A few years ago, I decided to get a part time job to raise some more cash for Christmas. So I landed a job at a jewelry store. This was a Texas family owned & operated jewelry store. That was a fun job—really a lot of fun. I have nothing but respect and high praise for them for lots of reasons–not the least of which is this is a Christian company and they practice what they preach. I was the only guy on the staff that season. My co-workers were wonderful ladies and they took me under their collective wing. I’m thinking they were feeling a little sorry for me. When I took the job, I promise you, I didn’t know anything about jewelry but thanks to their help, I did learn a lot and quickly.
Our store had a sizable floor plan with several tastefully placed display cabinets filled with bling for everyone. I think I started just before Thanksgiving but what I do remember clearly was how every day we got closer to Christmas, the busier it got. A week or two before Christmas, it was not uncommon to see the store packed with people standing shoulder to shoulder trying to find that special item for friends & loved ones. It was mostly women in the store with a few men who obviously had been towed in there by their wives or girlfriends.
The way things worked was clear cut. Customers would come in and browse the store. Many of them were holding the catalogs they received in the mail. A lot of these people were long time, repeat, dedicated, loyal customers. They would get a slip of paper and write down the item number on the jewelry tag or in the catalog. When they got to the counter. We’d go find that specific piece in the storage drawers or bins behind us. Our store sold a ton of charm bracelets, charms, neck chains, rings & earrings. We’d let the customers try on the jewelry for their approval. They’d say yay or nay, make the transaction, and it was done. The staff took great pride in their customer service. Most of these ladies had been doing this for years and they are very good at what they do.
One morning I had not been on the floor for more than 10 minutes when a little, older lady came up to the counter and got right in my face. The store was packed with people. People people everywhere. Apparently, she had purchased something a few days earlier and was not a happy camper. She was in a major snit. She apparently didn’t want to do just an exchange or simply want her money back; she wanted justice! I know this kind of person. I have known them since my college days working at McDonald’s. They have a room in their house where the have on their wall the heads of deer, antelope and ferrel hogs. She obviously to mount MY head up there too. At first, her firm and targeted fury at me made no sense. I honestly had no idea what she wanted or what she was talking about. She just kept ranting at me in her loud annoying voice. I maintained my cool and just let her rant. After she finally ran out of a steam, I was able to cut to the source of her issue and figure out how to help her. I have to admit, it would have been so easy to cut loose and dump my frustration back at her but in those situations you just have to remain a professional. (But don’t think I hadn’t thought of it) As the lady left the store, I walked to the back of the store into the conference room and closed the door. I was still seething. I took a big breath, exhaled and said out loud in a calm normal voice, “Lady, I hope your pet spider dies.” And walked back out the floor and went back to work.
I loved my work there. You would be amazed with how many charms & charm bracelets they sell. Not being a girl, I didn’t realize how personal charm bracelets are to women. Every charm has a special meaning and a special place on the bracelet. Ladies will use a lot of time choosing each charm and precisely in what order those charms will go on that bracelet. Don’t be messin’ with any lady’s charm bracelets–unless you just really need a broken hand.
The Christmas season can be a mad house. That is an understatement. I remember working the counter and having my head down for a couple of hours at a time only to look up and see no end to the line of customers filling the room–a couple of hundred, at least. The customers were great. They were very patient and thoughtful. They knew we were really trying to help them in a timely fashion. It was just crazy busy.
That is how busy it gets but then, suddenly, it’s Christmas Eve and something weird happens. Early in the day you notice there are a few women come in as the store opens but then the transformation happens. By noon, there are nothing but men in the store. They come in and start viewing the display cases, cabinets and the wall displays. Almost to a man they have an order slip in their hands. Some have very confused looks on their faces. Some are in the downright panic mode. The funniest thing to me happened more than just a few times. A man would come to the counter and point to a catalog number of an item he wanted.
It is now Christmas Eve. The store has been hammered by thousands of customers over the past three weeks or so and many of the items have simply been sold out. When you tell the guy, “I’m sorry but we have sold out of that item but we’ll have more next week.” He doesn’t want to hear that but he presses on. Next, he’ll turn and survey the store and point to an item on the wall or in a display case and say, “I want THAT!” Hopefully, we still have some. This guy desperately does not want to go home empty handed–he wants something…anything! I figure his logic was, if his spouse isn’t exactly crazy about the item, SHE can bring it back and exchange it for something she does want after the holiday. That always amused me to no end. Yes, there are more people than you can count that wait until the last day.
For you guys who wait until Christmas Eve, good luck and I hope you get what you want in time this year. Merry Christmas, Y’all.
