Posts Tagged ‘holidays’

“Silver Bells” by Anne Murray

December 13, 2012

Today, my alarm went off, and the first thing I heard was the radio announcer reporting that Philadelphia was ranked the nation’s third dirtiest city. And it just made me sad. Another list focused on negativity. Another bad mark against my hometown’s name.

It was an ironic literal wake-up call that once again caused me to doubt myself. Just yesterday, I was thinking how special and spectacular it is to be from, work in, and live near a large city, particularly at the holidays. So many decorations in windows. Special events continually at one’s disposal. The constant hustle and rush of people.

I had met my stepdaughter for lunch. She is living at college nearby, taking the subway back and forth to school, starting to branch out and learn the city. I admit to enjoying being her gazetteer–explaining how to get around, the location of different landmarks, what to do if you go the wrong way. If you are from the city, navigating is something you simply learn by osmosis. Teaching it to someone else is a little harder, but I welcome the challenge.

We had a lovely time. She has wrapped up another semester of school, and we talked about the summer and the next few years to come. Being with her at this time in her life makes me feel happy and vicariously eager, and I admit to wanting to hang around her and absorb her projected positive energy. At 20, she radiates health, youth, and beauty. I look at her and wonder how the time from when I myself was 20 vanished so quickly.

When we were done, I walked her back to the subway station and then treked back to my office, about a mile away. It was well past lunch time, but the city was more alive than usual. Crowds were streaming from stores. People had their arms filled with packages. Outside of almost every restaurant, patrons saying farewell to one another were embracing, wishing each other happy holidays, and vowing to “do this more often” in the new year. And the song that popped into my mind as I moved in the midst of this was “Silver Bells.”

I chose Anne Murray’s rendition of today’s song, because her voice instantly brings me back to the late 1970s/early 1980s, when I was growing up in South Philly. There my character and experience were molded by and shaped within an urban environment that, just like any other place, had negatives and positives. For good and for bad, it helped make me who I am.

I didn’t hear any silver bells yesterday. No Santa stood on a street corner collecting for the Salvation Army. And yes, there was also a ton of traffic, drivers honking and getting impatient, pollution, litter, and all the other things that can make a city challenging and difficult to tolerate.

But it’s what I know and love. And it’s exciting to watch my children, one of whom is almost an adult like me, coming to know and love it, too.

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“Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy” by David Bowie and Bing Crosby

December 7, 2012

“Duet” albums by legendary performers have become career staples. Such endeavors usually consist of a recording superstar of declining years teaming up with a series of outlandish, oddly matched, younger partners in an attempt to show the versatility and virtuosity of all involved. Outcomes vary in success. Sometimes, the legend doesn’t even need to be alive to be musically paired off. About 20 years ago, Natalie Cole and her record producers started the trend of a living singer adding vocals to tracks left by someone long dead, yet still more talented. To be charitable to Natalie, I didn’t mind “Unforgettable,” because the sentiment was sweet. I draw the line at Martina McBride singing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with the ghost of Dean Martin. Sorry, but that one is ghoulish bordering on necrophiliac.

Pioneers of the mismatched duet have to be the barely-but-at-the-time-still-alive Bing Crosby and the Berlin-phase David Bowie singing “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy.” In the pantheon of oddities (musical, space, and all others), few pairings rival this combination. Two men representing different countries, generations, musical genres, lifestyles, and just about everything else blend a traditional, well-known carol with a counterpoint composed only a few hours before the recording session (because apparently Bowie hated and didn’t want to sing “Little Drummer Boy”). The duo filmed their tune on the fateful date of September 11 (albeit 1977, not 2001) for Bing’s upcoming Christmas special. A little over a month after the recording, Bing was dead.

Although the carol disappeared for a bit, it gained momentum with age and is now a staple of holiday anthologies. Radio stations that devote airtime to Christmas music play the recording frequently. Despite, well actually, because of its weirdness, this song is one of my favorites. It really shouldn’t work at all, but somehow it does.

