Stories Told

The sounds of Christmas

This Christmas memory was originally posted in 2009.

The Christmas season begins for my family when we put up our tree shortly after Thanksgiving. But it’s really not trimming the tree itself that does it – it’s that as we string the lights and hang the bulbs, we listen to the traditional Grey family holiday CDs for the first time. So it’s really the music that ushers in the season for us.

And so it was when I was a child. Mom would drag out the big “portable” record player and her short stack of Christmas records and twist the volume knob up high enough that you could hear the music in the front yard. The whole neighborhood knew Christmas had arrived!

Mom favored Christmas music in pop, standards, and jazz styles, and her record stack reflected that. One of her records, Bing Crosby’s Merry Christmas, has been part of the family tradition since it was issued in 1945. My mother’s parents bought it as an album of 78-RPM discs, one song per side. Mom had it as a vinyl Lp, and I of course have it as a CD. You can own it today, too, as it is the best-selling Christmas album of all time, even though a few years ago the knuckleheads at the record company renamed it White Christmas.

But of all of Mom’s Christmas records, I liked those by Johnny Mathis the best. Johnny really gets Christmas, from hopeless sinner to joyful child. I just can’t help but sing along! When the boys and I decorate the tree, I play Johnny Mathis first.

Johnny has recorded many Christmas albums over the years but his first two are the best. His first one, also named Merry Christmas, was released in 1958. It featured lush arrangements by Percy Faith and his orchestra. But Johnny’s 1963 Sounds of Christmas is, for me, the benchmark against which I measure all other Christmas music. Johnny moves seamlessly between bright, bouncy numbers that capture the happiness to which we all aspire during this season, and traditional songs that show the full power of his voice.

Sadly, you haven’t been able to buy this album in its entirety since the 1960s. Capitol Records reissued it in the early 1970s on one of its budget labels, deleting two songs in the process, and only that abridged collection has survived. You can buy it on CD today as Christmas with Johnny Mathis. It is better than nothing.

Yet I yearned for the two deleted songs. When I discovered many years ago that Mom still had her heavily worn 1963 pressing, I recorded it on cassette. Then a couple years ago I digitized those songs into my computer, ripped Christmas with Johnny Mathis in as well, arranged the songs in the original order, and burned my own custom Sounds of Christmas CD. I made a copy for Mom, too.

If you have wished for those missing songs, then I offer them to you here in glorious mono, with all the scratches, pops, and distortion you expect from a record that was played until it was almost worn out. First is what I consider to be the definitive version of The Little Drummer Boy.

By far the best track on the album is Have Reindeer Will Travel. As my mom says, it just isn’t Christmas without the doop-doopee-doos! You’ll know what I mean when you hear the song.

Standard
Stories Told

The Christmas card you didn’t get from me

I haven’t sent Christmas cards in years. I feel bad about it. But only a little.

Receiving cards is always a pleasure, but sending them had become a chore. It had become One More Thing To Do at a very busy time of year. On top of working full time and raising my sons, I also always hosted our big family Christmas celebration. Family drove in from points distant and stayed with us, usually for several days. That meant cleaning and decorating, buying gifts, planning meals, and cooking for everyone. It was a lot of work for this single dad, but it was worth it for the joy my family experienced while we were together.

My 2010 holiday season was especially crazy for reasons I no longer remember. At two weeks before Christmas I had not yet found time to buy cards, let alone write in them and send them. And I didn’t know where time was going to come from to make it happen. I chuckle at it now, but I was feeling serious stress about it. I didn’t want to let friends and family down!

If I could make the job take less time, I reasoned, maybe I could still squeeze it in. I decided to try making Christmas postcard with a preprinted message. All I’d have to do is address, stamp, and send them. So I put my camera on a tripod, gathered my sons in front of the tree, made the shot, brought it into my computer, added the caption, and sent the card off to be printed. It took all of 30 minutes. It wasn’t the greatest family photo ever, but it would work well enough. Here it is:

IMG_3526_proc

And then the printer screwed them up. Every last one of them came back with the caption cut off. By then it was just days before Christmas and I had no more time to mess with it. Defeated, I got my money back — and sent no cards that year.

The world didn’t end. Christmas was still merry!

And I’ve not mailed a single Christmas card since. If you send me one, I’ll send you a nice note in the new year. Because life has calmed down by then, and I have time.

Standard
Photography, Stories Told

Photographic holiday memories

A rerun, from 2008 and 2012, as this Christmas nears. Now with new photos.

supershooterboxes
courtesy giambarba.com

My grandparents always owned the latest Polaroid cameras, and they passed on that tradition in 1977 when they bought my brother and me Polaroid Super Shooter cameras for Christmas.

When I unwrapped the gift, I remember thinking how cool the box was. I liked the box so much that I kept my camera in it for the almost 30 years I owned it. Not long ago I learned that the box, like all Polaroid packaging of the day, was designed by Paul Giambarba, a top designer who was a pioneer of clean, strong brand identity.

polaroidtype108

I remember how easy it was to spot Polaroid film on the drug store shelf because it had the same rainbow-stripes design elements as the camera’s box. Film and developing for my garage-sale Brownie cost about half what a pack of Polaroid film cost, but the colorful Polaroid boxes on the shelf always tempted me. I often decided that next time I bought film, I would save my allowance for the whole month it took to afford a pack of Polaroid.

