Christmases Past and Present
by Jeff Gemmill, aka the Old Grey Cat
To quote the sage philosopher William Haislip Squier, “Christmas is the time to say ‘I love you,’ share the joys of laughter and good cheer…”
In the Philly region, where I’m from, it’s customary for a few radio stations to switch to an all-Christmas format right around Thanksgiving. On November 22nd of this year, for example, I tuned in WOGL-FM, aka Oldies 98, during my morning commute and was greeted by the velvety voice of morning deejay Marilyn Russell as she introduced a true yesteryear classic - though the title escapes me now. But as I made my way home that afternoon, the flip had been switched: seasonal tunes blasted from my car’s speakers the entire ride home.
Part of the pull of Oldies 98 for me is that it mixes and matches genres and styles, much like Philly’s fabled Top 40 stations of yore, WIBG, and WFIL, and the less fabled WIFI-92 and “Hot Hits” WCAU-FM, the latter of which rested on the same spot on the FM dial, 98.1. About the only ingredient needed for inclusion on WOGL’s never-ending playlist is that the song was a hit during the 1960s, ’70s or ’80s. I’ve heard Donna Summer, Tom Petty, the O’Jays and Bangles in the same 30-minute block, for instance, and though some folks dislike that diverse of a sonic buffet, I enjoy it. Their Christmas programming takes a similar tack. It’s pop. It’s rock. It’s R&B. It’s soul. It’s even vintage classic - Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole - and contemporary. About the only thing it’s apparently not is country, which is a shame as there have been quite a few Christmas-themed country classics through the years.
Granted, not everyone loves Christmas music. I sure don’t, though I made quite a few Christmas-themed mixtapes and mix CDs through the years. There’s something stirring about the season’s songs, hymns and carols for me. Certain tunes trigger memories of Christmases past. Come the holiday, my parents’ living room was often filled to the last seat with family and friends. Most, including my Dad, are now gone - a lifetime ago, when we lived in Saudi Arabia, he was big into hi-fi and helped run a low-watt FM station on the side. (True story: the Saudis shut it down for a time because “Jesus Christ Superstar” offended them.)
I’ve been lucky, however. I’ve spent all my Christmases with loved ones. That said, my father spent several yuletides during the early ‘50s in Korea and Christmas ’68 in Vietnam; in the early ‘80s, my brother was stationed in Korea and then elsewhere; and a good friend’s stepson was in Afghanistan for a few. It’s not unique, unfortunately. Legions of men and women have been apart from families on the holiday for generations. The classic “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” first recorded by Bing Crosby in 1943, was written for them, in fact. It spins the tale of a WWII-era soldier dreaming of home. It’s one of my favorite Christmas songs.
Which leads to this: one of my favorite young(er) artists, singer-songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews, recently recorded her own version for Amazon’s Acoustic Christmas compilation. Given that she’s been on a never-ending tour for the past year, it should be no surprise that she ably captures the longing for home. The quivering of her voice conveys the ache that rests within the lyrics.
Merry Christmas, everyone.