Part 3: holiday songs: revised

Lots of people going all out decorating and prepping for the holidays this year to compensate for all the canceled stuff. Prices have risen higher than a Douglas fir. A fresh-cut Douglas (or its slightly shorter cousins) will cost an average of 23% more than in 2018, says Fortune magazine. Assuming you can still find one, as many tree farms are sold out. As the song should go:

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, I looked all over for you!

O Christmas tree, rare Christmas tree, my mortgage payment’s soon due!

You look and smell so heavenly, but we’ll reuse our plastic tree.

O Christmas tree, dear Christmas tree, I really can’t afford you!

For those brave enough to spend extra time at the mall, Santas are still around. However, you have to make an appointment. No Santa lines in 2020–a small blessing.

My parents never encouraged us to believe in tooth fairies, Eastern bunnies, or Saint Nicholas. Nor did they pretend to us that our presents came from anyone but family. Maybe that’s because, as the children of two impatient people, too many of our presents didn’t make it to Christmas morning to support the fiction that Santa had delivered them on Christmas Eve. Once everyone’s shopping is completed and the gifts are wrapped, what’s the point of waiting?

I gave my wish list to my mom not Santa. But one time, when I was seven, I had an overwhelming craving for a particular present. The object of my desire was a mechanical dog that I’d seen in Toys R Us for the high price of $15.99 (batteries not included). I figured a visit to Santa could increase my chances of seeing FeeFee (as I had already named her) under the tree. FeeFee was so cute! She had soft pink fur and could bark, walk, sit, and even rise slowly on her haunches to perform a backflip.

My mother and I stood for almost an hour in the cold line that stretched from the front of JC Penney’s to Santa’s hut. Inside the hut it was stiflingly warm. Santa’s frizzy beard and bony knee and the existential question of whether I’d been a good little girl this year eliminated my ability to talk. Needing to move the line along, Santa said he was sure I had been good, asked what I wanted for Christmas, and leaned his hairy ear towards my face. I burst into tears. “She wants a toy dog,” my mother snapped. “Ho Ho,” sighed Santa, as the helper elf guided me off of the knee. And that was that.

I unwrapped FeeFee on December 23. Her batteries lasted almost 15 minutes.

Sonny, though never a Santa believer, loved to gaze at the mall Santas on their colorful thrones. However, he was always wary of “mascots” (his catchall word for people in costumes) and kept his distance. Smart kid. Sometimes in my caroling gig days (see the blog from 12/13) we singers would share back office space with the Santa of the day. When on break, all Santas strip down to their undershirts–that costume is hot–drink iced coffee and eat a sandwich. Often, for some reason, a tuna sandwich. Santas exhibit minimal jollity when backstage. The song should go

Jolly old Saint Nicholas, please stay far away.

You’ve been at the mall too much; I don’t want to play.

Christmas Eve I’ll be at home, eating cookie dough.

You can skip my house this year; no one has to know.

We’re not exactly canceling Christmas, but we’ll be glad when the holidays and this awful year have passed. On New Year’s Eve we’ll be in our bubble, waiting for the clock to tick from December 31 to January, and singing

Should 2020 be forgot and never brought to mind?

May 2020 be long gone and kicked in its behind!

For 2020’s been a time of strife, and fear, and plague.

I’ll take a stab of vaccine soon, and sing the year away.

I’m taking the next week off, but I plan to be typing again in this space on New Year’s Day. May your holidays be safe and sane.

We wish you a healthy Christmas,

We wish you a healthy Christmas,

We wish you a healthy Christmas,

and a plague-free New Year.

Good tidings we bring

of two new vaccines.

We wish you a healthy Christmas

and a plague-free New Year.

Snow Day or Sloth Day

Yesterday we got more than a foot of snow. Dave and I started shoveling the driveway at 5:15 a.m. so that Sonny could make it to his six o’clock shift at Target, and the day went on predictably from there. Inside for a while, then back outside for more shovelfuls of the heavy wet stuff, working from the premise that it’s less taxing to shovel four inches of snow three times than twelve inches of snow one time. Not surprisingly, when I lifted my coffee mug this morning my biceps yipped like outraged Pekinese.

The rest of me felt fantastic, though. Relaxed. My body seemed to be thanking me for the work.

To be sure, it was a bit of a change. As the weather’s got colder, and with no holiday or work gatherings to get me out of the house, my sloth-like tendencies have increased dramatically. I’ve taken afternoon naps, and second afternoon naps. Looked wistfully at the low-hanging branches of the oak tree in my front yard, wondering if I could climb up and sit for a spell.

Sloths have a terrible reputation, but they can do lots of cool stuff that I can’t. They can turn their heads 270 degrees! They can swim faster than they can walk! They can fall 100 feet without hurting themselves! They’re strong enough to keep their hold on a tree branch even when a jaguar twice their size and four times their weight is trying to pull them off! They are their own ecosystem, with algae, moths, and beetles living in their fur! They can sleep hanging upside down!

I’m similar to sloths in the less cool ways. We both have bad eyesight, especially in bright daylight. They have the slowest metabolic rate of all mammals and move slowly, especially at ground level, because of that. My metabolism’s slowing down, for the usual reasons, but not enough to justify my sloth-ish tendencies of late.

I’m all for rest days, especially after hard work. After I wrap my brain around a tricksy idea from an online course or tough book, I watch some fun TV or read something silly. Athletes take rest days; I take a day or two off from music practice most weeks so that I don’t get burned out. The problem is that I’ve been taking rest weeks, lately, from most things physical.

The Thursday storm was a useful reminder of the physical satisfaction of exertion. So…let it snow?

Holiday songs part 2: perils of caroling

You’ve probably seen them on a street corner, or at the mall, at a holiday party, or even strolling through your workplace or neighborhood. Carolers. People tend to love or despise them. I’ve felt both emotions on encountering these groups of smiling singers, especially if I have no warning ahead of time. However, I may as well confess: I spent a few years with a company that hired out a cappella caroling quartets.

We wore Dickensian (early Victorian) outfits. The men in high-waisted trousers, vests, and top hats. Women in long skirts puffed out with scratchy crinolines, bonnets decorated with bits of floral fluff and ribbons, and a wool wrap draped over the shoulders. These picturesque outfits were always wrong for the ambient temperature, leaving us sweating while singing indoors and shivering outdoors.

We worked from a book with around 120 tunes, most of them traditional carols photocopied from hymnals, plus a few Hanukkah songs and some mid-twentieth century hits like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, “Let it Snow!” and “The Christmas Song.” We strolled or stood, whatever the venue decreed. When we’d sung for a bit, drawn a crowd, we would invite people to request songs. Always interesting to see the audience’s reaction to being put on the spot. Some people would have a brain freeze, while others eagerly shouted out “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” or “All I Want for Christmas is You” only to get a “Sorry, we don’t have that in the book, would you like to hear something else?” This is when, inevitably, one of the following three songs would be suggested: “Jingle Bells,” “Silent Night,” or “O Holy Night.”

Over the course of a one- or two-hour gig we would sing Jingle Bells one miiiillion times. Okay, 10 or 15 times. It’s a short song even if you do all the normal verses, which tell a tale about the joys of riding in a “one-horse open sleigh” (the original title), even when the occupants get “upsot” in verse two. This song has a Massachusetts connection. Its composer was sometime-organist James Lord Pierpont, who was born in the state. High Street in Medford, MA, features a plaque claiming (mistakenly) that Pierpont composed Jingle Bells in 1850 while pounding ales in the town’s Simpson Tavern. Pierpont did live in Medford for a while, but in 1850 he was in California. He copyrighted “One-Horse Open Sleigh” in 1857 while living in Savannah, Georgia, so the people of Savannah also lay claim to the birthplace of the song. Like “Let It Snow,” this is a song about the winter sport of sleigh-riding rather than Christmas, but it’s been associated with that holiday since at least 1900. Fun fact: Jingle Bells was the first song broadcast from space, on December 16, 1965! Not so fun facts: Jingle Bells was first publicly performed in 1857, at a blackface minstrel show in Boston by the singer Johnny Pell. Also, after his move to Georgia Pierpont fought in the Civil War on the side of the Confederates.

