, my family would have a big dinner with turkey (like second Thanksgiving!) and we were allowed to open ONE present. With seven kids, mom put each child’s presents in designated wrapping paper: all the snowman-wrapped gifts were my sister Trish’s; all the candy cane ones were mine—like that. No tags, so we didn’t know which festively wrapped box went to which kid, should we find mom’s pre-Christmas hiding place for our gifts. Without a tag, the size and shape of the box didn’t tip off its future recipient that it was in fact a new G. I. Joe Jeep, as opposed to, say, clothes. (With seven kids, you need systems.) Of course, usually Trish had scoured the house for mom’s stash of presents, sneaked the Scotch taped edges up on enough gifts to determine the secret wrapping paper code for everyone, and then teased Ricky and I, her younger brothers, for weeks with “I know what you’re getting!”
Christmas eve was an event. After dinner, the whole family sat around the living room – we were never allowed in there the rest of the year – while mom and dad gave out one gift apiece. Many times it descended into a conundrum of looking for the right sized batteries for a toy that wouldn’t operate without them (oops), or a boy child opening a present to discover his sister’s new Barbie. So more gifts were opened, and often as not, all of them. But you never knew. Part of the magic of Christmas.
On Christmas Day, all my aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins would come to our house to open presents, play all day, and eat a big Christmas dinner. The adults would play card games like canasta and gin rummy, and the kids would go into the basement and play monopoly or GI Joes and Barbies…
Or, of course, go play in the snow.
We had a creek behind our house, so if it had frozen, we might try to skate. That’s not skating rink ice, all smooth and nice; it’s creek ice, with ripples frozen into the surface and rocks sticking out. And thin spot where you would go through up over your boots. But we didn’t care. We’d play out there until we couldn’t feel our toes. (Three pairs of socks AND plastic baggies between them to keep out the melted snow.) Our driveway was on a hill so we could ride our sleds down it into the yard, and if enough powder had fallen, we’d go out front and sled ride down the big long hill of Reister Drive for hours with the rest of the neighborhood kids.
I like Christmas music because in and of itself it is an amazing time machine. It can instantly take you back to those places – and to those people, some of whom are no longer with us. People like my mom. Or your grandmother. People who are special to us, sometimes in ways we didn’t even know about.
Christmas was special to them.
Christmas music was a part of that.
If I’m driving in my car alone, I might listen to Christmas music just because it kind of gets me in the Christmas mood. I want to teach my daughter good traditions, like peace on Earth and goodwill to men. And about angels and baby Jesus. And a trip to Bethlehem by an uncertain young mother and her husband. And about the Scandinavian traditions that gave us a jolly man in a red suit who brings toys to good children.
But I don’t wander too far. If I sing by myself, I might think about Irving Berlin, a Jewish kid seeing how cool it was when the Puerto Ricans in his New York neighborhood celebrated the holidays. And many years later he reminisced about the sheer joy of the occasion of a white Christmas. When Bing Crosby sang it, he was talking to thousands of World War II soldiers and sailors who would not be home with their loved ones.
They were dreaming of a white Christmas. At home with the people they cared about.
And so it is with me. I love Christmas music because when I hear Jingle Bells, I think about teaching it to my daughter a few years ago – and how many times we had to go over it before she could understand what the heck the words meant. (She was barely a toddler. I’ll cut her some slack.) Or gazing at her angelic face on her first Christmas. She was only nine months old, dressed in a red Santa onesie…
She’s not a baby any more, but that song takes me there, to when she was. Or to a white Christmas in Ohio with my parents. And I smile every time.
Sometimes through tears.
Because there’s one song that gets me every time. And because I’m not afraid to tell you about it, I will.
I’ve told you many times about how my mother went to church every Sunday and sang. Not in the choir, but next to us in the pew. She was a good singer, as all of us probably think our mothers are. Her favorite song was the Ave Maria. But that’s not a Christmas song.
Her Christmas song, the one that reminds me of her when I hear it, was Oh Holy Night.
See, that song starts out kind of slow and doesn’t speed up, but it builds its intensity a verse at a time. It starts by talking about the stars and the next thing you know it’s talking about the birth of Jesus. And that’s all well and good. I don’t like the thought of my life coming to an end and, like a light switch, being clicked off and going dark forever. The thought of never seeing my daughter again is too heavy on my heart to choose to believe that. Instead, I choose to believe there must be something more. If there is, and since none of the people I knew who have ever died have come back to tell me what the hell it is, I want there to be something more and I want there to be a heaven and I want there to be the people who I loved and who are no longer with us, I want them to be there. I like that.
And so when I’m driving around and Oh Holy Night comes on, I will try to sing it.
I kinda have to.
I will never be as good as any of the people who have recorded it, but that doesn’t matter. Neither was my mom.
And when they get to the crescendo part, where the performer is powerfully singing, “Fall on your knees, hear the angels voices,” it’s no longer a song. It’s a message to my heart, a command to my soul. Whether I’m singing or not, or driving in my car, or sitting in my office, I can’t get past that part without tears streaming down my face. I tell you this unashamedly, I will weep like a baby. FALL ON YOUR KNEES, HEAR THE ANGEL VOICES.
It’s not a verse from a song, it’s a command. Hear them. They are there.
And who are these angels? Well, maybe they are little winged cherubs like Michelangelo used to depict, floating around a bunch of wispy clouds. But maybe they are memories of my mother and your grandmother, people who cared about us and loved us. When I hear fall on your knees, and hear the angel voices, that is who I hear. Maybe it doesn’t matter if I don’t believe as strongly as they did about things; the message is what’s important. That we should be good to each other. It’s the time of year we remember that en mass. But more importantly, it makes us be close to those beloved people again in a different way than other times of the year. To my mother. To your grandmother. Christmas is different. Christmas memories of loved ones are special.
The different Christmases I celebrated as a child aren’t so very different from anyone else’s, but in my heart they certainly seem so. That’s the way it should be. That’s what I want to create for my child. That’s why I love Christmas music.
I sit here at my computer with tears forming in my eyes again, unabashedly so, and I tell you and the world: I love Christmas music.
God help me, I do love it so.