Tag Archives: Christmas

Christmas Holiday Blog, 2016

Merry Christmas!

I hope you enjoy the images of Christmases long ago scattered within this post. If you keep reading, you’ll learn more about them!
Part I

A friend of mine recently asked me what traditions my family followed for Christmas. I was hard pressed to come up with anything terribly specific or interesting. We don’t consistently eat anything special on Christmas Eve, and since my parents, and then my wife and I, have all been church musicians, most Christmas Eves (and sometimes Christmas Day itself) have been working holidays. I guess I can safely say that music more than anything else connects me to a sense of Christmases past.

I’m not especially troubled that highly complex or richly textured “traditions” have not accumulated around my personal celebration or experience of Christmas. Many of the “traditions” embedded in the general nostalgic patina of this holiday—and enshrined on keep-sake chinaware and holiday cards (which—guilty!—I also like to send) were relatively new, even in the early twentieth century, given the millennia that Christians have been observing this holiday.

Nevertheless, I would say that as a child, my favorite parts of Christmas were setting up the nativity sets in our house and listening to an old LP my father had of a dramatic reading of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. That story remains an important part of my personal sense of tradition around the Christmas holiday, as does the carol, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” which I first heard on that LP. And I loved traveling to Fulton, New York, on Christmas to spend the day with my cousins, or having them come to Syracuse to visit us. Those Christmases with my cousins are important memories, if not exactly “traditions.” And it meant a lot to me recently when my daughter Madison asked me if this year she was going to hear me practice a piano rondo that I composed on Christmas carols. That piece of mine has apparently become part of her sense of the holiday, even though I only composed it five years ago. Well, I suppose traditions have to start somewhere!

Part II

I have always been fascinated by my family history, as my father was before me. A few weeks ago, I dug into a box of old family cards and letters that my father had saved from my Grandmother Pelkey’s estate. Lyma May (Strong) Pelkey would have been 111 years old this Christmas! Imagine my surprise to find one-hundred-year-old postcards that Lyma had carefully preserved in that box! I also discovered that my grandma was named “Lima” at birth, and not “Lyma”!

(This is the earliest dated postcard in the collection: 1908 according to the postal cancellation stamp.)

As a historian, I was fascinated by the postcards not just because of their age and because they physically linked me to a long-gone age (several cards pre-date the beginning of World War I), but also because they showed me that even in the 1910s, there was a nostalgic quality to the Christmas iconography that my own Grandmother Pelkey (that is, Lima Strong) experienced as a little girl in Willsboro, New York.

(Postcards from 1912 and 1915 according to dates on their backs.)

And it may be that this is the strongest “tradition” that links together most fully all of us citizens of Christmases past and Christmas present: we are all bathed in the warm light of nostalgia. No matter how far back we push, we never reach the “golden age” of Christmas “long, long ago”.

(A postcard from 1914 — the first Christmas of World War I.)

Part III

But you know what: That’s perfectly OK! There’s nothing inherently wrong with nostalgia, at least in small doses now and then. But what I need to keep reminding myself is that “peace on earth, goodwill to all human kind” will not be found someday, “long, long ago.” The path to peace and goodwill is before us, and it is paved by the large and small decisions that each of us will have to make in 2017, 2018, 2019….

I really do want to live the promise of Christmas, the promise made possible by Emmanuel. So I am readying myself for a new commitment to gift giving—but not just gifts wrapped up in paper and tied with bows. I mean daily gifts of love, joy, peace, patience, each offered to those around me and to myself when I (inevitably) will fail.

Will you join me?

Will you help to hold me accountable?

There have been too many “bah, humbug” moments on the path behind me—perhaps you feel the same way? I really don’t want to go back, nor turn back.

I’m ready for a lot more “God bless us, every one!” going forward.

Come on! Let’s go! Let’s make it happen!

(And if you need a soundtrack to help launch your journey, come back on December 24 for my Christmas Eve music podcast!)


December 23, 2016

(An undated postcard from the same collection of a little girl ice skating; the image already seems dream-like, nostalgic.) 

This is not a Christmas postcard, but it was among the postcards my Grandmother saved from her childhood. Grandma Pelkey was a snazzy dresser — that’s one of the things I remember most clearly about her. I can only imagine the impression an image like this may have made on her when she was about ten–after all, she saved two such cards, and they are the only duplicates in her collection.     SCP

Family Reflections at Christmas

Any moment now, my son, Nate, will walk through the door, home for his first extended winter break in College. It seemed appropriate, then, to post this short reflection.

Several days ago, I was reading a letter that my Mom wrote to Heidi and me for our anniversary. It contained a beautiful reflection about my Dad and my son. Back when Nate was less than 2 years old, Dad would spend an afternoon or two in our home in Pittsford, New York, with Nate so that I could go into Eastman to do some research for my dissertation. In very early spring 1999, Nate slid off the guest bed one day and landed on a toy truck or car in just the “right” way that his leg slid out from under him, and he fell and broke his leg —  on the very night before I left town for a job interview!

I want to share this story for two reasons. First, it is precious and sweet and life affirming at a time when I think we all need those reminders of the good things in the world and the good times in our lives. This is the season of pilgrims’ stars and lighted candles; let’s remember that the darkness cannot beat us when we are agents Faith, Hope, and Love.

