My Christmas season starts with a quiet tradition; it’s one I picked up from my mother although it was never officially passed down. It doesn’t commence after devouring my last piece of Thanksgiving pie or walking through the doors of Target at midnight on Black Friday; it starts when I get out my tattered copy of The Big Book of Christmas Songs and sit down at the piano and play from Angels We Have Heard on High to Silent Night and every carol in between.
This piano book is my favorite to play; partly because I’m not all that good and most of the songs are so familiar I can fake my way through. But mostly because playing the piano soothes me and allows me to reflect on the past, present and future. Christmas songs, which are ingrained with nostalgia and memory, are especially prone to send me back to a time when our hearts truly seemed light.
‘The first Noel the angels did say..,’ and I’m standing in our church one December morning. My family is spread out over two pews, singing the hymn’s harmonies just a bit too loud. My overly concerned and self-aware family is cautious to never do anything that might be considered showy or obnoxious, except where a harmony line is involved.
‘Away in a manger no crib for a bed…,’ and I’m listening to the timid and slightly off-pitch crooning of a child’s Christmas pageant. My mother, the director of the children’s choir, is sitting in front of the singers mouthing the words as a sea of charmed parents sit behind her smiling lovingly.
‘There’s a song in the air! There’s a star in the sky!’ and I’m surrounded by my mother and her teary-eyed siblings as they sing their deceased mother’s favorite Christmas song. I’m unsure of the words or why my aunts and uncles are sad, but I know the moment is important.
‘Silent night, holy night..,’ and I’m choking my way through the song’s familiar words at our church candlelight service the year we found out my mother was sick. Fast forward a year and I’m singing with my family in a dim room around a brightly lit Christmas tree on Christmas Eve; each of us wondering how the absence of someone could be felt so fully.
I had a hard time with Christmas songs in the year or two after my mother died. A few notes of Judy Garland’s Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas or Bing Crosby’s Silent Night and I was done; a grief side-effect that hardly seemed fair because these were the songs closest to my heart.
Sometimes the only way I can conceptualize the holidays in a year or two after the death of a loved one is to think of it like a film negative; everything is opposite. Happy is sad and where we’re used to being filled up with the love and warmth of the holidays, we’re now filled with a well of sadness that bubbles over and erupts into tears at the most unexpected and inconvenient of times.
When you’re grieving, small yet tender reminders like I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas and Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah can shock you and rub you where you’re already raw. As if death hasn’t stolen enough from you already, it greedily takes your ability to enjoy a song you’ve loved for years and sadly I don’t have anything constructive to offer about this other than to say, I understand.
I see you paralyzed in the middle of your shopping because ‘O Holy Night’ has begun playing over the stereo. I see you crying in the church because you’ve just turned to this morning’s hymns and realized it’s ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’. I see you looking sullen at the office holiday party because ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’ is playing. I get it. Actually, a lot of people get it. You aren’t alone.
In the 8 years since my mother’s death these songs have recovered many of their positive qualities, but catch me on a wrong day and they still have the potential to grip my heart and bring me to tears. Except, years later the tears are a mix of happy and sad emotion; they are happy with a twist. My hope is that at the very least you will someday feel this melancholy fondness (if you don’t already) and as the song goes, until then you’ll, “…have to muddle through somehow.”