My aunt Viola warbled like a cat in the rain. Uncle Casmir’s voice was raspy from fifty years of cigars. My grandmother’s voice was reedy and full of thick Polish sighs. My dad had a booming basso profundo that wasn’t exactly on key but nearer to the notes than his mother and sister. My mom was a wayward soprano but what she lacked in pitch, she made up for in enthusiasm, and she conducted us as only a former high school drama teacher turned speech professor could do.
In 1967 at Grandma Chmaj’s house, the Christmas Eve tradition was to sing Christmas carols. She had little books that were handed round with all the words, even to verses three and four which had to be sung. Everyone was allowed to pick their favorite, even us little kids. All religious carols, of course, none of your Holly Jolly or Rudolph. My mom’s pick was O Little Town, my dad’s was God Rest Ye Merry. My pick was We Three Kings. To this day, as soon as I think of it, I always hear:
We three kings of Orient arrrre…
Tried to smoke a great big cigar
It was loaded
God rest ye merry gentlemen…
Such was the humor of 1967. We didn’t sing the words that way — you would “get in trouble” such as that was. We sang the right words and without accompaniment. My cousins Pat and Barbara, ten years older than my brother and I, had choir-trained voices. One of them would bring an accordion and after the regular singing, they would do two special duets that sounded truly angelic, especially in contrast: The Little Drummer Boy and O Holy Night. Truthfully, O Holy Night is still a favorite because I can hear their harmony every time the song plays.
My brother remembers the tradition fondly, too (sorry that I don’t remember your pick, bro). He tried to institute with his family, but it seemed like pulling teeth. Like it was too corny for today’s world and people were too self-conscious of whether they would be on key. Or the carols were the dumb ones. But singing brings so much joy to the soul that even though carols blared at us while we’re shopping are annoying, the connection of song to holiday is integral. Singing is joyous; holiday is about celebration, ipso facto…
We pay attention to the media and seem to enjoy letting people tell us how to celebrate the holidays. Martha Stewart always seems to pop up explaining how to make lighted pinecones or to put mini Christmas trees on table settings. My spouse had a book passed on from her mom called The Complete Christmas Book: How to Give, Entertain, Decorate, and Celebrate. Helpful hints describe how to dress and what to cook; make a Christmas wreath ring out of canned peaches and maraschino cherries! We like people to tell us what we’re supposed to do, but, really, traditions are created family by family and memory by memory. They become enduring because they bridge past and future in our consciousness. A little weirdness helps them hold fast in our minds. We don’t remember the most beautiful decoration we ever made. We often remember the ugliest.
Our household Christmas tree is 35 years old and stored in multiple plastic bins in the garage, except for the stand which leans against my bicycle pump for most of the year. We bought the tree at Gemco which was acquired by Target oh so many years ago. When we put it up, we have to fluff out the metal sleeves, and every year the plastic spindles molt a little more, just like real pine needles. We put on our traditional Christmas tree decorating music which is Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown Christmas, Mitch Miller’s Holiday Singalong, Quincy Jones’ Hallelujah Chorus, and Merry Axemas (screaming guitar solos of Rudolph and Silent Night by Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Joe Satriani).
Then I have to go hunt for “my” ornament, the one I made in the fourth grade with Styrofoam and pins. My beloved spouse tried for about a decade to get me to let go of it but I was having none of it. She finally gave in; as a compromise, I put it on the back of the tree, hidden but first. I know it’s there. I’ll probably have it thrown in my coffin.
Food is special though we typically don’t have a big Christmas dinner. Usually, I make Christmas breakfast and for the last several years entertained myself by engineering an entire soufflé first thing in the morning. Once the kids became teenagers they stopped beating me downstairs to nose around the presents. So, typically, I’m up for a couple hours before the rest of the house starts to stir. Last year I actually went hiking as the sun rose; that was actually pretty cool. Well, also pretty cold. And still made breakfast before anyone was up– eggs, muffins, banana bread, fruit salad – it doesn’t need to be duck a’ l’orange on Christmas.
The other key tradition is what we watch. I happen to have a fondness for a fairly unknown Barbara Stanwyck movie – Remember the Night – check that out on TCM or Netflix or the library if you haven’t seen it. She’s a shoplifter that Fred MacMurray, her parole officer, takes home for the holidays so she doesn’t have to spend them in jail. But the bigger Stanwyck traditional picture that MUST be watched is Christmas in Connecticut. Also, Olive the Other Reindeer – the villain is the mailman who is overworked with the monstrous stream cards and catalogs he has to deliver. He sings the wonderful Christmas classic, Christmas, Bah, Bug and Hum. I thought of him the other day when I watched the UPS truck blow right through a stop sign trying to hurry to get us all our online ordered packages.
They cut down bigger, fatter logs,
So I can bring more catalogs!
First class, third class, book rate, bulk!
Isn’t anyone, know why I sulk?!
Christmas… bah, bug and hum!
By now, my ligaments are toast,
But here it comes, more parcel post!
Why not splurge, send it priority?
What’s one more pain in my…
–Christmas, Bah, Bug and Hum from Olive, the Other Reindeer
The other big three movies are Scrooge, Muppet Christmas Carol, and Die Hard. The Alistair Sims 1951 version of Scrooge is another carryover from my childhood. I get chills just thinking of Ghost Jacob Marley wailing, “Mankind was my businesssss!” Michael Caine’s Scrooge to Kermit’s Bob Cratchit is better balanced, and the songs are very hummable. Someone pointed out the other day that it works because Caine played it straight, and I thought, “straight for what?” You know, he didn’t do anything different for the puppets. And I thought, “What puppets?” Apparently, Caine was effective. This is my island in the sun….
I am not as big a fan of Die Hard, but I got my way with the ornament and wormed the Alistair Sims and Barbara Stanwyck into the household, so I can be open-minded. It is a Christmas movie, as the others in the household seem to need to tell me, emphatically. Every year now. Since the world lost the beloved Alan Rickman, watching him execute his dastardly plot against Bruce Willis in his first big feature film is a marvel. Yippee-kai-yay Moth— um …. Merry Christmas!
Holiday traditions derive from the memories that get stamped on them. They don’t have to be heartwarming or a perfect moment – any moment frozen in time will do. The pumpkin pie carved in half because everyone crept into the kitchen to shake the can of whipped cream. The gift hiding place so perfect that you forgot where it was and embarked on a frantic two hour search. The lowfat blueberry cheesecake that took hours to make and was so disgusting after one bite, it went straight in the trash. The tree that almost set the house on fire. Grandma’s gingerbread men sitting in waxed paper for weeks that would break your teeth if you tried to bite them after opening the box on Christmas morning. You know the drill…you’ve got some of those traditions.
A Bay Area reporter used to end his broadcasts with the taglines, If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own. If you don’t like the holiday traditions, go out and make some of your own.
My brother and I have decided to try caroling this year through Skype on Christmas after the presents and the eggs and muffins and the basketball but before the Die Hard. I hope we can get past the self-consciousness that prevents us from singing with the proper enthusiasm. Maybe I can try to do my best Aunt Vi impression to get us going.