Second, I’ve been enjoying seeing pictures of former students now raising their own families; some are even enjoying their first Christmases this December! I want you all to know how wonderful it is to see you so happy. Enjoy these times! Make the most of them! They go by quickly. I can remember Nate’s first Christmas like it was yesterday; now we’re anticipating his first Christmas home from college.

My Mom writes: “This morning [December 4, 2015] I browsed through 3 ‘composition’ books in which Dad wrote sermons as well as papers (reflective) for [his M.Div. degree]. Later I typed his papers but he always wrote everything in long hand first. I found a section where he told about taking care of Nathan in Pittsford. One morning when Dad arrived Nate was fussy. He had recently had the cast removed from his leg. But he held up his arms for Dad to take him. Dad wrote that Nate snuggled against his chest and shoulder for a good 5 minutes. Dad could feel Nate’s little heart beating and surmised that Nate could feel Dad’s heart beating. Even though I must have typed this paper, I didn’t recall the incident nor the impact it made on Dad. I am keeping those notebooks.”

Dear Readers: Hold your loved ones, your friends, and your neighbors close! And may Peace abound.

December 17, 2015

December 2015 Music: It’s Beginning to Sound a Lot Like Christmas

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

Ok, so it’s really not… at least not for this boy from the North who is now living in the South. But to be honest, I really do not miss the snow, and I am acclimating to the vision of Christmas lights coexisting with palm trees. I cannot lie: walking around the campus of Florida State University for an evening concert on December 1 with temperatures in the low 70s is marvelous. This is why I moved to Florida… well, it’s one of the reasons.

It’s beginning to SOUND a lot like Christmas!

That’s true.

I’ve “broken out” my Christmas-time iTunes play lists.

So those who know me well know I am a rather eclectic music listener, and my Christmas play lists are no different. Yes, there are some very tasteful choral arrangements of traditional carols, but when I am working in December and want some fun Christmas music in the background, here are some of my favorite go-to-pieces from across several genres:

Selections from Michael W. Smith’s “The Ultimate Christmas Collection.”

Duke Ellington’s suite on selections from The Nutcracker.

Dan Gibson’s “Christmas in the Country” (Don’t judge! I have had a soft spot in my heart for New Age music since I bought my first stereo system in the mid 1980s!)

And favorite selections from a collection of Christmas songs and carols performed by popular artists from the 1940s and 1950s, including a fun version of “Ding Dong Merrily on High” by the Mantovani Orchestra, and Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters on “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

If it is December, it means it is also time for the ever-popular PRISM concert at the College of Music at Florida State University. Tonight’s opening evening performance was outstanding. As you see and hear the sound of a mass of trombones or saxophones or even bassoons in the aisles and balconies of Ruby Diamond Concert Hall, you are made fully aware of the incredible musical benefit of being in a university town with such a large music unit and with such a “deep bench” of players in every studio. That, friends, is another reason I moved to Florida. The musical resources of Florida State University are simply second to none.

I particular loved the Percussion Ensemble’s “Marimba Spiritual” (Miki), the Clarinet Studio’s delightful “Molly on the Shore” (Grainger), and the Bassoon Studio’s “She Loves Me.” The University Concert Band’s “Festivo” (Gregson) was also one of my favorites.

And of course, with the next Star Wars movie set to open in just a few weeks, there have been numerous renditions of Star War cues on various band programs at FSU over the past few weeks. Tonight, the University Wind Orchestra offered “Princess Leia” and “Parade of Ewoks” (both very well played!), the University Symphonic Band reprised its stellar performance of “Star Wars / Main Title” that was also showcased last week on the Band’s final fall concert, and the Marching Chiefs themselves gave a rousing, full-force rendition of “Cantina Band” before concluding tonight’s PRISM concert with “Hymn to the Garnet and the Gold.”

December always reminds me of the emotional power of traditions and rituals and of their therapeutic potential for our mental well-being. I have always loved Christmas trees blazing in a darkened living room. There is something very peaceful about such an experience. I am sure that today, nostalgia for my childhood layers even more meaning on such Christmas-tree moments. After all, as a child, I’d try to squeeze myself under our Christmas tree to look at the lights from below or to snooze in the peaceful down pouring of colored light or to read in the warmth of the hazy reds and blues.

At tonight’s PRISM concert, I was also reminded of the deep value of the traditions and rituals that accumulate around collective music making, such as those that adhere to a marching band program or to an instrumental studio at a vibrant school of music. I appreciated the joy of being part of those rituals tonight, even if only as an outsider invited to look in, or better yet, as an outsider invited to become enmeshed—physically—by the powerful presence of musicians and their music surrounding us on all sides.

These experiences are just like opening up those Christmas-time-only play lists. It’s not that my Christmas play lists are filled with particularly great music (“as music”). It’s that the play lists are filled with familiar pieces that help me to refocus and reground myself each December. And I’ve needed such a recurring role of seasonal music in my life ever since I was five or six and first listened to an LP recording of Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” that my father owned. I would listen and re-listen to that LP, in no small part because as I child I fell in love with a choral rendition of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” that was featured on that LP. For years afterwards, I had to listen and listen again to that LP every Christmas season. It is not surprising, then, that “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” remains my favorite carol to this day, and I will look forward to playing my favorite arrangement of it on the piano sometime this month.

“And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!”

My hope, dear readers, is that your December is filled with the life-giving joy of music and the life-rewarding experience of friends and loved ones drawn near to you by the holidays.