I knew I would include “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy” at some point within my blog. I chose it for December 7 because of today’s historical significance and the message rendered by Bowie in his half of the duet. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor 71 years ago today, and soon after the attack, the United States joined Great Britain to fight the Axis Powers. From December 1941, the month and year that Bing first publically performed his classic “White Christmas,” to August 1945, 16 months before David Bowie was born, millions of people died in a gruesome global debacle, during which humanity’s understanding of its capacities for evil, destruction, and depravity was fully realized.

“Peace on earth—can it be?

Years from now, perhaps we’ll see . . .”

Clearly, the world of 2012 is not one of peace. This Christmas will be the 12th in a row in which American troops are embattled in Afghanistan. Constantly, we confront the realities of terrorist attacks, genocidal violence, and torture. A quick scan of today’s global headlines fills the reader with fear: “Mass demonstrators expected in Egypt,” “Syria ready to use WMDs,” “A renewed, unwelcome enthusiasm for execution in India.” While not as immediately terrifying, a nonetheless bleak picture appears if we zoom in from the global view to focus on our fractured nation. Only weeks after the conclusion of a nasty, polarizing, bitter election that brought out the best in no one, our leaders continue to hurl accusations and treat each other’s ideas with scorn at the expense of our country’s financial well-being and its citizenry’s emotional stability.

Answers will not be forthcoming here. My view generally drifts to that of detached resignation, similar to that offered by The Man in Black from LOST when considering the long stream of visitors to the Island: “They come. They fight. They destroy. They corrupt. It always ends the same.” (Weirdness note—this blurb appeared in my Facebook Newsfeed this morning, as I was writing.) History is a repeated loop of people arguing, warring, sacrificing, dying for causes they believe sacrosanct. Humans never-endingly hurt one another, physically, psychologically, and emotionally, and many of them do so while believing that their actions will ultimately make for a better future.

For one side to be right, the other has to be wrong . . .

I am reminded of the last lines of A Passage to India, by another of my literary heroes, E.M. Forster. Two men of different backgrounds, with seemingly little in common, after a series of catastrophic events, try to bury the past and renew their friendship. In that novel, it is not to be:

“The horses didn’t want it—they swerved apart; the earth didn’t want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace . . . they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voices: ‘No, not yet,’ and the sky said: ‘No, not there.’”

But opposition can sometimes be overcome. Even if only for brief moments, even if just in small examples, compromise and unity happen. Combinations that should not blend and people who should not get along find ways to do so. At times, the strangest and seemingly least compatible entities ignore their differences to find common ground.

When they do so, the world is made a little better, regardless of how long it lasts. And I try to balance my detached resignation with the hope that enough of these minor instances, these brief, shining moments, will accumulate to outweigh the standout, glaringly obvious examples of human folly.

And if so, perhaps history’s scales can be tipped, no matter how slightly, in favor of a fragile but still real peace.

“I pray my wish will come true

For my child, and your child, too

He’ll see the day of glory

See the day when men of goodwill live in peace

Live in peace again

Peace on earth, can it be?

Can it be?”

“The Little Saint Nick” by The Beach Boys

December 6, 2012

Today’s song and post will remain lighthearted. And, mercifully for both readers and writer, brief.

December 6 is the feast of Saint Nicholas, patron of snow, red velvet suits, wooden shoes, plastic candy canes stuffed with Hershey Kisses, obesity, and beards. At least as far as this blog is concerned.

As my family and friends will attest, I am NOT a fan of The Beach Boys, or as self-hating-American snobs like me call them, Les Garcons de la Plage. They are responsible for one of my least favorite Christmas songs ever (“Santa’s Beard”), as well as a few of my other despised records outside the holiday genre.

But I do like “The Little Saint Nick.” It’s bouncy, creative, well arranged and sung, and has one of the best lines of all songs ever:

“He don’t miss no one.”

Enjoy this song and celebrate and honor the precursor of Santa, the holiday symbol of all things fun and good.

And for two minutes, be a kid again.

“Silver and Gold” by Burl Ives

December 5, 2012

My favorite song from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which I watched last night, is “Silver and Gold.” The song seems almost tacked on to the whole program, and I had no interest in it whatsoever as a child. In fact, the entire Yukon Cornelius subplot of Rudolph (which provides the song with its tenuous incorporation) bored me to tears.

