When it’s Christmas, it’s music

It isn’t the presents. It isn’t the food. It isn’t the decorations.

They’re all great — wouldn’t be a real Christmas without them.

But for me, it’s family, of course. And it’s the traditional Christmas music.

They say the sense of smell is most closely connected with memory, with the sense of taste a close second. Probably true.

But for me, Christmas carols, the 18th and 19th century classical favorites, are the touchstones that take me back decades, into childhood and for the many years thereafter.

Standard carols — “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Joy to the World,” “The First Noel,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “O Come All Ye Faithful” — accompanied Christmas celebrations and church services in my early childhood years, as they probably did for most Midwestern Americans.

After my voice changed from soprano to baritone, about age 14 or so, it gave me pleasure to learn the bass harmony to all of them, and I associate the Christmas carol bass lines with my high school years, in church choirs and school choruses.

We would sometimes go caroling during the Christmas season, and it gave me warm satisfaction to provide the bass foundation for carols on cold caroling nights. I still associate traditional carols with snowy streets and yards, and with hot Deal’s cider afterward.

As time went on, and I learned other carols that are heard less often, I came more to appreciate the rich heritage of Advent season music.

Christmas choral concerts usually add some carols in languages other than English, and from countries other than England.

I’m partial to some of the German carols that have worked their way into the American experience, like “O Tannenbaum” (“O Christmas Tree”). I’m fond of “Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella” and “Il est nee, le petit enfant” (“He is born, the little child”), both of French origin.

Spanish language carols bring stirring Latin rhythms into the mix. Some of the great Russian choral music is often heard at Christmastime, like the soaring “Salvation is Created,” which always speeds up my heartbeat (despite my twice-a-day Sotalol medication).

For many years, our family and others — several generations’ worth — enjoyed singing Handel’s “The Messiah” before Christmas, rotating it among the participating families’ homes.

Like Pavlov’s dog when the bell rang, I automatically get a lump in my throat when I hear any of the well-known solos and choruses from that oratorio.

I can’t hear the tenor solos without thinking about brother Bill’s mastery of them, nor the alto solos without recalling Cindy Melson’s rich alto renditions (especially of “He shall feed his flock”), nor with the same Helen Adams Lehman’s stirring soprano solos.

Gene Melson delivered the bass solos like no one else. And I have always envied brother Tom’s skills on the piano accompaniment to the entire performance, including the Overture, where he valiantly channels the entire orchestra.

Maybe the most emotional number in the “Messiah” collection for me, rather oddly, I suppose, is the quiet, instrumental-only interlude, “Pastoral Symphony.” It’s in the key of C, in slow 12/8 time, with a gently moving melody line, easy for me to play on the piano.

When I hear the “Pastoral Symphony,” I immediately go back to a night when I was about 13 or 14. Dad and Mom drove us kids up to the Paup farm near Churdan to walk through the tasteful Christmas displays that the Paups had created over an expansive area.

It was a cold night, with snow on the ground and the trees, exactly the kind of peaceful night suggested by the “Pastoral Symphony,” and I’m eternally grateful to Handel for how that gentle composition recalls that evening and refreshes my soul.

I purposely omitted “Silent Night” from my list of traditional carols at the start of this column.

It occupies a special place for me.

“Silent Night” was Dad’s favorite Christmas carol, and when I hear or sing it, I see the kindly, contented smile he always had when he heard or sang it.

Doesn’t matter whether it’s in English or in the “Stille Nacht” original German version.

It’s Dad all over again, and it is, and will always be, Christmas.

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