Soundtrack to Christmas on shuffle, not repeat

Note: This column appears in the 12/22 issue of The Glendale Star and the 12/23 issue of the Peoria Times. Also: SAP ALERT!

Before I could drive to school and received the keys to the ol’ Dodge Spirit—provided I dropped her off and picked her up from work—my mom often had to pick me up from high school basketball practice.

I attended an all-boys Catholic high school that was about 35 minutes from our house, even though we lived in a reputable school district and I could have attended the local high school, which was literally within walking distance, for free.

Most of those seemingly long rides home in the dark in which I was filled with teenage angst have blended together into an indecipherable blur. Except for the ones in December.

On those rides home during the Christmas season, my mom had playing, on a constant loop, Stevie Wonder’s Christmas album. The album is from 1967, right before the zenith of his creative prime, and it existed largely under the radar until recently, as a few songs have been featured in major films. Every note of that album reminds me of those rides home, the warmth of the car—she always left it running in the parking lot; the Spirit of that particular Dodge was mostly exhaust fumes—in contrast to the cold outside, the lights of the passing houses, the often reassuring conversation, and the simple comfort of being on our way home.

It’s on my iPod as opposed to a cassette player, but I still have the album, and nobody can convince me of its equal. Every time I listen to it, and I have listened to it a zillion times, it takes me back. It is and always has been more than the album itself, although it is fantastic musically; it represents for me everything wonderful about growing up. It’s part of the soul of my childhood.

I do believe that we all reach a point where Christmas becomes a desperate exercise to recapture the past, the quality of each passing holiday defined by how well it indulged our nostalgia. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it may blind us to the fact that we are playing a crucial role in developing lifelong Christmas memories for those around us.

I barely remember any Christmas gift I received as a kid—minus the He-Man Castle Grayskull, which was, obviously, a watershed moment—regardless of how many mall-fights my parents may have initiated in our honor. What remains embedded is the soundtrack to those occasions of my mom just being a mom, and driving her son home from basketball practice; my dad bringing the tree in the house and the smell of pine filling each room; my sisters and I waiting anxiously at the top of the steps on Christmas morning ... and then me threatening them with physical harm should they touch my Castle GraySkull.

This past Monday afternoon, my daughter and I went holiday shopping and then had a pizza date. She probably won’t remember it, because she is two, but that doesn’t mean I can’t influence her subconscious. I don’t have to tell you what was playing in the car.

Merry Christmas.

Someday at Christmas, we will have a better car.