Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Collector's Edition Excerpt #12: Christmas

NOTE: I really had hoped that by now, I'd have some concrete news on this long-gestating publication, but there's still work to be done. I am in the midst of a pretty heavy edit (the final page count was a hefty 500 pages, which is a bit long), and then hopefully we'll see some progress early in 2014. In the meantime, here's another excerpt (actually three combined excerpts) from the chapter on this particular holiday season that is so divisive in our culture.

Now, let’s talk about how much I love Christmas.

Seriously. I fuckin’ love it.

It’s my absolute favorite time of the year, always has been, always will be. I embrace almost everything about the holiday: The traditions, the decorations, the food and drink, the weather, the movies and TV specials, the music (ah, the music!), and even that whole “Peace on Earth, good will towards men” bit.

So, what’s the disconnect? How can such an avowed atheist love a holiday that’s supposed to be all about the birth of Jesus Christ? Well, a huge part of the reason, of course, is that…. It’s not.

What those who loudly trumpet “the reason for the season” often fail to understand is that many of the trappings of what we call Christmas existed long before the baby Jesus was shoehorned into the holiday. Ancient Romans decorated their homes in the winter with evergreen branches and exchanged gifts to celebrate Saturnalia, a tribute to the god of agriculture. Tree decorating was a pre-Christ pagan tradition to honor the winter solstice. In many parts of Europe, winter brought a general revelry due in part to the inability to toil in the hardened fields.

It wasn’t until the fourth century (that would be AD) that the Roman Catholic Church decided to attach the story of Christ’s birthday to the bacchanalian celebration of the coldest season.

But even as late as the 1600s, Christmas, as celebrated in England, was a drunken festival of excess and avarice. Through the 1800s, the esthetic trappings of the holiday, the decorations and the tree (ironically popularized in America by wealthy Anglophiles copying Queen Victoria) and the feasts were more a part of Christmas than Christ.

And whether you believe in God or not, only the most pedantic Christians still accept the details in the Gospel of Luke as, well, gospel. Theological scholars—many of them devout believers—have almost uniformly agreed that the whole Virgin Mary in a manger with the three wise men and Rudolph on December 25th is merely a nice story for the kids. What’s that? Rudolph wasn’t there? Sorry, I get confused sometimes.

The point is, Christmas isn’t the exclusive provenance of Christians.

My affinity for the season is inherently augmented by fact that I was born on Christmas Eve, the year of our… oh, whatever, 1964. While this often-overshadowed day of birth often elicits sympathy, I never felt gypped. It’s not like I was born in June and then later on some random church decided to move my birthday to take advantage of a wholly unrelated weather-centric celebration. For me, having my birthday on December 24th meant that Christmas lasted two days. Two full days of presents, parties and fun (and I never had to go to school on my birthday).

My own holiday hearth is stoked with the ever-burning coals of nostalgia, fueled in no small part by the fact that I’ve spent every single Christmas day since I was born in the same mid-century modern, three-bedroom ranch style home my father built in the mid-50s on a suburban cul-de-sac in Lancaster, PA. And it is a house that feels like it was built for Christmas.

Not that other times of the year were not fun, but my memories of childhood led me to feel that in my family, the entire year revolved around this particular holiday. Mom and Dad went all out to create an environment for my brother and me that was more than just festive; it was downright magical.

Every year, beginning the first week of December, my mother decorated seemingly every inch of the house. Any window with a sill was fitted with a red-bulbed electric candle (the lightweight plastic bases of which had to be secured with masking tape). Small branches of greens from the pine trees that lined the back yard were hung in almost every room. Handmade pine cone wreaths adorned the front and side doors as well as hung over the fireplace. A crèche scene carved by my mother from balsa wood decorated a bookshelf in the living room. The conical wicker basket under the round glass coffee table was filled with an arrangement of greens, garland and Christmas balls. A Santa Claus diorama adorned the toilet tank. Miniature decorated artificial trees of various colors and sizes rested on tables and shelves in practically every room (including a white ceramic tree with red lights in my own bedroom). And in the living room, the seven-foot-plus tree sparkled with so many strings of lights (always multi-colored) and decorations that it took my mother three days of almost non-stop work to finish the darn thing.

