By Ed Thompson
I sing terribly. Not so terribly that I couldn’t get on stage and jam with a band that knows “Sweet Home Alabama.” The willingness to throw myself up on a stage and let my heart and soul be my voice often made up for my lack of perfect pitch. However, don’t ever ask me to sing karaoke. It ain’t gonna happen. Still, when Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” or Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” comes on the radio I sing loud and I sing proud. More fortunately, those songs come on while I’m in the car and the world’s collective ears are spared, unless you’re riding with me. Then, it’s best that you start singing too because your voice will be the only thing you’ll have to filter mine. Yet, just as quickly, I’ll quiet myself at the first chord of Manheim Steamroller’s “Stille Nacht” or “O Holy Night” by Johnny Mathis.
Christmas is like that for me. At one moment as loud and boisterous as any human can be, followed by hushed contemplation.
Christmases at my Grandpa D’s house in Des Moines, Iowa were filled with a constant human hum. From the moment we would walk in the door, Grandma D or Aunt Kay would shriek with joy at the sight of my parents, two brothers and me. There would be much hugging and kissing, followed immediately by wiping off Grandma’s bright red lipstick. My folks would split off and head to grownup-land in the living room or the kitchen while the kids peeled away and headed straight for the basement where our cousins were jumping, running, and yelling merrily. There were games of Candyland, Monopoly, or Trouble.
After some time, I would mingle upstairs to deliver and receive more hugs. The women were generally congregated in the kitchen where a radio playing Christmas music would serve as a soundtrack to the chorus of pots, pans, plates and glasses which were the prelude to the symphony of aromas of roast turkey and ham, potatoes; sweet and mashed, corn and green bean casserole. My aunt’s would take time from their cooking to remark how big I was getting to be and ask how I was doing in school.
From there, I would wander to the living room where the Christmas tree would be brightly decorated with those big colored lights, tinsel and glass ornaments, and a football game on Grandpa’s brand new color TV underscored the men talking over the affairs of the day or how my grandpa didn’t think much of my Aunt Kay’s new boyfriend. After all, Grandpa was a Marine and my future uncle was a sailor. Again I heard the comments of amazement of how big I’d grown or be asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. (I think I wanted to be a radio announcer even then.)
It wouldn’t be long before the banquet was served when the talking would stop just long enough for a blessing to be said over the meal. Not more than a second passed after a rousing, “Amen,” before the din of familiar voices and the percussion of forks and knives against Grandma’s best china was raised again.
Only after our bellies were filled would that joyful noise be replaced by that of sweetest of sounds, children giggling as we tore the wrapping paper from our presents; youngest to oldest. The Grinch would have hated our celebration for all the “Noise! Noise! Noise!” But then again, the Grinch didn’t yet understand that all that noise was the sound of love and gratitude.
Then, all too quickly, as soon as the dishes were washed and put away, the happy sounds of a family well gathered would slowly be silenced as the various Aunts and Uncles would pack their families and all their new belongings into their cars for their separate journeys home leaving Grandpa and Grandma alone in what I can only imagine was a wondrous, amazing, peaceful hush. A hush which I would experience on the drive home through the snow, listening to the windshield wipers of my father’s ’68 Plymouth Fury slap a soft rhythm to the Harry Simone Chorale and “The Little Drummer Boy” as I slowly drifted off to sleep upon the shoulder of my already slumbering little brother.
Even as a boy of 6, I appreciated the opposite stillness which only Christmas seems to bring. It’s a reverent calm which I would experience as a young man-child of 17, when my father allowed me to share a glass of wine with him late one cold Christmas Eve. While my mother and brothers, two dogs and two cats slept, Dad and I sat silently in the living room lit only by the twinkling of the tree. We looked out the picture window over a light snow falling on our neighbor’s yard. We said not a word to each other but in our silence spoke volumes.
Many nights, but always on Christmas Eve, I kneel by my children’s beds to look at their sleeping faces; faces which are innocent and untroubled. I stroke their hair, kiss their cheeks, smile and quietly shed a grateful tear for them and for the babe found by lowly shepherds lying in a manger.
This Christmas Day, I will sing a Christmas song. It will be song of happiness and joy and I will sing it as loud as my lungs will allow. Then, I will kneel, offer a prayer and I will sing a slow, hopeful song of peace. I invite you to join me. Perfect pitch not required. Only a willingness to let your heart and soul be your voice.