When I was young, my family decorated our Christmas tree on December 24 each year. Any paycheck-to-paycheck family knows that expensive evergreens are practically free the day before Christmas — I’m pretty sure that’s the reason our tradition was born. I certainly felt no shame in our last-minute preparations. Christmas Eve was a big party and I loved it. My mom made appetizers and put a mixture of fruit punch and ginger ale in her fancy crystal punch bowl. I loved scooping the concoction into an equally fancy glass while we decorated our tree and sang our favorite Christmas tunes.
Our party was not complete without The Oak Ridge Boys’ Christmas, an album full of songs about Jesus’ birth, jingle bells and silent nights with a little country twist. I remember how loud my parents played the music, which was surprisingly good. But it was more than that. Listening to The Oak Ridge Boys reminded me that my dad was human. He was a man who was always at work, struggling to find work or trying his hardest to keep his five kids happy with the snap of his fingers. He, like the rest of us, loved music. The Oak Ridge Boys’ Christmas album was at the top of his list, which is why it’s on the top of my list years later.
I don’t know why or how Dad stumbled upon his favorite Christmas album, but I am sure there is a story (and maybe even a tradition) behind it. And isn’t that what traditions and music are all about? They’re the soundtrack of our lives. They help us live and celebrate in the moment and offer us a brief escape from stress and hard times. Music is a holiday staple at the core of so many family memories. Let’s take a peek into the melodic holiday memories of others.
“One winter evening, my family and I introduced a twist to one of our usual holiday traditions. Instead of the traditional English carols, we belted out pop hits — dancing and singing to 'Uptown Funk,’ for example, with jingle bells in hand! Not everyone needs to stick to ‘Jingle Bells’ or ‘Silent Night.’ Sometimes, joy is found in the least expected ways, and tunes!” — Amy, 36, Oregon
Until the Gelt Runs Out
“My family enjoys playing a game of musical dreidel during Hanukkah. We play Hanukkah songs, and when the music stops, whoever has the dreidel must spin it. The game continues until the gelt (chocolate coins) runs out. Combining music with the dreidel game has become a new tradition for us, bringing excitement and engagement to our Hanukkah celebrations.” — Liam, 45, New York
Singing with Sweaty Shoulders
“My grandmother was Dutch, which meant we got to celebrate Christmas twice — once on December 5 for Sinterklaas and one like the rest of America — with LOTS of singing for both! Martha (my grandma) was a fabulous piano player, and we would gather around her, shoulder to sweaty shoulder, singing for hours. Those moments are so cherished. She passed last May, but she’ll always be with us, singing around the piano, in what will remain a holiday tradition staple in my sweet family.” — Kristjana, 33, South Dakota
Rudolph’s Got Nothing on Wham! (and Neither Does My Husband)
“For the week running up to, and including Christmas, for as long as I can remember, my family has always had Wham! Greatest Hits on in the house instead of Christmas carols. It's a tradition I’ve carried on now that I have my own family. ‘Last Christmas’ was on the first record I ever owned, and according to my mum, I was completely obsessed with the song. My partner used to find it odd that we’d play Wham! instead of ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,’ but he’s finally accepted the fact that this is our tradition and he’ll always play second fiddle to George and Andrew during the Christmas season.” — Sophie, 43, United Kingdom
The Luck of the Irish
“Music was always a part of our holiday traditions. From the fun songs kids love — ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town,’ ‘Frosty the Snowman’ and ‘Jingle Bells’ — to the more solemn ‘Silent Night’ and Handel’s ‘Hallelujah,’ music reigned at Christmas in our home. And since we are Irish, by the end of Christmas Day, someone would always put on Irish music. Oh, how it makes you want to dance; and dance we did! The Irish jig and step dancing moves were performed by kids, parents and grandparents alike. We laughed and danced and made lifelong memories. Music surely does make the world go round.” — Nan, 75, Connecticut.
This special issue of The Girlfriend is devoted to music and how it shapes — and strengthens — our memories. For more on this topic from AARP, including videos, events and memory games, visit aarp.org/musicandmemory
Do you have any holiday traditions related to music? Let us know in the comments below.