As one ages, even in the Christmas season – with a tendency to exhibit a prickly demeanor – he stands awed by the rapidity of the period. The pace picks up year after year.
When I attempt to adjust to this reality, the old Marx Brothers film, Animal Crackers (1936), comes to mind. There, Groucho Marks sings his famous in-and-out ditty: ”Hello, I must be going, I cannot stay, I’m glad I came, but just the same, I must be going.” Another Christmas passes.
This 2017 holiday season is so different, with its tawdry headlines, when compared to one remembered in 1943. This could have been the year when Christmas music (most of a religious, classical nature) was complicated and inundated with new pop creations.
Christmas, 1943 was complicated for little guys like me. There was Spike Jones & His City Slickers hit, “Der Fueher’s Face”….it was a parody of the Nazi anthem, accompanied with real Bronx cheers. The other pop hit was “White Christmas” sung by the groaner, Bing Crosby – otherwise known as Der Bingle – a nickname created by the Germans. So we had the City Slickers vs Der Bingle that 1943 Christmas time. Not surprisingly Crosby prevailed.
In those early years of mine, my grandparents owned the Customs House overlooking the Rappahannock River and high above the Riverside Hotel across Prince Street, Tappahannock, VA. In those days the Hotel was a beehive of seasonal activity; it was frantic with planned Christmas parties and dinner gatherings – all sharing the festive new contemporary Christmas music. No O come, all ye faithful; Joyful and triumphant there. That was when we were introduced to one Irving Berlin (Israel Baline) and his “White Christmas – a runaway smash hit for World War II holidays, becoming the best-selling record of all time.
Remember, American families were separated by war, distant work, and worried to death about the war’s end. Irving Berlin shared: “Songs make history, and history make songs.” In our river-world we did not long for Christmas snowfalls – we knew them as “snowstorms.” But those careful lyrics were particularly influential on Northeasterner, now uprooted to the non-seasonal, snowless West Coast.
Philip Furia brought huge insight to what was a seamlessly sentimental song – verging on melancholy Christmas celebrations; with vast separations Furia points out how different the structure the song became: “I’m”…with a whole note, then racing over the other syllables before the next whole note “w-h-i-t-e”, Christmas. Simultaneously, lecturer Rob Kapilow notes that the minor chords for “listen” and “glisten” border on simple heart break, and sadness.
I remember thinking exactly that as we sang it in the Douglas Freeman HS Glee Club so long ago. It has been reported that Berlin got his inspiration in his Brooklyn Jewish youth experience, as that of an outsider. Others surmise that loss of an infant son, Irving, Jr., on Christmas Eve, 1928, brought an edge to his sadness. We lost an infant son in 1966; it remains with us until this day.
“White Christmas”, the song benefited with the invention of the “disc jockey” allowing the 78 record to be played endlessly both on radio, and jukeboxes. So it was.
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Christmas at my grandparents’ home passed nicely. Big fireplace fires brought security and warmth from the cold winds off the Rappahannock River. The tree was decorated with dancing lights – if one blew, all lights failed. It was testimony of one’s limitations when figuring out which festive bulb bummed out. Chasing dead Christmas lights sometimes consumed hours, becoming part of our holiday ritual. That year, we added “White Christmas” to our holiday inventory.
In Tappahannock, In 1943, I can still hear the melodies stream from the Riverside Hotel, across Prince Street, up the bank to that grandparent’s home of long ago – intuitively knowing it was special then….and probably forever.
Is it really Christmas, 2017?