Christmas/Holiday Cheer: If Only In My Dreams

On Tuesday, I traveled to Warsaw to deliver a Christmas wreath to my parents’ graves. I’ve mentioned before that I go the cemetery there three times a year, continuing in some ways what my father did for his direct forebears. December is the month Dad passed away, but in recent years my focus in traveling there has shifted a bit, into honoring and remembering both of them at the holidays. Visiting where they lay buried always makes for a melancholy day, but for some reason I was feeling it all the more this time.

Warsaw is a one-stop-light town right on the Ohio River, in one of the smallest counties in Kentucky. They do have a very nice locally-owned restaurant, though–Jewell’s on Main, on the corner at that light, across from the county courthouse. Lately I’ve taken to calling in a lunch order as I leave the cemetery and then walking the two blocks to a park on the river to eat; it’s a peaceful, contemplative spot. Tuesday was no exception. It was cool enough, but the sun was out and there was little breeze. I was able to find a sunny spot in one of the picnic shelters to tuck into a grilled chicken sandwich and side salad.

There’s always time to walk around town while they prepare my order. I usually take the same route from the cemetery, starting by crossing Main Street at First and going one block toward the river to turn left onto High Street. At the corner of High and Second stands an office building with a cornerstone indicating it was built in 2005. It’s the plot on which my Great-Aunt Birdie’s house stood.

Dad sold the property a few years after Aunt Birdie died in 1997. At the time it was well over a century old but in pretty bad shape from years of benign neglect. I don’t blame the new owner much for tearing it down, even if I miss it. (The last time I was in the house, demolition was already underway. Somehow I was able to go inside and wander around–it was so strange to go walk up the stairs and into the bedroom where we’d sleep on visits and look directly up to the sky.)

The office building sits where the detached garage was, while the land where the house stood is bare. I veered from the sidewalk, over to where the living room had been. Today there’s a clear view of the river that would’ve been obscured by overgrowth in the 70s and 80s.

So, yeah, I might have been thinking about people I’d been with on Christmases past, maybe even wishing I could revisit–just for a few minutes–one of those magical seasons.

I don’t believe there’s a picture of Mom and Dad together on any Christmas Day. That makes sense–one or the other of them would be behind the camera to capture the moments. (Are there any of just Martha and me from when Ben was growing up? I doubt it.) The photo above probably comes from 1980 or 1981, and definitely was taken during the holidays–notice the mistletoe? Either Amy or I is with camera in the living room of our house in Walton, while Mom and Dad are standing in the junction of our bedroom hallway, living room, dining room, and kitchen (the dining room, which we rarely used, is behind them). Is it day or night? Where are we about to go? What would I say to my parents if I could jump back in the scene?

There’s a walking path around the perimeter of the riverfront park in Warsaw. I’ve noticed before that the city has installed enclosed displays periodically along the path, and the local public library uses many of them to show the pages of a children’s story book–you can read it as you walk the path counter-clockwise. After I finished my lunch, I strolled over to the first one, not far from the shelter where I’ve eaten. This month’s installation is a picture book called Christmas Is Joy, by Emma Dodd, published just a couple of years ago. The drawings are mostly of an adult and child deer walking around a snowy wonderland, and the text recounts all the good things that come from being together at Christmas (note that it’s a secular book). As I continued my stroll, I recognized that had the book been around twenty years ago, Martha and I might well have been spending the days leading up to Christmas 2002 reading it to a two-year-old boy in our laps.

As I walked up the hill back toward my car, I understood that it’s not just Christmases from my youth that I might want to relive.

Wishing you and yours the most wonderful of holidays.

Christmas/Holiday Cheer: Christmas (W)rappin’

Today it’s a couple of classics that date back to my high school years, though it was much later before I paid either of them much mind.

“Christmas Wrapping” over the last decade or so has become one of my very favorite Christmas songs. There have been a wealth of online articles about it in recent years; at this point, the song’s writer and leader of the Waitresses, Chris Butler, must know to expect interview requests as the year winds down. This one, published Tuesday at Yahoo! to mark 40 years since the song first made waves, finds Butler expansive and reflective on the legacy of “Christmas Wrapping.” It includes more from him than I recall seeing previously about the hard life and times of the group’s late vocalist, Patty Donahue, who died from lung cancer in December 1996. Reading this piece only served to reinforce what I’ve been feeling hearing “Christmas Wrapping” this year: a bit of sadness that Donahue didn’t get to know just how deeply her voice, her talent has ingrained itself into the culture, especially at this time of year.

