My friend Kieran recently sent me a single from his acapella band, Cartoon Johnny, offered free for the holidays, “What Christmas Means to Me.” It’s an old Motown song, sung years ago by Stevie Wonder, and Kieran has the Stevie voice, a soaring tenor with soul, of the blue-eyed variety. He’s got the lead here. You can download the song from the Cartoon Johnny site here:
The song conjures up the sights and sounds of the holiday, and the feelings of good times now and the coming year: “candles burning low, kissing under the mistletoe, snow and ice, choirs singing carols …” all the ambient goodies that make Christmas a romantic season for young and old.
I’ve had mixed emotions about the holiday over the years, I confess, and not all good emotions. The best memories were of the songs, from the choir lofts of our church or caroling with the boys and girls in the crisp December air, stealing kisses whether there was mistletoe or not. There was always excitement in the air.
But that’s a boy’s memory, unsullied by the marketplace, the bubbly, toil-y cauldron of the season. I’ve always resented the crass commercialization of Christmas, with the steady drumbeat to buy, buy, buy … step right up, get your Furby here, tickle me Elmo, little Cabbage Patch doll. Fit your Barbie to the nines. Last-chance coupons for the jewelry that will make your soul mate tingle, the hard-sell merchandising.
And then, years later as a newsman, reporting on how the American economy would rise or fall at the end of the year on those holiday sales. Be patriotic, get out there and buy, buy buy!
At some point the season passed from the joy of youth to the burden of adulthood, and it was not an easy passage for me. Nothing puts me more on edge than a crowded mall, jostling with frenzied shoppers trying to get to the bottom of that shopping list, going through the motions of holiday cheer. Even the Cyber Monday online blitz is a costly chore.
Now some would say that we suffer from having taken Christ out of Christmas, but that’s not the problem with the season for me. I’ve long since lost my faith in the little baby Jesus and his unlikely crusade to die for my sins. It’s a nice story tweaked through the ages, part of the great myth of the collective consciousness of the human experience.
We bring a lot of our gods to bear during the winter solstice season, Hannukah for the Jews, Bodhi Day for the Buddhists, Pancha Ganapati for the Hindu Lord Ganesha, Kwanzaa for the Pan-African celebrants, the Epiphany celebration for the Greek Orthodox and the Puerto Rican revelers. I’m happy to celebrate Yule, the shortest day so hurry let’s dance and make merry. And, of course, there’s Festivus, “for the rest of us.”
But there is another part of Christmas that warms the cockles of my heart, eggnog or no, and that’s the gathering of families, the displays of genuine affection – through not only gift-giving but also simple expressions of love and cheer. Over the years, as the eldest of nine kids, the father of five, the grandfather of four, I’ve found plenty of good reasons to celebrate the season. These were on my mind when I sent these lyrics to my brother, David, in Kentucky, from my outpost on the beach in Hollywood, Fla., back in 1984:
Here’s a Christmas card, brother,
The gift of our song
May the words strike a chord
May we find our best reward
In knowing we belong.
Christmas across the mountains
Makes me think of you
Of partying out by the goal
The nights of rock ‘n’ roll
The songs so true.
Here’s to crisp autumn days, of hot rod heaven craves,
To those young girls who won our hearts
To the jokes and the tokes, to the lovin’ live-in folks
It’s been a celebration from the start.
Here’s to our life, brother
One we’ll always share
Meet me at the buck-buck lot
Teach you what I’ve been taught
I’ll always be there.
We’ll find our absolution
In living this good life
Taking stock of all that’s past
Yielding songs that are sure to last
Well beyond our time.
Here’s to crisp autumn days, repeat CHORUS
Here’s to all those Christmases
Under the family tree
To the gathering of our gang
To the boys and girls who sang
In five-part harmony
And here’s to life
That goes on and on and on
To the memories we’re making
To the new ground we’re breaking
All started here in our home.
Here’s to crisp autumn days, CHORUS
Five years later those words came back to me in a video, probably the best Christmas present I ever received. There was David and his guitar, along with my daughters Celeste and Jessica, lip synching and “playing” along. David had changed a few words, to protect the innocents. My son Chris made a cameo at the end. The kids were all living in Kentucky then, along with their mother.
Here it is, recently digitized and uploaded to YouTube, thanks to my sweet Terry, the love of my life:
This week I make that trek across the mountains to spend quality holiday time with the Byrnes – Celeste and her husband Glenn have two energetic boys, one already a teenager; Jessica and Jeremy have two young’uns, as well. I stop to visit Chris and his girlfriend Rachel near Pittsburgh, along the way. David and Melissa will be there, along with my mom and her husband Claud, plus most of my sisters and, hopefully, my big little brother Tim, who lives not too far away.
Terry has to work, so she won’t join us this year. But after New Year’s, we get a chance to drive south to visit with her mom and dad, sister Patti and brother Andy and his wife Beth. We’ll miss daughters Miki and Cassy this year, but there will be some sharing via Skype, plus it won’t be long into 2013 before we visit them in Chicago. The family bond really knows no season, although we make time to celebrate it at the end of the year.
There is nothing more precious than family, and Christmas brings out the opportunity to share the love. So celebrate! Best wishes to everyone (and their families) for a joyous holiday season.