My brother also got a guitar that Christmas morning. My new camera came with a pack of film, so I loaded it and shot this photo of him on his first day with his guitar. He played this guitar for 20 years — he looked strange as an adult playing a kid-sized guitar!

rickguitar1977

20 Christmas Days later, when my older son was not yet a full year old, my wife gave my brother her old guitar. Our boy, drawn to the music, wouldn’t leave his uncle’s side as he played that evening. Steadying himself on his uncle’s knee, he looked up with wide amazement in his eyes.

002-christmas-proc

May this holiday bring you the gift of excellent memories to share with your loved ones down the road.

When I first posted this, in 2008, Paul Giambarba himself left a comment! It was a thrill. I followed his blog for years. He discontinued it a few years ago, and thanked me in a final post for saying kind things about his work. None of this would have been possible without the Internet!

Standard
Reflected in the bulbs

My family celebrated Christmas yesterday. We have to be flexible around the holiday schedule I share with my ex-wife and everybody’s work schedules. Fortunately, it matters more that we celebrate than just when we celebrate.

Wherever you are and however you celebrate, I wish you a merry Christmas!

Film Photography

Captured: Reflected in the bulbs

Image
Faith

Things I wish Christians would stop saying: “There’s a war on Christmas”

The Bible tells the story of Jesus’s birth twice: once in Matthew, once in Luke. But in neither telling, nor anywhere else in the New Testament, are we told to celebrate the event.

It is our choice to do this. God does not command it.

What's the Reason for the Season?

The closest the New Testament comes to telling us to celebrate anything is in Luke 22, when Jesus takes the last supper. After sharing the bread and wine with his disciples, he said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” The original Greek carries a connotation of repetition: keep doing this. Most churches interpret this to mean that we should do it, too. I belong to a church that does it weekly. Some churches do it monthly or quarterly. I know of one that observes it annually. It has many names: the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the Lord’s Evening Meal, and simply communion.

Meanwhile, several Christian groups don’t celebrate Christmas. The United Church of God doesn’t. Neither do Jehovah’s Witnesses or Seventh-Day Adventists. And neither do conservative Churches of Christ, a church to which I once belonged. There are probably others. These churches believe that God doesn’t authorize this celebration, and that we should celebrate and worship him only as he authorizes through his scripture.

I used to agree with them. But over time I’ve come to see that their view on authority is too restrictive. Imaine your five-year-old child drawing you a picture, perhaps one of your family, and giving it to you with a smile — and you rejecting it, because you didn’t authorize it. How unloving. I believe God welcomes and smiles upon our good devotions to him, even when he has not explicitly called for them.

However, those churches contend, correctly I might add, that December 25th was chosen to celebrate Christ’s birth because nonbelievers already celebrated various winter festivals at about that time. It’s not like anybody knew Jesus’s exact birthdate anyway, and they felt sure it would be easier to convert the nonbelievers if the church had a celebration then, too.

Part of the rationale some churches have for not celebrating Christmas is avoiding any connection with those pagan celebrations. I respect their choice, but believe that those origins are so obscure and remote today that they no longer matter. We have infused this season of celebration with new meaning.

But that meaning has been strong only relatively recently. Christians didn’t celebrate Christmas at all for the first few hundred years of the church. When they did start celebrating Christmas, it wasn’t yet the central celebration is has become today. At certain times in history, religious leaders even forbade celebrating Christmas to avoid excessive revelry.

In truth, the traditions Christians follow in celebrating Christmas are only a couple centuries old, and have only become widespread in the last hundred years or so, mostly since the great prosperity that followed World War II’s end.

And so it galls me when I hear Christians speak of there being a war on Christmas, or insist upon greetings of Merry Christmas, or otherwise decry a perceived weakening of Christmas as a central national religious holiday. Christmas is a devotion and celebration of our own creation. We should celebrate it if we want — but we should not force it on anyone who doesn’t want it.

Show people love instead, the kind God gives you despite your sin.

“Things I wish Christians would stop saying” is an occasional series. Read the other entries here, here, here, and here.

Standard
Personal

A little Christmas wish

Plastic Kindergarten bell
Plastic Kindergarten bell

My Kindergarten teacher, Edith Coles, gave these little bell ornaments to all of her students every Christmas. She hand-painted the student’s name, along with hers and the year, on each one. She must have made hundreds of them during her teaching career. Can you imagine the hand cramps?

I shared these photos on Facebook, where many of my childhood friends remembered their bells. Several still had theirs. Some of them posted happy memories of Mrs. Coles and of childhood Christmases. One friend even posted a photo of her bell, which has hung on every tree in her home since she received it in 1969.

A few cents’ worth of shiny plastic, a few strokes of paint, a whole bunch of good memories. It takes so little. May your Christmas be filled with such little things that create lingering good memories.

Standard