Meanwhile, outside, my father was stringing the oversized (again, multi-colored) ceramic lights on the four-foot tree he’d bought for the concrete planter by our rarely-used front door. Then he’d run four vertical rows of delicate antique lights inside the frosted, corrugated glass that was part of the Mondrian-inspired main entrance on the slated breezeway on the side of the house. His few decorating chores complete, the focus would switch to chopping and stacking firewood outside the back door, plowing the snow from the 50-foot driveway and eating any Christmas candy that happened to be lying around. My father wasn’t the kind of guy to dress up in a Santa suit and pretend to be jolly old Saint Nick (he was more like the head elf) but I don’t feel as if our childhood Christmasses suffered at all from this one missing piece of the traditional holiday tableau.

When December 24th finally arrived, our schedule was jammed for the next two days, beginning with my birthday celebration in the afternoon. After that, Mom, Dad, Kenny and I would drive to my paternal grandparents’ home in Conestoga, PA, where all nine of my Dad’s siblings and their offspring crowded into the old farmhouse to sing Christmas carols, exchange gifts, eat a giant spread of food, and hope that the whole place wouldn’t go up in flames due to either the real candles on the tannenbaum or my Grandpa’s ubiquitous, stinky White Owl cigars. Then it was home and off to bed, after which Mom and Dad would pull the gifts out of hiding and pile them under the tree.

Christmas morning, Kenny and I—like every other child celebrating the holiday—got up way earlier than our parents, and were allowed to go to the living room and gather our stockings, which we’d bring back to bed and empty the goodies: Toys, art supplies, and candy, all anchored by a giant navel orange at the bottom. Eventually, when everyone was up, Mom would slice up a loaf of my Aunt Pix’s nutbread while Dad got the fireplace going. Then we’d throw some Christmas records on the stereo and start opening gifts, taking turns until we were done. Later in the afternoon, there would be a gathering of my Mom’s side of the family (usually at our house), where more presents were exchanged—this time by age, youngest to oldest—after a casual buffet dinner eaten off paper plates in the living room around the Christmas tree. That revelry would continue until the old timers started to nod off, leaving the rest of us to play outside (if there was snow on the ground), get to know our new toys, read our books and watch some old movie on the tube. In later years, Christmas night became a gathering of my brother’s and my friends, still soaking up the festive ambience created by my mom.

Christmas was the one time of the year that the monolithic Magnavox hi-fi in the living room got a daily workout, primarily from spinning LP samplers of holiday fare by popular artists of the day, released by Columbia Special Products and RCA and Forrell & Thomas and sold through department stores, gas stations and hardware outlets, and restaurant chains. Annual Roman-numeraled collections with titles like Great Songs of Christmas and Your Favorite Christmas Music have become synonymous with the season for lots of us late boomers.

My best loved of the bunch was the first volume of A Very Merry Christmas, produced for the now-defunct Grants department store chain by Columbia Records in 1967. This jolly slice of vinyl features 14 songs by a diverse roster of artists representing pop, jazz, classical, rock and country. Daytime talk show host Mike Douglas belts out a cheesy bit of sacred sanctimony called, “Touch Hands on Christmas Morning.” Jazz / Classical pianist André Previn’s harpsichord version of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” sounds to this day transcendent. Simon & Garfunkel harmonize a lovely version of “The Star Carol.” And The Mormon Tabernacle Choir close the whole thing with something called “Handel: Hallelujah Chorus,” which I thought at the time was a really weird song.

But my favorite cut on the record was a version of “Jingle Bells” sung by country singer (and sausage impresario) Jimmy Dean. Towards the end of the song, Jimmy invites his five year-old son, Rob to sing a verse, which both fascinated and thrilled me to no end. As the song bounces to a close, the proud papa intones, “Ya did it.” I would beg my mother to repeat this song endlessly, which, in those days required a lot more effort than simply hitting a back button.

As a wee youngster with no musical perspective, I didn’t realize that most of these records culled music from previously existing albums by the represented artists. I also had no idea that these performers had any kind of history beyond crooning carols. I thought that “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” was the only thing Steve Lawrence & Eydie Gormé ever recorded. I didn’t know that Aretha Franklin had a deeper legacy than “Kissin’ by the Mistletoe.” In the many years since I first listened to this record on the hi-fi, I’ve acquired a handful of the original albums from which these songs originated, but none of them will ever have the same meaning to me that the Grants compilation does.

