Fortunately, while my father was a horrible dad, I lucked out with two wonderful grandfathers, and one stupendous great-grandfather who played important parts in my childhood. While I’ve written about my two grandpas before, I’ve only mentioned my great-grandpa in little tidbits. So, for this Father’s Day, let’s remedy that… Read More…
Easter means many things to many people. For instance: On Easter, as on every Sunday, hats have a deep significance for black women.
Or less seriously: 5 ways Easter is much more queer-inclusive then you realize.
Whether you’re celebrating this as a holiday to eat chocolate, or a fertility rite to welcome spring, or a holy holiday, or a day to be out in your community showing your finest hat, or if you just like bunnies, I hope you have a wonderful Easter!
I’m sure it seems weird to some people that a queer man who describes himself as an ex-Christian would observe the Feast of Epiphany. But I’m not really observing it so much as using it as a cultural milestone. Many years I take down all the decorations on New Year’s Day. Some years, some of them stay up longer (usually because I’m busy or sick or otherwise swamped). I just always try to draw the absolute last line at Three Kings’ Day.
This is also the last day I let myself listen to Christmas music.
Slice the pecan pie,
And don’t be stingy with the homemade whipping cream,
Crank up the music,
We’re gonna sing and laugh to drive the darkness away!
‘Cause we need a rainbow Christmas,
Right this very minute!
Egg nog at the brunch bar
With rum and brandy in it!
Yes we need a rainbow Christmas,
Right this very minute!
My lyrics may be getting slurry,
But Santa dear, we’re in a hurry!
So fling ’round the glitter!
Put up more twinkling lights than the whole Vegas strip!
No need for fruitcake,
We’ve got a great big table of deliciousness, here!
Cause we’ve grown a little rounder,
Grown a little bolder,
Grown a little prouder,
Grown a little wiser,
And I need a toasty lover,
Snuggling by the fire,
I need a rainbow Christmas now!
Yes we need a rainbow Christmas now!
I don’t need to justify why I think a particular song is a Christmas song. As a matter of fact, you can’t justify such a thing, because we aren’t really talking about thinking here, but rather feeling. And no matter how much logic you pile up, that doesn’t change the way another person feels.
Just as an example: the exact same logical case that certain other people are making that a specific song isn’t a Christmas song applies to “Jingle Bells.” Seriously. “Jingle Bells” doesn’t mention the manger, nor the angels, nor the shepherds. Absolutely nothing in the lyrics at all about the arrival of Jesus, so not a religious Christmas song, clearly. There is also no mention of Christmas, nor a Christmas tree, nor holly, no mistletoe, not even chestnuts roasting on a fire. Yes, it mentions snow, and a sleigh is mentioned a lot of times, and then there’s all those jingling bells. But first, it’s a one horse open sleigh, not a reindeer drawn sleigh. Snow doesn’t just happen at Christmas. Bells were put on sleighs and carriages and the horses that pulled them at night and particularly in winter time as a precaution to avoid collisions in dark intersections.
In fact, the original author of the song back in 1822, wrote it as a party song. We’re so used to children singing the song that we don’t notice how racy the song is. A couple being out in a one horse sleigh meant no chaperone, after all, and that means all sorts of naughty things could occur. The word jingle, by the way, is meant to be a verb, not an adjective. Jingle those bells, because you’re driving fast! And there’s also some innuendo that.
And then there’s that line “He got into a drifted bank And then we got upsot.” Most people assume it’s away to make “upset” as in overturned or fallen over, to rhyme with lot. Not so fast! The word appears in a number of 18th and 19th Century songs, where it does seem to refer to something fallen over and such, but not just fallen, but in fallen in a drunken manner. Yes, other uses of the word seem to be referring to a more stumbling and raucous situation amplified by the liberal application of alcohol.
So not only isn’t “Jingle Bells” not a Christmas song, it’s not a wholesome children’s song either.
Except, of course, that for most of its history, Christmas hasn’t been a wholesome children’s holiday either. There are reasons the puritans banned the celebration of Christmas entirely in the old Massachusetts colony, and not because Christmas trees were pagan symbols. In point of fact the decorated evergreen tree wasn’t associated with Christmas in English-speaking countries at the time of the Puritans. But untangling the tree’s origin is way more complicated than I want to be here.
But, everybody knows that “Jingle Bells” is a Christmas song. And I think a case could be made that other Christmas songs mention sleigh rides and jingling bells at least as much because the modern celebration of Christmas appropriated “Jingle Bells” in the 1860s as the fact that those things are associated with winter.
