The Making Of The Making Of A Christmas Tradition.

December 20, 2011 at 8:19 am (Uncategorized)

Perhaps you may have guessed that I sort of have some affection for Christmas and holiday themed music.   Time to confess that this wasn’t always the case.

Let’s flash back to Christmas, 1991.  I’m a part-time 9-hours-semester college student spreading my time between working at a restaurant in the college town of Columbia, Missouri, while also working for the student radio station there (good ol’ KCOU-FM).   Since it’s late December, classes are done for the semester at Mizzou and most of the students have returned to their homes for the month-long holiday break.  As for me, I’m still in Columbia.  The restaurant I’m working at, Katy Station (it was a converted rail station on the old MKT line), has recently made me a server trainer and as such I’ve got responsibilities…like staying in town when school is out because even though things slow down, there are still 50-60,000 folks in the area, and someone needs to be around to work.

And so somehow that December I get conned into working Christmas Eve.  No real biggie, I’m assured.  It should be a slow night, I’m told.  I’m in Station 1, which means I should be the first station cut when things slow down, and I’ll get out early.  That’s good.  A few years prior to this my mom and I had established something of a new Christmas tradition; instead of Christmas at her house with family going there, we started going to my brother’s home in rural Missouri.  His five kids back then were all pre-teens or barely-teens, so Christmas was a Big Deal.   As a country doctor he has a huge house that is always incredibly decorated inside and out; my brother and sister-in-law know how to keep an amazing Christmas to this day, and that was just as true 20 years ago.   Anyway, he’s in Sedalia, a mid-sized town of about 30,000 folks about an hour or so from Columbia.  I figure I’ll get done with work by 7:30 or so, and be in front of a Christmas Eve fire sipping red wine or holiday beer or eggnog or something by 9pm at the latest.

Well.  If you’ve ever gone out to dinner on Christmas Eve, you’re already laughing at my stupid 1991 self.  If you don’t do that, here’s what you don’t know:  Christmas Eve in a restaurant is insanely busy.  I used to manage at an upscale steakhouse in a Washington DC suburb, and Christmas Eve was the busiest day of sales dollars per hour of the year.  I know this now, and that knowledge can make working on Christmas Eve kind of fun.  Everyone’s in the holiday spirit, it’s busy like crazy, but there’s an indescribable energy in the air that just makes it a neat day to work.

But…these things I did not know in 1991.  For our family, Christmas Eve was a big deal.  Big dinner at Grandma’s, then presents there, then back home, more presents, and then midnight church.  You hung with family on Christmas, at home, or so I thought.  As you might imagine, I got a rude awakening that Christmas Eve night of 1991.  I was completely mentally unprepared, and as the minutes and hours ticked away and my station was still full and we were still on a wait at the front desk, my mood got blacker.  7:30 came and went.  Then 8:00.  Then 8:30.  I finally managed to get out by about 9:30 or so, but I think I had to double-tip a busboy to do my station and rollups at the end of the shift, and if I did my assigned sidework, I’m pretty sure it was done rather shoddily.  What made the passing of time even worse was that a winter storm was rolling into mid-Missouri that night.  Freezing rain that wouldn’t turn to snow until Christmas morning.  Not only was I going to get a late start on getting to my brother’s house for Christmas, but it was also going to be a painfully slow trip to get there.  I called from my apartment (which seemed gloomy and empty; my girlfriend had already gone back home to St. Louis for the holiday) to let my sister-in-law know that I was getting a late start.  She promised that she or my brother would keep a light on for me, and the front door would be unlocked.

Honestly though, at that point I was ready to bag the whole thing.  I was in a terrible, Christmas-hating mood by that point.  I was tired, I was bummed out, and the thought of taking a shower, putting the TV on and sleeping was a lot more appealing that driving through freezing rain that night.  I was downright gloomy (2010 Chris would probably slap 1991 Chris in the face with a curt “Get over yourself”.)  To make matters worse, I’d bought Christmas presents for the family, but needed to still wrap them.  I’m almost helpless when it comes to wrapping presents.  I got out the stuff for wrapping gifts and my thoughts turned to what I’d listen to on this painful drive ahead of me.   Back then a CD-player in the car was an unheard-of luxury, so if I wanted to listen to something I’d have to tape a CD or record onto a cassette to listen to it.  I thought about taping a couple of CD’s I’d gotten as gifts earlier in the week, but something in my head made me decide that if I had any chance at all of getting out of the self-pitying grouchy mood I was in, it would have to be something that got me in the Christmas spirit.

