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Posts Tagged ‘christmas’

As I write this I am nursing a bellyful of post-Thanksgiving leftover turkey and gravy, and it’s impossible to tell from here whether we’ll have a white Christmas this year.

It seems unlikely: Where I am, they don’t happen all that often. Indeed, I’m not even sure all the leaves will be off my tree by Christmas. They’re hanging on for dear life this year.

I can get to a white Christmas through my grandpa’s calendars, though, so I think I’ll take the trip. (It beats the alternative, which is to look into a mirror at midnight and say “Bing Crosby” backwards three times.)

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December 24, 1966.

The winter storm of Dec. 24, 1966, took place on a Saturday. So unless you drove a city plow or had last-minute shopping to do, you didn’t need to go out in it. Those are the best kinds of winter storms.

(My dad, living on his own in Rochester, N.Y., beat the storm by arriving in town the day before, and my aunt Elaine had been home from college in New Haven for a week.)

It was big enough news to make the front page of the Dec. 25 New York Times, which reported thunder, winds over 30 mph, railroad delays, widespread accidents on regional highways, and the declaration of a snow emergency in the city proper. New York Traffic Commissioner Henry Barnes apologized for telling holiday churchgoers to stay home, but said it was the safest decision.

The storm was widespread enough to bring South Carolina its first white Christmas in 95 years and to close the airport in Roanoke, Virginia, according to the Times.

Ironically, the Dec. 24 Times reported on an unsuccessful effort to “bomb” clouds with dry ice in Franconia, N.H., so snow-starved, money-losing ski resorts could start doing better business. It failed.

Unlike some other snow-day drawings on past calendars, my grandpa’s effort here looks like a frenzied mush — no church spires, roofs or TV antennae to be seen. If anything, his drawing looks to me like sea-waves swamping a freighter. Perhaps that reflects the intensity of the event.

Since my grandparents were usually pretty prudent planners who probably had their holiday affairs wrapped up, I’m going to assume everyone stayed in on Dec. 24, 1966.

I don’t believe 1107 Hope Street had a working fireplace, so maybe its inhabitants tuned in to a brand-new TV program: WPIX from New York chose that night to debut its now-famous televised Yule Log.

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The Times’ TV listings sum up an unusual new program. Less Yule-y options on the tube that night included “Get Smart,” “Gunsmoke” and a Canadiens-Rangers hockey game.

Maybe the Blumenaus of Hope Street baked cookies or wrapped presents. Maybe they tried shoveling the driveway. Maybe those that played piano, practiced piano.

Or maybe they just stayed cozy and let the meteorological craziness blow past and around them … until the night fell, and they went to sleep.

And when they woke up, it was a white Christmas, and all things peaceful and generous seemed possible.

Edit, 10:40 a.m., Dec. 25: We got one.

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A couple odds and ends before we get into this week’s installation:

– For the two of you who dug the Hope’s Treat musical project, another of my offbeat musical explorations (not directly related to this blog) has been loosed on the world. The tunes live here; some writing that attempts to explain them is here.

– For the somewhat more of you who dug the blog post on sauerbraten, my parents very kindly unearthed my great-grandma’s sauerbraten recipe, along with a side recipe for potato dumplings.

If that sounds interesting to you, click here for the handwritten recipe. Let me know how yours turns out.

And now for this week’s adventures …

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I’m pretty well gassed when it comes to writing about my family.

There have been times in recent months when I’ve sworn that I’m not even going to think about anything that happened before I was 21, ever again, because I’ve spent so much time over the past four years picking it to shreds.

And, there have been lots of nights when I sat down at the computer and wondered what the hell else was possibly left to say. (Tonight, for a few minutes, was shaping up as one of those nights.)

I still plan to spend a bunch of time when I’m done here thinking about the history of freshwater mollusks, and the works of Hans Christian Andersen, and chocolate milk, and a bunch of other stuff that has nothing to do with my bloodline.

I find, though, that when I get burned out, something comes along to cheer me up and remind me why I do this.

Like the somewhat out-of-season calendar entry I’m featuring this week:

December 25 and 26, 1973.

December 25 and 26, 1973.

