I love Christmas. Tiny white lights. Magically delicious treats. The smell of fir branches and my oh-so-cool sentimental tree. I have a real soft spot for Yuletide giving and the yearnings for peace. I’m a regular holiday maven, except for one little glitch – Christmas carols. I know it’s heresy, kind of like not liking puppies or butterflies, but I’m just not a fan of schmaltzy holiday tunes. By the time New Year’s Eve rolls around, I’m kinda glad the last of those cheerful ditties have left the building. Does that make me a Scrooge wannabe? Nah. I just can’t get into the jingle bell groove. (And you thought I was all sweetness and light. Hah!)
When I was little, I sang about Rudolph’s blinking red nose with the best of them. My first grade holiday concert saw me chucking Styrofoam snowballs from the pockets of my angel costume, while singing Winter Wonderland. Not sure that thrilled an unsuspecting audience, who had to field those white awkward orbs. But then again, I was 6 and it’s hard to get mad at a tiny snow elf with a missing front tooth, even if she is throwing plastic snowballs at you.
Through the years I didn’t shirk my holiday singing duties but, somewhere along the way, my enthusiasm detoured on life’s winding highway. Maybe my antipathy toward carols unconsciously sprung from many childhood holidays that were less than holly jolly. Like the festive glittering tree, few see the little crawly things that hide under the branches. When my babies arrived, Christmas took on a whole sweet, new meaning. I saw the holiday through their eyes and wanted to make theirs a wonderful sugarplum world. And while life is never perfect, I baked cookies like a champ and decorated our tree big time (the popcorn string has a story all its own) accompanied by, yes, cheery Christmas carols. When, then, did those holiday tunes hit a sour note?
I’d like to say my affinity for Christmas carols tanked after my husband died but that wouldn’t be quite honest. I do admit that hearing “All I want for Christmas is you”, sung from a firetruck, was the perfect ironic touch the first holiday after he was gone. Only a guy with his particular brand of humor could appreciate why my daughter and I laughed and cried as we left a Christmas memorial service. That song as accompaniment was the ultimate gotcha.
Each new artist puts out a semi-smashing holiday album each year, trying desperately to put a jazzy new spin on old favorites. But no matter the twist, you can’t fool me. Once a carol always a carol.
Most normal people can’t wait for Christmas songs to fill the air. Maybe I’m the Grinch of holiday music but I apparently have some company. Studies have shown that many people, who grin and bear it through the 50th rendition of Jingle Bells, reach their breaking point. While the tunes trigger hosts of happy memories, they also call up a lot that’s not so much. “All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth” can be an earworm you can’t get rid of. And “12 Days of Christmas?” Who ever thought milkmaids, French hens or swans, who’d like nothing more than peck you to death, would be a good gift idea?
Songs that were later called ‘carols’ sprang from the winter solstice celebration as songs of praise and joy. They were symbolic of the passing seasons. Then Christianity adopted and converted them into worship songs, beginning a Christmas music industry – and where industry goes, commercialism follows. Stores tune up their muzak tracks to play relentlessly happy songs of the season, like Chinese water torture. Of course, marketing studies have shown that hearing endless cheer, along with scents of pine and cinnamon, trigger bigger holiday sales. Ah ha. For me, hearing songs that trip sweet memories of Christmases past, can sending me running for the door, not the register.
I like to get merry at my own pace. Over-saturation of almost anything can make you snap, except of course, pizza. Scientists term it the “mere exposure effect” and Christmas carols are headed straight for you. Yet, some Christmas music can make me sing a different tune. Somehow their magic can transform us, whether we are aware or not. I remember my kids’ open faces, singing shyly in their Christmas concerts throughout their growing years. I see my grandchildrens’ bright eyes as the music signals that Christmas, and all the excitement it holds, must almost be here. As we age, those same songs take on a different hue. I saw that clearly with my dad tonight in his new home, an assisted living center where enthusiastic voices, full of reminiscence and hopes of their own childhoods, rang clear.
My memory may have escaped about when I lost that wistful joy of innocent Christmases past, when carols were as integral as cookies for Santa. I may have forgotten what that music does for people. Yet, I do have a Christmas playlist. (surprised, huh?) Though not one song includes bells, reindeer or snowmen, there are some that actually bring me to tears and they just might be among your favorites, too:
• Believe – Josh Groban
• A Christmas to Remember – Amy Grant
• Light a Candle – Avalon
• Let There Be Peace on Earth – Vince Gill
• So this is Christmas – John Lennon
• Where are you Christmas – Faith Hill
• Someday At Christmas – Stevie Wonder
• Hallelujah – Pentatonix
• My Grown Up Christmas List – Natalie Cole
Music, as I’ve written before, is in my DNA, as it was in my husband’s. It inspires, creates memories and soothes. It releases all those feel-good hormones like dopamine and oxytocin, which is why a beautiful voice or touching song can incite us to tears or chills. I want to wrap my head around blissful holiday lyrics, especially the heartbreakingly innocent ones that my grandchildren now sing. So, I guess it’s not surprising that music still touches my soul, sometimes even the holiday kind. (I do have an allergy to ‘Grandma, Got Run Over By A Reindeer”. With so many deer roaming near my house, and I don’t fancy ‘Nightmare Before Christmas” either.)
The part of Christmas music I can raise my hot toddy to is the way it connects us to each other and its ability to spread traditional good cheer, in whatever carol floats your boat. So, maybe I’ll whip up a figgy pudding this year, singing to one of my Christmas picks, the ones that don’t involve a Christmas miracle to listen.