Listening to Christmas

Our perceptions of how we view the universe are formed early on in our childhood. And while there is disagreement as to when this actually occurs, most child psychology experts are in agreement that somewhere between the ages of 6 and 9, we have pretty much decided what the universe is and how were are going to interact with it. We tend to fine tune these perceptions as we go along, but it takes a real epiphany to cause us to change those core perceptions we jealously guard as we interact with others.

My perceptions of Christmas are a mélange of family practice and radio programs of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. Radio programs of the day assumed a Christian audience and their themes at Christmas reflected that attitude. Not one program of that era failed to acknowledge Christmas and weave that theme into the story line just before December 25th and not one of the announcers or radio personalities failed to wish their listeners a “Merry Christmas.” It is perhaps the reason that so many of my generation have trouble with the fact that you seldom hear “Merry Christmas” publically expressed. There no longer are Christmas parties, they are holiday parties and everyone wishes you a happy holiday. Back in the day, I knew nothing of Judaism or Chanukah for example. Jews were always referred to, if at all, in a negative way, a perception I was not able to shed until I went off to university. Hence, I did not sense the contradiction of such radio personalities as Jack Benny or George Burns talked of going Christmas shopping or sending Christmas cards or wishing their audience a Merry Christmas. The public lens did not extend to their private lives and so we had no sense that they may not have had a Christmas tree and related decorations, but a menorah in which they lit a candle and said a prayer for eight days in December. But in thinking back, there was one exception that I can recall, Molly Goldberg; a kind soul whose gentle humor was always good natured.

Christmas programs on the radio and later on television were invariably sappy and most all had a happy ending. One exception was Dragnet which one year dealt with the accidental shooting and death of a child by a playmate, first on radio and subsequently on television. Yet at the end, through the tears of the grieving parents there was forgiveness and a tearful father who gave the dead child’s presents to the playmate. Such an ending today probably is not possible since it could viewed as encouraging small children to use their playmates for target practice.

Hard boiled detectives such as Richard Diamond, played by a wise cracking Dick Powell, would play a tender scene at Christmas. In one of my favorites, he and his ‘friend’ (she was independently wealthy, had a butler and was surprisingly independent for her time. I did not understand the nuances of their conversations when I first heard them) lay on their backs under the Christmas tree, talking to each other of the season as they gazed up through the branches of the tree. Now, I would not recommend doing this to others as the chance of a mishap with the tree is quite high. Others, The Great Gildersleeve, The Life of Riley, Jack Benny, or my favorite, Fibber McGee and Molly, bumbled their way through various crises and miscommunications to the best Christmas ever. Fibber McGee and Molly on a couple occasions closed their program with musical rendition of Twas the Night Before Christmas which featured a little girl, Teeny, played by Molly. I did not know that Molly and Teeny were one and the same until later in life.

There was about it all a wonder that I don’t see today. Christmas has been transfigured from a religious holiday to a shopping holiday and the success of the holiday no longer hinges on the Christian message of hope, but on just how well the stores do.

Yet, one thing seems not to have changed that much; Christmas carols. They fill the air at this time of year and there isn’t a church worth its salt that doesn’t have some sort of Christmas presentation. Figuring prominently in their programs are the carols, the old carols that everyone knows and remembers as the first few bars begin to play. We never seem to tire of hearing them year after year. Aside from a few standards, White Christmas, I’ll be Home for Christmas, to name a couple and those WWII sings both, most modern carols do little more than jangle the nerves. Some from the 50s, Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree is one, I tolerate as they remind me of another time and I do have a special fondness for Elvis Presley’s Blue Christmas. Yet the finest carol ever written has to be Carol of the Bells. Listening to it always transports me back to another time and another place. To Christmas Eve, sitting in a dark and cold car with my future wife in the driveway to her house. We’ve been to church and had egg nog and cookies and now it is time for her to say goodnight. WOWO in Ft. Wayne is playing Christmas carols, the only time of the year I can remember them departing from their rock and roll format, and we are waiting for midnight to say good night and Merry Christmas. A choir, singing acapella, softly begins, “Hark! How the bells, sweet silver bells, all seem to say, throw cares away, Christmas is here.” As the sound builds, the choir continues “One seems to hear, words of good cheer, from everywhere, filling the air” as towards the end, the carol reaches a crescendo of sound, “Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas; merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas” it proclaims then quietly “On, on they send, on without end, their joyful tune, to ev’ry home” then quietly “ding, dong, ding, dong” “DONG.” As the carol played, we were the only people in the world. The carol is not very long and ends far sooner than the listener wants but when it was finished, it was Christmas. Merry Christmas we would say and with a goodnight kiss, she was into the house as I drove off into the dark night.