Tuesday, December 25, 2018


As someone who frequents junk stores and so-called antique malls, and who enjoys visiting old “historic” homes and abandoned buildings (I lived within an hour or two of some western Ghost Towns, growing up in Colorado, which gave me a lifelong taste for the abandoned and the discarded), I’ve always been fascinated by the flotsam and jetsam of Christmas Past. Christmas cards to and from strangers that sat in a shoebox in a closet for years before being tossed away by the recipients’ children after Mom and Dad moved on to that endless Golden Corral buffet in the sky….budget-label Christmas albums played once or twice and then put at the back of the stack, now warped and unable to be played, but still being sold for a dollar, and sitting at the junk store year-after-year, as if someday the right customer will stop by and exclaim, “oh, I’ve always been wanting an unplayable warped copy of this Fred Waring Christmas album—how lucky I am!”….unopened boxes of Nutcracker-themed kitchen items that never got a chance to sit on the table next to Aunt Martha’s mince pies….Christmas tree ornaments emblazoned with the logos of businesses long forgotten, congratulating themselves on a successful 1939 or whatever….faded and yellowed Polaroids of awkward-looking children sitting on the laps of department store Santas, probably displayed on the family’s refrigerator for a season or two and then forgotten----all discarded as quickly as the imitation joy that’s piped into society at large for six weeks every year, like the oldies music that’s piped into my supermarket, providing an aural backdrop as I toss cartons of oatmeal and rice-cakes and dog biscuits into my cart. I would say that all this faux-joy is forgotten on January 2nd of each year, but nowadays as people have fewer, if any, vacation days from work, it’s probably forgotten on the morning of December 26th, and if you work in retail, it’s probably forgotten VERY early on the 26th, because you have to be at work at 5 a.m. to deal with the throngs of people looking to return the presents others gave them or to pick up post-Christmas markdown bargains. There’s not a lot of “peace on earth or goodwill among men” as people fight over parking spaces or step over each other to get places in line to return that chafing dish (whatever the f*ck a chafing dish is!) given to them by that brother-in-law they never liked.

I used to listen regularly to Garner Ted Armstrong’s “World Tomorrow” radio broadcasts as a youngster and adolescent, so I was probably permanently poisoned against Christmas by those, as you could guarantee each year that Garner Ted would devote at least two shows in the November and December period to how the celebration of Christmas is completely un-Christian, how Jesus was most likely born in late September or early October, how Jesus never asked anyone to celebrate his birthday and how such a celebration would be totally contrary to what He stood for, etc. Just Google Mr. Armstrong’s name and the word “Christmas” and you too can read or listen to his anti-Christmas diatribes.

There’s no need to try to get that warped 1950’s Christmas album to play by putting pennies on the tone-arm and hearing the needle gouge into the grooves, when instead you can go even further back and savor vintage Christmas recordings from Thomas Edison’s organization, taken from test pressing cylinders and disks, dating from 1906-1927, collected on this wonderful CD from Document Records, best-known for their exhaustive chronological collections of pre-WWII blues 78’s. They have a number of releases of historic recordings from the archives of the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in New Jersey. This particular one contains 67 minutes of holiday-themed treasures taken from such legendary Edison recording formats as Blue Ambersol Cylinders and Diamond Discs. The album opens with a 1906 performance by the Edison Concert Band, taken from a Gold Moulded Cylinder, of “Joy To The World,” sounding like the kind of semi-symphonic brass band you might hear coming from a gazebo on a mound on the city square in some cold and windy moderate-sized midwestern town, as you stood there, hands in pockets, freezing your ass off, doing your best to be festive. You’ll feel like you have come to life on the pages of some lesser-known novel by Sinclair Lewis or Theodore Dreiser, sitting unread as a link on the Project Gutenberg website. This is followed by an overly-formal reading of “Silent Night,” with the requisite chimes, reminding you of the stiff formality of the Christmas holiday performances you were forced to sing in as a child. Following that is a tear-jerking violin performance of Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” which would be the perfect music to use as the soundtrack for some D.W. Griffith film where Lillian Gish is dying of consumption and her child is starving as she wraps herself and the child in blankets, with no wood or coal for heat…and she looks out the window to see the Christmas revelers out on the street, throwing snowballs and drinking egg-nog. Griffith would probably include some title cards with melancholy passages from the poems of Browning or Tennyson or ironically-presented lines from the words of Jesus. Of course, there are also holiday monologues on this album, delivered in that wonderful early 1900’s stage-y oratorical style you would hear in low-budget indie films during the early sound-film era from actors who’d worked a lot during the silent-era but were rooted in the turn-of-the-century regional stage, actors like William Farnum or Robert Frazer. And perhaps most interesting is a promotional record (see picture) sent to Edison sales-persons and distributors as a Christmas gift that doubles as a reminder to boost sales and be more aggressive in working accounts in 1925, to make it more profitable than 1924. Anyone who’s ever worked in sales will shake their heads in recognition that nothing has really changed in 100 years, only the technology.

I’ve never liked the film IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, and I’m not likely to tune in to the countless Christmas films on the Hallmark Channel, aimed at stay-at-home Moms whose families earn more than $250,000 per year who enjoy seeing a romanticized version of themselves projected on-screen….so I can’t think of a better way to experience a “classic Christmas” than to play this collection of cylinders and discs from 100 years ago and tap into the ongoing permanence of the Christmas tradition.

So….let’s all stuff ourselves today and hope that there’s an Alka Seltzer on the shelf somewhere for later when our gluttony comes back to haunt us. Tomorrow morning, this scuzzy apartment building I live in is still going to smell like sewage, the Grandpa across the hall whose children rarely call him will continue to water down his medicine or cut his pills in half because he can’t afford the full dosage of his medications, and the long-haired stoner down the hall who refuses to work will continue to mooch off the single mom he’s shacked up with and eat the majority of the groceries that she purchases with food stamps, food which is intended for her child. The Christmas message will be as hollow as the foil-wrapped faux-chocolate dollar-store Christmas trees and Santas left outside my door by the garlic-breathed woman in the next apartment who peeks out her blinds whenever anyone walks past the broken-down charcoal grill in the courtyard that birds have turned into a nest and who launches into unwanted and shrill lectures, beginning October 1st of each year, about how some cabal of conspiratorial forces out there are working to take the Christ out of Christmas.

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