I’m a Christmas music addict. And yes, there are some Christmas songs that I absolutely hate. I have walked out of people’s houses when certain songs come up. So I understand that someone can have strong negative feelings about a song or a movie. Let me like my songs and movies, and I’ll let you like yours.
And if you happen to stop by my place, I will offer you some eggnog. With the rum and brandy if you like, or without. Let’s just all have a cheery, jingly, non-judgmental holiday!
Khruangbin – Christmas Time Is Here:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
Big Freedia – Make It Jingle:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
My childhood Christmas memories are divided into several sections. There were about six years where Christmas consisted of Dad, Mom, my sister, and I cramming into either the four-wheel-drive pickup (because the roads would be icy at some point of the journey) either early morning Christmas Eve or sometimes at the end of Dad’s work-shift, and drive hundreds of miles from wherever we were living at the time to my paternal Grandparents’ house. My maternal grandmother (aka Nice Grandma) and one set of great-grandparents on that side happened to live in the same small town as my paternal grandparents (aka Grandpa and Evil Grandma), so we would get to see them at least briefly during the trip, but it was always clear that we were there to spend Christmas with Evil Grandma, and everyone else was secondary.
I was aware, during this time, that Mom’s side of the family liked to get together on Christmas Eve, and again for Christmas dinner the next afternoon, but Christmas morning was generally for each family unit at home. Because we often were arriving at Evil Grandma’s house late in the evening, I very seldom got to attend the other family Christmas Eve.
Then there was a period of three Christmases in a row where we lived just an hour’s drive from Evil Grandma, which meant getting to see everyone for a bit longer at the holiday. That is, until Nice Grandma re-married my Mom’s adoptive father, and she moved out to Washington state to live with him.
Then there were three Christmases we lived in the same small town as my paternal grandparents and my maternal great-grandparents (and only a couple hours drive from a bunch of other relatives). The tradition then became that we would spent a chunk of Christmas Eve with my Great-grandparents, then Christmas morning and Christmas dinner at Evil Grandma’s.
Then after my parents divorced, Mom, my full sister, and I moved up to the same town in Washington state where Grandpa and Nice Grandma lived, and that first Christmas Eve was a revelation. When Grandma lived in Colorado, Christmas Eve involved my Great-grandparents and a few of Grandma’s friends, because there weren’t many of her non-in-law relatives there. In Washington, there were Grandpa’s siblings and their children and grandchildren, my Mom’s six half-brothers (and for some of them wives and children), plus a bewildering number of cousins, demi-cousins, shirt-tail relatives of many other sorts, plus the people that Nice Grandma always seemed to adopt.
Not every single one of that vast constellation of Grandma’s “folks” made it every year, but a lot of them managed to drop in for at least a little bit. As my Aunt Theresa (who was the ex-wife of one of my Mom’s brothers) was fond of saying, “You never knew who you would see at Gert’s Christmas Eve!”
Aunt Theresa was a great example. She had only been married to my Uncle Randy for three years. They divorced when I was about 14 years old. Theresa and Grandma had got along really well from the first time they met, so she was the one who came to Grandma the tell her the she was divorcing Randy. Theresa told the story later that, “Gert looked at me and said, ‘You can divorce my son, if that’s what you have to do, but you are not divorcing me! You’re part of my family forever, you understand?’”
And for the next 30-some years of Grandma’s life, Aunt Theresa came by frequently to visit, check on Grandma, and keep her up-to-date on the well-being of Theresa’s relatives—because Grandma still considered them all in-laws.
Two: I only got to see another one of my Mom’s half-brothers at a couple of those Christmas Eves, once I was living nearby and able to attend. Uncle Brad never quite got his life together. He spent a lot of time in jail. He was never convicted of anything serious—I think the longest sentence he ever got was six months—but, between being addicted to a couple of illegal substances, and having to sell said substances to support himself at times, he just couldn’t stay out of trouble. So sometimes Uncle Brad missed Christmas Eve because he was in jail, and sometimes because he was in some other trouble.
And then he got sick. Everytime Grandma called him, he said he hadn’t been coming to visit because he was sick again, and figured he was contagious with whichever illness he thought he had.
Christmas Eve 1982 was the first time we had seen him in months, and he looked awful. Of Mom’s brothers, Brad had been the shortest, and he had never been what anyone would call fat, but that night, he looked like he hadn’t eaten in weeks. Grandma thought that he was using more serious drugs, and confronted him a few times. He insisted that he wasn’t, that he’d just kept catching things that he couldn’t seem to shake.
