So sang Andy Williams on his classic 1963 Christmas album. As ancient as the song may be, it has been an unbreakable tradition in the Savage household to play it nice and loud to bounce my children out of bed on the Friday morning after Thanksgiving. The earlier, the better. For many years I loved seeing the mix of exasperation and delight on my kids’ faces as they said, “Da-ad?!” (When questioning the pater familias the word “Dad” always acquires a second syllable.) Now that the young ones are grown and gone I call them and play the song into the phone. It loses something in transmission, but I actually think they appreciate the effort.
So when thinking about what to say as this year’s winter holiday, I got to thinking about what, in fact, makes this time of year wonderful. Certainly the holidays can be stressful and even difficult for those with families rendered by time or incident. There can be unpleasant memories that bubble up around now. None of us is immune from all this. But I cling to the belief that Andy Williams was singing nothing but the truth. Here is my take on the wonderfulness – I wonder how much it overlaps with yours.
First, let’s stick with where we started – the music. From the majesty of Handel’s Halleluiah Chorus to the childlike hilarity of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” my holidays are dominated by music. Since I am from the pre-MP3 generation, I still generate the music from CD’s and – wait for it – vinyl. For each of the 39 Christmases my wife and I have shared, we have added one “good” holiday CD and one “bad” one. And our bad ones can be really bad. Mel Torme’s (Google him, if you dare) scat-singing a Christmas version of “Glow, Little Glow Worm” has to be the worst. But then follow that up with Judy Collins singing “Silent Night” a capella, or perhaps John Denver’s duet with one of my favorite Muppets, Rowlf, on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and you can be moved to tears, or smiles, or both. My youngest even put together playlists (burnt to CD’s for me, of course) from her four years at Vanderbilt, so I am the proud owner of “A Very Fratty Christmas” and “A Very Fratty Hanukkah.” Speaking of the latter, go find “I am a Latke” by Debbie Friedman if you want to wear a warm, broad smile for the rest of your day.
As much as I love the music itself, I love it more for the role it plays as catalyst. Music, and in particular holiday music, brings memories to life in a way words or even pictures cannot. I will not bore you with individual recollections, but ironically enough, the act or “re-remembering” the past seems to make the present much more meaningful. It is one thing to hear “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” for the first time. It is a moment of much greater import to hear it for the 60th consecutive year. I have celebrated Christmas in three houses, two apartments, in Augusta County, Virginia five miles west of Staunton, at a rental at Sandbridge, and even in a hospital room with my wife and two three-day-old children. But the music has always been the same, and hearing it again compresses all the memories into a very dense and pleasing experience.
But it’s much more than reviving traditions or even enjoying a short bit of time travel. Music makes the holidays the most wonderful time of the year because music must be made to be heard. And it is best made surrounded by those you love. The act of gathering around the piano presupposes the gathering, and it is that coming together that provides the real joy. Whether it be lighting candles or hanging ornaments, it is the act of reunion itself that spins the magic. No doubt the gathering of family and friends can spawn some difficult moments (I have been party to some real screaming matches over the years), but when that countdown to New Year’s Eve concludes and folks start to go out on their own way again, I find myself suffused with satisfaction at having been once again together. And if there is music playing, that satisfaction is even deeper. It is my heartfelt wish that each of you has, in your own way, a holiday that is restorative and filled with joy.
The holidays provide us with special opportunities to do four things. We can pause and say what we need to say to those no longer with us. I miss you, Mom. You can thank the Almighty for the blessings that have been heaped upon you. Dear Lord, thank you. You can tell those around you and those who you wish were how much you love them. To each member of my family, including the newest, little Savannah Hunter, I love you very much. And while doing all of that, you can play and dance and most of all, sing.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year.