Music to My Ears

The Sounds of Christmas: Batteries Not Included

Issue 22

I grew up on Ash Drive in suburban Connecticut.  When you hit Thanksgiving you started thinking about Christmas.  Today they’re running Christmas ads starting just after the 4th of July.  In the 60’s nothing to do with Christmas started until after Thanksgiving.  And that was okay; each season needs its own time.  The first Christmas tingle came when you saw Santa on TV riding down a snowy slope on a Norelco shaver.   As silly as it sounds that first one made me tight in the throat every year.   Christmas was just the most anticipated, the most magical, and the granddaddy of them all.

We grew up lower middle class, which meant as far as presents there were good years and bad years.  Some Christmases we each got one good toy-type present and the balance were clothes we needed anyway.  And we knew we were lucky because twice a day all year our parents would compare us to kids in China who got a kernel of rice for Christmas and were glad to have it.  Other Christmases Mom and Dad felt in the money and there would be cool stuff.  But it never mattered.  It never mattered.   I don’t remember ever dwelling on a had-to-have present.   Except of course, the Johnny Seven O.M.A.

From the time you are 5 yrs old until about 10 you spend a lot of time in the woods planning army campaigns and pulling the legs off frogs.  We knew two kids who kept it up until they were 15, but they were different.  We all had the usual run of cap pistols, fake tommy guns and even the occasional rifle that shot plastic bullets.  But the Johnny Seven was a game changer.  If you could score that weapon system you would be invincible.

One of the problems with playing army in the woods went something like this.

“BANG!  Bang bang bang, I got you!”

“Did not!”  “Did too!”  “Did not, I was down behind this tree and your bullets hit the branch there!” “Did not!”  “Did too!”

This argument could go on until somebody snuck up and shot you both.  We had a rule you could shoot people having an argument.  A boys’ rule that I wish in my heart survived to adulthood.  However with the introduction of the Johnny Seven into the Denslow Woods theater of war, you couldn’t argue Jack.  You were dead.

“BANG! Bang bang bang, I got you!”

“Did not!”

“Did too!  I hit you with the Johnny Seven Tommy gun and grenade launcher!”

“Ok, I’ll come quietly.  Just don’t hit me with the anti-tank rocket; I have to be home on time for dinner.”

The Johnny Seven was above my dad’s pay grade, same with all the other kids.  Thank Heavens.  We’d have had to go back to pulling legs off frogs.

In Connecticut you can get snow as early as mid-November, possibly even late October.  I have a confession.  It could snow in August and I’d break out Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, the one Christmas record we owned, and play it on my portable RCA.  The first snow is always the best.  The last memory you have in the yard is sweating your ass off pushing that jackal-hearted lawn mower, and now...it’s snowing.  There is a blanket of white softly covering everything perfectly.  Even the cords on Mom’s clothesline have an even patina of crystals balancing like a billion refugees all trying to cross a rope bridge at once.  Christmas is coming.  It was time to start playing Der Bingle.  I had to keep the volume down though because Mom lost her mind if you were playing that shit before Thanksgiving.

This album was beautifully produced.  The first side had all ballads, incense infused renditions of heart-sung requirements like “Silent Night”,” and O Come All Ye Faithful”, beautiful moving religious and secular songs, ending with a hit from WWII, still one of my favorites, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”.  Oh yeah, and Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’.  Still the all-time best selling single.

The ‘B’ side featured more earthy traditionals, more upbeat, and done with the wonderful rhythms of the period.  The swing-a-licious Andrew Sisters did several cuts including the first of that side, an old cornball.  Crosby’s ability to screw around with beats 2 through 4 and still hit the 1 or skip the 1 entirely and phrase the next bar was like watching a lightning bug wondering where he was going to light up again.  And yer both surprised.

By the way, you always hear small solos in pop that make you wonder who is that guy.  Like the signature lick and guitar solo in Bowie’s “China Girl”.  I’d love to know the guy’s name that did that three bar clarinet solo in this Bing Jingle.  It’s perfect.

There are so many sounds of this season.  The carols and carolers outside Woolworth’s.  The bell of the Salvation Army volunteer with the red pot, wishing you a ‘Merry Christmas’ whether you threw anything in the pot or not.  Mom yelling at us to all calm down, smiling as she did.

We always put the tree up on Christmas Eve, an old tradition from their generation, which back in the day included live candles on a pine tree that had been dead for a month.  Gotta bring that one back.  Must’ve been exciting.  Like most families we always underestimated the size of our living room, doors and stairs.  Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without the sound of my Dad puffing that tree up from the cellar, using strange words disguised as grunts.

The hush of the night outside before Santa came.  I guess the hush of winter is the same every night.  But the week before Christmas.  With the cold you couldn’t feel because something else was happening.  A celebration.  Even if you grew up in Florida next to a freeway the ambient sound would bow to the sound of the world holding its breath.

I could say I’ve no idea where the magic comes from, but I know darn well where it comes from and it has nothing to do with presents.  We all, all of us, celebrate Christmas.  The holiday is full of fun, decorations, traditions, egg nog, mince pie, Muppets and angels.  You don’t have to have had a happy childhood or even adulthood to get this.  If you’re poor, your joy comes in seeing your kids get a great meal and a warm bed on Christmas Eve.  And if you’re not poor you share your blessings to give a poor family that meal and a warm bed and you in turn are blessed.  That’s just how it works folks.

Ok, that also gets me in the throat.  That man could Sing.  Truly the King.

I never needed that first snow to love the annual blessed breath of the birth of the Christ.  I also don’t need to exercise the words of better men.  We feel differently at this time because we are more aware at this time.  God Bless those who feel it all year, or at least starting at the 4th of July.  Merry Christmas all my dear brothers and sisters.

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