Then one day a few months later, Aunt Theresa showed up at Grandma’s and said, “I have some very bad news. Have you heard of this new disease they call AIDS? Well, Brad has it. He thinks he got in it one of the times he was in jail…”
My Uncle Brad wasn’t a really early case, but when he was diagnosed in early 1983 it was only months after the Center for Disease Control gave the illness that name, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
Uncle Brad didn’t live to see Christmas Eve of 1983.
My Uncle Brad was hardly the only person that I knew that would be taken by AIDS. I’ve written before of the winter when so many friends and acquaintances of Ray and I died in the same six-week period that we couldn’t attend some of the memorial services because they were happening at the same time.
The disease didn’t get its name until September of 1982, but it had been recognized as an epidemic that ought to be taken seriously since 1981. Unfortunately, no one in either party on the national level was willing to even talk about it, let alone allocate funds to the CDC and other agencies to address it properly. The very first politician at a national level to call for the government to address the crisis was a woman from California who was elected to Congress in a special election in June of 1987 to fill a seat that was vacated with the previous Congresswoman died due to cancer.
That new Congresswoman, after being sworn in, was allowed to make a short introductory address to Congress as was traditional. Usually these comments are a brief thank you to family and supporters. And the new Congresswoman did that, but she ended her remarks with this statement that surprised her colleagues, “Now we must take leadership, of course, in the crisis of AIDS. And I look forward to working with you on that.”
The Congresswoman was Nancy Pelosi. And Pelosi became a tireless campaigner on the issue, bucking both her own party’s leadership, as well as taking on the Reagan administration’s (and subsequent Bush admin’s) bigoted opposition. During those early years, reporters and others kept asking how could she, as a Catholic, support what was perceived as a gay cause. Her answer was simple and consistent: “We are all God’s children, and that includes gay people.”
While people think of her as part of the establishment and middle-of-the-road, that is a gross mischaracterization. Not just then, but now. So in case it isn’t clear: I frequently describe myself as being far more liberal and progressive (radically so on many topics) than the Democratic Party, but this is one queer man who considers Minority Leader Pelosi’s current trajectory to become Speaker of the House as a big Christmas present to the forces of justice, mercy, and compassion.
Third: My Nice Grandma didn’t always live up to my idealized vision of her. Because of how negatively she (and other relatives) reacted to my coming out of the closet in 1991, I had to boycott all family events for six years. Not just Christmas Eve: everything. If my husband wasn’t welcome as my husband, then I wasn’t. It was years later that I would first read Dan Savage’s version of the epiphany that led to the boycott: “The only leverage adult queer people have over parents and other family members is our presence in their lives. We shouldn’t fear losing them, they should fear losing us.” Because of the many times over a couple of months I had been told by multiple relatives that I was going to hell and deserved it, that sure I could live my life as I chose but any time I was in there home… I had had to tell them I would not visit them, ever, but if they liked they could come visit me. Though, any time they were in my home…
(Those ellipses can imply so much, no?)
After six years, it was Grandma who reached out shortly before my birthday in 1997 and asked if she and my step-grandpa could drive Mom (who doesn’t do freeways) to see me on my birthday. I said of course. It was awkward for about an hour, but the ice finally melted, and the next thing we know they were inviting us to come down to a picnic and the meet my sister’s new daughter (my sister and her now-fifth-ex-husband were coming for a visit), and suddenly they started treating Ray like a person, instead of a symbol of whatever their feelings about my queerness were.
The change in attitude (including apologies) was topped off by a request that we come visit for Christmas, where, yes, Ray was welcome, and none of the weird conditions previously alluded to were expected.
I really wish I could end this by talking about Ray’s first Christmas Eve at Grandma’s. The problem was, Ray was very sick (he did not, by the way, have AIDS; that picnic had been a bit difficult for us to juggle because Ray’s second round of chemotherapy was underway, but we managed). In November he had a seizure, went into a coma for several days, and then died.
Michael’s first Christmas Eve with Grandma happened in 1999. It wasn’t the first time he and Grandma met. That had been at a different trip, where I decided it would be better not to have the first meeting tied to a major holiday. We had been on our way to Mom’s (she lived an hour south of Grandma back then), and we stopped in for what was supposed to be a short visit (just in case). Michael had hardly spoken a couple of sentences when Grandma gave him a look and asked, “Is that a Missouri accent I hear?”
Soon the two of them were talking about all these places in Missouri and Oklahoma where Michael had grown up, and where coincidentally Grandma had lived for a number of years. You want to talk about coincidences? The hospital listed on Michael’s birth certificate, is the same hospital listed on Mom’s birth certificate.
