The Christmas Carols

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.


Story Time

Saturday morning while I was having my coffee, I sat in my bed and surfed the television channels.  There were the usual infomercials for weight loss and cleaning products, but something different caught my eye.  On the screen were young babies “reading” from flash cards.  The product, of course, was a program designed to teach your child to read before reaching the age of one year.

Certainly, the little moppets look adorable as they demonstrate their ability to recognize a combination of letters, and perform the obligatory trick that accompanies it.  What parent would not shower copious accolades upon a nine-month old who recognizes the card that spells “up” and lifts her pudgy hands into the air?  The baby obviously loves an audience.  Mom and Dad proudly have her perform at parties to the amazement of their friends and family.  Everyone’s happy.

I however, am of the opinion that this is not exactly reading in the sense of decoding words.  It is sight recognition.  Dolphins do it.  And I have to wonder if we are really doing a baby any favor by trying to turn him into an amazing performing wunderkind before he reaches his first birthday.

Besides, why does a baby need to read, anyway? 

Some of my favorite memories are of my mother reading to me.  She would sit on a double bed and all eight of us would nestle around her.  We held our breath through the adventures of the Red Cross Knight, walked the yellow brick road with Dorothy, and mourned the loss of Kay with Gerda, from “The Snow Queen.”  Long after I could read alone, I still loved the sound of my mother’s voice as it transported an adventure from the page to my imagination.  On rare occasions, my father would take his turn at reading aloud.  To this day, whenever I read poems by Robert Louis Stevenson, the scent of Dad’s starched white shirts and the timbre of his tenor voice again carry me to the sea.

We started reading to my children long before they were old enough to walk.  They would crawl to an open lap, a tattered book in tow, begging for a story.

Books became the catalysts for great dramatic performances.  We would sniff pictures of flowers, take imaginary bites from apples and pretend to be stung by bees.  Each character was given a different voice and accent.  We created melodies for lyrical verses, clapping and singing until we were hoarse.  The Pokey Little Puppy and the Little Engine that Could became family members who visited several times a day.

Our children, like most others, eventually learned to read independently.  Still, they loved it when we read to them.  Like baby birds in a nest, they found safety and security while snuggling close together, shutting their eyes and allowing their parents to weave an intricate path through their minds’ eyes.

They loved to cuddle on the couch and listen to “St. George and the Dragon,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and “White Fang.”  Stories such as these sparked their imaginations.  They made crowns and swords out of cardboard and fought unseen dragons.  They camped under blanket forts in the living room and flew to the moon in laundry basket spaceships. Nobody had to suggest imaginative play – they were inspired solely by the words read to them by the people who loved them most. 

It didn’t matter how well we read, or how accurate our translations were.  I can still hear Gabriel’s peals of laughter when I read “Stop, Angus, stop!” with a ridiculous attempt at a Scottish burr, and it didn’t faze Elizabeth that every time we sang a verse of “Jittery Jonah” the melody changed.     

I didn’t realize how impacted the children were by us reading to them until they were teenagers.  One snowy winter night, the power went out, leaving our home dark and cold.  Abby and Elizabeth huddled together under a blanket to keep warm, a kerosene lantern by the couch.  I could hear their voices punctuated by giggles from the front steps, where I was trying to heat soup over a propane burner.  When I entered the house, I realized they were reading “Hamlet” aloud, assigning different voices and accents to each character.  It was a dramatic performance that would have made Shakespeare himself belly laugh.  While I listened from the kitchen, the kerosene lamp glowed a little brighter, the room a little warmer.

In the end, teaching your tyke to read is probably not harmful at all.  I think its real value is in the one-on-one time spent between the baby and the parent.  But for my money, the time is better spent scooping your baby up in your arms, hugging him close and diving into the story together.  He may not wow people at your next party, but sharing the adventure of the story will be worth it all.

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