Holiday Songs That Always Make Me Cry

The holidays are supposed to be a time for cheer, happiness, partying, peace, good will. While I certainly participate in striving for these, there are certain holiday songs that always make me cry. Considering these, I think it may be that they envision a better type of human, a more empathetic and caring society. Not fashionable these days, I know, but with my schizophrenic personality, half cock-eyed optimist, half gloomy cynic, I’m able to live with the contradiction.

The first isn’t traditional at all. Written by Jerry Herman in the ‘60s, “We Need a Little Christmas” is from the musical Mame. It seems to insist that we stop all this nonsense with wars and greed because “I’ve grown a little leaner, Grown a little colder, Grown a little sadder, Grown a little older.” Certainly true of both me and the world.

The next can be guessed by many, “So This Is Christmas” by John Lennon, also known as “War Is Over” (good luck with that). This song gives all of us a much-needed scolding. “What have we done, Another year over, a new one just begun?” Sad to think Lennon was unable to convey his lesson in time to change his own fate.

Although the subject of “Good King Wencelas” is a saint from about 900 a.d., lyrics were written in 1853 and paired with a 13th century tune. I love the story captured in the song, the miracle of heat in the sod, and the admonition “Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.”

The next probably won’t be familiar. I learned “Masters in this Hall” in the fifth grade from my wonderful singing teacher, who passed along so much history and appreciation of music. Another hybrid of an old French tune and lyrics by Englishman William Morris in 1860, it carries an openly revolutionary message. “Nowell, nowell, nowell, nowell sing we loud! For today our poor folk raised up and cast a-down the proud.”

Even a tune so innocuous it seems simply a paean to the season can carry inspiration for humanity. “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” (note the comma, thus making the statement a command to gentlemen at large, as well as gentlewomen), slips in words of encouragement and counsel. “With true love and brotherhood each other now embrace. . .oh tidings of comfort and joy.” Surely only the most radical in the 1600s as well as intervening years even dreamed of universal brotherhood, although the definitive term may be “gentlemen,” since in those days most people were excluded from the category.

Finally, “Oh, Holy Night.” In addition to its electrifying melody and soaring exhortations, its subtle message of “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn” provides an optimistic message for us to whistle or hum during the holiday season.

There you have it. My personal list of holiday favorites, always sure to tweak my emotions with thoughts of what humans are and what they could be, if only. If you see me driving along the street at this time of year, tears streaming down my face, you can be fairly sure I’m listening to one of my favorite Christmas songs.

My Neighborhood Is Obsessed with Pumpkins, and the Great Pumpkin’s Delighted

For reasons unknown, a fad in my neighborhood during fall and culminating on Halloween is pumpkins. Multiple pumpkins. Large, small, lumpy, smooth, often orange, punctuated with white, green, sage, multi-colored. On my walks I started counting numbers of pumpkins on porches. Very few have only one (I myself have two), and the winner so far is 16.

I don’t know why. Granted I’m in a family-heavy neighborhood where children are cherished and indulged as if they were tiny royals. Also an area with no poverty, whose residents can choose to dispose of their disposable income as they wish. I shouldn’t quibble, indeed, I’m not even sure what “quibbling” is, because I adore seeing the variety and the panache with which the home owners place their harvest bounty. Some stack several orbs on top of one another, some group colors and textures with care. Many set off large pumpkins with several miniature ones. Others combine real produce with the man-made variety. One home with front stairs positioned a pumpkin at the end of each step all the way up to the top. Another, with a short brick retaining wall, marched the produce all along the top, as if presenting the front entry to the world.

Squirrels treat outdoor decorative pumpkins as their personal grocery store. In my old neighborhood, which seemed to have ten squirrels for every resident, a pumpkin was fortunate if it survived overnight on the porch without a gnaw. My new neighborhood has fewer critters. Still last year only a few days passed before the golden fruit (yes, pumpkins are technically fruit) was attacked.

I’ve collected suggestions on squirrel repellents. The silliest one was to place several pumpkins together, as if propitiating the squirrel god by providing one sacrificial sphere. This only drives the critters into an eating frenzy. The defense that seems to succeed is to combine two techniques. I sprayed the pumpkins with hairspray, then sprinkled them with liberal doses of cayenne pepper.

