A Trip Through Christmases Past Set to Music
Reflections on the sounds of the season
For years, on the night of Christmas Eve, I would bundle up and take a stroll through my neighbourhood. As I walked, I looked at the houses: some bedecked with a strand or two of Christmas lights bordering a window or hugging a porch railing, others more elaborately festooned: perhaps a lighted reindeer in the yard or a sign staked in the ground wishing all who passed by a “Merry Christmas” and a few with nothing at all.
At some houses, I could see the signs of festivities well underway: cars taking up every inch of paved real estate and through the front windows, a parade of people—grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and others. There was a whiff of anticipation in the air. The hope found in a star. The wish to see Santa Claus alight on a roof. The sound of church bells ringing in the air.
As I took this annual constitution, more often than not, I would listen to music on a discman and then eventually, like everyone else, on my phone. The carols, the standards, the novelties. Sounds that would accentuate, accompany and soundtrack the scenes of Yuletide all around.
I recall one Christmas Eve walk, fresh snow was crusted into the ground and it was fiendishly cold. Chris de Bergh’s eerie ‘A Spaceman Came Travelling’ was playing. I listened as lights shone off the sheets of snow, imaging if this dazzling celestial show was heralding the arrival of the prophet in de Bergh’s song. It never came, but who is to say it hadn’t ages earlier.
Like cascades of snowflakes parachuting down from the sky, the sounds of the season fall around me, bringing with them memories, wishes, hopes, dreams and echoes of Christmases past. They can all be found when hearing Bing Crosby, arguably the singer most associated with the holidays, though his importance stretches far beyond, all the way back to creating, along with Louis Armstrong, modern singing.
Crosby is everywhere this time of the year. His album Merry Christmas, in which he is front and centre on the cover, Santa hat perched on top, almost approaches sacred text. As a kid, ‘Christmas in Killarney’ offered a glimpse of what the holidays may have been like for my grandparents in “the old country”—not Ireland, but Scotland. Close enough. ‘Mele Kalikimaka’ fed a long-standing fascination with Hawaii and ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ with the Andrews Sisters kept the excitement level high. Merry Christmas was (and remains) an indispensable marker upon which the passing of Christmases can be measured.
The music reminds that though life constantly moves and time marches ahead, it can offer something approaching constancy that we may cling to, not as a crutch but as a reminder to savour and remember the good moments in life.
It can also bring us together. If Christmas music is anything, it may be one of our most potent forms of folk music. Recall the scene in Elf in which Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) gets up in front of a bewildered crowd at the north entrance of Central Park to sing ‘Santa Claus is Back in Town,’ and gradually, everyone joins in. Everyone knowing the words, everyone knowing the melody.
Memories of Christmases growing up are caught up in carol sings at school—us kids trundling into the gymnasium, an overhead projector being fired up to cast lyrics onto a wall and we all jointly singing a song like ‘Nuttin’ for Christmas’ at the top of our lungs, full of joy—and in the lobby of our apartment building—Toronto Star songbooks at the ready to sing all the beloved carols: ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,’ ‘Good King Wenceslas’ and all the rest. I remember once requesting ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ because of how much I loved (and still do) Elvis’ 1971 recording.
The best songs of Christmas have proven to be endlessly durable and adaptable. Crosby and the Andrews Sisters swung ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ like mad. Johnny Mercer and the Pied Pipers did too (his ad libs throughout are priceless. As much as we celebrate Mercer the songwriter, we don’t as much for Mercer the singer). Phil Spector brought Mr. Claus to the Wall of Sound. Ella Fitzgerald rescued the verse from obscurity. Lou Rawls put a Chicago twist to the song. Bill Evans as well as Keith Jarrett adapted it for their trios. Bruce Springsteen made it sound like Springsteen. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
One of the most profound musical moments I have had during Yuletide was in the immediate aftermath of the ice storm that hit Ontario just days before Christmas 2013. The afternoon of December 22 in downtown Toronto was eerily quiet. It felt nerve-wracking and unsettling. Yet the show went on at Roy Thomson Hall for Handel’s oratorio Messiah with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and four soloists. Beyond the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, I knew nothing of the work or for that matter, classical music. As I sat down and the music started, I watched the choir sing, wondering how many were dealing with power outages, property damage or holiday plans thwarted. I listened in wonder as they stretched out a syllable over a series of notes—a level of singing and breath control that seemed beyond human capacity. By intermission, I was humming the choral portion of ‘O Thou Tellest Good Tidings to Zion’ and by the conclusion, I was changed.
At some point during Christmas Eve, I squire myself away in the record room just before festivities begin in earnest. For the next 40 minutes or so, I sit and listen to Mahalia Jackson’s 1962 album Silent Night - Songs for Christmas, a collection including most of the best-loved hymns of the season. Jackson’s stature as music’s preeminent gospel singer, Civil Rights hero and deliver of soul force has been revived thanks to Summer of Soul, and no one delivers the message of the carols of Christmas with more authenticity than her, ‘What Can I Give’ most of all. Over a rubato pulse pushed forward by just an organ, Jackson relates the tale of one who has made the pilgrimage to Bethlehem. Building up to a tremendous climax and backed by a choir who occasionally punctuates her vocal, Jackson brings tremendous weight to each word, transporting the listener two millennia back in time. A better performance of a Christmas hymn I have yet to hear.
On Christmas Eve, I usually turn in for the night later than usual. Only after the gifts have been placed under the tree is it time to rest. As I settle down to sleep, the radio softly plays a song of the season. I try to keep awake to hear what’s next, but inevitably, sleep comes with a song lingering in the air and in the heart, ready for the Day to come.