Despite its shady origins, Jingle Bells peps up a crowd. With a range of just a fifth, the chorus is eminently singable, and the audience often joins in. Silent Night, on the other hand…It’s a beautiful song, but with a big range for casual singers (an 11th) and a bunch of treacherous high notes in the second half. Maybe because of the high notes, the audience tends to listen to Silent Night instead of sing along. This was our most cried-to piece. It’s been stirring emotions since 1818. The lyrics were written by an Austrian priest, Joseph Mohr, while the music was set by organist Franz Xaver Gruber. The first version was for voice and guitar because the organ in Mohr’s church was broken. I’m glad Mohr specified guitar: in my opinion the emotional content of Silent Night is beautifully expressed with voice and guitar.

The truly scary high notes come in O Holy Night. Many arrangements give the melody to the tenor, but our book followed the original performance practice and gave the soprano the high Bbs. (Fortunately I sang alto and stayed below the Death Zone.) Whenever a listener would request this this piece, if we’d already done it once or twice, the soprano got the veto. O Holy Night was our most-denied tune. It’s another song from the 1800s, 1847, to be precise, with music by organist Adolphe Adam set to lyrics by one-handed poet/wine merchant Placide Cappeau.

The original title is “Cantique de Noel,” and its lyrics are quite progressive, opposing slavery and elite abuse of power. Here’s a sample from verse 2: “Puissants du jour, fiers de votre grandeur,/A votre orgueil, c’est de la que Dieu preche.” This basically translates as “Mighty ones of today, proud of your greatness, It is to your pride that god preaches.” Even though the song was a popular hit, the French church authorities banned it from religious services for a time because it turned out that Cappeau was an atheist. John Sullivan Dwight , a Unitarian minister, liberally translated the lyrics into English in 1855, giving the last verse an expicitly Abolitionist bent.

I enjoy singing the old songs. Just as with reading a novel from the 1800s or a poem written in 900, there’s a thrill in the connection with the past. However, by the end of a 20-Jingle-Bell gig my singing smile could stretch a little tight.

Back at the dressing room, the first off would be the bonnet. Once I had my sweater and jeans back on and had shoved the last prickly bit of crinoline into the depths of the garment bag, I donned my headphones. Something non-holiday to drive the carols to the back of the brain, until the next time I needed to sing them with a smile.

December crash

I love museums. First choice is art, but I enjoy just about any space devoted to collections: local history, natural history, science, whaling, robber barons, dollhouses… The museum environment hits the sweet spot for my autism, pleasing the senses without overwhelming them. Color and light. Amazing objects hung on walls, suspended from the ceiling, piled on shelves. Grand, sound-diffusing spaces. Stone, wood, feathers, water, velvet, chrome. Mazy corridors peppered with mysterious Staff-Only doors. Other people sharing the experience, without weird social obligations needing to be navigated. Cafeterias with grapes, cheese plates and little bottles of wine. A magic space I can step into where my mundane life recedes. And when I’m pleasantly fatigued, done, I take a little calm with me into the real world.

I’m sure that a lot of people feel about the winter holiday season the way I do about museums. Enjoying the exertion of putting up decorations, cooking, and wrapping gifts. Happy to hear their holiday playlist every day, eager for the office party, the neighborhood cookie swap. Loving the colors and lights and traditions. By year’s end, pleasantly fatigued, they are ready for the mundanities of January.

Certainly such people exist. Why I don’t know any of them? Besides children, who don’t have to pay the rent, cook the feast, or climb icy ladders to string lights, who truly enjoys the holidays? Even my husband Dave, chill about many things, considers December his least favorite month and filters out as much as he can after Thanksgiving weekend.