Christmas has always been a special time of year. Some of my favorite memories are rooted in the Christmas holiday. You can call me a hopeless romantic if you want to but I love that ‘Christmas feeling.’ The sight of holly, snow-laced spruce trees and logs burning in a fireplace stir something deep inside of me. Perhaps it’s growing up in Norman Rockwell’s America that I cherish so much. Yes, I grew up there and was fortunate enough to experience firsthand all the trappings of a New England Christmas—even the roasted chestnuts on an open fire. Christmas always brings a hopeful, optimistic promise of good things. I see the good in people that I often miss during the other parts of the year. That’s my shortcoming, not theirs.
As I grow older, memories flood my mind, particularly during the holidays. Those memories converge around people more than anything else—mostly people who are not with us anymore. As much joy as there is at Christmas, for me, there is always a twinge of sadness. My parents are gone several years now. I miss them more than ever at this time of year. It’s because those lasting memories of Christmases past almost always includes them.
As with much of my writing, something comes from out of the blue and inspires me to start jotting down thoughts. Usually, I have no idea where it will lead. This time the thought of Christmas has moved me to share with you a Christmas story. It’s a simple snapshot in time written for sharing with my children, family, and my cherished friends.
The Christmas Tree
Most families have their own holiday legends and rightfully so. This is one of ours. I promise every word is true. It’s too ‘out there’ not to be true. It begins on a cold grey Sunday afternoon in November in Sanbornton, NH. My stepdad, Hal, who for some reason I cannot truthfully remember to this day why but I called him, ‘Pop.’ He and I drove up to his parent’s farm in Sanbornton with plans of chopping down our own Christmas tree from the family farm. The homestead goes all the way back to the days of the French and Indian War. In fact, it was built by one of ‘Roger’s Rangers.’ Kenneth Roberts wrote a book called, Northwest Passage which later became a movie starring Spencer Tracy, Robert Young and Walter Brennan. Apparently the group actually existed or at least, one just like it.
The farmhouse sat on 180 acres on what was the Old Concord Coach Road that traversed the forest between Sanbornton and New Hampton. The Concord Coach House where the coach ride began was situated on the road, now called Plummer Hill Road, at the bottom of the hill about a quarter of a mile below the house. The farmhouse itself was built by a Mr. Plummer who served as a ranger in that militia group. He rests in the family cemetery in the woods about a hundred yards behind the farmhouse. I spent many summer afternoons back in the old family cemetery trying to visualize what his life must have been like—still watching for marauding Indians in the woods.
Pop and I drove up there one cloudy, gnarly, cold Sunday afternoon in 1965. Our mission was to find and cut down a stately, well-proportioned Christmas tree from our own farm. How difficult could that possibly be? He parked the big, maroon, whale-like 1962 Mercury on the side of the seldom traveled road. We began our search on the steep incline in the field below the road.
It takes time to find the perfect Christmas tree. Even though the cold passed through our layered clothing, we pressed on. We would spot a tree standing like a sentry off to one side or the other and approach it with the eager anticipation of a child—only to turn it down because of some perceived flaw. I cannot tell you how many times we put ourselves through this process; easily dozens. It must have been 90 minutes later; when we realized that it was getting late in the afternoon and we were going to lose daylight if we didn’t make our decision soon. You would think standing in the midst of 180 acres of trees finding a ‘perfect’ tree would have been a no brainer. We began to get in touch with reality. This was an exercise in futility…”For God’s sake, pick a tree!” I’ve never been one to feel comfortable in the ‘settle for’ mode but we really did have to make a decision.
Finally, about 50 yards down the side of the hill we found a likely suspect. As I stood slightly behind it on the side of the hill, it was just a tad taller than me. I was 5’9’ with my stocking hat on. I stood there with my arm standing straight out and I was holding the middle of the tree. At this point, I’m considering neither the geometry nor the size of our prize. The tree was pretty. No, it was magnificent. It had a perfect shape. It was what Pop called a ‘Bastard Pine.’ It was a mixture of pine, spruce and some other kind of evergreen. It had long, supple, multi-colored needles. It was a naturally colorful tree. This tree was going to look spectacular in the front window of our living room in the house at 69 Lincoln Street. I just knew Mom was going to be so proud of us for finding such a superb specimen.
We attacked the 10 inch base of the tree with the hacksaw. In a minute or two of furious, sweaty effort, the tree twitched, made a cracking noise and fell to the ground with a loud resounding swoosh! We had our tree. Now only the simple task of hauling it up the hill and placing it on the roof of the old Merc remained. Little did we know at the time, this was only the beginning of a growing list of troubles.
Pop moved to the base on the right side of the trunk; I to the left. We looked at each other and reached down to grab the base. We wrapped our arms around the bottom two branches and lifted the cumbersome trunk. On the count of three we both lunged forward. WE lunged forward…the tree, stayed put. Not believing or accepting the previous outcome, we tried the same ploy again with the exact same results. A third attempt found us no closer to perceptible movement. Yes, this was the definition of insanity personified. You know, doing the same thing over and over expecting different results? As the old joke goes when the box fell out of the back of the long car, someone remarked it was time to rehearse this thing. This plan was not working.
Realizing we might have bitten off a bit more than we could chew, we approached our tree with a new determination. This time we placed an extra tight grip on the lower branches and picked the tree up to about shoulder high. This time we actually got it to move–maybe a foot. We must have been a sight. Pop said we looked like a couple of monkeys trying to hump a football. Imagine watching a man and a boy trying to muscle this forest up the side of a steep hill. Words were muttered, energy expended while inching this behemoth up the hill. At one point we realized there was an easier way. That was to lay the tree on its side parallel to the road and roll it up the hill. We would have to adjust the top of the tree after every couple of turns of the tree. Remember, the tree was a lot wider at the bottom than the top. Our method might not have been pretty but at least it worked.
We easily consumed more than 45 minutes to finally get that tree the fifty yards or so up to a stopping point on the side of the road. When we reached the top of the hill, we were both out of breath and hunched over like a couple of arthritic old men. “Thank God that’s over!” Pop said as he lit a cigarette. I was cold but I recall not minding sitting on the cold ground clenching my knees close to my chest just to stay warm. I was plum tuckered out.
Next came the task of loading it onto the roof of the car. Hal and I were gassed from the trek up the hill. Rather than drag the tree to the car, Hal backed the car beside the tree. I think this was the first time we began to get a sense of the actual size of our hard won greenery. The tree was longer than that big ‘ol Mercury. The bottom branches, even in the prone position, were taller than the car itself.
We had worked too hard to turn back now. If we can get this thing to the house, it will make a magnificent tree. If is a little word consisting of two letters that can often take on implications on par with quantum physics. I can prove it. Having the tree beside the car was no guarantee that we would ever get it home. We only had to raise the tree up the four or five feet onto the roof of the car. It might as well been a mile. This would prove to be a challenge greater than finding the tree and far greater than coaxing it up the hill.
Again, we approached the problem in a manly way—brute force! We bent down, grabbed the tree and tried to hoist it upon our shoulders for the final push onto the roof. Did I mentioned before, we were gassed? After a couple of futile attempts, it was obvious; we just didn’t have the strength to pick it up. It was way too heavy for us. There had to be another way, but how?
For several minutes, we stared, perplexed, at the tree and then at the car and back at the tree all the while secretly wishing that somehow magically it would climb up there by itself. Suddenly a light went on in our brains. Granted, it might have only been a 40 watt bulb but a glimmer of an idea flickered to life. We did have in our possession a piece of rope about twenty or twenty-five feet in length. I tied one end around the trunk and the bottom branches of the tree. Meanwhile, Pop tied the other end around a rather stout looking tree beside the road. There was sufficient slack in the rope so that I could lift it over the hood and roof of the car while Hal maneuvered the vehicle between the upright tree and our Christmas tree.
Pop inched the car forward, then backward and forward again until we had the length of rope running over the middle of the hood and roof and down over the trunk to the base of our tree. At this point, Pop and I switched assignments. He stood behind the car as I slowly inched it backward while Pop lifted the tree trunk and lower branches onto the trunk of the Mercury. He was huffin’ & puffin’. As with many great plans, it didn’t work the first time. The tree simply rolled off the other side of the trunk when it reached the rear window taking the radio antenna with it. That’s OK we weren’t listening to the radio anyway. However, the plan did show promise. We went at it again.
I pulled forward and then back again. Pop once again took a mighty breath and hoisted that tree back onto the trunk with every ounce of strength he had left. Eureka! It worked. We were able to get the tree onto the roof, grinding and scratching paint every inch of the way. That big ‘ol Mercury actually groaned as the shock absorbers bottomed out. With the car running, I hung on to the tree while Hal undid the knots at both ends. We quickly tied the tree to the roof by running the rope through all of the open windows of the four door sedan and over the top of the tree in several locations. Although we still had twenty somethin’ miles to get back to Laconia, that puppy wasn’t going anywhere. The Mercury took on the appearance of an old fashion East Texas logging truck. I wish you could have seen it. It was a sight–Just this big green & Maroon massive growth rollin’ down the road.
