Sometime before Thanksgiving I was driving around and listening to classical music on public radio. They started playing a bright, brassy number with fast vibrato – probably something by a British brass band - and all at once, gosh darn it, I felt the spirit of Christmas move in my weary soul. The piece was not a Christmas hymn or anything explicitly written for the holiday, yet I found myself waiting at the traffic light, reflecting on my feelings and letting the music transport me to Christmases past.
My mind took me to when I was about 6 or 7: Pulling peppermints off of the advent calendar hanging on the door in the kitchen; unpacking the odd boxes that held the ornaments; the smell of candles, freshly snuffed; a package of Schwarzbrot from the Timmermann Bakery and rock-hard Haribo gummy bears; and brass music, compliments of my oldest brother, Rich. It was then that it hit me how much that brother was so entwined with my more visceral memories of Christmas.
Rich was about to graduate from high school when I was born, so Christmas and summer - his breaks from college - were really the only times I got to spend any amount of time with him as a kid. I remember feeling shy around him because I had to get reacquainted with him each time, but it helped that he brought me music, books, and once, a pencil case from New York City that was long a prized possession. Our house had a different energy when he was home – my other two siblings were around a bit more, too, along with my Oma, and sometimes my Uncle Art and Aunt Alice. While the house at other times of the year felt more like a kid’s domain (to me, at least), at Christmas, everything suddenly felt that much more adult. And thus I remember trying to act a little more like an adult, too – eating things I didn’t care much for because I knew they were special (like that Schwarzbrot), sitting at the table while the adults conversed, not always knowing what they were talking about but waiting for a moment that I understood or could insert a joke or make a funny face. I remember my brothers watching movies in the family room (Dad usually gave us sets of Laserdiscs for Christmas) while I played with my new toys in the living room, and hearing them laugh heartily. And at some point during his visit, Rich would inevitably turn on a cassette tape that featured one or several of his performances at school. Our parents listened with great interest and pride. I found it rather boring and couldn't wait to put on the fun records again.
One year Rich gave my parents a copy of the King’s Singers “A Little Christmas Music.” Not surprisingly, I didn’t like it one bit the first few times we played it – too stuffy-sounding, sometimes weird, what’s with men singing with high voices, anyway? – but it was on repeat long enough that the next year and in the years that have followed, it doesn’t feel like Christmas without it. Today when I listen to my favorite “Ding dong! Merrily on High” I feel a certain nostalgia toward that punchy brass. Those men in falsetto have even been known to prompt a tear if I'm not on guard. May the music always remind me of the joy of the anticipation of being reunited with family. Christmas is here.
|Rich on the left, me with the stuffed animal abundance, Dad on the right|