I wonder if the proliferation of decorative pumpkins is another indication of our surfeit of consumerism. Surely no one other than pie makers NEEDS sixteen pumpkins. Still this is one glut I don’t object to. I tell myself we’re helping out the pumpkin farmers as well as delighting children and passersby, then give myself permission to simply enjoy the symbol of harvest bounty. Maybe I’ll dig out the seeds to roast and nibble on. That will justify my permissive attitude.

 

How a Social Movement Became a Norm: Colorado and woman suffrage

Twenty-five years ago in 1993, a group of Colorado women, including me, launched a commemoration of the state’s woman suffrage. Colorado was the first state to institute votes for women, and it was accomplished by a popular vote. In other words, by men voting to endorse the move!

            As I became involved with the project, I learned about the history of women’s political efforts. Seems to me in the West in general, women achieved status and power more easily than back East. Perhaps because the Homestead Act of 1862 allowed single, widowed, divorced, or deserted women to file for property. Perhaps because married women on homesteads and ranches had to assume men’s responsibilities and equal amounts of hard duties to keep the holdings afloat.

            In any case women’s rights came more quickly out here. In Colorado, the movement was helped a great deal by the silver crisis of 1893. Silver was devalued and other economic brouhaha occurred. Then it wasn’t just kindly thoughts on the part of men; it was financial desperation. So much for lofty goals like equality of the sexes.

            Regardless, the history of the women’s movement in the state is fascinating. The personalities, the strengths and weaknesses, the emotions stirred up make an exciting and educational account.

            Each iteration of feminism brings its own perspective, extremists, battles, losses, draws, and wins. Cobble together your own interpretation of what was significant, who was a heroine, who a villain.. However, it’s useful to remember any time members of a group are lumped together as identical, the more scope for errors. In the 70s, women protestors were known as “bra burners” when, in fact, this wasn’t a wide-spread phenomena. The respected rumor-debunker Snopes says, During a demonstration by feminists at the 1968 Miss America pageant, some bras — along with numerous other items — were burned when a trash receptacle was briefly set alight.” This was the only occurrence of the symbolic action.

            Another point: social change doesn’t occur overnight. Years ago, when my children were babies, my husband and I decided that family responsibilities were a benefit as well as a responsibility. We decided to alternate each of our stints at child and house care with employment to support us. This began as a one-year period but quickly extended to two, then five year rotations when we realized no one would hire us for any kind of decent wage if we constantly hopped in and out of jobs.

            The first five years were my assignment. Because a stay-at-home mom wasn’t unusual, no one blinked an eye. However when we rotated, the response changed. Upon learning my husband was trying his hand at writing, one woman congratulated me on letting him be “the creative one,” never acknowledging my struggles at scribbling. Other responses included sly comments about “an alcohol problem,” “lack of job skills,” or just general “no ambition.”

            None were true. The first step for our then-unusual transition was my husband’s. When the kids were very little, one day he offered to let me have an entire day a week to do whatever I wanted while he took care of house and children. I pulled out a piece of paper and toted up the number of hours I normally spent on my chores. When I realized the accumulative time was well over ten hours a day, seven days a week, while he was working eight hours a day, five days a week, I surrendered without a complaint.

            So just as women’s right to vote in Colorado was approved by men, my personal voyage to women’s lib was launched and sustained by a man, my husband.

            Is this often true of social change? It may be. Certainly the prohibition on slavery never would have occurred without the support of some white men. The

realization that children deserved protection from excessive labor and horrid conditions came from adults. If the #MeToo movement bears productive results, it will occur because people of all genders support it and come together in a spirit of good will.

* photo courtesy Denver Public Library Western History Dept.

 

 

Always Time for a Story: Short Story Month Is May

I’ve stumbled across another commemoration of interest to me. I have no idea who names these “official” dates, but they succeed in focusing some public attention on their distinctive topic. This one is Short Story Month, which, in case you don’t know, is May.

A short story is, by definition, fiction. It drives me crazy to hear wanna-be writers describe a work as “a fiction short story.” Don’t need the term “fiction.” Still, better to talk about short stories than not, even with a superfluous word.

