Another time the year goes 'round; another chance to revisit one of my earliest memories...
This, my dears, is the incomparable Mme. Ernestine Schumann-Heink; I presume you know the song.
One side-effect of being raised, to one extent or another, by people at least two generations removed from me is that even (especially?) after all these years, I'm a decade or four out of synch in some ways from whatever it is that gets shoved under the too-general catchall rubric "pop culture." I was brought up on stories of Grandmother having seen the great Sarah Bernhardt on stage, on Grandfather cheerfully whistling "And the Band Played On" or "Wait 'Til the Sun Shines, Nellie" as he clipped his rosebushes, on Aunt Edna's firm conviction that Charles Dickens and John Galsworthy were the greatest authors in the English language (ah, Shakespeare aside, of course, and possibly Lord Tennyson). and on a general reverence for High Art that today would seem touching and naive.
At Christmastime, that meant that even though it was the late 1960s, Motown Christmases, Brenda Lee, and the like got short shrift in the cluttered, overheated old brick houses I knew up on the shores of a cold Great Lake. No; Christmas music was something we made, on the valiant spinet that had seen 60 years of abuse at the hands of overeager nine-year-olds, or failing that, listened to, courtesy of a battered collection of albums that included nothing more daring than a carol or two by Ella Fitzgerald ("Such a lovely voice, when she's not singing that nonsense..."). The Longines Symphonette figured large, as did the Ray Coniff Singers.
Christmas Eve, however, meant one thing: the annual bringing out of a much older record player than the one built in to Grandmother's vast living-room console (with its oddly intriguing scratchy-fabric-screened speakers on the front). It generally lived in the little bedroom at the top of the stairs, the one with blue-flowered wallpaper and a high four-poster. On Christmas Eve the gramophone (an edition just this side the ones with looming fluted horns) was carried in state down the stairs, through the living room, and on to the marble-topped table in the dining-room window that on lesser occasions held Grandmother's second-best silver tea set. We would sit in respectful silence, full to bursting of the early dinner that usually consisted mostly of bread pudding and Christmas cookies (the quotidian doling-out in ones or twos suspended this one night), and Grandfather would bring from its resting-place in a thick yellowed envelope in the bottom left drawer of his desk The Record.
Those still nursing an after-dinner sherry or some other warming drink would raise their glasses, and he would slowly, carefully, place the disk on the faded felt turntable, wind the machine, lay the stylus with surgical precision - and we would listen.
Mme. Schumann-Heink, you see, was the voice of Christmas. From 1926 to 1935, she sang "Silent Night" live on the radio to a rapt audience across the country and beyond. You can hear her final broadcast here, and while her voice is essentially by then a memory (she'd been singing, after all, since 1877, for decades hailed among the greats), even Wallace Beery, introducing her, sounds suitably cowed.
Always, at the end, a little contented silence, broken only when one or another of the older ladies (some, perhaps, dabbing away a tear) would sigh, returning us to the cozy dining room, the table still in disarray, the candles burning low over the plates of cookies and the empty coffee cups. It was bedtime for me, and time for those so inclined to go off to church. One or two might remain behind, listening to the good people of Longines, or if everyone wanted to go, old Alice in the kitchen would stay and wait for their return, getting a leg up on all that would have to be done to get ready for Christmas breakfast (stockings and waffles) and so on to the glories of Christmas lunch, which generally revolved around a daunting standing rib roast of Neanderthal proportions, towering above the tiny new potatoes and pearl onions that clustered around its lower slopes.
If I were a movie director, I would leave us there, around the lace-clothed table, and pull back, past the ice-cold glass at the tall front windows and out into the cold, black night. A little snow might be falling, onto the white-clapboard house with its generous front porch and gabled third-floor windows, light from the dining room and colors from the tree in the living room spilling out onto the white-linen lawn, and so out up into the starry darkness hanging over a neighborhood as neat and picturesque as any dreamed up by Paramount or MGM.
But time moves on. All the old ladies have gone on with it, they and their mild-mannered, tweed-vested husbands, Uncles Russell and Paul and Edwin, the grandparents and old Alice in the kitchen too. The house is still there, but strangers sit in the dining room or have converted it to hold a giant television set; no one we know lives in that town anymore, so who can tell? The gramophone and the precious record, even the Ray Coniff albums, all are gone as well, swept away as thoroughly as cookie crumbs off a damask tablecloth.
Even so, tonight I'll sit and listen one more time to Mme. Schumann-Heink. Moments of stillness, calm and bright, are too rare and should be gathered to us when they come, warmth against the cold, light against the darkness. Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh... Schlaf, in himmlischer Ruh.