But as time moved on and I began to take more notice of lyrics, it was this tune that began appealing to me most, with its simple and beautiful message:

“Everyone wishes for silver and gold

How do you measure its worth?

Just by the pleasure it gives here on earth

Silver and gold means so much more when I see

Silver and gold decorations on every Christmas tree”

I started to treasure “Silver and Gold” as I began to face some harsh realities about adult life. No matter how much you have, it is never enough. You can be making $500, $5,000, or $50,000,000 a month, but always something will be out of reach of your pocketbook. And no matter how much you have, how much you buy, you’ll still be yearning for something more.

Things, more things, better things–they serve as distractions. They are ways to pass time, to externalize internal dissatisfactions. At the holidays, consumption can become all-consuming. Kids worry over what they will get from Santa. Adults agonize over what to buy one another. I myself fall victim to the excesses and pressures of holiday gift-giving. There have been times I’ve felt resentful that I am obligated to spend more money when my budget is already stretched. Other times I’ve wondered whether others will ever really appreciate the effort and energy spent on finding unique or special presents. And as soon as Christmas is over, I am being urged to splurge on New Year’s events, Valentine gifts, and President Day sales . . .

The tradition of exchanging gifts is an imitation of the Magi giving gifts to the newborn Jesus. When I was younger and would read the Christmas story, I would sometimes wonder what happened to those items of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Mary and Joseph were poor. I’m sure they could have made desperate and understandable use of the Wise Men’s offerings. Did they trade them for food and necessities? Did they use them to help Joseph improve his carpentry business? Or maybe to help educate the boy Jesus when they took note of his prodigious gifts for preaching and teaching?

At some point I accepted that what happened to those gifts had no relevance. Jesus’s teachings were based on the idea of salvation being attained by separating ourselves from material things, by placing no emphasis whatsoever on earthly goods.

So why is the story of the Wise Men included at all? Maybe we need to consider it from a different angle. Here’s some perspective offered by one of my literary heroes, Mr. T.S. Eliot:

“And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.” (From The Journey of the Magi, http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoem.do?poemId=7070)

Three men saw a sign. They accepted it as true. Despite being men of learning, comfort, and occupation, they put aside everything to embark on an arduous journey. At that time, in that place, their beliefs led them to prioritize acknowledging a birth and paying homage to a child. Nothing mattered more than showing outwardly their wonder and great happiness over this event.

Upon their arrival, they found a child lying in a manger–a newborn human, who had no comprehension of their appearance, no appreciation of their efforts, let alone their actual presents. But somehow they intuited that in and from this little baby, gifts existed that neither they, nor any of us who would attempt to mimic their path, could ever fully return.

So, this season, as I hand over parts of my own earnings to but gifts for loved ones, I will try to remember the importance of what lies behind the outward gesture, and perhaps the message, the ongoing present, that the Story of the Magi offers to me:

  • That I care for these people enough to put money aside for them
  • That they mean enough for me to sacrifice not only my money but my time
  • That, even if only for a few minutes, they are important enough to occupy more room than usual in my mental space, so often focused exclusively on my own wants and needs
  • That, yes, these other people would be worth, to me, a journey similar to that made by the Wise Men
  • That people I love always, without question, are worth more than all the world’s silver and gold

“The Most Wonderful Day of the Year” by The Misfit Toys

December 4, 2012

Tonight is the annual airing of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and today is the first of two posts of songs from the program.

Most people recognize the 1960s as turbulent. I never really expected this to be reflected in the holiday specials of that decade, but if you do a quick time line of its four shows that have endured, you can discern the overall mood of the era. Rudolph came first, in 1964, and it doesn’t take a genius to recognize the program as a plea for tolerance and pluralism. The following year, A Charlie Brown Christmas cast the spotlight on spiritual and neurotic angst, which Lucy and Charlie recognize as the “fear of everything.” Then came How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 1966, in which the holiday is rescued at the last second from just plain and outright meanness.  By 1968, writers didn’t even bother to develop much of a plot for Frosty the Snowman. A bunch of hippy-ish kids and a magic bunny dance around with Frosty until a weirdo magician steals back his own hat. This is all a prelude to Frosty melting before our very eyes, damaging the psyches of generations to come.