Butler has regularly given credit in these articles to Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rappin'” as an inspiration for his similarly-titled composition. When the 40th anniversary for “Christmas Rappin'” arrived two years ago, Smithsonian Magazine published a detailed account of how it came to be the first hip-hop song released by a major label in 1979. That turned out to be a landmark moment for the music industry, and life-changing for many of the folks involved.

It sure is a fun track, too.

Wishing everyone a peaceful, enjoyable holiday season, that you’re able to unwind and do it right this time.

Christmas/Holiday Cheer: Every Ornament Tells A Story

We still get a live tree every December. It always resides in the basement, though its location down there has varied from year to year. Most of the time, it’s been just inside the doors leading out to the back yard. Last year, however, it was placed more toward the center of the room, where the recliner usually is–a concession to our aging dog and his need to avoid going down the deck stairs in the dark. I guess we liked that arrangement well enough, as we elected to put the 2021 tree in the same spot.

The 2021 tree is smaller and lighter than what we usually get, in part because prices are higher, in part because we didn’t want to shop around all that much. This meant when it came time to decorate, we had to be more selective about which ornaments made the cut–sentimentality and weight (due to fewer hardy branches) were both factors. As the tree filled up, I couldn’t help but think about the stories behind many of the ornaments. I know the same holds true for those of you who decorate Christmas trees at home; I appreciate your indulgence as I share some of mine.

One December while my father was the minister at Stanford Christian Church–which means it was between 1968 and 1971–my sister and I received glass ornaments as gifts from a family in the church. A mouse for Amy and a musketeer for me, both about 7″ tall. It was a bit of a moment when it came time to hang them on the tree each year as we grew up. Even so, neither Amy nor I thought to claim them from our parents after we moved out–it would take until 2015, when I discovered them anew cleaning out my folks’ townhouse. I wound up with the box they had come in.

My most recent visit to Stanford Christian was in the early fall of 2017; only a few people in attendance that Sunday remembered my father and his tenure there. One of them, a man in his 60s, had a name that sounded familiar. Three months later, I realized why: his parents had been the ones to give Amy and me the ornaments (their names are written on the top of the box I kept).

One more thing: The man had mentioned he had a nephew who’d attended where I teach back around the turn of the century. I’d had the nephew in a few classes–if only I’d realized at the time, I could have told him about the ornament his grandparents had given me.

Nothing says the 1970s to me quite the same way this variegated yarn does. I made the God’s Eye at church in Walton somewhere around 1973.

Thirty-five or so years later, Ben got into Perler bead art for several months. A number of his creations became ornaments; this is likely my favorite of the bunch. Arranging it on the tree so that there’s a light behind it makes for a decent effect.

I moved into my first house in early December 1993, my second year on the job. A couple of my colleagues arranged a small end-of-semester party at school for our majors that also served as a house-warming event for me. A few students gave me ornaments, some with a math-related theme. (That’s another of Ben’s efforts, a Lego snowman, in the lower right.)

Every year since 2005, I’ve bought a personalized ornament for the tree. Until recently I got them from a kiosk at the mall in Lexington–you know, you choose an ornament and as you pay, you tell the cashier what you want written on it, and where. I’m thinking that 2014 was the year the young woman charged with fulfilling the request insisted that I needed to include an apostrophe somehow, somewhere in “The Harrises.” Even though I obviously prevailed in the end, I left pretty certain I’d failed to convince her she was wrong.

While Ben was growing up, Martha would often conspire with him to surprise me at Christmas. The same year I was getting bad grammar lessons at the mall, she came across a kit to capture your pet’s print in plaster. This was a little more than a year after Buddy had entered our lives. She and Ben corralled Buddy one afternoon while I was still at school and forced his cooperation in the project (I understand he was not pleased). We couldn’t forego getting this one out, even if it’s too big, too much for the 2021 tree–we’ve hung it on a knob for one of our cabinet doors. I knew last year he was almost certainly spending his final Christmas with us, but that doesn’t make it easier.

