Remembering Christmases Past
A sentimental person, the holidays always make me nostalgic. I think back to those halcyon days of youth, when my biggest concern of the Christmas season was staying on Santa’s “Nice List”. And this came to mind.
Read my memoir essay.
Singing Ghosts of Christmas Past
When I was growing up, our family moved around in one giant pack. My mother, her six siblings, all the cousins, and my beloved yiayia at the helm. Birthdays, Mother’s Day, all manner of holiday celebrations, we feted together.
Mom’s brother John always hosted Christmas Day and Pascha. Christmas was his favorite holiday. I always looked forward to this day, because, well, it was Christmas, but also for the traditions my uncle created around the event. It wasn’t the food. It wasn’t the goodies. Even the grab bag gift exchange. For me, the best part of the whole day came after all that.
While the aunts and some of the cousins finished the clean-up, Uncle John stoked the fire. Then he enlisted his sons or some of my other cousins with a special task. He’d hand them a bag of chestnuts. I don’t recall if they used a pan, foil, or some type of wire basket, and—you guessed it—they roasted chestnuts over an open fire. He’d summon everyone to the living room. Another cousin distributed Xerox copies of song lyrics. Then, my uncle slipped his favorite holiday record from the sleeve and gently placed it on the turntable. The anticipation grew as he set the needle on the LP. And there it was. The first strains of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” the opening track on the ‘Holiday Sing-a-long with Mitch Miller and the Gang’.
I’m not sure how his esteem grew for Mitch and his Gang. Most people I mention it to have never heard of the sing along master and his album released long before I was born. But all the magic that happened during these moments has made it my perennial favorite.
We’d all sing at the top of our lungs, even Yia Yia. And my father, a Greek immigrant, who heard most of these songs for the first time during his inaugural holiday visit at my uncle’s home. He learned the songs, and sang along, too, because to my dad, family was everything. And during this time, the entire family participated—from the youngest to the oldest—there huddled by a roaring fire; the twinkling lights on a giant, fragrant Christmas tree; and the sounds of everyone singing in unison. He savored that. As did I, especially for the singing—because I loved to sing, and in my youth, I wanted to pursue that as a vocation. My family will recall the impromptu performances of a little me, making the center of any room my stage. I always took extra care leading up to the holiday so I could be in good voice. Old Mitch didn’t sing anywhere near my key, but I made it work.
I remember times my cousins and I tried to sing “Must Be Santa” without the song sheets, trying to see who remembered which came first, “the big red cherry nose” part or the “cap on head” part? Or how we always stumbled on “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, because the order Mitch sang parts of the song varied from what we learned at school. But we all had a good laugh. Gut-busters.
For thirteen tracks, some 35-40 odd minutes, the world drifted away. Not a creature stirred during the strains of our Yuletide cheer. Only the fire dared to flicker and crackle. This enchanting event bonded us like nothing else. Every friend that visited, every girlfriend or boyfriend and future spouse invited to join in, was welcomed to our festive circle, and they loved it too. And some years, if the stars aligned, huge fluffy snowflakes would fall, piling onto the windowsills.
At the intro to “White Christmas”, we all knew the reverie would soon end. There was something sad in the “May your days be merry and bright. And may all your Christmases be white”, because it was the end of the song—and the album. Then reality would flood in, bursting our bubble of joy. And with that, many packed up to leave, to get young kids home to bed, or prepare for work the next day.
As my cousins married and spent holidays with their respective in-laws, our big holiday extravaganzas, with all their accoutrements, became a thing of the past. I tried to re-kindle Uncle John’s tradition one year, when I hosted my immediate family for Christmas at my apartment. Still single, I worked for hours preparing for the holiday. I typed and reproduced song sheets, pre-roasted chestnuts because I didn’t have a fireplace. We gathered in the living room; I passed out the song sheets, then pressed play on the CD player. And there it was: ‘You better watch out; you better not cry…’ the sounds of Mitch and the Gang filled our room and our hearts. We tried, but it felt strange. Just the eight of us in my garden apartment. No fire, no extended family.
Years later, married with kids and just moved into our new home, we hosted Christmas. I decided to try again. After dinner, we convened in the family room. We didn’t roast chestnuts in the gas fireplace, ignited by remote control. But the song sheets came out and our friend Mitch started to sing. If I recall correctly, only my parents and I sang. My kids and my nephew, still very young then, danced in the center of the room. Watching them lifted my sinking heart. We needed old Mitch; we needed that sing along. Not because the 1961 album that actually dominated the charts around Christmastime throughout the 60s was the epitome of holiday music. But because of what it represented: a family coming together, shutting out the world, enjoying each other, celebrating tradition, and laughing. These charmed moments seem few and far between these days. We need them to regroup and recharge—now more than ever.
For all the beautiful memories it conjures, ‘Holiday Sing-a-Long with Mitch’ is still my favorite holiday album. My Uncle John passed away 11 years ago—on Christmas Eve. I guess he loved Christmas so much, he hitched a ride with Santa off to the great beyond. Every Christmas Eve, I play the sing-a-long dedicated to him. And for a little while, revisit those Christmases past. Surrounded by the singing ghosts of Uncle John, my grandmother, parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins who’ve left this world. I wonder if Uncle John leads the sing-a-long in Heaven? That would be a sight! Their spirits are alive and well, swirling around me as I croon, from ‘You better watch out, to ‘may all your Christmases be white”.
This holiday season and always, I wish you good health and happiness. Here’s to the beautiful memories and the people we’re missing this holiday season. May we keep their memories and the stories alive–and make wonderful new ones along the way. Merry Everything!