I come by my love of Christmas music honestly. When I was a little boy, the Christmas season would officially begin when my mother brought out the albums that had been tucked away the rest of the year. There was the quiet whisper of cardboard as the vinyl discs were slid from their jackets, and my anticipation mounted when she would put the whole stack on the spindle inside the big console stereo. The feeder arm swung over, ratcheted down to the top record, the bottom one dropped and slapped softly onto the turntable, and the slender arm moved smoothly over to set its needle down with a slight pop onto the first track. And the atmosphere changed. Dennis Day sang “O Holy Night” in a clear Irish tenor. Bing Crosby crooned “Silver Bells” in a smooth Irish baritone. But my favorite, then and now, was when Perry Como proclaimed “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays.” All my life, it has made me want to head for Pennsylvania and some homemade pumpkin pie, even though from Pennsylvania, folks are traveling to where I already live, which is Dixie’s sunny shore.
And while the music played, the decorating would commence. Out came the Nativity scene; the artificial front door wreath with the painted flocking; the blue mesh/net miniature tree made and given by Mrs. Miles, across the street; candles, ornaments, lights, centerpieces. One year, I drew, colored, and cut out a number of Rudolph heads that I was then allowed to tape to the inside of the front windows. I am forced to admit, though, that no Christmas accoutrement stirred a thrill in me more than the sight of the Christmas candy platters and trays. When those hit the counter, I knew that very soon, brownies with almond extract would be melting in my mouth, followed quickly by divinity, chocolate chip cookies, and, as God is my witness, potato candy. It’s made with potatoes. And peanut butter. And sugar. Lots of sugar.
In the weeks that followed, gifts would begin to accumulate under the Christmas tree in the living room. My favorite place became sitting under that tree as the daylight faded to dark blue outside, tree lights on, end table lamps off, branches filling the air with pine, Andy Williams filling the air with carols, as I looked for the tags with my name on them. Sift through, find one, pick it up, gently shake, listen. Maybe even sniff the box. No clue. Just as it should be.
When Christmas Eve finally arrived, we would be allowed to open one gift, and only one. And it had to be a sort of second tier gift, from an aunt or uncle or someone else who wasn’t going to be there tomorrow morning anyway. That was fine with us, though. A gift is a gift, and this one’s purpose was just to whet our appetites for whatever else may lie in wait under the tree. Or better yet, the things that weren’t even under there yet, but would appear out of nowhere while we slept. Then we would break out the little Christmas Carol songbooks with pictures of crewcut boys and Mary Jane shod girls on the covers with mouths open wide, and then, all seven of us would sing, and we’d sing, and we’d sing, sing, sing, sing! And when bedtime finally came, I wondered, every year, how I would ever go to sleep. But sleep, always, would find me.
And on all the Christmas mornings of my childhood, when all five children would run down the stairs before the light appeared outside, we would look for the sign with our name on it, designating which pile of treasures we knew would belong to us, and us alone. Mark, mine would read, and it might be taped to an Indian headdress or perched tent-like on top of a drum. Before very long, amid the noise, all the noise, oh the noise, noise, noise, noise, Mom and Dad would walk down the stairs and enter the chaos, wearing pink quilted and flannel robes respectively, along with knowing smiles of secrets revealed and a mission completed.
Of course, Dad would be armed with a Super 8 movie camera and what we affectionately referred to as “airplane lights.” We had no doubt whatsoever that the two rows of bulbs that extended about a foot from either side of the camera could be used to signal any aircraft at any altitude and direct them safely to the ground. In all of our home movies, it’s difficult to tell who is really in them, because most shots are of hands shielding faces from cornea-melting beams of white hot intensity. I’m just assuming that those people are actually my family. The film processors could probably get everyone’s Christmas morning home movies completely switched up and no one would ever know, as long as every father had camera lights like that.
My Mom spends Christmas in heaven now, and my own kids are growing more quickly than I had expected, but when I hear Dennis Day, or Perry Como, or now the songs that I have shared with my wife and children- “Christmas Time is Here” by MercyMe, or Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Christmas/Sarajevo 12/24”- all the magic of every Christmas I have seen accumulates in my heart. And I hope—no, I am certain—that one day, my children will tell their children about the goofy songs I liked at Christmas. Or how much I loved “Christmas in Connecticut.” Or how much I loved their mother. And maybe they will know how full my heart was every morning of the year, just to be their father. And maybe, one day, they will see on my face, as I step away from this life, that same knowing smile of secrets revealed and a mission completed.