*I have a game I’ve played practically every holiday season of my adult life. I tell myself it’s not the holidays until I encounter for the first time the sights and sounds that have defined the season for me since I was a child.The game usually starts no sooner than I’ve digested Thanksgiving dinner, although, thanks to the ever-increasing commercialism of the holidays (ladies and gentlemen, PLEASE stay away from department stores on Thanksgiving), the game seems to start earlier each year. My ritual has but one rule: these sights and sounds have to come to me.
In other words, the first time this season I hear Elvis’ cover of “Blue Christmas,” a version I’ve heard nearly every holiday season of my life, I have to hear it out in the world somewhere. To simply play the song for myself would be cheating. I have to hear it for the first time each holiday season on the radio, TV, in a retail store, coming out of somebody’s car. What makes the game challenging is that it doesn’t feel quite like the holidays until I encounter these sights and sounds.
For instance, it’s not really Christmas until I see “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Actually, I don’t even have to watch it; I can simply see it advertised on television or hear Vince Guaraldi’s jazzy soundtrack from the TV special and be comforted.
It wouldn’t be the holidays if at the end of November I didn’t start giving thought to attending midnight mass somewhere at Christmas. The last time I was in a church on Christmas, baby Jesus was actually being born. It’s been that long. I heard The Kid crying out in back. Seriously. I presented Him some Rock em’ Sock em’ Robots. They said it wasn’t an appropriate gift. I just tried to give something that I myself would want for Christmas. Anyway, every year I say THIS Christmas I’m going to go. If I didn’t at least ponder the notion, it just wouldn’t be Christmas.
I watch to see what community puts its official “Main Street” Christmas decorations up first. I like driving under the lighted Santa/reindeers and giant snowflakes and plastic angels. I know. It’s corny. But to me, that’s the holidays.
I get warm and fuzzy inside seeing TV commercials for “How The Grinch Stole Christmas.” I still can’t handle the part where the Whos of Whoville discover the Grinch has stolen all their gifts. The Grinch was one cold MF.
I need to hear football on TV. I don’t have to watch a game, but I certainly have to HEAR it. I’m a child of the golden age of television, and the sheer sound of the game—the white noise that is the cheering, the voices of the announcers—is a sonic sensation that soothes my senses like the aroma of turkey and dressing in the oven.
Every season, I have to tune into the 1946 classic, “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Doesn’t matter that we all know how it begins and ends; by the time the citizens of Bedford Falls arrive at the home of George and Mary Bailey (Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed) to bestow money and gifts to the bankrupt family, I’m bawling like a baby. I recently heard that someone wants to either redo the classic or produce a sequel. To those parties I say, leave perfection alone. Call upon your imagination (or enlist somebody with one) to create something NEW.
There’s more music I have to hear each year: Johnny Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock.” Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree,” The Carpenters’ “Merry Christmas Darling.” The Chipmunks singing, “Christmas Don’t Be Late” and any Motown Christmas records–the Supremes. Temptations, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5.
And James Brown’s “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto.” Ever listen to the lyric? Gets me every time. To think, Mr. Brown died in 2007, early Christmas Day.
What are the holidays without Nat “King” Cole’s “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)?” Earth Kitt’s “Santa Baby; Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas.” That last one I play year round.
Most important, it’s not really Christmas to me until people start feeling sentimental enough to be good to one another. And ultimately, they do.
You can feel the change in attitude just before Thanksgiving. It peaks at Christmas and coasts on through to New Year’s Day. People smile more, speak more and exude more compassion.
I look forward to coming upon the very first house of the season where the owner has decorated their property with everything but the kitchen sink.
Show me a humble abode like the one I saw in L.A.’s Hancock Park neighborhood a few seasons back. The house was covered in lights and on the lawn were larger-than-life snow men, two nativity scenes (why leave the older one in the garage? Put ‘em both out there), Santa Clauses, reindeer, giant candy canes, Christmas trees, elves, toy soldiers and massive logos of Feliz Navidad, “Love and Peace” written in Arabic, Stars of David and Happy Kwanzaa, all coexisting in perfect, kitschy harmony. One day, human beings will figure out what holiday ornaments and displays already know.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected]