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.

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Personal, Stories Told

Making traditions up as you go

A rerun from Nov. 2011, with an update at the end.

It’s my ex-wife’s turn to enjoy Thanksgiving with our sons, so I’ll be home alone tonight. Don’t weep for me – we had the family, the fine china, the turkey, and the post-dinner coma last Saturday.

Table set and ready

When I was small, we always had Thanksgiving with Mom’s family and sometimes again later with Dad’s. Mom’s family usually gathered at my grandparents’ palatial retirement estate – a narrow mobile home on a small lake. I swear we crammed 40 people in there every year. People ate their dinner anywhere they found a spot to squat.

My grandparents were the glue holding the extended family together, and after they passed nobody much wanted to gather for Thanksgiving. So we started having Thanksgiving at home, just the four of us. We did it up right with all the fine dishes and silver handed down generation to generation. When I married, we added new family members as they arrived. Eventually, eight of us fit around the table.

These days we have Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving in even-numbered years and whenever it works out in odd-numbered years.

We have adapted to every change. We were sad each time to see old traditions pass, but soon our new traditions had taken root and began to create memories just as warm as the old.

Things have continued to change since I wrote that four years ago. My older son is off to college; he and his brother had Thanksgiving with their mom this year. My parents sold the family home and moved to Indianapolis last year, so we no longer drive to South Bend for this holiday. I have a girlfriend, Margaret, who has four children of her own. I invited them, plus my parents and my brother, to my house for Thanksgiving. My mom, Margaret, and I worked together to prepare the meal. It was crowded at the table, and a lovely time was had, but even so my sons’ absence was felt.

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It’s a wonderful Christmas tradition

What’s your favorite personal Christmas tradition?

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Mine is to watch the film It’s a Wonderful Life. It is my favorite movie – and has been for so long that I’ve watched it pass from obscurity to being discovered and well loved. Now I’m seeing it start to be considered cliché and passé. But that won’t deter me from watching it.

I first saw It’s a Wonderful Life when I was 11 or 12. I was spending Christmas with my grandparents at their home in rural southwestern Michigan. Grandpa’s big antenna picked up stations all over Michigan, and I liked to watch the late shows after everyone else had gone to bed. I came upon this film while flipping channels. I was quickly drawn into the story of George Bailey, a well-known and -loved little guy of modest means who plays the hero against a wealthy and patently evil man named Potter. It’s simplistic and sentimental, but I’m a sentimental man. I fell in love with the film.

TV made It’s a Wonderful Life popular. Even though the film was nominated for several Academy Awards after its 1946 release, it did poorly at the box office and lost money. But after a 1974 copyright snafu put the film in the public domain, television stations everywhere began airing it each Christmas and the film caught on. By the late 1980s it had become an enduring classic.

Through the 1980s I searched for it on TV every Christmas season. Some years I came upon it, and some years I didn’t. Then I received a VHS copy as a gift, and later I bought a DVD copy, and now I never miss it. Meanwhile, a court decision placed the film back under copyright, and now the only place you can see it on TV is NBC every Christmas Eve.

My most bittersweet memory of watching this film was at Christmas in 1987. A beautiful old theater in my hometown was showing the film one night. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see the film in such a wonderful environment on a big screen and share it with an audience. But then my grandmother died suddenly and unexpectedly. I had been very close to her, and her death tore me up something fierce. I wanted to be alone, but I went to see the film anyway. I found a seat near the back and tried to put away my grief for a little while. It worked right up until the end, when George Bailey is rescued by all of this friends. I always tear up a little, but that night I sobbed openly.

I love how watching the film puts me in touch with my memories of my grandparents, who have been gone for more than a quarter century now. They were of the same era as fictional George Bailey; when this film was released, they has been married ten years and their third child, a daughter, my mother, was still in diapers.

If you have a Christmas tradition that holds special meaning for you or that is something you do just for yourself, please tell about it in the comments.

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It’s not Christmas at my house until we
break out the Johnny Mathis. Read about it.

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Christmas spaghetti

We started having the big family Christmas gathering at my house when I rented my church’s parsonage after my wife and I split. You’d think that holiday hosting duties wouldn’t fall to the newly single guy, but logistically it just made sense. I was pinching pennies thanks to exorbitant lawyer bills, and that first Christmas was mighty lean. It was so lean that I fed everyone spaghetti for Christmas dinner.

Awaiting pasta

I must admit, I really like my homemade spaghetti sauce. I had perfected it through trial and error when I taught myself to cook in my early 20s in my first apartment.  But I was surprised when my Christmas spaghetti was a huge hit, and even more surprised the next year when everybody asked me to make it again. My mom has asked for it every year since. Now that money isn’t so tight, I make a bigger and more elaborate Christmas meal – but make spaghetti the night before or the night after. Here’s my recipe.

1 lb. bulk Italian sausage
1 stick pepperoni, cut into chunks
Small onion, diced
30 oz. crushed tomatoes or tomato puree
30 oz. diced tomatoes, drained
12 oz. tomato paste
5 cloves garlic, pressed
2 t basil
2 t oregano
1 t salt
1 t pepper

Brown the sausage with the onion and drain the fat. Add the tomatoes, pepperoni, and spices and simmer until the flavors come together, at least an hour.

As you can see, there’s not much to it, but it sure does taste good. I usually serve it with a salad, steamed broccoli, and warm crusty bread.

What unusual Christmas traditions does your family have?

Another tradition at my house is the Christmas music we play. Johnny Mathis figures heavily into the mix. Read that story.

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Personal, Stories Told

Making traditions up as you go

It’s my ex-wife’s turn to enjoy Thanksgiving with our sons, so I’ll be home alone tonight. Don’t weep for me – we had the family, the fine china, the turkey, and the post-dinner coma last Saturday.

Table set and ready

When I was small, we always had Thanksgiving with Mom’s family and sometimes again later with Dad’s. Mom’s family usually gathered at my grandparents’ palatial retirement estate – a narrow mobile home on a small lake. I swear we crammed 40 people in there every year. People ate their dinner anywhere they found a spot to squat.

My grandparents were the glue holding the extended family together, and after they passed nobody much wanted to gather for Thanksgiving. So we started having Thanksgiving at home, just the four of us. We did it up right with all the fine dishes and silver handed down generation to generation. When I married, we added new family members as they arrived. Eventually, eight of us fit around the table.

These days we have Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving in even-numbered years and whenever it works out in odd-numbered years.

We have adapted to every change. We were sad each time to see old traditions pass, but soon our new traditions had taken root and began to create memories just as warm as the old.

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