Years ago, there was a Grand Central Store just past 3300 South on State Street. Back in the day, if you wanted something, anything, you went to Grand Central. For us, it wasn't an everyday or easy thing to do, since we lived miles away in Bingham Canyon, but at Christmastime, particularly, I remember going to Grand Central for a couple hours of exciting shopping.
It's where I bought my first album—a collection of barely notable songs from the 1960s, including the Billy Joe Royal small hit, "Down in the Boondocks." Bought my first and only album by The Monkees there, too. And goldfish, jigsaw puzzles, model airplanes and clothes. Grand Central had it all, I tell ya. And it was most certainly around Christmas season that my mom bought one of her many Christmas albums. She could sing like a canary, and she knew all the words to all the songs, and every Christmas she'd buy a new holiday album with all the old songs performed by different artists.
There she'd be around this time of year, flocking the Christmas tree with some artificial snow purchased at Grand Central. I thought it was nutty: After all, the snow outside our door was a few feet deep and here we sat inside, with fake snow sprayed onto our tree that a brother or uncle chopped down in the nearby hills. It was now standing perfectly in our living room, crutched up by a homemade tree stand that my dad fashioned with scraps of wood and his table saw. Some years, the tree was fake, too—basically a broomstick with silver tinsel branches poking off of it, and the streaming colors from the rotating color wheel shining right through the damned thing, but, you know, trends.
Our tree always stood right in front of my dad's liquor stash—an association so connected to me that I swear gin would have been the gift of the fourth Magi if there were one. And across the room, stretching nearly a full wall of our living room, was our stereo, complete with sliding doors that held what passed for a record collection in those days, maybe 30 albums or so, with the largest percentage dedicated to Christmas hymns. My mom, every year, sang along, taking a break only to open the stencil kit she most certainly bought at Grand Central, holding a paper stencil (of a candle, perhaps) against the window and spraying that Grand Central stencil goop all over get out to create a winter Christmas scene. It was some kind of sticky, colorful, gluey stuff, like visible, thick hairspray, but it's all we had, and each of our windows became painted with a green wreath, a white snowflake or a jolly red Santa Claus. I can't think of anyone who had Christmas lights in our corner of Bingham Canyon, but stenciled windows? Oh yeah. Everyone who could afford it. Many just had green paper wreaths.
During one Christmas season she brought home yet another collection of Christmas "hits." Two of her favorite singers were Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole, and each performed this particular song, but I'm pretty sure it was the Mathis version that got me hooked. Today, I was doing my annual last-minute shopping early (three days before Christmas; I like to shop on Christmas Eve when, on occasion, I've named my price for certain items or threatened to walk off—I get my price. Merry Christmas to me), when this song played over the store intercom:
O come all ye faithful,
Joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.
Come and behold Him,
Born the King of Angels;
O Come, let us adore Him,
O Come, let us adore Him,
O Come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord.
And so on.
It's my favorite Christmas song, the one that stirs the deepest memories and the one that stops me dead in my tracks each time I hear it, no matter who is singing, be it Mathis, or Cole—or George Strait, Faith Hill, Josh Groban, Frank Sinatra, Luther Vandross, The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, or even (especially?) Weezer. The great tenor Pavarotti himself did an elegant version, but in the original Latin—Adeste Fideles. I listened to it today. Talk about the shivers. Goodness, in this age of text messages and emojis, music is often just one more annoying abstraction, and I'd nearly forgotten what it means to be moved by words and music. We are indeed lucky not to be weeds or rocks.
I stood in the store today and listened and remembered. And the memories were good. For the record, I happen to believe that Christmas means more than getting two front teeth or watching Mommy kiss Santa—unless of course, Mommy and Santa are starring in one of those so-called "Adult Content" movies that I've never purchased in a hotel in Omaha.
Christmas is good. I, however, haven't always been, and like many of you, I've come to dread the day and this entire shopping-spree season. This year, I'll try to be a good boy. I hope you will be as well. Meanwhile, I've got but one Christmas message: The Happy Holiday police and Bill O'Reilly "War on Christmas" cadets can both kiss my Greek kolo.
Wherever you were when you were 7 or 11, do return to that moment, if only for the time it takes to light a candle. If you go to church, fine; if you don't, fine. But, somewhere, celebrate a nice memory. I'll remember window stencils and Mom singing with Johnny Mathis. Peace to you. Merry Christmas, too.
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