I realize that the writers of Rudolph were trying to illustrate certain points, and that, for children of all times, such points are easier to understand if the terms are well defined and clearly demarcated. In other words, no nuance necessary. But every time I watch Rudolph, I am struck by just how narrow-minded and unpleasant so many of the characters are. Even though the message behind the show is one of learning to accept others, the society of the time obviously tolerated behaviors and attitudes that wouldn’t even be considered watchable if proposed in a children’s show today. This program would never pass muster with 2012’s network executives. I can just picture a meeting among them about it and the many reasons Rudolph would be rejected as unfit programming:

  • You have the oppressive Elf-in-Charge who harasses Hermey into trying to be someone he’s not (vetoed for blatant and unpunished bullying).
  • There’s Donner, who forces his son to wear a fake nose to hide his perceived defect and basically sends Rudolph the message that he’ll never amount to anything (vetoed as an example of borderline child abuse).
  • Then there’s the sports coach (Comet) who bans Rudolph from Reindeer Games and Santa’s Flight Squad simply on the basis of appearance, despite Rudolph’s superior athletic skills (vetoed for obvious and unchecked discrimination).
  • There’s all the misfit toys with their clearly identifiable flaws, save for the weepy doll, whom the producer of the show identified in 2007 as having been exiled to Misfit Island because she was depressed (thank God for Wikipedia!, and vetoed for mocking those with physical challenges and mental illnesses).
  • One would think you could rely on Santa to behave sympathetically, but even he shows no pity for Rudolph, nor for the elves who work hard but fail to impress him with their song, nor for the misfit toys that he’s been ignoring for Lord knows how long before Rudolph finds them (vetoed for overall misanthropy, which goes against every other depiction of Santa in history).

We often idealize the past. Particularly at Christmas, we can fall victim to a nostalgic desire to return to an earlier time, when life appeared simpler, people seemed kinder, and the pace of life was deemed less hectic. But if we consider Rudolph as an artifact of its time, it becomes a little more difficult to continue to believe in yesterday.

I fully recognize that social progress never ends and, as many recent events have underscored (at least for me), there is still a long way for our country to go. Despite what some people truly and earnestly believe, our society still contains marginalized and oppressed groups. We still have people treated like outcasts and misfits because of how they look and how they want to live. Gaps continue to exist between young and old, bosses and workers, parents and children.

Certainly, it is possible to err too far in the other direction. A society in which everything is tolerated and no one ever is criticized may cause its citizens to be too soft. And maybe in our attempts to correct past excesses, we now overcompensate and, almost like Charlie Brown, live in constant fear, although now the fear is of unintentionally causing offense over everything.

Despite this, in how we consider those who are “different,” some progress has been made since the 1960s.

And if one believes that such consideration is directly related to portrayals in the media and popular culture, part of that progress may be, even in a small way, thanks to the influence of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” by Andy Williams

December 3, 2012

No philosophical or theological musings today. Instead I have chosen to honor Mr. Christmas, Howard Andrew Williams, on what would have been his 85th birthday.

One of the many reasons I like listening to the radio during “the holiday season” (to use a phrase Andy himself was familiar with) is because you get to hear so many great artists whom mainstream radio has abandoned as hopelessly passé. If you want to hear Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, The Carpenters, Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis, even Frank Sinatra or Barbra Streisand, it’s up to you to find a satellite station devoted to Easy Listening or to create your own playlist with your CDs and iTunes.

And what sad neglect, because these people, and of course one of my personal favorites, Andy Williams, were consummate professionals. They knew how to interpret music. Now, the woman obsessed with the likes of The Beatles and The Smiths certainly appreciates the importance of the revolution that was the singer-songwriter. And the diversification of music genres is a good thing, widening the scope of music and enabling mainstream radio to incorporate the traditions and essential influences of country, jazz, soul, urban/rap music, alternative, hard rock, new wave, and punk rock.

Still, there was something special about those artists of the 1930s through the 1970s who may not have been primarily lyricists or songwriters themselves but nonetheless possessed talents and capabilities that seemingly have disappeared. They understood that the delivery of a song could be powerful without rendering the listener powerless. They knew that vocal strength and style didn’t have to rely on screeching, hooting, turning every syllable into a trill contest, and basically shocking the listener into submission. While I love music from all times, including many of today’s artists, I don’t regard the American-Idolization of singing to be a good thing. I never feel like many of the vocalists of the last 15 to 20 years are intent on doing anything but impressing the audience with acrobatics and pyrotechnics.