Because we had to run the rope through the interior of the car, we made the trip back to town with the windows down. It felt like 20 somethin’ degrees. In those days, we didn’t know anything about wind chill. It was just damned cold. I was already at the point of not feeling my fingers. So there we were coming back to town with a monstrosity of a tree dwarfing the car underneath it with the windows down and the heater on full blast laying our hands on the closest dashboard heater vent. On the ride home, I remember looking over at Pop every now and then and sharing that look of intense pride. We smiled like a couple of Cheshire cats. We were pretty proud of ourselves. The feeling would last until we got home.
We pulled into the drive way on Lincoln Street. Our house was a gray two story house with enough room in the attic to have made a nice apartment had it been finished out. I used to practice my trombone up there. The roof of the house, like most houses in that part of the world, had a serious pitch to it so that the snow would fall off and not put so much stress on the roof. The downstairs rooms were fairly large with the living room in the front of the house, the dining room in the middle and the kitchen in the back.
Pop pulled the car to the back door off the kitchen. I ran into the house with excitement and called my Mom to come and look at our Christmas tree. I will never forget her reaction as she walked through the back door onto the porch. “What the hell are you going to do with that thing?” She asked with more than a touch of sarcasm. I was crushed. My expanded chest quickly deflated. Pop looked hurt too.
Mom continued, “How do you expect to get that in the house? Look at that. It won’t fit through the door!” Pop and I looked at each other and in a manly saving face kind of way, we said, “Oh we can get it in—the boughs will bend.” Yeah, right. I untied the rope holding the tree to the roof and Pop pushed the tree toward the porch. Again, with a heavy swoosh, it found the ground. I think I heard the Mercury catch its breath and raise six inches higher. Pop pulled the car away and then we approached the immediate problem at hand–getting it up the back stairs and into the house.
Having already had the experience out in the field of trying to pick up the tree and move it without much success, we were determined to get it through the doorway. We muscled it to the back door. Oh that idea of the boughs bending at the doorway? That wasn’t going to happen. Getting that monstrosity into the house was simply an obese possibility. Obese possibility—FAT CHANCE! As much as I hated the idea, it was the only thing he could do; Pop broke out the hacksaw again. He cut just above the lowest spray of branches. Keep in mind the trunk of this tree was easily 10 inches or more. Still again, the tree would not go through the door. He then moved the hacksaw about two feet further up the trunk and started driving the saw through the soft wood. The next section fell to the ground with a heavy sounding clunk. This time we got it through the door—barely.
Mom had to move the kitchen table and chairs out of the way or we would have surely knocked them all over. Pop and I manhandled the tree through the dining room into the living room. By now the tree was considerably lighter. We laid it down by the front window and both bent over, got a good grip and stood it up. Or should I say, we tried to stand it up? Now the tree was too tall! The tree started to bend about half way up the tree. The top of the tree stretched across the ceiling parallel with the floor. There must have been four feet of tree running along the ceiling. Mom just sat in the corner chair shaking her head reminding us just how stupid we were and how silly we looked. Mom never suffered fools lightly. If you knew her, you know that about her.
It was time again for the hacksaw. A couple of more cuts had indeed cut that tree down to size. Even after cutting easily four or five feet from the top, it went from the floor to the ceiling. Understand, we cut enough off the top of this tree that if we had cut a circular hole in the ceiling instead, Mom & Pop would have had a full size Christmas tree downstairs in the living room and a full size tree upstairs in their bedroom. And it would have been the same tree.
The tree trunk, despite all the cutting, was still too large to fit into the tree stand. We had come this far…this tree was our tree and there was no backing up. Pop went outside to the garage and came back with some wooden slats to nail to the underside of the trunk. Once we stood the tree back up, he then nailed that puppy to the hard wood floor. Mom likely went nuts over that but Pop was NOT going to be denied. This was war. We then took a piece of clothesline, wrapped it around the middle of the tree, and then tied off each end to nails Pop had driven into the window and door frames.
It was time to stand back and admire our handiwork. This gorgeous Christmas tree in the wild now had no shape! It was just one continuous wide piece of green pipe that ran from the floor to the ceiling. I’m not kidding. There was NO Shape. There was just this massive green growth in the corner of the room. You have never seen anything so ugly in your life! Mom claimed she hated it but as the years passed, I always knew that, secretly, it was special to her too. We never had a Christmas together after that when that tree didn’t come up in the conversation. It was my favorite Christmas tree of all time—ugly as it was—no tree ever meant more to me and our family.
Mom passed in 1998, Pop in 2002. Just before he died, we knew it was the end game for him. I drove to New Hampshire and spent 11 days with him while he was in the hospital. We talked about everything and everybody. Finally, on my last day before I left to come back to Texas, we talked again. I knew it would be the last time we would ever see each other. He knew it, I knew it. Tears were easy to find. I couldn’t leave it that way. I was determined to get him to laugh one more time.