Superfluous words are what short stories don’t have. They enable us to read tales about imaginary people, events, locations minus the length of novels or novellas. Why does this appeal? As we become more inundated with electronic media, videos, selfies, instant photos, self-published discourses, and every form of communication ever dreamed of, some of us feel we’re losing control. Our time is not our own.

But short stories abbreviate their length. While writers hate to be limited by rules or even guidelines, short stories are, indeed, shorter than novels. They still have characters, settings, themes, and conflicts. Some have mystery, romance, puzzles. So they have essentially everything a novel can have but in a manageable amount.

I’ve heard of book clubs whose members are so strapped for time, they’ve turned to only reading short stories. The best writers in the world have created short stories. They’re handy to read when you’re traveling and are squeezing in some recreation on a trip. It’s easy to be introduced to a new writer in a short story. Their succinctness has an appeal all its own. Another favorable point: publishers and publications are starting to post free online short stories to encourage readers to sample their wares.

The day when a writer could actually make a living writing short stories is long gone. The market, however, is still strong, if you don’t mind creating for extremely low pay or, even more likely, none. Literary journals are the home for most.

If you’re interested in my short stories, I have links on my website to some you can read.

Take some chunks of time this month to sample new short stories or re-visit old ones. “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce. “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe, the list is fascinating and apparently endless.

CHESTNUTS ROASTING, JACK FROST NIPPING, YULETIDE CAROLS KAZOOING

 

Most families have holiday traditions, enjoyed to a greater or lesser degree depending on the people and paraphernalia involved. These can develop unintentionally. For example one friend’s father-in-law-in-law (meaning he’s her son’s connection, not her own) has established a practice of spending the entire day bad-mouthing and swearing over national Democratic politics. Hardly conducive to pleasant conversations, let alone good will. My father’s was to give my mother a pair of flannel pajamas. Hardly romantic.

Whatever yours includes–midnight church service, caroling, roast beef for dinner instead of turkey, opening one gift on Christmas Eve, decorating with ugly candles passed along from grandmother–the list goes on endlessly. You can get sabotaged by rituals if you allow them to become dictates. One friend was so turned off by her partner’s insistence on perfect decorations that she gave up all holiday signs after she lost him.

For years my family’s tradition was tootling on kazoos. I can’t say enough good things about kazoos. Anyone could play one almost immediately. Even my tone-deaf husband joined in with no embarrassment. Laughter abounded, overflowed, and made our stomachs ache.

Seems to me the birth of the practice was the radio or record player booming after the holiday dinner, and guests began humming and singing along. Lacking a piano, organ, or guitars, I longed for some method to increase our volume and coordinate the melody. I can’t recall why I had a stock of several dozens of kazoos many Decembers ago, but I pulled them out and distributed to anyone who’d take one. The music from electrical equipment quickly became overpowered by the strength of the live performers in my living room.

Easy to play were the oldies “Jingle Bells” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” However, we quickly mastered playing parts and playing in rounds. I don’t know how we had the breath to keep the concert going. We seemed to break down in hysterical laughter as much as we made music. Each person tried to toot louder or more dramatically than his neighbor.

“If you can hum, you can play” is the advice of kazoo aficionados to novices. The mistake of most newcomers is to blow like you would a trumpet, but the player’s voice needs to vibrate in order to make the membrane inside the kazoo, which amplifies the notes, quiver. This membrane can tear or stretch, but if you’re as dedicated as I am, you’ll learn you can replace it with tissue paper or even plastic wrap cut to the correct size. YouTube has videos that offer instruction if you’re a rule klutz.

The highlight of our holiday performances? Nothing can match the musical thrill of the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah played in parts on a dozen kazoos. It beats a production from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir because you and your family and friends are playing it. Those who prefer can sing the tune in parts of harmony.

Kazoos appeared on the American scene in the mid- to late-1800s. However, they’re related to a number of membranophones, instruments that modify the player’s voice through vibrations. They have waxed and waned in popularity and still sell in the millions. I personally prefer the timbre of the traditional metal variety, but plastic versions appear in most toy stores.

Prepare yourself for the holidays. But if you miss your opportunity, don’t wait until next year. National Kazoo Day is January 28. The perfect time for you to become active in politics as well as music. You can join the continuing campaign to have the kazoo declared the USA’s national instrument, a well deserved honor because it’s certainly the most democratic