We Are Nearing the Holiday Season | Part 1

We are nearing the Holiday Season, a time, as the opening of the song “Silver Bells” says “makes you feel emotional; it may bring parties or thoughts devotional.” It may also bring music by your favorite chorus, Oakland East Bay Gay Men’s Chorus (OEBGMC). It’s not too early to get your tickets!

This Year, OEBGMC is working hard on some classic tunes that remind me of my roots. As we sing in “Silver Bells,” “Whatever happens or what may be, here is what Christmas means to me…”

Nearing the holiday season with the Oakland-East Bay Gay Men's Chorus

The Holiday Season is one with mixed emotions for me. My family was fairly loving, but very small, and it had its own set of dysfunctions. It wasn’t quite as bad as the Saturday Night Live skit “Dysfunctional Family Christmas,” but it sure has made for great stories now in my adult life.  I always wished for a larger family, perhaps to dilute the boredom of being with Grandma and Grandpa, Mom and my sister in often-snowless Ohio. Now I’ve married into a much larger family, and the holidays are fun, filled with laughter, Northern Minnesota snow (and cold), and a daily recommended dose of dysfunction. Ah, but what family doesn’t have its share of dysfunction enhanced by the need for the Holidays to be perfect?

The Holidays, seeming to start earlier and earlier, had strict rules about start and end dates when I was a kid. Christmas, by maternal fiat, ran from Thanksgiving through Valentine’s Day. The beginning of the Holiday Season was Mom’s insistence, since she loved Christmas and wanted it to last as long as possible; the end date was my requirement, since my birthday is the week after Valentine’s Day, and I wanted Christmas to be done by then.  By February, the tree was more than a fire hazard, most of the needles were in a circle around the base of the tree, the cat was bored with trying to swallow the tinsel, and the dog had started to lift his leg on it.

Two-and-a-half months earlier, at the beginning of Christmas, was Thanksgiving. It was often at my mother’s parents’ house, a mid-century ranch in Columbus, Ohio. It was the middle of everything—the middle of an early subdivision of tract housing, the middle of the circle off the main road through the neighborhood, the middle of the state, the middle of the country (well not really, but it sure seemed like it when the ocean was more than an 8-hour drive away). Pretty much the middle. My mom was an only child, so no cousins, just me and my sister, and the three adults: Mom, Grandma, and Grandpa. It was rare to have snow—more often it was brown dead grass–but we always sang “Over the River and through the Woods” on our way there. At least by the exit off the highway (we could see their house from the highway) we were singing it. The song was originally about going to grandfather’s house for Thanksgiving; it has since become a Christmas song, but we stuck to the tradition and sang it for Thanksgiving.

OEBGMC, is singing “Over the River and Through the Woods” this holiday season, and I’m reminded of the disconnect I always feel at Christmas time. As I kid, I remember thinking how odd it was to sing a song about horses and sleighs when we were driving 55 mph down I-77 in a late 1970s AMC Concord hatchback. It was odd, too, that a song originally about a visit to family for Thanksgiving became a song about Christmas, and I recognized that our country conflates Thanksgiving with Christmas, which are really two different things. We have a weird sense of time in our culture, revealed by a palpable longing for the better times when Christmas was “authentic” like Victorian London (can’t you just imagine being there in the thick smoky pollution, the stench of horse and human manure, and the threat of cholera or gangrene?). We also venerate the beautiful Christmas of a New England “picture print by Currier and Ives,” which would have been bitter cold, and included eating the last of the season’s now rotting potatoes, lutefisk, or some other food meant to get through the winter. (Yes, we’re singing the tongue-tying “SleighRide” complete with the whip sound—see how I snuck that in?) There are other odd things we do with time In December; we hype up for parties and long nights awake to celebrate Chanukah Harry, Santa, or the New Year; yet our natural world, with shorter days and longer nights, is calling me to sleep more, cocoon, and rest by a fire (ah, if only there were fewer Spare the Air days!!!). Our desire for a perfect holiday, as well as the rush to get everything decorated, bought, wrapped, baked, and sent, makes for hurried craziness, adds to the desire to escape with your favorite inebriant, increases the stress on our bodies, and adds to the dysfunction.

I am now a Christian pastor, and I have the privilege of shepherding a congregation through the Holiday season. The emotions of franticness and stress at home are also brought into the church as we prepare for the season. With all this rushing and worrying and fretting and fussing, I have wondered for years if we miss the actual point of the Holidays. Perhaps it is really the plaintive request that OEBGMC is singing near the end of our concert, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” It is a year that we all need to hear this, yes; and it is something we need to hear every year at this time.

I’m grateful for the chance to sing with OEBGMC this year’s Holiday Concert (did you get all this way without buying your tickets yet?). The music is emotional, devotional, with wonderful things to remember all through your lives. We’re looking forward to sharing these sound-emotions with you in Fresno at the Big Red Church on Dec 2, Clayton at Clayton Valley Presbyterian on Dec 9, or Berkeley at Freight and Salvage on Dec 10.

Tony Cark, Tenor 2