The conversation turned to that wretched Christmas tree. It had become a family legend. Pop and I bonded because of that tree. He truly became my dad on that hillside that cold November day. As we reminisced one last time about that pitiable pine, we laughed until we cried. It was the ugliest Christmas tree ever displayed in Laconia, NH—or for that matter, perhaps, anywhere at any time. But in reality, to this very day, for me, it remains the most beautiful Christmas tree I ever saw.
Have a Merry Christmas and a joyous New Year. In the meantime, take care of your precious selves.
Without a doubt, my favorite two holidays of the year are Christmas and the Fourth of July. The Fourth of July brings out the patriotic side of me. Christmas brings out my reflective side. Even as a boy I’d find myself looking back and reflecting upon Christmases past. I don’t know why. There is just something about this holiday that lends itself to memories. I’d think about all the toys & games I had received and about the Christmas trees past too; however, most of my memories were centered on people – many of which, if not most, who are no longer with me. I grew up in a rather large extended family on my mother’s side. They were known as the Della Porta’s. My mother and her brothers and sisters were raised by an Italian father and a Portuguese mother. As a child, my most vivid memories are of laughter and food. The Della Porta family knew how to cook and eat. I remember eating my first chestnuts roasted over an open fire. Frankly, I wasn’t too fond of the chestnuts but I ate them. I love my aunts and uncles and all my cousins too. The family gatherings at Christmas were always special. Our family was so large, I think I was still sitting at the card table when I was 45 years old.
As a child just beyond toddler, I remember my great-grandmother, Christina, my grandfather’s mother. I was always told that she was the only one of the family with blue eyes and that I got mine from her. So I’ve always felt a special connection with her. I remember standing there beside her. There is a picture of the two of us in the family album. I was maybe four or so at the time. She died one Christmas Eve. For several years afterwards as joyous as the Christmas season was there was always a bit of a pall over the holiday. For years afterward she would often come up in conversation. But then again, I mostly remember the food. We ate lots of Italian food, turkey & ham. It was a feast every year–more food that you could possibly eat topped off with decadent Italian pastries. I remember being covered in powdered sugar.
We always had Christmas at our house where Santa would leave lots of booty for me but no Christmas was complete without going to grandma and grandpa’s to see what Santa left me under their tree. I cannot remember a Christmas when I was disappointed. That Santa Claus had to be a rich dude. It wasn’t that I got these wildly extravagant gifts but he always seemed to bring the thing that I wanted most. That Santa guy is all right in my book.
I spent every one of my first 17 Christmases at home. The first six or seven were in Rhode Island where I was born. The rest were in Laconia, New Hampshire, where I grew up. I have lots of memories of the holidays. The one that comes to mind at the moment was my last Christmas in Laconia. It was supposed to be my first Christmas away from home. I had enlisted in the U.S. Navy in the month of March prior to my graduation from high school in June. And I was supposed to be away at school at NAS Lakehurst, New Jersey, learning how to be a Parachute Rigger. At the last minute, I was able to swing a pass to go home a couple of days before Christmas. I didn’t tell my folks I was coming. Based upon previous experience with my mom, I didn’t want to deal with trying to explain to her what my plans were. Remind me sometime and I will tell you a very funny story about my mom and getting me home from boot camp. It’s funny—no–it’s hilarious and to this day it’s still downright embarrassing. I’ll just give you the Cliff Notes version here. My mother called the Admiral at Great Lakes to make sure that her little boy got home from boot camp safely. Embarrassing doesn’t begin to explain the emotion I felt when I was called out in front of 700 other sailors and told that I had a phone call from my mother. Maybe that’s what scarred me for life.
For this trip, I figured out that I could get home all by myself. I took a bus to Newark and boarded a plane bound for Boston. From Logan Airport, I took the bus to Laconia. When I arrived in Laconia, it was like a Christmas postcard. I got there late in the afternoon, it was right at dusk. The Christmas lights were on everywhere. All the street light columns were adorned the familiar Christmas decorations. Snow was falling heavily and had been for about an hour so. It crunched under my feet. I was dressed in my dress Navy blues covered by my Navy pea coat. All topped with my white sailors’ hat. The bus depot was at the train station. To get home, I had to walk through downtown. As I strolled down Main St. I passed Greenlaw’s Music, Sawyers Jewelry Store and Woolworth’s. I was thirsty so I decided to stop in and get a Coca-Cola at the soda fountain. My friends Norman and Ray Normandin’s mother worked at the soda fountain. As kids, she would often buy us a Coca-Cola on our way home from school. For me, there was nothing like the taste of a fountain Coca-Cola. It was always sweet and tasty as all get out. As she and I talked about what I was doing in the service and what was happening in Laconia, I realized it was getting late and that I needed to get home before the snow got too bad. I couldn’t wait to surprise my mom.
