Old Record Rekindles Christmas Memories
Posted on December 14, 2020
( My new columns are alternating with old ones for the duration of the pandemic. This one was originally published in 2012.)
With due respect for Time magazine and Barack Obama, my vote for Person of the Year for 2012 is Dorothy Peachock.
Dorothy and her husband, Phil, are the former owners of a music store in Kent, Ohio. Spin-More Records closed last spring and is selling some of its inventory online. One of the records – the only one for sale in the U.S. – was a record I’d wanted forever and bought immediately.
The package containing it, stamped with Dorothy’s name and return address, arrived just in time for Christmas. Opening the carefully packed box, I momentarily succumbed to doubts. Could it really be the right record? Decades had passed since I’d even seen it. Maybe I’d remembered the title incorrectly. Or the artist.
One look at the jacket and the doubts vanished. It was the right record, all right – “Christmas Joy,” by George Melachrino and his orchestra. The Christmas album of my childhood, the best Christmas album ever.
My sister, who was a decade older than me, bought it at the old C.C. Anderson’s store, later Macy’s, in downtown Boise. It immediately became a family favorite. I spent hours just looking at the jacket photo. A nighttime shot of a postcard-perfect mountain cabin all but buried in powdery snow, the icicles on its eaves illuminated in the golden glow from its windows.
It was the music, though, that made the record special.
“Listen to Jingle Bells,” my sister said. “It sounds like sled dogs whining on a cold winter night.”
It wasn’t sled dogs; it was bassoons. But she was right. They did sound like sled dogs. Jingle Bellshas never been one of my favorite carols. But I like that Jingle Bells a lot.
The thing that made “Christmas Joy” different from most Christmas records was that much of it wasn’t Christmas melodies at all. A carol might begin with a familiar tune, then transition to an original phrase or lush orchestral passage that seemed to have no earthly business in a Christmas carol, except to make it unpredictable and beautiful. The album kept and held your interest with unconventional instrumentation, chord changes and twists of melodies where you least expected them. More than half a century has passed since it was recorded, and I’ve yet to hear another Christmas album like it.
Looking back, I think some of the happiest times in my life were spent listening to that old record. It wasn’t just the music, though that was a big part of its appeal. It was the era. A simpler, less complicated time. Think Jean Shepherd’s “A Christmas Story.” BB guns and model trains in packages under the tree, old-fashioned Christmas lights glowing in a darkened room, extra fuses in the kitchen cupboard.
Every December, my grandmother Susie would come and stay for a week or more. Like the Christmas album, she was a family favorite. She’d outlived three husbands, three of her four children and had three homes burn, yet somehow remained the most infectiously jovial member of the family. Christmas wouldn’t have been Christmas without her.
Her arrival invariably launched a baking frenzy. She and my mother and sister spent entire days in the kitchen, making pies, fudge, Christmas cookies, old-fashioned fruitcake … I’d hunker down in the corner by the heat register and enjoy the results. Homemade Christmas treats, a Hardy Boys mystery, “Christmas Joy” on the stereo … it didn’t get much better than that.
My sister loved that old record so much that she kept it for more than 30 years. (She also liked it so much that even the most delicately worded suggestion that it would make a fine Christmas gift for her little brother was brusquely rejected.) Eventually it disappeared, as records will, its whereabouts becoming a mystery.
By then I’d made a cassette tape of it, but the tape faithfully reproduced every skip and scratch and cassettes ultimately went the way of the phone booth. Annual attempts to find the original record online failed.
Not until this year did I discover why. For some reason, I mistakenly thought the album had been recorded by Hugo Winterhalter and his orchestra. Winterhaler was of the same era and had recorded several Christmas albums, but not “Christmas Joy,” which was why my searches came up empty. Only this month, when it occurred to me to search without using Winterhaler’s name, did I get lucky and find Dorothy.
The record she carefully boxed and shipped from Ohio was in remarkably good shape for as old as it is, but it still had some pops and scratches. Don Cunningham, a friend, bandmate and audio-wizard, removed them on a CD he burned for me, making the long-dead Melachrino and his orchestra sound good as new. The CD played non-stop on Christmas Eve while the kids and grandkids opened their gifts. Now it’s a favorite with a new generation.
It’s funny how things from your childhood occasionally come back to you, making them more dear than ever. “Christmas Joy” may not be in the the same league as a model railroad train or a Red Ryder BB Gun, but it’s close.