When I was a girl, my mother had a song book of Christmas carols. Every year around this time, we would pull it out and beg her to play the songs within its worn pages. The book was filled with illustrations, mostly of angelic children with bright red cheeks and ruby lips, and its edges were gilded in gold. My mother would pound out the melodies on our worn upright piano, while we children jostled for a spot close enough to read the words and look at the pictures. Mom would bravely work her way through the book of carols, while we elbowed each other, each trying to sit next to her on the piano bench, each trying to find our favorite carol. Playing with one hand and swatting at my dueling brothers with the other, Mom would deliberately play her way through the book, the older kids singing, the middle ones pushing each other, the little ones crying because they were left out
When Mom was too busy to play piano, my sister Robin and I would sit together on the couch, turning the pages of the book, choosing which of the illustrated children we wanted to be. We would take turns- hoping to be the first to pick the angel proclaiming “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” or the child stepping in the footsteps of “Good King Wenceslas” as he trudged through the snowy wood. Robin resembled the cherubs in the illustrations, with her huge round eyes and fair skin, and because she was much smarter than I, had figured out how to time her turn to choose the favorite picture, time after time. I never really minded, though. Somehow, sharing a game with a cuddly little sister on a cold snowy winter provides more comfort than competition. But soon we would tire of the game and beg our mother to play to us from the gilded book.
When I think back to those days, I wonder how we actually sounded. The piano was a cast off, a huge out-of-tune monstrosity. Several of the keys were missing the ivory overlays- their wooden surfaces grinning like so many missing teeth, and a few of the notes failed to play, no matter how hard they were struck. And although the children in Bing Crosby Christmas movies always sang sweetly in tune, I suspect that my mother’s rambunctious brood fell a fair bit short of Hollywood’s cherubic crooners.
Years later, when my children were toddlers, I bought them Kathleen Daly’s “Jingle Bells,” a Little Golden Book about a sleigh full of animals who sing as they travel for a Christmas celebration. As an ostrich climbs into the sleigh, she very loudly sings a verse from the song. As I read to my children, the following line burned in my heart, and is imprinted there still.
“She doesn’t sing very well, but nobody minds, because it is Christmas.”
Immediately I thought back to the scenes in our old dining room. To be sure, we were no competition for the von Trapp family, but this is the way I learned the classic carols, and how I learned to sing harmonies. I always envisioned the melody line to be like my mother- strong, steady and predictable, and the harmonies to be like her many silver children, tripping around her in unexpected dance steps-straying just so far- only to rejoin her at the end of the stanza. Those chaotic choral exercises were the training ground for me to help put myself through college singing in local pubs and coffee houses. But more than that, the memories of singing the carols from that old book are a glowing Christmas gift I enjoy year after year. The memories begin in my heart, bringing warmth and smiles, and tears of joy that spill out like silver and gold harmonies that bring warmth and smiles and tears of joy to others.
And now I understand. How we sounded mattered not at all. We didn’t sing very well, but nobody minded, because it was Christmas.