I left and headed back down Main Street. I remember crossing the bridge in the snow and stopping at the rail over the Winnisquam River. I had many vivid memories of both crossing and standing on that bridge and watching the river change colors as the Cormier Mill dumped dye directly into the river. I remembered the Sucker fish in the water and the salmon that used to jump the falls at the dam upstream years before. I lingered for a few minutes looking around downtown soaking up the sites and the memories of this place I truly loved. I proceeded to walk down to Baldi’s Corner and turned right on Court Street and angled off onto Academy. As I passed what used to be the Academy Street School where I once attended, I looked to my right and across the street at my friend Larry Howe’s house. I wondered what and how he was doing that day. Little did I know at the time, he was off in the Navy having his own adventure.
The snow was getting deeper and it was about three inches or so by now. It was not doing my highly polished dress shoes any good. I continued down Academy and hung a left at the corner onto Lincoln Street. I pushed my way down the sidewalk past seven or eight houses until I reached the front steps of my house at 69 Lincoln St. I bounded up the steps onto the porch and knocked on the door. After a moment or two the big heavy door swung open. There stood my mom with her mouth open with a shocked look on her face. Suddenly, that familiar gleam in the eye came across her face and she greeted me with a big smile and her open arms hugged me with all her might. She cried out,” What are you doing here? I thought you weren’t coming home.” I responded with,” Well, the Navy decided they don’t need me for a few days, Merry Christmas mom.” I thought she was going to cry. It made me feel so good to make her feel good.
My stepdad, Hal, I called him “Pop”, didn’t get home till later that evening from working at St. Pierre’s Restaurant. He was surprised to see me too. Maybe it was because I was in the service then but we all felt a special closeness that night. There were lots of questions about what the future held for all of us but in that very moment here was genuine love being shared. It was palpable. You could feel it. Later in the evening, we huddled up by the Christmas tree, each of us with a glass of our favorite nog. We spoke of Christmases past and some of our favorite memories. Yes, including that awful Christmas tree from the year before—the one I told you about last year. I smile whenever I remember those tender moments. So many of those people are gone now—my parents, grandparents, some aunts & uncles and too many friends to name. I am grateful every time I think of them for the time they shared with me during their lives.
What has often struck me the most is how our memories are focused around people and not things. There is something to be learned there. I have been so blessed to have had many remarkable people pass through my life. Some for only mere moments and still others as lifelong friends. God has blessed me with lots of family and friends. I consider you among them. Thank you for sharing a part of you with me. As I reflect on this past year I can only feel that I have been blessed beyond measure by the God I believe in and his son. My heart surgery two years ago was an unqualified success, so was my bladder cancer surgery last year at this time. I’m here to celebrate another Christmas with you. My Christmases are not measured in the gifts I might receive but in the knowledge that I too am loved by my children, all my family & friends. That means more to me than anything. As I reflect on this Christmas of 2014, I wish you & yours joy, happiness and to be loved beyond measure. I ‘m thankful. I am the luckiest man on earth because I have you in my life. Merry Christmas from my heart to yours.
My early childhood and formative years took place in New England during the 50’s. Some of my earliest memories of Christmas were wrapped up in the music. I loved those songs. We heard and sang them only part of the year and then they were gone. When the next year came around and the songs reappeared it was like greeting an old familiar friend.
In those days, the headquarters of the John Hancock Insurance Company were in nearby Boston. Each year they put out a small paper booklet with all the Christmas Carols in it. I remember singing from that book as a child. I went out singing Christmas Carols for the neighbors with my mother and some of her friends. Later, I did that on my own with some school friends. I loved those songs. I must admit, in those days, I never thought about where they came from. After I got into radio I became fascinated not with the artist so much but the songwriters. I often wondered why a particular song was even written. What was the story behind any song that caused it to be written? So what about the Christmas songs?
Although we’ve enjoyed singing them for years, have you ever thought about how the various Christmas songs came about? Christmas carols you may have thought went back several hundred years are relatively new. Still others have fascinating stories surrounding their origins.
Christmas carols go back to the time of Christ. It is believed that the Apostles sang songs of praise based on the Psalms. The word “carol” comes from the old French word caroler, which means to dance in a circle. One of very earliest Christmas songs appeared in the 4th century. St. Francis of Assisi introduced carols into church services in the 12th century. The songs tended to be somber.
In the 1400’s during the Renaissance—the time of Michelangelo and DaVinci—the lighter, more upbeat songs began to emerge. The earliest known English carol appeared in 1410. The Gutenberg press, famous for the magnificent bibles, also made for the wide distribution of carols to the masses during the period.