The first of two Els on my grandpa’s calendar — my Aunt Elaine — showed up, with her husband, at 1107 Hope Street in time for Christmas dinner. To extend the holiday festivities, my grandparents also talked on the phone with my dad and the other El, my Great-Aunt Eleanor.

If either El knew what my parents had in mind for the next day, they did an El of a job keeping it quiet.

My grandmother’s handwriting — my grandpa wouldn’t burst out like that — tells the story of what looks to have been a much-enjoyed post-Christmas surprise visit. I can only imagine the looks on their faces when Baby Kurt and family turned up at the door.

Since Aunt Elaine and her husband were already there, I’m guessing we stayed with my other grandparents elsewhere in Stamford. That’s the best kind of surprise visit — one where you can spend plenty of quality time, but don’t have to shoehorn borrowed cots and folded-out couches into every room in the house.

In fact, I know that’s what we did, because another entry from a few days later makes reference to a special sleepover on Hope Street. My grandfather’s all-caps seems a little more excited than normal — this visit seems to have been one surprise after another:

December 31, 1973.

A momentary pop-culture sidetrack: December 31, 1973, would have been my first New Year’s Eve. I doubt I stayed up long enough to catch the deliriously funky New Year’s special featuring George Carlin, Tower of Power and Billy Preston. But my dad, free of his kids for the night, just might have tuned in:

Anyway: When they planned their surprise visit, my folks might have had other things on their minds besides spreading holiday cheer.

Connecticut had been hit by a historically nasty ice storm a week-and-a-half before, and it’s possible my dad and my uncle came to town, in part, to save my grandfather the physical stress of cleaning his yard. (They spent some time doing just that, as recorded in an earlier blog post.)

Both sets of grandparents had also come to my folks’ aid three months before, after my mom got into a car accident. (Wrote about that too. See how I might get burned out?)  Perhaps, with my mom feeling better and more mobile, my folks came up for Christmas as a gesture of thanks.

Whatever the reasons, my parents’ surprise holiday visit seems to have pleased its unsuspecting recipients.

And that, to me, is refreshing, even inspirational.

I suppose that under everything I write — under all the YouTube links and wise-ass cultural references and lengthy digressions — is the spark of interpersonal contact with someone who is loved and cared about. That’s what family life is about, and what family history is about.

And that’s what happened the day after Christmas 41 years ago, when a big brown Plymouth Satellite pulled into the driveway on Hope Street.

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It is the last month of a long decade.

My grandfather is fifty-nine years old; there is no one still living in his home who is nearly young enough to believe in Santa Claus.

And yet, when the season rolls around, my grandpa picks up a red pencil and sketches Santa, with a hearty, beaming face melting into an expanse of beard.

December 25, 1969.

December 25, 1969.

Maybe it is reflex. Maybe it is tradition.

Or maybe it is hope … the continued belief of a middle-aged heart, maybe not in Santa Claus exactly, but in the existence of some kind of positive force that rewards people for spending their lives trying to walk the right path.

(For being on the Nice list instead of the Naughty list, in other words.)

Perhaps that is why so many parents have been so eager to teach their kids about Father Christmas all these years. They want their kids to buy the notion that being good will bring them unexpected or unimaginable rewards from some higher source.

The red suit and the beard are just incidental in the end … they vanish, like training wheels, after their time is through.

(I am suddenly struck by the mental image of a towering junkheap containing thousands of pairs of training wheels. A nice representation of childhood’s end, that. Or, at very least, a good album cover for somebody.)

There ain’t no Santa Claus, of course. There ain’t no free lunch. And there is no higher reward, save perhaps for the twin gifts of health and sanity for as long as you can hold them.

That doesn’t stop the childlike faith from far outliving the child, though.

If you are still keeping the faith, I hope you are rewarded — perhaps under the tree, or perhaps in some other setting when you are less expectant.

Have yourselves a merry little Christmas.

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December — in my dreams, anyway — is supposed to be a time to breathe deeply and reflect.

A time to think quietly about the year nearly past and the fresh year to come.

A time to notice the crunching sound your shoes make when you walk through fresh snow on the sidewalk, and the puffs of your warm breath in the cold morning air.

A time to relax and enjoy the company of friends and family.

But that’s just in my dreams.