That’s plenty enough. Wishing you fond recollections, whether it’s spurred by Christmas ornaments or something else near and dear to you.

From the post’s title you could guess who’s providing the musical entertainment, no?

Christmas/Holiday Cheer: Nilsson, “Remember (Christmas)”

Long ago…far away…

Probably 1968; my parents weren’t the best about putting dates on pictures.

Remember, is a place from long ago...

My earliest Christmas memories are from when I’m five or six. In the first, I’m at my maternal grandparents’ house. There’s a pretty big crowd, so I imagine my mother’s sisters are there with their families. I’m carrying around a Kenner SSP Racer, complete with rip cord; I imagine it’s a present I received there, either from Gran and Papaw or one of my aunts’ families.

Remember, filled with everything you know...

The second one is likely from a year later. This time my grandparents are at our house, along with Aunt Nancy and her family, who are down from Ohio. My gift from the latter is Battleship, and I get to play a game with my grandfather.

Remember, life is never as it seems...

I had those hideous bangs in my 6th grade photo, so that pegs this as 1975. Maybe that’s the tree Dad and I chopped down ourselves…

We always had live trees growing up, even though I can’t say now how often Amy and I were taken along to help pick them out. One year–it’s either 1975 or 1976–Dad and I trek out to the farm his parents had owned (they were both gone by this point; Dad would sell it in 1983) to find and cut down our tree. I’m wearing a Cincinnati Reds sweatshirt under my coat on a cold and cloudy December Saturday morning. We tromp around quite a bit before identifying the one we deem most suitable. My role in all this is uncertain, as Dad’s not interested in a pre-teen wielding an axe. After some struggle, the cedar is taken down and we manage to get it home. (In the trunk? We don’t have a truck.) My suspicion is that my father doesn’t enjoy the experience much, as we never do this again.

Clues abound that this is 1978. That robe is way small on me now! Can you identify the LP on the floor by my sister (perhaps it’s playing on the stereo in the background as this was taken)? And what music magazine am I perusing?

Remember, when you’re sad and feeling down...

My only Christmas as an only child.
Mom, styling in the very early 70s (I’m guessing 1971). Those are Amy’s and my stockings on the ends of the mantle; mine is still used as a decoration here in our house.

Remember, turn around…

I’m frequently up before dawn these days, checking in on our restless senior dog. Looking out the window over the kitchen sink and across the way, between the bare branches of our maple tree, I can see through the French doors on the rear of the house behind us. They’re keeping their Christmas tree lit all the time, and I make note as the lights quickly go yellow-to-green-to-blue-to purple-to-red-to-yellow… (they must all sleep with their bedroom doors closed). I consider the kids in that house, wondering if they’ll carry anything from this Christmas around in their heads for decades. And then my mind goes to the parents…

Remember, think of all that life can be...

Throughout the second half of the Aughts, we host Christmas for our families: Martha’s sister and mother, and my parents (my sister is living in Florida by this point). Ruth and my mother-in-law stay in our third bedroom, while my folks take over the master. Martha and I blow up an air mattress and “sleep” on the floor in our amped-up boy’s room. One of the last things Ben does before heading up to bed is to strew the contents of a bag of “reindeer food” across our front yard.

Life was clear…close your eyes…

Christmas/Holiday Cheer: Pop Diva Originals

Between SiriusXM’s Holly and my modern Christmas hits Pandora playlist, I can’t help but learn about what the kids of the last two decades (or more) have been serving up for holiday music. I’ll go on the record to say it’s a good thing that these efforts almost always include at least one new song–I’d much rather have that than yet another version of “Holly Jolly Christmas.”

So I’m gonna step out of my lane today and rank a few of these original tunes, focusing on big female pop stars. It’s subjective in multiple dimensions, I’ll admit, but for the most part, I’m not here to gripe and snipe. (As fine a voice as Christina Aguilera has, I’m glad I can’t think of what original Christmas tune she’s done, as I’d have to dock her for her unwillingness to stay on any one pitch for more than a hemidemisemiquaver in her take on “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” I find that one unlistenable.)