In the mid 1400’s, Christmas celebrations were strongly suppressed by the Puritans. Actually, Christmas didn’t become a widely celebrated holiday until the 1800’s. As a result, most of the Christmas carols we love today were composed then.
In England between 1649 and 1660, Oliver Cromwell, who believed Christmas should be a solemn day, banned the singing of carols. The Protestants; however, with the urging of Martin Luther, embraced the practice. Many worshipers fled Europe for other parts of the world taking the music with them. John de Brebeur wrote the first American Christmas carol in 1649. It was called “Jesus Is Born.”
Dr. Edmund Spears, a Unitarian minister, wrote a poem in 1849. A year later, Richard Storrs Willis, an editor and critic for the New York Tribune wrote a melody called “Carol” inspired by the poem. He had created “It Came upon A Midnight Clear”. Although no one is completely certain, some research indicates that cowboy singer Montana Slim, whose given name was Wilf Carter, wrote “Jolly Old St. Nicholas.”
The tune “Greensleeves” goes back to the time of the original Queen Elizabeth. By 1850, lyrics were added that were neither religious nor respectable but in 1865 William Chatterton Dix wrote “The Manger Throne”—three of those verses became “What Child Is This?”
“We Three Kings of Orient Are”, usually thought to be older than it is, was written in America in 1857 for a Christmas pageant in New York City. An old Welsh melody is at the root of “Deck the Halls”. Although Mozart used the tune in a piano and violin piece in the 1700’s the words written in America would not come for almost another hundred years.
The first two verses of “Away in a Manger” were originally published in 1885 in a Lutheran schoolbook. James Murray published it in 1887 under the title of “Luther’s Cradle Hymn” leaving some people to think that Martin Luther had written it. No one is certain who wrote the music but it too is believed to be American.
There is a bit of controversy surrounding one of our most famous classics. Who among us has not heard the story of “Silent Night” (Stille Nacht)? Folklore has the song being hurriedly composed on Christmas Eve in 1818 after it was discovered that hungry mice ruined the baffles of the church organ. Joseph Mohr, the assistant minister, supposedly quickly wrote the words and Franz Gruber composed the melody in time for the midnight service. That may only be folklore. Some evidence indicates that an old manuscript, which has recently been discovered shows Gruber, wrote the music 2-4 years after Mohr had written the words. No matter—it has remained a favorite for nearly two hundred years.
“Silent Night is such a powerful song that it actually stopped a war—for a while. During World War I, the Germans, Americans and, British and French troops actually put down there arms and held an unofficial truce on Christmas Eve and serenaded and harmonized with each other with the haunting melody.
“O Little Town of Bethlehem” was the result of Bishop Phillips Brooks being so impressed with seeing Bethlehem at night from the hills of Palestine. He wrote the words in Philadelphia two years later in 1868. His organist, Louis Radner wrote the music for the Sunday school children’s choir.
“Jingle Bells” was written for a Thanksgiving program. It was so popular that the children begged to sing it at Christmas. It has been a holiday fixture ever since. There is some controversy about this song too. The composer, John Pierpont, is said to have written the song in Medford, Massachusetts sometime in the 1850’s. He moved to Savannah, Georgia where he received the copyright in 1857. The controversy stems from where he actually wrote it. Although he certainly wrote about his memories of growing up in New England some factions in Savannah have provided a good case to show he was in Savannah when he wrote it. Either way, there are markers in each city commemorating the site where each believe the little ditty was written.
One of the more interesting stories surrounds the “Twelve Days of Christmas”. When you listen to it—it may strike you as light and nonsensical. Nothing could be further from the truth. From 1558 to 1829, Catholics in England were forbidden to practice their religion. It was law. If you were caught, it meant automatic imprisonment and perhaps hanging or you could end up a head shorter. The song was written as a memory aid for children to learn their catechism. Each strange gift in the song held a serious meaning.
First, the “True Love” refers to God, not an earthy suitor. The “Me” represents every baptized person. The “partridge in the pear tree” was Jesus Christ. Christ was portrayed as a mother partridge feigning injury to protect her nesting young. Here’s what the other gifts mean:
2 Turtle Doves: The Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens: Faith, Hope and Charity
4 Calling Birds: The Four Gospels or Matthew, Mark , Luke & John
5 Golden Rings: The first five books of the Old Testament or the
6 Geese-a-laying: The six days of creation
7 Swans-a-swimming: The Seven Sacraments
Maids-a-milking: the eight Beatitudes
Ladies Dancing: The nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
Lords-a-Leaping: The Ten Commandments
Pipers Piping: The 11 Faithful Apostles
Drummers Drumming: the 12 points of Doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed
“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is an outright invention of 20th century commercialism. He first flew onto the scene in 1939 as a promotional gimmick for Montgomery Wards. They asked one of their young copywriters, Robert May, to come up with a story for their annual Christmas coloring book. The original story was nothing more than an adaptation of the Tale of the Ugly Duckling. The first name considered was Rollo but that was considered to be too cheery for a misfit. Then it was Reginald but that sounded too British so he settled on Rudolph. He tried the story out on his 4-year-old daughter. She loved it. May’s boss was a tougher sell. He was worried about that red nose. He was concerned that people would think they were endorsing drinking and drunkenness.
