It happens every December. I hear the opening notes of "The Christmas Waltz," sung by Karen Carpenter, and time suddenly rushes in reverse. I am five years old again, standing in the wood-paneled living room of my parents' first home. I have a sturdy, homemade ornament in one hand and am reaching for another while my mom tells me "don't grab" and "be patient." Out of the hundreds and thousands of Christmas songs, this is the one, more than any of the others, that says to me, "The Christmas season has officially begun." That song has been a part of every Christmas that I can remember. My mom has always loved the Carpenters, and it seems like theirs was always the first Christmas album we listened to (and I think "The Christmas Waltz" must have been the first song on the album). I love this song because it not only links me to my own past but to my mom's as well, who was listening to the Carpenters long before I was born.
This is not the only song that takes me back to my childhood. This month I've been thinking about the other sounds that tug me back to the past and that make this time of year so nostalgic and sweet.
My family loves traditions and holds to them quite unwaveringly. One of those was an annual reading of The Forgotten Carols by Michael McLean. My dad usually read it over the course of several Sunday drives to church (forty-five minutes one way). The story is about a seemingly senile old man, Uncle John, whom Constance, a nurse, has been asked to help care for over the holidays. My dad used a very clipped, no-nonsense voice for Constance because that's the type of person she was until Uncle John softened her heart through the stories and songs of his past. The book has an accompanying music album that features all of the "forgotten carols" from Uncle John's reminiscences. As each song came up in the story, my dad stopped reading and we listened to it. It was always our rule that we couldn't listen to the album in its entirety until we finished the book. My favorite song was, "The Shepherd," which I even wrote an essay on for a school assignment one time. To this day, those songs make me think of starry nights in a softly thrumming car. (Sadly, after I married Mike, we decided to go see the theater production of The Forgotten Carols, and it kind of ruined the story for me.)
Not music, but the sound of the heater coming on will always take me back to my childhood. In December, we had to rearrange the furniture to accommodate the Christmas tree. We swung one of the couches over so that the corners of the two couches touched and created a little square of space the perfect size for a little girl. There happened to be a heater vent in that little hideout, and I loved to grab a blanket and a book and park myself right on top of it, letting the warm air fill out my blanket and create a pleasantly warm little bubble. Just hearing the sound of the warm air rushing through the vent made me feel warmer even if I couldn't take immediate advantage of it. When my parents moved to a new home when I was fifteen, it had a more "efficient" furnace, which meant that the air that came out of the heater vents was room temperature (i.e., cold) instead of toasty warm. Giving up my beloved heater vents was one of the great losses of my childhood. Luckily, I now live in an old house with an inefficient furnace that regularly spews out warm air throughout the day. (And last week, when our furnace broke, I can't even tell you how much I missed that comforting sound. The house felt stark and bare without it.)
If "The Christmas Waltz" signifies the beginning of the holiday season for me, then Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" does the same thing for the beginning of winter. Whenever the first snow came (whether it was in September or December), we put on "Sleigh Ride" and ran around the living room in a gloriously carefree dance. The snow drifted down outside (or, more likely, since it was northeastern Colorado, blew sideways) and inside we were warm and happy with hopes of it never stopping and being snowed in for a good week at least. Later in my childhood, the song took on another memory. When my little sister was about two years old, we had a toy horse (the kind that bounces up and down on springs) that resided in our dining room. It looked out the back doors onto the field behind our house, and my sister loved to have my mom put on "Sleigh Ride" while she mounted her beloved horse and took off. Seriously, it's a wonder the springs didn't snap the way she could bounce and make that horse go.
Every year, my family and I bundled up and went caroling to the neighbors. It was something of an ordeal because we took more than our voices along. Instead, we were a caroling family band and went with trumpet, trombone, baritone, French horn, and bells. (I played the trombone and kept the mouthpiece tucked into my hand between stops so that it would stay warm enough to produce some sound.) But it's the bells, the wrist-shaking variety, that mean the most to me in my memories. Maybe it's because I no longer play the trombone, but we do have an identical set of bells that my kids like to shake. Every time I hear them, I remember those caroling trips, but also something else . . .
When I was eight years old, I began to wonder if Santa was real. I don't remember what planted the idea in my head (maybe just growing up), but I determined to find out. Every Christmas Eve, after we acted out the nativity and set out a plate of cookies, my siblings and I put on boots and coats and went out into the frosty night to see if we could see Rudolph's nose or hear Santa's sleigh bells. Miraculously, we usually could see a little red light in the distant sky and hear the faint sound of bells floating by on the wind. Giddy with delight, we'd rush back into the house and jump into bed, confident that Santa was very close to landing on our roof. But that Christmas when I was eight, I wasn't caught up in the magic so much as I was discovering the truth. While my siblings were outside jumping up and and down and pointing wildly, I was back in the house, noiselessly crossing the kitchen floor and creeping down the stairs. As I peeked around the corner, I saw my dad sitting below an outside vent and shaking those infamous bells. Our eyes locked, and the bells abruptly stopped while I sputtered out an accusation. My dad quickly hushed me and took me into a room where we had a quiet heart to heart. I think I was disappointed, even if not surprised (I maybe even shed a few tears in my bed later that night). However, that disappointment melted away once I realized that it's even more fun playing Santa Claus than waiting for him.
I'd love to hear about those sounds that are inextricably linked to YOUR past. Please share your memories in the comments!
P.S. This Wednesday, Suzanne and I will be hosting our second blab. Come join us on December 16th at 7:00 pm MST. You can go directly to the blab website, or watch from either of our sites. Additionally, we'll put up the recorded video with show notes on Thursday or Friday.