Here are the six under consideration today:

6. Katy Perry, “Cozy Little Christmas”
She’s been huge for well over a decade, but I still can’t say, “Oh, that’s Katy Perry” when one of her songs comes on whenever I’m at Culver’s–I guess her voice just isn’t that distinctive to me. That goes for this piece, too.

5. Taylor Swift, “Christmas Tree Farm”
As formidable a talent as TSwift is, I find this effort pretty unremarkable–it could use a much stronger melody.

4. Ariana Grande, “Santa Tell Me”
Now we’re starting to get somewhere. The theme is similar to that of “Last Christmas” (which I’m on record as not really liking), but I can get more behind Grande’s upbeat, pro-active approach to avoiding pain.

3. Mariah Carey, “All I Want for Christmas Is You”
Maybe should be higher–it’s become a go-to song for other artists to cover already–but I’d be alright with about 33% less airplay. Carey came on the scene just as I was turning away from pop, so I’ve never attempted to fully appreciate her talent. She gets full marks for this one, though.

2. Leona Lewis, “One More Sleep”
It’s the peppier music being favored as we move forward. But I’m also noticing a progression in relationship status as we go through the top four:
Grande: Do I trust you?
Carey: Sure hope you show up!
Lewis: You’ll be here soon!

Based on “One More Sleep” and “Winter Wonderland,” I need to put Lewis’s Christmas, With Love near the top of my wish list. She sounds so buoyant, so happy.

1. Kelly Clarkson, “Underneath the Tree”
Clarkson: You’re here to stay…

I live too much in the past to know a lot of Clarkson’s body of work, but I do really like what I’ve heard. And I hope “Underneath the Tree” makes the Christmas canon someday; the energy, that sax solo, the chimes…it all works. Programmers could maybe take 10% of Carey’s spins and donate them here?

Christmas/Holiday Cheer: Jean Redpath, “Gift o’ Gowd”

While Martha and I were putting lights on our tree Sunday morning, I pulled out a couple of CDs to play. One was Still the Night, by the late Scottish folksinger Jean Redpath. My wife was a fan prior to meeting me, probably discovering her via appearances on A Prairie Home Companion*. Still the Night came out in 1999, at the very end of Redpath’s career. It was released on her own label, and it’s apparently so obscure that Wikipedia** doesn’t even list it in her discography.

Martha ripped the CD long ago and added it to the Christmas playlist on the iPod she keeps in her car. In normal years, we’d be out and about much more right now and would be hearing Redpath’s clear, lilting voice now and again as the tunes shuffled on. In particular, it seems like every year I would hear opening track “2000 Years Ago,” written by fellow Scot Alan Bell. I had planned on sharing that one with you today; however, this disk is apparently so obscure that essentially none of it appears on YouTube, either.

One of Redpath’s primary contributions over her lengthy career was a seven-disk set of recordings of songs written/collected by the great Scottish poet Robert Burns. You get a sense of how she might have approached that project by listening to the one track from Still the Night I can find out there, “Gift o’ Gowd” (gowd being Gaelic for gold–it’s a song about the Magi).

*Redpath comes across as quite earnest in her approach to the craft, but check out this duet with Garrison Keillor from one of her Prairie Home appearances.

**My favorite line in Redpath’s Wikipedia entry is, “She was awarded the MBE in 1977 as well as being named a Kentucky colonel by the governor of Kentucky.” If you’re wondering what it means to be named a Kentucky Colonel, well, you can check that out here. One group of grad school friends gave me grief over and again after I told them I had been made a Colonel twice before I turned twenty.

Christmas/Holiday Cheer: Cocteau Twins, “Frosty the Snowman”

The teaching part of my job is over for a while, as just a bit ago I submitted grades for the fall term. This past semester was both a sprint and a marathon, as we upended our calendar to finish classes prior to Thanksgiving. (I described the plan here.) My prediction that the college would have to transition to fully remote learning at some point was entirely incorrect–we were able to stay in-person the whole time. I’m still in need of decompression, but I’d like to write up some of the highs and lows of the fall at some point–perhaps reflection will help me avoid some traps next time. We’re delaying the start of the spring term to late January; now we wait and see if conditions on the ground will allow us to feasibly return then.