May and a staff cartoonist rushed to the Lincoln Park Zoo and drew pictures of deer and colored the noses red. The illustrations were approved and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was born. The retailer gave away 2.4 million copies that year—6 million by 1946.
After WWII, Rudolph was hugely popular. There were many demands for licensing the character. Because May created it while working for the company, they held the copyright. May found himself hopelessly in debt after the death of his wife from a lengthy illness. He persuaded Sewell Avery, the company president, to turn the rights over to him. He was financially set for the rest of his life. The story was turned into a nine-minute cartoon in1948 but Rudolph hadn’t peaked yet.
May’s brother-in-law was the songwriter Johnny Marks. It was Marks who composed the words and music that we sing today. It almost didn’t get recorded. Many recording companies didn’t want to tamper with the Santa Claus legend so they wouldn’t touch it. Finally, cowboy singer Gene Autry stepped in and recorded it in 1949. It sold 2 million copies that year. It went on to be one of the best selling songs of all time–second only to “White Christmas”. In 1964, Burl Ives narrated the TV classic we see each year.
Then there’s the Grand daddy of them all—“White Christmas”. Irving Berlin wrote the song for a 1942 movie called “Holiday Inn” starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. The movie was about an inn that was only opened on holidays. Berlin was commissioned to create songs for each holiday. He later said that writing the Christmas song was the toughest of all. Berlin performed the song for Crosby in 1941 and the crooner assured Berlin that it would be a hit. That proved to be a gross understatement.
First performed for the public on Crosby’s NBC Radio show on Christmas night 1941, it went on to become the biggest selling single for 50 years. (Until Elton John’s tribute to Lady Diana, “Candle in the Wind”) “White Christmas” was the basis of a 1954 movie of the same name starring Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Vera Ellen and Danny Kaye. Kaye wasn’t the first choice for the role. Fred Astaire declined after reading the script, Donald O’Connor turned it down due to a back ailment. It then fell to Kaye, who as it turns out, was a natural for the role.
The song also played a part in the end of the Vietnam War. An evacuation plan was put into motion to get the remaining Americans and loyal Vietnamese to safety. The cue to begin the evacuation was a radio announcement saying it was “105 degrees in Saigon and rising” followed by “White Christmas”. When the song began—the exodus was on.
Each of these song’s writers felt a deep-rooted passion for the season and the many emotions it brings. This year, when you hear these songs, you’ll know how they came to be. From my house to yours “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
One of my earliest memories of Christmas was from the early 50’s. It was the lights. Our little family didn’t have much money. I think we were one of those “beginner families” starting to get a foothold in the years after WW II. We did have a Christmas tree with those strings of lights that would go out if one light burnt out. I learned from personal experience those lights would burn your fingers if you touched them. So I made it a point to leave them alone.
Even with the array of colors on the tree the thing that made the greatest impression on me were the candle lights in the windows of our house. Each window facing the street had a plastic base that supported three white columns topped with orange colored lights. As a child of about six, I didn’t understand the significance of those candles. I still remember my mother telling me why we put them in the window every year.
First she explained to me how Joseph & Mary had traveled so far but still could not find an inn or a place to spend the night. She told me how they ended up staying in a drafty old stable. Then she told me about how their path was guided by a star and how that star directed the shepherds and Magi to the humble little stable so they could find Jesus, the Christ child. She went on to explain to me that was why we put the candles in the window every year; to let the Christ child know that if he saw our lights that he would be welcome in our home. I remember thinking how cool that would be if he would come and visit our house. I secretly waited to hear a knock at the door.
In those days, it seemed everyone had those kind of candles in their windows too. Then as the years went on, the light displays got bigger, brighter and gaudier, those candles got relegated to the attic or some other unseen place. As I’ve driven around this year I have seen several homes with the candles in the windows again. It pleases me to see them coming back. There is a certain understated elegance in the simplicity of those candles. Just looking at them brings me back to a simpler uncomplicated time. The lighted candles were one of our family traditions. I’m still hoping to hear a knock at the door.