Outside, it’s cold. Frigid, the way December nights can be in northern New England. Wind is prowling round our house, searching for a way in, howling when it fails. Every so often when it tries to force its way down the chimney, a little puff of bluish-white smoke escapes from the wood stove at the far end of the living room. The sweet, sharp smoke intermingles with the fresh, fragrant evergreen we just brought in from the garage.
Our Christmas tree.
My mom and I stand back to admire it. “It’s a chubster,” my mom says, smiling. She isn’t fooling; it is a chubster, full and round and stout. A fraiser fir, with compact blue-green needles, dense plumage, and a perfect profile. Fraisers may not be as aromatic as balsams, but they hold their needles a whole lot longer, and with the wood stove cranked, cooking all moisture from the air, the tree has an uphill climb if it hopes to make it to New Year’s.
It’s about time to start decorating, to begin the slow, sentimental process of unpacking each ornament, of looking it over, laughing, and saying, “I forgot about this one!” or “God this one’s ugly!” or “That’s my sled!” (anyone born in the 70’s or 80’s will know that I’m not talking about Rosebud), but before we begin, we need music.
The record player in the corner is dusty with disuse. A meager library of LP’s is stacked on the floor beneath it, and I crouch down to flip through them, searching for the bright red jacket of The Boston Camerata’s Sing We Noel.
Now, I didn’t grow up listening to Bing Crosby and Brenda Lee, to standards like White Christmas and Let it Snow and Little Drummer Boy. I grew up on old music, on ancient carols like Gloucestershire Wassail, Coventry Carol, and Ad cantus leticie. This music was written and first performed as early as the twelve, thirteen, fourteen hundreds, and when the Camerata recorded it in 1978 (the year I was born, coincidentally), I doubt they knew that forever after, it would be for me synonymous with Christmas, with tree-trimming and family and joy. In my house, it was the holiday soundtrack.
I slide the record from its sleeve and carefully position it on the turntable. I start it spinning and, with the concentration of a brain surgeon, drop the needle down right at the record’s edge. For a few seconds, there’s just the soft, hissing crackle of dead air. Then fourteen bright, rich voices pour from the speakers, instantly transporting me to some immense, medieval cathedral where God himself is leading the ensemble. Majestic, it is.
Mom and I set to work, hanging our ornaments, pretending not to notice the faint, musty smell that clings to them, a product of their eleven-month hibernation in the cellar. (It’s all part of the experience.) We sing along with the Camerata when we know the words, hum when we don’t. We smile because the music is like a warm embrace from a dear friend we haven’t seen in far too long.
Finally, the icicles, glass bulbs, and Santas hung just so and our star perched atop the highest bough, we turn down the lights, turn up the music, and stand back to ooh and aah. It’s a real beauty this year, we agree. Maybe the best ever…
Things have changed now. I live in Chicago and my mom and I haven’t decorated a frasier together in ten years, at least. I’m still home for Christmas every year (I’m finishing this post in my childhood bedroom), but our tradition of trimming the tree together has fallen by the wayside. I miss it.
Three weeks ago while my wife, Marta, and I decorated our table-top tree in Chicago, I streamed Sing We Noel from my iPod. I sung along when I knew the words, hummed when I didn’t. Marta’s even learned some of the melodies by now, and when we stand back to ooh and aah at our own little tree, I feel the same giddy joy I remember as a boy. The music brings me right back, just like it always will, and I smile, knowing that this tradition will live on.