Christmas is a little tougher and a little sadder this year following the loss of my mother two months ago, but I’m also enjoying some nostalgia I’ve recently uncovered. This was unequivocally her time of year, and that meant it was our time of year. She made the entire season a wonder and a joy. Some of my favorite memories are of sitting in the living room with her and my grandmother after the sun had gone down, with all the lights out save the Christmas tree, a few candles, and an illuminated snowman village, just staring at those few lights while listening to Christmas music.
That was sublime, and in recent years, I’ve remembered some of the albums we used to listen to. Mom and Nanny preferred the more somber, traditional carols, but I and some of the other siblings enjoyed the Caroleers. Does anyone else remember these folks? They recorded several Christmas albums in the 60s and 70s, and Mom naturally had picked up all of them for her many kids over the years.
I remembered four of them: Sleigh Ride/Jingle Bells; Santa Claus is Coming to Town; Frosty the Snowman; and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. They included classics plus original compositions like Christmas Mountain; 10 Thousand Santa Clauses (But Not One Gift for Me); Who’s That Up on the Roof?; A Ride on Santa’s Sleigh; The Christmas Tree That Ran Away; Gonna Hang up my Stocking and Fill it Full of Dreams; The Weatherman’s Christmas Prayer; The Day Before the Night Before Christmas; Sleigh Ride/Jingle Bells; Mama Santa’s Surprise; There’s a Hole in My Christmas Stocking; The Little Elf; and Icicles, Holly, Red Berries, and Snow.
If any of those titles spark a memory, then you probably knew the same joy I did. Granted, you didn’t have “The Radio,” so your joy might not have been quite as complete. This was a large piece of what looked like antique furniture that sat in our living room, although, I recently found out from my dad that he and Mom had bought in in the early 50s, so it was only about 20 years old when I first started to really regard it.
The Radio was an old GE entertainment unit that looked like a cabinet, with two small side-by-side doors on top, and two larger side-by-side doors on bottom.
The top right door opened to the actual radio, one old enough to have two FM bands as well as AM and shortwave, and two FM bands, along with the controls for audio source and volume.
The top left door was actually a drawer, which housed a turntable old enough to have four speeds: 33 1/3; 45; 78; and the already-forgotten-at-that-time 16 2/3 rpm. It also had a record changer, and I used to love stacking all four Caroleers LP records on it and watching it drop each new one after the previous one had finished playing.
The bottom left door opened to an LP record storage compartment, which was packed so tightly that I could barely yank out whatever record I wanted to play at the time. But I managed, and it was always worth the effort.
The bottom right door was a faux door. It housed the unit’s one and only speaker behind it — no stereo here, thank you very much — and of course it couldn’t be opened. That didn’t stop me from trying to open it time and again as a very young child, or from fantasizing about what was hidden behind it when I couldn’t get it open.
That was The Radio, and it was glorious. We would stack the Christmas records up and listen to them all night long, every night. Those were usually the times reserved for Mom’s and Nanny’s favorites, but as I intimated, the kids managed to sneak in a Caroleers album from time to time. Otherwise, the weekends were reserved for the kids’ favorites; I spent many pre-Christmas Saturday afternoons sitting in front of The Radio, listening to the Caroleers sing while I stared at the artwork on their album covers and wondered things like, Is “the day before the night before Christmas” December 23rd, or is it actually the daylight hours of December 24th?
Their songs were saccharin and goofy, but they resonated with kids. Any adult listening to one without the benefit of a nostalgic connection to them, would write them off as silly kids’ music. But those of us who grew up with them? We can still appreciate them. (I wonder if my kids will one day feel that way about The Wiggles.)
For years, I searched for CDs of those old Diplomat records, but never found anything. The old vinyl ones from my childhood are either lost or scratched beyond the ability to produce a sound worth converting to digital, so I looked in vain for replacements. Early last January, I discovered that someone, somewhere, had been able to salvage some of the songs from their old copies — there were some for sale on iTunes! I immediately downloaded them with a gift card I’d received for Christmas, organized them into a playlist, and looked forward to listening to them this Christmas season. Then I forgot about them.
In October, I spent two weeks in Virginia — the first one waiting at my ailing mother’s bedside with my dad and siblings, the second one planning, holding, and recovering from her funeral. That’s a story for another day, but after I returned home to my family, I spent a bit of time just going through the motions of daily life.
I wasn’t looking forward to the holidays, but one post-Thanksgiving day during my commute, I thought I’d give some Christmas music a try, and I pulled up the multiple Christmas playlists I’ve created over the years. Lo and behold, there was one called “Christmas Caroleers,” and the memories came back in a deluge. So did the tears once I started it, and the songs sent me from I-40 to my parents’ old living room floor. Here were many of my old friends, reminding me of my childhood, my mother, and the joy she and her children shared every December.
I’ve since listened to that playlist more than a grown man should, and I’ve played it for my sons. It’s a little young for the 14-year-old, but the 10-year-old has developed enough of an appreciation for The Caroleers to request certain songs by name when he’s riding in my car. That’s been another joy — passing the appreciation on to a new generation. He might not have The Radio or the LP covers to stare at raptly, but he has the music. Maybe one day, years from now, he’ll suddenly have a desire to listen to some of those old songs he used to listen to with Dad, and he’ll wonder if they exist in whatever format music has taken by then. I hope he finds them, and I hope they bring him as much joy as they’ve brought to me.
And maybe he’ll be able to finally answer the question: When, exactly, is the day before the night before Christmas?