And so I started to tape songs as I wrapped.  I grabbed a bunch of Atlantic R&B Christmas tunes (Ray Charles, The Drifters, etc.) from the 8-disc box set I’d gotten as a gift.  I grabbed some Christmas songs from the Stax Volt box I’d bought that fall at one of Streetside Records “20% off all CD’s on Tuesday” sales (Otis Redding, of course).   For  some reason I had this Christmas sampler CD that had been sent to the radio station–I think it was an IRS Records thing–and I noticed there was a song by The dB’s, one of my favorite bands on it.  It was a song called “Home For The Holidays”.  I taped that, too.  I also grabbed a certain Pogues song that night.

I’d made my first Christmas mix.

I didn’t roll into Sedalia until about 2 in the morning, and the driving was just awful–25, maybe 30 mph down Interstate 70.  Not fun times.  I was tired to the point of complete mental and physical exhaustion, barely keeping it going by the power of a bottle of Mountain Dew.  I think I listened to talk radio for as long as KFRU could hold a signal that night.  Then I put some random music in the car’s cassette player.  It was a good while before I thought to put in my cassette of Christmas music.

Of course you can probably guess at the effect.  Despite my nerves being frayed by driving that night in icy conditions with wakefulness only preserved by excessive amounts of stomach-destroying caffeine, and despite my earlier dark mood, that Christmas tape was like all three of Mr. Dickens’ ghosts visiting Ebenezer Chris in one fell swoop.   Clyde McPhatter’s lilting alto on “White Christmas”, Otis Redding’s infectiously joyful “Ha ha ha!” on “Merry Christmas, Baby”…yeah, they did the trick.  And there was that dB’s song, which was recorded in a rather loosey-goosey recording session the band had done about 5 years earlier.  Most of the songs from that session sound as if everyone having a bit of a drunken goof, but then there’s “Home For the Holidays”, in which Peter Holsapple sings with his plaintive Carolina voice “Every year as I get older Christmas gets to me/More and more I want to be home by the Christmas Tree”.  The song is gorgeous and evocative, and by the final verse when he strains to sing “and maybe you can make it next year” I think I probably had tears in my eyes.

After that song, I know for a fact that “Fairytale Of New York” came on.   I remember it because I’d just turned onto state highway 65, which meant just another half hour or so until I was at my destination.  I also remember it distinctly because I ended up behind a salt truck and snow plow from MODOT, and that truck was moving surprisingly fast and I settled into its wake and was able to drive at 45 down that four-lane highway and as the boys of the NYPD Choir were singing “Galway Bay”, and as Kirsty MacColl was calling Shane a scumbag and a maggot and a cheap lousy faggot and as the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day, I realized I was going to get to my brother’s house soon, and safe, and that Christmas was still going to be pretty awesome and I think I was smiling ear to ear in the car.

So that’s what Christmas music is to me.  It helps me recapture that moment of pure holiday joy, of thinking of friends and family and giving and all the other happy trappings of the season.  If it brings anyone else even a fraction of the happiness that holiday music has brought to me over the intervening 20 years…well then we’ve done our jobs.


  1. Stu said,

    Great Christmas story, Chris. Though I haven’t lived in a snowy clime for many, many years, I’m originally from the Midwest and can definitely relate.

  2. Cindy McDannold said,

    Well, we didn’t work together, but I spent 4 or 5 Xmas eve’s at Katy. I always worked a double that day (I think everyone did) so that the most employees possible could get the day off. I posted someihting earlier, in repsonse to Art’s request for for Katy memories…I too, have a similiar story about bad weather and xmas eve driving. Unfortunately, my Gremlin, yes, I drove the second ugliest car in the world, had no tape deck and only AM radio (WLS in Chicago was the go to station…) Anyway, wish I had your music then and now…. The older I get,, the more nostalagic….I have a serious problem/additction to Xmas music (or so my 22 year old son would say)….Will have to try some of your suggestions.. Great Story!

    • Chris said,

      Thanks for the kind words Cindy. It was funny, when I started at Katy as a busboy in the winter of ’88, all I’d hear from folks like Art and Matt were “You should’ve been here earlier. That crew was awesome.”

  3. Lisa Schaefer Medgaus said,

    That was an amazing story Chrs. It’s now January, unpromising as a month can be, and your descriptions of the music has me wanting to hear some Christmas tunes. I didn’t work with you at Katy, but you sparked awesome memories. Aloha! -Lisa “Old Katy Crew” Medgaus

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