It’s not going to be a vacation for eight weeks, though. In addition to planning spring classes (including the possibility of having to deliver them online), there’s a lot of departmental work to do, including dealing with parts of our every-five-year self-study and getting started on a search for a new colleague. Nonetheless, I’m hoping that December and January will be months with somewhat more frequent posting here than the last four have been…

Toward that end, here’s a song of the season from Cocteau Twins, a band we’ve seen fit to mention a couple of times already this year. This is one-half of their 1993 two-song EP Snow, released shortly after the disappointing Four-Calendar CafĂ©. It’s impressive how they’re able to remain true to both the song and their sound.

Christmas/Holiday Cheer: This Year’s Missing

Last year I won “Whamageddon,” the game whose only rule is to avoid hearing the original Wham! version of “Last Christmas” during the month of December (there won’t be a repeat victory for me this year). I’ve been listening to plenty of Christmas music in the car these last couple of weeks, generally tuned in to SiriusXM’s Holly. Like so many SiriusXM stations, the playlist is far too short, and any number of songs get played every four hours or so (the surprisingly bland “Christmas Tree Farm” has been notable in this regard). But I’m also noticing what I’m not hearing so far. Yes, this is only one person listening to one station at selected moments, but I am wondering if most of the following songs are not on Holly‘s 2019 playlist (not that I’m complaining in some instances):

Trans-Siberian Orchestra, “Christmas Canon” and “Wizards of Winter”
Biggest surprise on this list–these seemed inescapable just a year ago. In addition, I’ve only heard Mannheim Steamroller once.

Percy Faith, “We Need a Little Christmas”
Greg Lake, “Father Christmas”

Holly doesn’t just focus on stuff released from the last quarter-century–I’ve heard Ray Conniff, Dean Martin, and Nat ‘King’ Cole, among others–but these two older pieces haven’t hit my ears yet.

Bob Seger, “Little Drummer Boy”
Eurythmics, “Winter Wonderland”
Barenaked Ladies/Sarah McLachlan, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings”
Rod Stewart, “My Favorite Things”
Wilson Phillips, “Hey Santa”

Gloria Estefan, “Christmas Through Your Eyes”
On the other hand, I think that maybe there is a generation gap opening in a number of cases…

Kelly Clarkson, “Underneath the Tree” and “My Grownup Christmas List”
This could just be bad luck on my part, as Holly is playing other Clarkson tunes. But the first of these is one I wouldn’t mind hearing.

Whitney Houston, “Do You Hear What I Hear?”
A couple of points about this one: 1) My wife has observed that Holly doesn’t play all that many religious Christmas songs; 2) I actually have heard it once this year. Last Friday night I happened upon the end of a rebroadcast of the Casey-hosted American Top 10: The Top 60 Christmas Songs, from 2005. I was plenty surprised to hear Houston at #2, but it also underscored to me how tastes can shift suddenly–has Whitney’s untimely death meant she is already going down the memory hole a bit?

I’m going out for what I hope is a final round of shopping today. I think I’ll put up with the ten-minute long commercial breaks and switch over to the Lexington station that’s been playing holiday favorites since November 1. I’m guessing I’ll run into a few of the above there; perhaps there’ll be an update…

Christmas Day update: Spent time since this was posted listening to stations from Lexington (in the car) and Madison, WI (streaming at home). Heard “Christmas Canon” and a few other T-SO pieces, “Father Christmas,” the Barenaked Ladies/McLachlan, and “Underneath the Tree.” Those last three were about the only ones I wanted for Christmas, anyway…

Christmas/Holiday Cheer: The Roches, We Three Kings

Today it’s a Christmas CD that came along for the ride when Martha and I got together. The Roches released We Three Kings in 90, on the not very long-lived Paradox subsidiary of MCA Records (I think the only other Paradox release in our collection is Marshall Crenshaw’s Life’s Too Short). It’s got a robust twenty-four tracks, though several clock in at under two minutes. We Three Kings is very much in our house; we haven’t broken it out yet this year, but I’m thinking that’s about to change.

Maggie, Suzzy, and Terre offer up a choice mix of religious and secular tunes. The arrangements are consistently creative and often fun; the harmonies are as exquisite as you’d expect. One of my favorite stories about Ben involves the title track. Here are four others I like a bunch. The haunting “Star of Wonder” is one of two original songs on the disk.