As festive as I’ll ever be
During the holiday season at my childhood home, my parents played Christmas music from the end of November through the new year, always the same albums in the same order on the record player that sat inside a ten-foot long black lacquer console underneath an orange shag carpet hung on the wall. Our tree was an artificial mess of blue and red lights, silver tinsel reflecting dark brown paneling that flanked a fireplace we rarely used. And underneath it were a hundred presents, or what seemed like that many, because at that age a hundred was the biggest number I could think of, as big as the number of stars in the sky, bigger even than the age of my grumpy Aunt Kay who had to be the oldest person alive. She was at least 42.
The most enduring memories I have of the season are those of music and the noisy static that exploded from the speakers when the needle touched the vinyl. My two siblings and I shared an Alvin and the Chipmunks Christmas collection that we played until it crumbled into pieces. Even now when I listen to a few of the songs on iTunes, classics you can find on any holiday compilation, their chipper, mischievous voices don’t send me crawling up the wall like they did my parents, like they would any sane person who can hear. The sound they make is what would come out of a pig if it were hung up by its toenails and poked repeatedly with a curling iron. Perfect for bringing lost souls to Baby Jesus.
After the chipmunk album broke we listened to a collection of Christmas songs by the Osmonds, songs I have never seen on any other compilation since. My favorite was a song called “Sleigh Ride,” and I remember thinking it had to have been sung by one of the cuter Osmonds, because only someone cute could rock that hard, or harder than any song I had ever been allowed to listen to. Not very hard at all. It was the only Christmas song I’d ever heard that featured an electric guitar, and it was fast and breathless and unforgiving, like a Sunday spent skipping church. When we played it we’d dance recklessly around the tree in our footed pajamas playing air guitar, hoping one day we would grow up to be as cool as the Osmonds. You could say that we had been taught to aim high in life.
Once we had outgrown Santa Claus and preferred to mope in our rooms over helping to decorate the tree, my mother joyfully reclaimed command of the holiday music selection and tried to kill us slowly with an album by Mannheim Steamroller. Hearing that name today makes me feel like I’m about to puke pea soup, and I’m probably being a little harsh because they aren’t that bad if you’re into music hitting you over the head with its preciousness. Steamroller music feels religious even though it isn’t, and maybe that’s because it is so majestic and full of booming, crashing, apocalyptic crescendos. And despite not having any words each song feels like it has been carefully crafted to make you consider your very insignificant mortality against a much higher, much more intelligent power, one who is ready to beat you over the head with a jazzy synthesizer if you continue to ignore him.
One constant soundtrack to our holidays was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir who ruined my favorite Christmas song, “O Holy Night,” because no one else could sing it as well as they did, could hit the final high note with as much authority. I always thought I’d try out to be a member of the choir when I grew up, and to practice I sang in my mother’s annual Christmas choir at church, one she has directed longer than I have been alive. That choir is by far my favorite memory of Christmas, one of my favorites from all of childhood, because it was one of the first instances that I understood what it meant to cry from something other than sadness. My mother always ended the program with an arrangement of “Silent Night” where the choir would sing a special harmony while the congregation sang a verse. The effect was what I thought heaven would sound like, all these angels talking sweetly over each other, not a raised, angry voice in the room, everything forgiven. And for me that song has come to represent the reason why I still celebrate this holiday.