She always comes to call with a clutter of memories and a tangle of people and places. I believe it is in that clutter and tangle that we rediscover the innocence of our childhood year after year, that we fall in love with Christmas, over and over again.
The magic is in the music.
My grandmother’s favorite Christmas carol was “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Ma-ma often hummed the simple sweep of its melody in the kitchen as she whipped butter for the coconut cake or crumbled cornbread for the dressing. I never hear that carol without seeing her in the kitchen, her bifocals lightly dusted with flour, safety pins in the bib of her apron—smiling with the secret of Christmas surprises.
It never made the charts, but my cousin Lizzie cut a record. She was only a little girl when her mother taught her to sing “O Holy Night” and had the record made. I never heard it myself, but I knew Lizzie’s song was “O Holy Night.” Every year when we gathered around the piano before supper on Christmas Eve, Lizzie would sing the soprano part, “fall on your knees,” and my cousin Margaret Ann would join in on the alto part. Every time I hear that refrain, I am reminded of the sweetness of their young voices in harmony: in my mind’s eye, I see them yet at Ma-ma’s piano by the window, and I feel again the anticipation of a child’s Christmas Eve.
As a child, I had rarely seen snow—and never seen a sleigh—but “Jingle Bells” was always Christmas to my ear. Now every time I hear it, I am reminded of the Christmas that Santa left my cousin Margaret a baton—a real one, with silver streamers on the ends. For days afterward, she and I marched up and down the dirt road in front of Ma-ma’s house, singing “Jingle Bells” to the top of our lungs as we twirled and kicked and marched in an imaginary Christmas parade.
One year Santa left my brothers a record player and a 45 of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” I was a grown-up 10 and I “got it,” which made me feel vastly superior to the dopey kid who sang “underneath the mistletoe last night.” Hearing that song on “enhanced digital CD” is merely a pale imitation of the tinny, scratched-record-static version I came to love so well. When I hear that song, I see once again that old metal record player with a silhouetted couple dancing on the case.
The first performance of the seventh grade band was in the Newberry Christmas parade. We played “Here Comes Santa Claus” badly and marched even worse, but we thought we were grand, positively grand. To this day when I hear “right down Santa Claus lane,” I think of Main Street—and feel as though I should check to make sure I’m in step.
Walter Munson was maybe five when he was assigned a solo part in the A.R.P. Church Christmas program. We rehearsed for weeks, “Away In the Manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.” On the day of the program I wanted one more run-through, but he stubbornly refused to sing. “I’m tired of ‘Away,’” he said.
Tired of it?
During the first part of the program, I held my breath, fearing he might take a notion not to sing at all—to say “I’m tired of it” and walk off the stage. But when the moment came, he took a deep breath and sang out strong.
To this day, when I hear that carol, I see Walter Munson with his chubby cheeks and chest puffed out, belting out “Away In a Manger” like Pavarotti.
“Away” also brings to mind a memory of Janie, a memory that always arrives with a twist of a giggle.
A year or so after Walter Munson sang “Away In a Manger,” Janie’s class sang it in a kindergarten program. Not only did her class learn the song, but they also learned the motions.
Most of them did, anyway.
The evening of the program, the children sang sweetly, and Janie seemed to know all the words. “The little Lord Jesus….”
It was so sweet to see the children bending their heads tenderly, placing their hands beside their cheeks…all but one child, who was frantically doing the motions for “roll ‘em up and roll ‘em up and throw ‘em in the pan.”
My child, of course.
So many Christmases, so little time.
My Aunt Eva James used to invite us to the Christmas program at the Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium. I will never forget the power of so many voices joined together in the opening chorus of “Joy to the World.” The beauty of it rushed through me like a hard wind.
The first Christmas my brother Danny was stationed in Vietnam, our youth choir sang “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” On every note, I prayed, “And Lord, let the peace come soon.”
No, music never travels alone.
During the holidays she is always accompanied by memories of Christmases past, as well as “the wonders of His love.” Greet them with open hands, and feel the joy in your heart once more.