Musical memories of Christmas past

I’ve written previously about “The Nutcracker” and my dancing “career.”  Once my daughter started ballet class, December in our house was all about “The Nutcracker.”  I have fond memories of those days, busy as they were with rehearsals and performances piled on top of the usual Christmas activities.

But that was all new to me. In fact, until then, I’d seen “The Nutcracker” only once – and I don’t remember a thing about the dancing. Why? Because I was more interested in music at the time, my mother was playing in the orchestra, and that’s where my attention focused.

My earliest memories of Christmas are musical. My father played in a small dance band in high school, and my mother was a music major in college and gave lessons in our home while I was growing up.

So we learned Christmas carols as part of our weekly piano lessons, and children’s choir at church, and band and chorus at school. We went Christmas caroling, sometimes just our family and sometimes with friends from church.

And early on, as soon as all of us children could hold a tune, my parents organized us for family singing – shades of von Trapp children from “The Sound of Music”! At some point every December, we could count on singing in church together.

As the years went on, the music became more difficult – four-part harmony, songs we didn’t hear on the radio – and we got used to “command performances” at whatever party we attended.

So Christmas doesn’t feel the same without music – and not just Nat King Cole or Bing Crosby, but “Coventry Carol” (Lullay, thou little tiny child), “In the Bleak Midwinter,” and the songs of Alfred Burt.

It was a great experience, too, to be part of a nearly 500-voice choir in college – music majors, alumni, students and professors, and community members – singing Handel’s “Messiah” each year!

Then I’d head home for Christmas break and another family performance. I don’t know about my sisters, but these weren’t always my favorite events: a little too much attention for this introvert.

Unavoidable, though, and no excuses accepted. One year after college, I was living in Boston and my oldest sister was living in Virginia. We and our spouses met in Washington, D.C., and drove home to Ohio early on Christmas Eve.

When a snowstorm in the mountains delayed us, we called to let my parents know we were safe but might not make it home in time for church that night.  And my father surprised us with the news that the entire family was singing that night, so we’d better make it home.

Needless to say, we arrived with half an hour to spare – enough time to change clothes and run through the music once. And though that night was a bit stressful, it’s a memory I laugh about every year, as I pull out music and sit down at the piano.

4 Responses to “Musical memories of Christmas past”

  1. Greg Lammers

    Music is so much a part of us, such a powerful mode of communication. The way that we tie types and pieces of music to events and to people, the power of music to elicit emotion, to motivate and inspire, is astounding.

    I loved reading about your Christmas musical memories. Thanks for sharing them.

  2. Kris Katarian

    Music is indeed powerful, often reaching a deeper place within us than words or symbols. Alas, for me, and many others, Christmas music is a painful reminder of those very special loved ones who are gone, and that we will never have another holiday with them. I used to enjoy seasonal music in the past but now cannot listen without tears.

    For those of you who experience Christmas music like I do, please know that your pain is understood. While others around us are singing joyfully, we just keep our heads down until after New Year’s.

  3. Steve Swope

    Yes, Kris, that’s the other – often unacknowledged – side of the holidays, in music and other symbols. Over the last decade or so, a number of churches (ours included) have begun Blue Christmas or Longest Night services specifically to support those for whom the holidays bring painful memories. Doesn’t necessarily make it easier for anyone, but it does say “you’re not alone,” which you and others might not hear otherwise. My sympathies.

  4. Kris Katarian

    Thanks for your response, Steve. No doubt your congregants appreciate the recognition that Christmas isn’t merry for some


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