I have written before that I grew up without any real holiday traditions.
My dad was Slovenian (or at least that’s what I was told – in recent years, I’ve been told secondhand that he was born in Slovenia to Croatian parents) and my mother was Estonian. You would think that my childhood Christmases would have been filled with wonder, with opulent nativity scenes, burning incense and fortune-telling (Slovenia), slippers filled with candy each night of Advent by elves, a Christmas sauna (!), and reciting Christmas poems that we made up on Christmas Eve before we opened each present (Estonia). I think the poetry portion is particularly exciting. These would have been fodder for great and memorable childhood holidays, right?
But the food! Certainly we would have had great ethnic food, right?
My mom did make sulze for New Year’s Eve, which was head cheese. It involved a pig’s head that sat in our sink with its eyeballs in a cup on the edge of the sink. My mom would boil that down into a gelatin and put overcooked vegetables in it. Then she and my dad would eat slabs of it with white vinegar.
I never touched it. It was GRAY. And I couldn’t get past that pig’s head in the sink. Or the eyeballs. Thank GOD she didn’t make the other Estonian holiday favorite, blood sausage. It’s amazing I’m not a vegan.
We did go to church – my dad’s Catholic church, not my mom’s Lutheran one (as agreed upon when they got married), and we did put up a Christmas tree and the house was filled with Christmas music, especially the Andy Williams Christmas album. It wasn’t Christmas to me till I heard “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”
But we didn’t have any family to spend time with. And most of my parents’ friends did have extended family nearby, so they’d spend time with them. My parents immigrated with no other family members. So Christmas was, mostly, just like any other day. Except the stores were closed. And somehow, we always managed to get into some kind of bitter argument during the day, and it never turned out the way I hoped.
Nevertheless, the idea of Christmas still gave me a lot of joy, and it was because of two things that became my lifelong holiday traditions:
- Music – both recorded (see Andy Williams, above) and live (usually church or school concerts)
- TV Specials
When I was a child, there were several options for Christmas on television:
- Regular TV shows that would have a special Christmas episode – and sometimes the stars of the show would get to sing and dance (which they never did during the regular season – a great opportunity for the musical theater actor who left Broadway behind for the steady paycheck of television to show who they really were)
- Christmas movies from the 1940s-1950s that were shown on TV every year (White Christmas, Holiday Inn, The Bells of St. Mary’s)
- Variety shows – the Bob Hope Christmas Special (usually from a military base), Bing Crosby Christmas Show, Julie Andrews Christmas Show – a kind of Vegas-y revue format featuring the stars, sometimes their families, and famous guests
- Animated Christmas specials, the most famous of which is, of course, A Charlie Brown Christmas, but many others.
Of the animated Christmas specials, the one that brought me joy, and introduced me to the Charles Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol, was the 1963 Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, which had music written for it by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill. Styne and Merrill also collaborated on another animated project, The Dangerous Christmas of Little Red Riding Hood, starring Liza Minnelli in the title role and contributing this gem to the world (which is also the title song of my holiday cabaret show, with different words written for my collaborator, because the Wolf’s aren’t quite appropriate out of context):
In Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, the character of Belle bids farewell to Ebenezer Scrooge when his dogged pursuit of money changes him and their relationship. It is said that the song that was supposed to be sung here was “People” from their 1964 musical, Funny Girl. Instead, the song “Winter was warm” was written, which I honestly did not appreciate as a child. But it’s really beautiful – and it’s also in my holiday cabaret show.
But my favorite special Christmas episode was that of my favorite childhood TV show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, which showcased the writing staff of the fictional Alan Brady Show singing and dancing (with the help of head writer Rob Petrie’s lovely wife, Laura). Most of the songs in the episode are ensemble pieces, including the well-known “I am a fine musician” (not on my cabaret show, but I would like to put it on a holiday studio recital someday):
However, there is one solo piece sung by the lovelorn Sally Rogers (Rose Marie), which I just incorporated into my cabaret show this year. I had to transcribe it myself because there is no sheet music to be found anywhere.
These shows formed my ideas of holiday traditions. They are traditions of music, of laughter, of love, and of finding your own tribe or family where you can.
I have been fortunate to find my tribe among my fellow artists in a variety of genres – opera, cabaret, church – and with my husband, Bill, and our current menagerie (Seamus, Spike & Charlie) as well as our loved and lamented Mittens, Dave, and Pippin.
For those of you who grew up with families that enveloped you with the love and joy of the holidays, and to whom you are still close, you are very fortunate. Hold them close to you in your hearts and have a wonderful holiday season, full of music, and food, and love.
If my holiday cabaret show sounds interesting to you for next year’s holiday season (or if you’d like help creating your own holiday cabaret), find out how to work with me in 2022!