My friends, especially the online ones (because online is the only safe space to admit some of these emotions), feel actively stressed and overwhelmed every December. Some of my friends are depressed as well as stressed. 2020 has made everything worse, of course. I don’t remember asking Santa for a civil war for Christmas (it’s going to be a bitch to regift). Maybe it’s the fear that there’s something wrong with us if we don’t feel holiday cheer. (Dave: “I’m not nine anymore. Why should I feel guilty about that?” Me: envious sigh) The media and stores and culture perform comfort and joy 24/7 and pressure us all not to ruin the magic.

Hoping that the winter holiday season can be scaled back culturally is probably as counterproductive as storing black sweaters in a basketful of kittens. Holidays expand. Thousands of years ago, humans lit bonfires for a night or two around the winter solstice to remind the gods to bring back longer days. Bonfires turned into annual celebrations like the Greek Brumalia and the Roman Saturnalia: days upon days of banquets, drinking, dancing, and (in Saturnalia’s case) temporary reversals of the social order such as slaves dressing in their masters’ clothes and vice versa, bosses paying their servants’ rent for a month, etc. Saturnalia was turned into Christmas in the mid fourth century AD and slowly grew to encompass all of December and a bit of January, and now Christmas starts sometime in October.

Maybe the Roman patrons and matrons got stressed out about Saturnalia. There weren’t any museums, per se, in ancient Rome. Art and artifacts were on display in private homes, in public, and in temples. I picture a Roman matron, worried about her holiday outfit, having run out of olives, wondering what to get her maid for Saturnalia. She’s heading for the temple to walk among the statues, looking for a little peace on earth. I hope at least they gave her a nice cheese plate and some wine.

Holiday song checklist: one

In which I measure my life against one holiday classic at a time, starting with the Jules Styne/Sammy Cahn tune “Let It Snow!”

Oh, the weather outside is frightful…

July, 1945: Los Angelenos were sweltering in record heat. Styne wanted to go to the beach to cool off; his songwriting partner Cahn wanted to cool down by writing a tune about winter. The song doesn’t mention a holiday, but it was quickly looped into the December playlist in the Northern Hemisphere. (In the Southern Hemisphere, people sing “Let it Snow!” in July.) Styne and Cahn followed the song a year later with “The Things We Did Last Summer,” which was a hit, but small compared to the accidental winter classic.

A brief look outside: yesterday it was in the 50s; today it’s snowing sideways. Check!

But the fire is so delightful…

Our house has a big chimney with three fireplaces (one in the basement, one in the living room, and one in the master bedroom. When we toured the place 13 years ago, those fireplaces were a big selling point. Winter came and so did the fire fights–not fights handled by muscular humans hauling hoses, but relationship fights about how to get a fire started and keep it going.

Dave skipped a lot of the stereotypic manly man stuff in his formative years. His lack of interest in golf, for example, has saved us a lot of money, which we can then use to pay the odd jobs man for home repairs more complicated than picture hanging. However, he has a few regrets. Possibly due to his Boy Scout days, Dave views “fire-starting” as a core male competency. It turned out to be tricky to manage the fireplaces. I developed somewhat of a knack for starting fires that didn’t burn out 20 minutes later, and this led to the kind of little conflicts that afflict our marriage from time to time. Unlike Styne and Cahn, who wrote together for about eight years and then abandoned that partnership, Dave and I have stayed together (but we stopped making fires in our fireboxes).

The decision was made easier by the fact that every fire stunk up the house for days afterwards. Sometimes I wonder what the previous owners burned in there: angry ghosts of Christmas past? Definitely something with payback on its mind. We swept the chimneys annually without any improvement. Until 2020, our hearths remained purely decorative except in the case of winter power outages that require a substitute heat source. This summer we finally donated the cord of wood that had sat unused in the garage since 2011–it’s dried out for sure–to one of Dave’s buddies from high school.

Then I saw a picture in a magazine: a fireplace stuffed with candles and mirrors, et voila! I made my own version, so now we can have firelight without the mess. The candles, alit, do look quite pretty, but fall short of delightful. Maybe if we had some holiday lights up…

I’ll just take a couple of minutes and pop some Christmas lights on the mantle. Even though it meant a trip to the spider-ridden corners of the basement. Yay, me! They string a bit tangled–No, Capone, not a cat toy!–back to the basement to find the extension cord…

Cobwebs, cat scratches, and curses later: Delightful! Check!