People like Andy Williams didn’t employ stunts—they sang simply but earnestly and convincingly. And beautifully. And the Christmas season is the one time of the year that music offered by him and his likes is resurrected for all to enjoy.

On the occasion of his birthday, I am posting not my personal favorite (reserved for a future post) but his best known holiday tune. In fact, our local radio station begins its annual “nothing but holiday music” tradition with “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” So what kind of fan if holiday music and Andy Williams would I be not to include this song in my overall blog?

A personal anecdote–over the past few years, I had mentioned intermittently to my husband and son that I hoped to visit the Moon River Theater in Branson, Missouri, where Andy continued to perform in shows up until last year, when he was diagnosed with cancer. I came home from work a few months ago and told my 8-year-old son, William that, regrettably, Andy had passed away. William said first, “That’s terrible. Well, I guess Christmas will never be quite the same.” Then he paused and said, “Mommy, I am really sorry that one of your dreams will never come true.”

In those two sentences, despite feeling sad to say farewell to Andy, I thought how lucky I was to have a kid who even knows who Andy Williams is, and who actually listens to his mom and knows and values what some of her dreams, however goofy they may be, are.

And in that instance, I knew my husband and I must be doing something right, oh what the heck, something most wonderful, as parents.

“O Tannenbaum” by Nat King Cole

December 1, 2012

Today is the day we start decorating for Christmas at my house. I like to decorate for all the various holidays of the year, but if I’m being honest, I have to admit that the other decorations are substitutes for those linked to the big event that has now arrived.

Unearthing lights and beads, opening boxes holding beloved treasures, gazing at ornaments imbued with special meanings–in many ways, decorating for the holidays is a foreshadowing of the big day itself. When the holidays are over, I always dread the dismantling of the decorations–storing away so many beloved figurines and items that symbolize beautiful memories. It seems almost cruel that these things (which I know are just things, but still seem more alive than regular things) hide away for 11 months of the year. I do realize that their limited duration contributes to their special importance. Still, part of me wishes I could just keep everything in place all year round. (In fact, we do keep a few things out for the entire year to serve as ongoing reminders of the Christmas spirit and to tide us over until the next year’s noel is upon us.)

Of course, the centerpiece is the Christmas tree. The most beautiful tree I remember was not from my childhood or one that I myself had in any of my grown-up homes. For many years, I worked in a different part of the city than I do today, and I used to pass through a building that always had the most gorgeous tree. Every year, the first day that I walked into that building and saw that tree back in its place in the middle of the huge atrium, my eyes would fill and my heart would skip a beat.

I remember seeing that tree the Christmas when I was several months along in my pregnancy with my son, gazing up at it and knowing my life was about to undergo major changes and wondering what the following year would be like. And I remember showing it that following Christmas to the little baby who was too young to really understand but was fascinated by it all the same.

Life has moved on since–I no longer work near that building and don’t know if they still put up that gorgeous tree. The little baby is now a boy of almost 9, clinging by a thread to childhood. In a similar way to how I wish I could preserve Christmas all year round, part of me wishes I could freeze my life to be a repetitive loop of now. It’s been hard enough to let go of my own youth. With every year that progresses, my link to that youth through my own children becomes more tenuous.

I learned this summer, when I fought turning 40 with every fiber of my being and lost, that I cannot stop time or preserve the present. The best I can do is maintain in my heart the spirit of wonder, anticipation, appreciation, expectation, and hope that I had as a little girl. I see today these qualities in my son and his young friends and so want them never to lose them.

Certainly, the religious symbolism of the Christmas tree — its representation of an eternal life beyond this world — is obvious. For me, the tree embodies the overall elusive qualities of Christmas and part of the holiday’s wondrous appeal. Both the tree and the holiday remain forever alive, always in bloom, eternally holding promise, never growing old.

“O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
Your branches green delight us!
They are green when summer days are bright,
They are green when winter snow is white.
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
Your branches green delight us!”