Saturday, December 10, 2011

Tis The Season... For Memories

This past week marked the anniversary of my mother's birthday and as always, it is a time of the year when my daily thoughts are flooded with memories of her. Not just because December was her birth month, but also because of the Christmas Season and her all-out love for everything about Christmas. My mom embodied the spirit of Christmas, and she didn't just enjoy the season, she embraced it year round. Mom's Advent Calendar wasn't merely a month of anticipation. No, not at all, her preparations for Christmas took place during the entire year. This all probably accounts for why Christmas is such a special time of the year for me.

It is only natural that I am a complete romantic when it comes to Christmas music. I flat out love it, all types, not just the classics from Bing, Andy Williams, Perry Como and Nat King Cole but also some of the contemporary tunes that seem to hit the charts annually. I presume that my affinity for the music finds it roots in the music's ability to trigger many great and magical memories from my childhood Christmas times. Even though I have thousands of generalized memories of Christmas' past and nearly every holiday tune I hear on the radio reminds me of "that year when..." there are two Christmas songs that are different for me, much different in fact. No they aren't iconic melodies like White Christmas or Silent Night, they aren't songs that I learned by heart in grade school either. These two songs represent to me exactly what novelist; Emily Giffin was talking about in her novel Something Borrowed : "songs and smells will bring you back to a moment in time more than anything else. It's amazing how much can be conjured with a few notes or a solitary whiff of a room." I am not talking about being reminded of a period in your life, nor is it merely about nostalgia or pining for days gone by. I am talking about a moment when you are actually transported through time momentarily to a place and time where you heard this song years before. An experience that conjures feelings which are as real and concrete as that day years ago, a vivid recall of an event, the people, the place and the occasion. It is a transformative feeling and then as spontaneously as it occurs, it exits, leaving you with an extreme feeling of happiness and appreciation for the past. Scientists who study memory refer to the phenomenon as "autobiographical memory" or a memory system consiting of episodes recollected from ones past, based upon a combination of personal experiences, objects, places, events, and people as well as their general knowledge base of facts surrounding the memory.

The first song that prompts this memory for me is Feliz Navidad, the original version by Jose Feliciani. I know, it's quite cheesy but let me explain. The year was 1970 and I was 8 years old and in the third grade. This was a time before 24-hour cable news and really before the proliferation of FM radio. Radio stations did not dedicate an entire six weeks of programming to Christmas music, but the pop stations would mix newly released novelty Christmas songs into their limited playlist. One of the songs being played on the radio in the weeks leading up to Christmas was Feliz Navidad. It was catchy, a song that you could sing along with and for the most part have no earthly idea what the heck you were singing, until the chorus when you would blare out, "I wanna wish you a Merry Christmas..." My transformational experience of autobiographical memory with this song places me in my darkened bedroom, dimly lit by the soft but all so familiar glow of the blue Christmas lights hung outside of my bedroom window. I am lying in bed listening to the local AM radio station on my transistor radio. I am way too excited to go to sleep, you see, it is Christmas Eve Eve. I desire to fall asleep because when I wake up it will be Christmas Eve morning, the second most exciting day of the year, and the LONGEST day in history. As the chorus of the song nears, I can feel myself ready to bust out of my skin with anticipation. Then, it is gone, the vivid recollection that is, I still have a warm memory but for a couple of seconds, that seemed like several minutes I realize that indeed, I was there, if but for a moment I was back in my twin bed eagerly awaiting the arrival of Christmas.

The other song that has the ability to transport me into the past, is a compilation produced by some of the most popular British Pop Stars of the day. Musically speaking, the song was ground-breaking in many aspects. The super group of stars called themselves Bandaid and their cause was famine relief in Ethiopia. The song became number one on the charts that year, 1984. Who could ever forget Boy George crooning, "and in our world of plenty, we can spread a smile of joy," or the rough and commanding vocals of Irish superstar Bono as he urges, "well tonight thank God it's them instead of you." The backbeat is compliments of Phil Collins, drummer from the band Genesis, the video of the song was a made for MTV success and the result was a contemporary holiday blockbuster.

This song, like Feliz Navidad, has taken me out of the present to a Christmas past as well. This time, it is December 6, 1984. I had just completed my final class at West Virginia University School of Pharmacy and all that stood between me and my degree was final exams. That afternoon after class I hurried back to my apartment, loaded the last few boxes into my Ford Escort, locked the door and turned my keys in at the office, marking the end of a chapter in my young life. I made the drive to my parent's house, where I would be living for 3 weeks before moving out again to begin my first job as a pharmacist. I was excited to be going home for Christmas, but I was also somewhat melancholy about leaving the carefree college lifestyle behind. Arriving at home, I was greeted by my father, who was all smiles and I heard my mom yell from the kitchen, "welcome home." After unpacking the car I joined my dad at the kitchen table, the nerve center of this Christmas house. Dad was working a crossword puzzle, one of his favorite pastimes and of course, mom was busy with a batch of her famous peanut butter fudge. The kitchen smelled sweet and heavenly, the house was warm, too warm indeed, but it was home, it was comfortable. The collection of Christmas cards received were hung perfectly along the door frame leading from the kitchen into the living room. The entire house, inside and out, was all decked out for Christmas. This house, this refuge was never as completely a home as it was during Christmas time. The small stereo that resided under the kitchen cabinets on the countertop was tuned to WFGM, the local FM radio station and the now familiar bells introducing the hot new Christmas song, "Do They Know It's Christmas," began to ring out from the speakers. I don't think that it was the song so much as the intense feeling of relief knowing that I had completed a phase of my life preparing me for my professional life and adulthood, but as I sat there reflecting on the lyrics of the song, the comfort of being home for the holidays overtook me and I was totally immersed in holiday cheer. It was comfortable, it felt right, I was in a good place. No, I was in a perfect place. That feeling, that day, that experience was and remains quintessentially Christmas to me.

Since that day I have received blessings in my life to numerous to inventory within this piece. I have said goodbye to both of mom and dad and now I live hundreds of miles from my boyhood home, here in The Land of Palm Trees. Several decorations inherited from my parents adorn the shelves and walls of my home now to remind me of those special holidays of my younger days. But occasionally, I will hear the combined voices of Bandaid and if but for a short time I am back at that kitchen table full of Christmas comfort and the excitement of things to come, still singing, "It's Christmas time, there's no need to be afraid."


  1. Tis the season for all manner of foods, cookies, cakes, pies and feasts. So where are the scrumptious photos of golden brown turkey, corn pie, macoroni and cheese, garden vegetables along with pecan pie, shoo fly pie, whipped cream cake? Where are your taste buds? Where are your delicately color coordinated meals? Are you in the dog house subsisting on bread and water? Where are those pictures? Where are the mouth watering descriptions of edibles in the season of feasts? Or have you become Scrooge, bahing and humbugging? Well, wake up! It's a new day. Lean out that second story window and tell that urchin in the street to go to the butcher's and buy that fat goose in the window. Get the Cratchett family to set that table. Get a move on and warm up that computer to revel us with tales concocted during the act of wassailing. Hurry the season is whizzing by.


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