I have a thousand or so record albums in my basement and a still functioning turntable upstairs in our front room. But there is only one record I ever play on it. It’s simply called Christmas Carols by the Prague Madrigal Singers and features songs from some fourteen European countries. Suspecting I will never find it on CD, I’ve kept my turntable functioning just for this annual ritual of hearing these songs.*
So tonight, the house clean, calm and quiet after the joyous energy of last night’s ritual Caroling Party, I fired up the turntable and out came the familiar voices with the familiar melodies and the familiar accompaniments (including organ and occasional bagpipe). I was transported, lifted back to a world out of time and everything changed in only the way music can change it. This was not a recording from my childhood, but it was from my children’s childhood and each notes carried memories of all those years. Not so much remembering, but actually living in all those moments again. The way music can gather time into one unfolding moment that embraces us and comforts us, an antidote to linear time’s cruelty. In this moment, no one gets old and nothing dies, we are simply here in full presence and the gods are in their heavens and pay no attention to the talking heads on TV, all’s right with the world.
In the face of all the hoo-haa and the ridiculous consumption and people jostling at department stores to get deals and the sickly sweet manufactured Christmas spirit brought to you by…, this is the real deal. I can picture these singers in a snow-filled Prague, the ringing head tones of the sopranos soaring over the organ’s bass pedals lifting spirit up our spines. I can feel the annual renewal of love huddled together to stay warm amidst the snow-white magical world, see the images of a baby offering the promise of a new life, wholly innocent of the millennia of bloodbaths that would follow in his name, for now, just stars beaming down and kings bearing gifts and animals gathered in a lowly manger. It’s a beautiful story and beautiful images, regardless of what ensued. And it’s ours to remember with the simple act of singing—or lifting a needle onto a vinyl disc.
It’s not the usual Christmas for me. Without the grandkids coming down this year, we opted to save a tree, though did bring a live Norfolk pine from our light-well and everyone who sees it marvels at its unique shape. We have lights on it and kept meaning to bring up the ornaments, keep the annual ritual of unpacking things both my wife and I have kept from our childhoods and from our first Christmases together. But we leave in four days to go to Hawaii (with the grandkids!) and it seems less and less likely that we’ll finish decorating the tree.
Last night’s caroling party was lovely, but some of the regulars couldn’t make it and we got rained out from the part where we actually take to the streets. And though I’ve done a few Holiday Sings at school, I’m not there each day to feel the kids’ excitement. All of it was okay with me, even feeling proud that every day was enough Christmas for me all year long that I didn’t need to make special fuss when the calendar tells me to.
But from the first notes of the Prague Madrigal Singers, I realized I did need it and do need it and we all do. Doesn’t have to be Christmas per se, but some touchstone that reminds us of our own shining excitement and innocence and wonder at being alive. It always is a fleeting thing for me, coming in fits and starts and never lingering for too long. But it is enough that it has come.
Thanks to my still-functioning turntable.
* PS After writing the first paragraph, I decided to check to see if against all odds, this old obscure LP had been made into a CD. And lo and behold, there it was!!! I can order it on Amazon from Switzerland and it will arrive in a month! I’ll miss the part where it skips without fail on Deck the Halls, but hey, I think it’s worthwhile. And still I’ll keep my turntable.