For one season a year, whether we like it or not, we’re all living to the same soundtrack. There might be a million and one different versions of “Deck the Halls” and every conceivable male-female duo trying a hand at “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” but we’re all hearing essentially the same 20 tunes, played over and over again.
Stores everywhere have been hammering us with canned carols for months in an attempt to ramp us all up into the holiday gift-buying spirit. But after a few weeks of the pounding, it backfires. After all, there are only so many times you can hear Andy Williams belting out “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” without going full-on bah-humbug.
And it’s a shame, really, because there are, in fact, wonderful images and recollections wrapped up in the holiday tunes. Songs evoke memories. And the songs of December might evoke the clearest memories of any.
I grew up on the Kingston Trio’s “Last Month of the Year” album, and I truly became weepy-eyed when I recently found that album again on Spotify. When I was young, my siblings and I used to bounce around the living room of our split-level house while the Trio sang a rollicking rendition of the title track: “You got Ju-ly, August, Sep-tember, October anda No-vember. Was the twenty-fifth day of De-cember, was the last month of the year!” Hearing that song again allowed me to reach out and touch those memories as if I were dusting off a yellow-edged photograph.
Even though the tinned tunes of commerce are grating, our personal collections are soothing. Our own melodies conjure images of firesides and sleigh rides, of comfort and joy, of family gatherings and holiday feasts.
Once I escape the blaring of the malls, I slip into my own Christmas music like a comfy robe. That’s because my home is a risk-free music zone. In my house, no grandma of mine or anyone else has ever got run over by a reindeer, and Wham will never sing about Last Christmas. Jingle Bells will not be barked, meowed or quacked, and the only Madonna allowed in is not singing to “Santa, Baby.”
Instead, I cozy up to the warmth of Rosemary Clooney crooning “White Christmas” and de-stress to the strains of the Vince Guaraldi Trio playing the soundtrack from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” I have some collections that are unique enough to escape constant replays at the malls and thus remain untainted: the hammer dulcimer album discovered at a grocery store in north Georgia, the Christmas with Reindeer jazz duo that sounds like a classy cocktail hour, the German albums our family obtained while living overseas. As I push “play” each December, it’s like hearing the voice of a dear friend who visits for a few months each year.
These tunes ground me and keep me centered. I’ll be rushing to buy or wrap, decorate or bake, when my playlist rolls to “Some children see Him almond-eyed.” So, I stop and smile. The music transforms my bustling about into a kind of prayer. The “Still, Still, Stills,” the “Silent Nights,” the “O Come, Emmanuels” transport me to a place where Christmas is truly still, where Christmas Eve is sacred, where Advent is spent in reverent anticipation.
And though I think that we can agree that they start it way too early (and in spite of the fact that while we’re pushing a cart through Target, Jimmy Boyd is bound to see mama kissing Santa Claus), I believe that when our airwaves are filled with holiday music, we are all bolstered with a little jolt of brotherhood.