In the real world, December is a time to go nuts, in between trying to wrap stuff up at work; finishing end-of-season household chores, like raking the last leaves of the year; and trying to shop, cook, neaten and otherwise prepare for holiday entertaining at month’s end.

Thirty-nine years ago, that seems to be where my grandparents were.

December 1974.

December 1974. Appointments, meetings and obligations.

Let’s see if we can figure out all those tasks crammed into the top of the calendar:

Christmas Fair 6 & 7 – Guessing this is a church or community event. Probably, my grandparents and great-grandma were in attendance. Maybe one of them manned the raffle ticket table or something. Not a major stressor, but an obligation nonetheless.

Art Apropos – No idea what this means, though “Art Apropos” would be a wonderful name for some fictional character — like the crusty, salt-spattered head of Stamford’s Department of Public Works.

(Google suggests there is an Art Apropos Stamps & Papers company in Spokane, Wash. No idea if this has anything to do with them, or whether they even existed 39 years ago.)

Fiston – Again, no idea. This has an X next to it rather than a check mark, suggesting that this particular item might have been canceled rather than completed.

Recycle glass and papers – I wonder how often my grandparents recycled their glass and papers in those days? I assume it was a haul-to-the-dump deal; I doubt Stamford was that far ahead of the curve in terms of recycling bins.

Winterize mower – I’ve written about this task before. In 1975, my grandpa winterized his mower as early as Oct. 13. That struck me as wicked early; December might be a little late, but it makes more sense.

(I just winterized my mower earlier today — it happens to be Nov. 23 as I write this. One less task to hang over into the busy days of December.)

Paint gutters – Seems like an unusual, out-of-season task for December. Maybe it was a touch-up job, rather than a full-on repaint.

Rx Refill – I don’t know specifically what my grandfolks had to refill, but I’ve written about their pharmaceutical regimen before, as well.

For all we know, that might only be half of their special to-do list; there’s another chunk of writeable space to the right of “DECEMBER” that’s not captured in this photo.

As you can see, my grandparents couldn’t really tackle any of these jobs until Dec. 3, as my family was in town for a Thanksgiving visit through Dec. 2 (as previously referenced at the end of this post.)

My grandparents weren’t working in December 1974, so the holiday rush was probably a lot easier to take.

Plus, their approach to holiday gift-giving was always intelligent and conservative; they were not people to either drown you in gifts, or spring for big-ticket items. For them, Christmas shopping was probably a simple matter to be handled in a single afternoon, rather than a spiritual and philosophical quest.

I think I will do my best this year to have one of their kind of Decembers. Busy, but sane; with time enough to fulfill all my responsibilities and still enjoy the crunch of my shoes in the fresh snow.

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“The Reverend, Rabbi and Rod” sounds like the start of a walks-into-a-bar joke.

In real life, it was a minor chapter in the long history of community radio … a small part of a nationwide movement to bring popular music into the church … and a curious footnote to a long-ago Christmas.

Put aside your last-minute wrapping, then, and switch on the Wayback Radio. (Are the tubes glowing? Good. We’ll proceed.)

December 25-26, 1964.

December 25-26, 1964.

“The Rev” mentioned above was Rev. E. King Hempel of the North Stamford Congregational Church. The rabbi’s name is lost to history, at least among the Blumenau family.

Together, the men of the cloth hosted a weekly talk show on WSTC-AM, Stamford’s longtime local news and talk radio station.

This sort of Upstanding, Thoughtful Community Programming was once a staple of America’s locally owned, community-focused radio stations. I’m sure this kind of show carries on today in the world of low-budget local radio, interrupted only by the occasional teenage jokester calling in to request “Free Bird.”

(The Interwebs tell me “WSTC” stood for STamford, Connecticut, as indeed it probably did. Radio call letters are a marvelous topic of discussion … there is a station in Massachusetts that will forever be known to me as Wet Porno Love Music. But I digress, big-time.)

“Rod” was my father, a sage 21 years old at the time. He wasn’t a regular panelist on “The Reverend and the Rabbi,” not having the necessary qualifications.

Instead, he was in front of the mic as a special guest, discussing a most contemporary topic — the marriage of worship and popular music.