There’s one particularly evocative memory that this record always triggers. I was about ten years old, and A Very Merry Christmas was playing in the living room while my mother, aunt, and grandmother were baking their traditional sand tarts in the kitchen. It was snowing outside, and it was that precise time of dusk when the snow on the ground takes on an almost fluorescent blue hue. I had turned the large rocking chair in front of the picture window around so I could watch as the snow fell past the street light onto the suburban cul-de-sac and our large, mostly treeless front yard. As I rocked in the chair between the beautifully lit Christmas tree and the fire crackling in the fireplace, smelling the sweet aroma of the cookies, listening to the music, basking in the holiday glow, I thought to myself, “This is as good as life will ever get.”

At that particular moment in time, I was a very prescient pre-teen.

There’s an oft-stated philosophy that “Christmas is for children.” I’d amend that to say “…and nostalgics.” I’ve no doubt that many breeders amongst you are shaking your heads in pity—if not outright disdain—at all that I’m missing by not having any children with whom to share my love of the season and pass on all of these traditions. Maybe you’re right. But, in the same way that I’ve never felt cheated by not having a birthday in July, I have never once felt that I wasn’t getting the most out of any of my 48 Christmases. Okay, maybe not the first one, but gimme a break, I was one day old.

One of the nice things about nostalgia is that—if you enjoy the feeling—it only grows with the passage of time. Seemingly inconsequential things that you enjoyed as a kid become meaningful sources of comfort and joy later in life. One of my favorite Christmas gifts of the past decade was a set of the same drinking glasses—decorated with red, white and green holly, ivy, Xmas trees, and bells—that my parents hauled out of the cabinet every December since the 1960s. My Mom found them at a garage sale over the summer and saved them to give me, knowing that these inexpensive, used castoffs would be met with unbridled excitement by her overly sentimental Christmas baby.

If there’s a common thread that runs through every chapter in this book, whether I’m talking about punk rock, Farrah Fawcett-Majors, Superman, or Santa Claus, it’s that while most of us share some semblance of similarity regarding consumption of culture, ultimately our relationships with the things that shaped us are unique. No two people have precisely the same connection to that Good Times episode where Penny steals a Christmas present for Willona (oh, just Google it, youngsters). But few things elicit such strong emotions in our western civilization as Christmas. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who is truly ambivalent about the season and its trimmings, and most tend to fall to one extreme or the other.

I’m grateful I’ve lived a life that’s placed me firmly in the camp shared by Linus, the Snow Miser, and Tiny Tim. And, putting all the pop culture baggage under the tree for a moment, one of the things I love most about Christmas is that it forces me to take a break from the cynicism that drives me the other eleven months of the year. The idea of all things being calm and bright makes much more sense to me when I’m surrounded by twinkling lights, fragrant pine, mulled wine, friends, family, and beloved traditions.

I won’t go so far as to make any comparisons between myself and the post-epiphany version of the Grinch or Ebenezer Scrooge, because sadly, by the time New Year’s rolls around, PXMD (that’s post-Christmas depression) usually sets in, and I remember how much I can’t stand this, that, and the other thing. But for that brief, beautiful period every December, I do unabashedly revel in being as giddy as a drunken man, making a perfect Laocoön of myself.

from the (hopefully) forthcoming book, COLLECTOR'S EDITION: CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE OBSESSIVE-COMPULSIVE ©Karl Heitmueller, Jr.


Unknown said...

I love this so much! I am truly enjoying reading some of your musings. The notion that nostalgics can divulge in as much holiday cheer as the breeders makes my soul smile, how dare we? Christmas time was always a special time in my childhood, though most of my family have evolved into drunken cynics 365 days a year, I still have a glimmer of hope every year that we can come together; at least until the bottle runs dry.

Jeff B said...

Having experienced Birthday/Christmas at the Heitmueller's, I must say that it was exactly as described and more. There were very few places in the world where one was made quite so welcome as the Heitmueller abode.