Since we’ve no place to go…

Coronavirus wasn’t a thing in July of 1945. However, this banner year in world history also featured the first flu vaccine authorized for use on civilians in the US. We’re all hoping to get the COVID vaccine as soon as possible, so that we can enjoy the 2021 holiday season. Until we’re able to move about safely, though, most of the time we’ve no place to go. Check.

Let it snow!

No one will ever convince me that I have no influence over the weather. I can keep the rain away simply by carrying my umbrella. When I can find the darn thing. Did my wonder at Friday’s temperatures (in the 50s) and brief thankful thought that at least we hadn’t had any snow since the Halloween storm cause this Nor’easter? Probably. “Let it snow!” Check.

Let it snow!

Unfortunately I’ve never been able to work out a practice that stops a snowstorm. Cursing, putting the snow shovel on the steps, saying “tut tut, it looks like rain” regularly fail me. For now I’ll turn to a phrase I embroidered on a sampler, once upon a time: grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change. Check.

Let it snow!

The song keeps pushing this line. Maybe it’s asking something of me. Maybe an attitude adjustment? There is, I finally admit, something about being in a warm, sheltered place with people I love, watching Nature do its thing. Check!

Swans of winter

When we moved to this suburb, a few miles south of Boston, there were still a couple of working farms in town. It’s sad that the one nearest our house stopped operating about eight years ago–the horse farm’s still in operation–but the town made lemonade of the situation and turned the site into a park. Now there are turkeys and ducks and occasional deer, as well as other critters, wandering around there up close and personal, instead of cows seen at a distance. And there are swans (also best seen at a distance, for swan-temperament reasons). The leaves are down, and the reeds on the banks have thinned, so it was easy to see the swans on the pond. Hanging out, having breakfast, stirring the water with their beaks. A couple of ducks swam also, at a respectful distance.

Norroway Pond’s swan family has three members, just like my family: a cob (male), a pen (female) and a cygnet (kid). I think of them as the King, Queen, and Prince. They’ve been on the pond at least since spring of 2020. It’s possible that the King and Queen have been there for much longer, maybe from the farm days, since swans can live as long as 20 to 30 years, or even longer in some cases. In spring the Prince was a ball of gray fluff. Now he’s the same size as his parents–i.e, a bowling ball with a long neck and big wings attached–and almost as brilliant a white.

I haven’t yet tired of swans–or most of the other animals that wander here from the Blue Hills (excluding skunks: skunks can suck it). When we moved to this area, 22 years ago, swans in the reservoir were one of the first things I noticed. It felt quite exotic. For years I’d lived and worked mostly in cities, Chicago and Boston. In Boston you can see the swans Romeo and Juliet paddling in the Public Garden lagoon, but the pair winter at the Franklin Park Zoo and there’s something a little tame about them. Though beautiful.

Free-range swans don’t necessarily avoid cities. Dave and I visited Ireland a couple of years ago and were impressed to find nearly as many swans as street musicians in Galway. Like our swans in Norroway Pond, the Galway swans are commonly mute swans, although a Black swan recently made its way there from Australia.

I was glad to see the royal family was still in town, given that it’s December. The Canada Geese have already come and gone this fall. I thought swans migrated, but it turns out that mute swans, as opposed to some other swan species, such as the North American trumpeter swans, do not migrate regularly. Mute swans, especially mated pairs, stick around their nesting areas. They migrate when forced to by ice and food scarcity, but not great distances and not every year. So if we have a mild winter King, Queen, and Prince may stick around throughout.

I’d love that. The Prince’s parents will probably spend the winter teaching him to forage for food and giving him unsolicited relationship advice. Just like my family, although probably with fewer games of cribbage and episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 thrown in. Next summer Prince will flap off to find down a mate and pond of his own–best of luck to him–and I’ll get to watch the new brood rising.