The day after the Rev., the Rabbi and Rod rocked the mic together, my dad led a special jazz worship service at North Stamford Congregational Church. He pulled together a small combo to play music he wrote himself. (Today he dismisses it as “lousy.” No recording survives.)

An ad for the jazz service. Presumably this hung in Stamford's hipper hangouts.

An ad for the jazz service, courtesy the Rod Blumenau Collection. Presumably this flyer hung in Stamford’s hipper hash dens.

My dad, in a small way, was part of a nationwide movement of musicians looking for ways to combine faith and jazz.

By the mid-’60s, Duke Ellington and Vince Guaraldi were composing and performing in church settings, while John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and others were cutting music that was deeply spiritual, if not directly intended for performance in church.

Tenor saxophonist Ed Summerlin is often credited with pioneering the movement with his 1959 composition Requiem for Mary Jo, which he followed up with similarly themed pieces like Jazz Vesper Services.

Summerlin appeared on national TV in 1960 to discuss his “liturgical jazz,” which leaned more toward the cerebral than the gutbucket. (He also performed, around the same time, at the Methodist church across the street from my grandparents’ house on Hope Street. My dad attended.)

The idea of jazz in church spread quickly. My dad’s band director at Stamford High, Russ Martino, performed a local jazz service in the early ’60s. And Herb Hodgson, the Protestant chaplain at the college my dad attended, was enthusiastic about new ideas. My dad remembers him as “a really cool guy,” a rare accolade for a man of the cloth.

So, in 1963, with Hodgson’s encouragement, my dad rounded up some musician friends at college and performed a musical service of his own at a church in downtown Troy, N.Y. He reprised the music, with some of the same musicians, in Stamford in December 1964.

The idea, he says now, was to promote the legitimacy of jazz as a music capable of expressing spirituality and connecting with a 20th-century audience. (This was much the same point he made on the radio with the Reverend and the Rabbi, too.)

In his words:

I didn’t believe in a religion that said you have to say the same words in the same language as Jesus did, or people in Rome did. I thought you could express your feelings in a modern way. … I thought, “Jazz is legitimate, serious music with which one can contemplate the meaning of life just as much as Bach or Beethoven. Why not?”

There was no burning bush or flash of light … I just thought it would be kind of fun.

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The service in Stamford was a special event held in the evening and was promoted as a “Demonstration Service,” which rubbed my dad wrong:

That suggested even E. King wasn’t convinced of my position. In Troy, we did it in a downtown church, and it was their Sunday morning service — take it or leave it.

The faith-jazz trend, as it turned out, would have larger obstacles to overcome than the misgivings of local reverends.

While the movement would produce some memorable recordings, such as Ellington’s first Sacred Concert, jazz’s niche popularity limited its penetration into mainstream church services. By the Seventies, the guitar, not the tenor sax, would become the chosen weapon of preachers trying to reach the masses in Their Own Language.

My dad says:

The fallacy of my reasoning, which I did not realize at the time, is what a small minority of the U.S. population jazz lovers were. I thought jazz represented youth, modernity; in actuality, that died with WWII. Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry represented youth and modernity!

Today many churches feature house bands which play their (amateur) stylistic interpretation of the “music du jour.” Probably a large percentage of their congregation views this music as their own, and therefore, this does a better job of making liturgy more meaningful than jazz ever did.

That doesn’t stop musicians from continuing to bring jazz into churches. My dad performed jazz services many times when I was growing up. Those were blowing sessions, rather than formally programmed liturgical music. And they usually drew a full house or close to it.

The Sixties vision of jazz as a link to the common man will probably never come true.

But if every man prays in his own language, then there seems no reason why jazz can’t be one of them.

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As a side note, check out my grandpa’s Christmas calendar entry: A record high of 63 degrees on Christmas Day, 1964, followed by 60 degrees the next day.

I doubt that’s still the record, but it’s warm, even by today’s standards. (As I write this, the National Weather Service is calling for a high of 36 degrees in Stamford on Christmas Day 2012.)

My grandfather’s illustrations try to capture a sense of holiday gaiety. I love the intricate blue-and-white ornament; he put some time and effort into that. But the green grass underneath the tree makes it clear this was no white Christmas.

Thanks for reading and have happy holidays, whether they’re green, white or somewhere in between.

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