(The following was my Undercurrents column for December 2, 2007.)
Music is a marvelous timetravel device. In a few notes, it can transport you to a specific place and era, resurrect all the minute sensory data you thought you’d forgotten and evoke the emotions related to those old memories. Christmas music seems especially effective for conjuring specific moments in life. These are the songs and the singers that take me back:
Gene Autry singing “Rudolph,” “Up on the Housetop,” or “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Suddenly, I’m 4 or 5, and we live in a little wooden house in Century. Santa brings me
Matt Mason astronaut toys, Hot Wheels and a cowboy dress-up set. There’s a gas heater in the living room and “Lassie” on the TV.
Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” I’m at Grandma Massey’s house, 5 or 6 years old. I get a Batman play set, and I’m on the carpet with Uncle Joe, who’s playing the role of the villains attacking the Batcave. There’s a scent of evergreen and cakes. Later, I see the TV reports about Santa being tracked by NORAD.
The Ray Conniff Singers. A staple of holiday music throughout my life, hearing them makes me think of baking and decorating sugar cookies with my mom and sister. We’re not yet teens. Mom has a sugar-frosting recipe like no one else.
Just about any of the Carpenters’ Christmas songs. Hear them again and I’m newly married, and we live in a two-room cottage in Gainesville. It’s a cold winter. We use the stove to warm the place each morning because we have no heat. No money either, so we spend the weeks prior to Christmas window shopping for each other and listening to the few cassette tapes we have, including “Christmas Portrait.”
The Partridge Family singing “My Christmas Card to You.” I’m 6 or 7, and I think Joe gave me this record. I join the Partridge Family fan club, using a card that came with the album. I like zipper-front shirts and think Bobby Sherman is cooler than David Cassidy. I have a Bobby Sherman lunch box, which will be replaced by a UFO lunchbox next year.
These days, I play this on CD. It irritates my daughter, or at least she claims it does. But I’ve also caught her singing, “To you and all your family, your neighbors and your friends …,” and I wonder what she will recall when she hears certain songs in Christmastimes to come.