pre-bedtime reading: holiday music and some little lights!
The wind is more and more insistent; the streetlights spark earlier and earlier. The seasons are changing. My body feels depleted of the warmth it so enjoyed gifted from the sun over the past few months, and then, strangely, the cool air fills it up again. In place of the warmth, though, are whiffs of memories and odd sensations from times and places past.
Growing up in a slightly northern climate will do that. There’s the delight of summer for about two months a year, and then cold and gray is the backdrop to too many of my other memories. Spring and Autumn are supposed to be their own seasons, and yet, Spring feels more like a few lucky, flower-filled days peppered between a grumpy frost that is reluctant to relinquish its grip. Autumn, on the other hand, indeed feels like a full season, but its acknowledgment of the cold is tacit: think of autumn, and you’ll have the full suite of warm weapons it can provide by association: steaming spice flavored drinks, cozy knits, soups, soft hats.
There are people who tell me of their love of winter things: the sensation of being wrapped in huge, fluffy comforters, the beauty of the glittering white snow blanketing everything in sight, the way it makes people gather indoors to be together and keeps them there. And these things are indeed lovely. They just also seem like ways to escape and distract oneself from the bite of the cold that is at winter’s frozen core.
But being disappointed with the very essence of things we cannot change is no way to live.
So I, too, have tried to find my love of winter things. The cold hurts me, the dark makes me sleepy. But there are memories as well when the winter created such magic that I would be foolish to ever let them go. And then there are the things that make winter bearable, and even wonderful, for reasons I haven’t yet fully figured out, but I will tell you about them anyway…
Holiday music came into my life early and late, early, in tiny bites and hints, late, because compared to Classical music, everything came later. When both your parents teach Classical piano, that is how things are. I understood the wails of violins translating the souls of Russian masters trapped in a regime that tried to control all their expression and could make them disappear any day before I learned to use words to express my own anger. The confusion I felt from every new thing we encounter in our lives that we do not yet understand seemed perfectly represented by atonal chord clusters in polyrhythmic solo piano pieces. The Rondo I played in third grade painted an entire world, characters, and story so vivid it pressed on all sides of my heart, teaching me about the pains of rejection and longing far before I knew what earthly sources could be their cause.
Sinatra seemed cheery by comparison. I had not been so trained to listen to lyrics, so though I would later realize many were sad, questionable, or otherwise dark, the overall sounds that flowed out felt easy to float in. The rhythms were steadier, the melodies so wonderful for the range of the human voice or the expressive range of the sax. Mozart had always had a forced peppy quality; December elevator music felt closer to the real deal to soothe the soul.
I’m sure I must have encountered holiday music early from walking around stores, passing by the pine tree sidewalk stands, or watching the Rockette’s Christmas Spectacular, but I don’t remember it making a particular impression when I was still in my single digits. But it became fashionable in high school to brag about how early one’s family bought a Christmas tree and to debate at what date it was appropriate to start playing holiday tunes (right after Thanksgiving, or even more extreme, even before Halloween?). And so I, being more prone to peer pressure than I imagined myself to be, took note and opened the WNYC Holiday Standards on my Windows Vista to see what all the fuss was about.
Billie, Ella, Gershwin, Nat King Cole, and more greeted my ears. The relaxed snares, sleigh bells, strings, and crooning voices created the heat of a crackling fireplace that we’d never have in our tiny pre-war apartment overflowing with wood instruments and paper music scores. I’d had Scheherezade and Prelude to Khovanshchina to so perfectly express how I sometimes felt like the only one stumbling around with a candle in an endless, windy, and dark expanse of winter. But this was different. These sounds didn’t find a part of me that was already sad and for some reason wanted to scream to let the whole world know. This music changed what I was feeling. The endless, windy, dark expanse that was my understanding of winter began to brighten, an orange warmth filling the space, my own candle just one flame among many others.
I looked for other ways out of the dark, biting tunnel of winter. It should not have been surprising, but it was, that I found one in literal lights: those tiny twinkling dots on lengths of wire and string started to grab my attention wherever I turned. The Pinterest bedroom trend obsessions and a y2k feminist embrace of all things girly didn’t hurt, I suppose: suddenly there was a roaring consensus on how wonderful string lights were, and from there, there was no going back. I found myself looking forward to the shapes of trees outlined with hundreds of tiny bright specks that only came when those same trees dropped all their leaves. And you know how once you decide to start noticing one small thing, you start seeing it everywhere?1 I loved it all: glittering lights of string spelling out holiday words and shapes hanging between industrial street lamps, the curtains of string lights draping upscale department stores, and of course, the kind you wrapped around Christmas trees for the jolliest symbol of all. It had seemed such a mystery how people dealt with the meanness of the dark winter: little illuminated dots of wonderfulness, I guess, was key to showing me how a little bit of wonder could go a long way.
Ask me now, and I still won’t tell you my favorite season is winter. I can tell you about the wonders of hot cocoa and peach tea, but probably my unprovoked bitterness about my mug-clasping frozen hands will come along for the ride as well. We will discuss how the big kinds of clothes that are more akin to fuzzy blanket burritos are absolutely blessings; we will gush about the waterfalls of overwhelming gratitude one feels when their feet are happily tucked into thick socks in lined, waterproof boots as too much slushy liquid acquires on the gravel and concrete. I will shake my head as I tell you I still don’t know how I managed to make it through any temperature that fell below 0 C, and how strange it is that I still imagine myself to have the guts to venture and live somewhere even farther north than the places I have lived already.
And yet, I will tell you now that winter for me is also wonderful. That little things that seem superficial and meaningless showed me just how much insignificant details can make the biggest of splashes. Someone once told me I am cheesy, and to enjoy holiday music and string lights might be among the cheesiest things ever. But to turn a whole season that once seemed purely bleak into something else entirely is no easy feat, and so it is with whatever lactose-filled little wonders that may be that I welcome the most wonderful time of the year.
I dyed my hair burgundy once and it took about 5 minutes in NYC to realize how not unique this was