Anyway, they just kept talking. At one point, my step-grandpa leaned over and said quietly to me, “If you wanna get a burger or something, I think the two of us could slip out and they wouldn’t even notice.”
I was very happy. Grandma liked Michael. That meant if anyone else in the family didn’t, well, they have to keep it to themselves.
Despite the warm fuzzies of that encounter, all of the things I said yesterday about why we avoid the big family gathering apply. This Christmas Eve, it will just be Michael and I. We usually cook a sort of romantic dinner. I’ll watch some Christmas movies. We’ll probably stay up until midnight to say “Merry Christmas” and have a kiss under the mistletoe. But we have to get to bed soon after, because first thing in the morning, we always check our stockings to see what Santa brought.
So I supposed I can be forgiven for sometimes forgetting that I own a particular book or a music album, right?
I own a lot of Christmas music. According to iTunes I own 2,538 Christmas songs. While a substantial fraction of that comes from Christmas albums recorded by a single musician or band, a whole lot of the collection comes from various compilation albums where every track is by a different person. Before the era of digital music stores, I would go through displays of Christmas CDs at this time of year, reading the track lists on those compilations and sometimes buying a particular disc just to get one single track. And because my friends and my husband know I love Christmas music, I have been gifted with various albums over the years.
I have rules about when I listen to Christmas music. The earliest that I can listen to Christmas music each year is after Thanksgiving dinner. And usually I wait until the day after Thanksgiving. I can keep listening to Christmas music up until Three Kings Day/Epiphany (the literal 12th day of Christmas). For most of that period each year, I pick my Christmas music by choosing from playlists. If I’m in a silly mood, I might pick the list called “A Silly Christmas” or “A Quirky Christmas” or “Xmas Oddments.” If I’m in a more serious mood, I might pick “A Grand Golden Christmas” or “A Choral Christmas” or “A Sombre Christmas.” An other days I’ll pick “A Dame & Diva Christmas” or “A Gay Yultide” or “A Jazzy Christmas” or “A Swingin’ Christmas.” If I can’t decide, I just grab “A Class-ic Christmas” which contains the songs that I think of as Christmas Classics.
And I update these lists. When I get a new album, I often pick a few songs from the album to add to one of those playlists.
Unfortunately last year while updating one such list I added a song that I absolutely despise. It was part of an EP that I wound up buying without sampling all the songs. As I recall, someone linked to the music video for a song, and I liked it enough to go see if I could buy the song, and that’s when I found a it was part of an EP of five I think it was. I listened to the samples of a couple of other songs on it, decided that I wanted to buy those three, so might as well just buy the whole thing. And four of the songs are great. But the fifth… no.
I went to delete the song from the playlist that it didn’t belong on (wondering briefly how I had added it), and when I right-clicked, onr of the options on the pop-up was the remove the download entirely. So I picked that. And it was oddly satisfying.
Anyway, while between all of those lists that’s a lot of Christmas music, it isn’t everything I own. So several years ago I got in the habit of Setting up a smart playlist each year that would gather all the Christmas songs that haven’t been listened to in over a year. I’ll set that list on shuffle and listen to it on shuffle for a day or two, watching it shrink (because each time a song plays, it gets removed the list, right?). Every time I do this, some music that I forgot even existed comes up. And that’s fun—most of the time. Of course, there are some songs that come up in this list that, well, there are good reasons I haven’t listened to it in a while.
Not necessarily because I dislike them as much as that one song I deleted. For instance, some years ago I found in one of those displays of music that pop-up in retail stores at Christmas time, an album by a pop singer whose heydey was during my childhood. I had fond memories of his music on the radio, and the disc was on sale, so I figured, what the heck?
Oh, boy. Now, it wasn’t awful. It wasn’t gouge your ear-drums-out bad like the Dylan album a couple years ago, for instance. On a scale of 1 to 5, where 5 is Great, 1 is Dreadful and 3 is Mediocre? The album is a solid 2.5. The orchestration was by-the-numbers. The session musicians who recorded the accompaniment all did just fine. The pop singer’s voice was still pleasant. He hit the notes without needing autotune. But his delivery on every track except one is just bland. And the tempo of several of the upbeat songs was just a little slower than what you would call festive. No single track on the album is terrible, but likewise, there is only one track that I’d say is good. Not great, but good.
Looking at the album more closely, it’s a great example of why sometimes these Christmas offerings by musicians who are no longer burning up the charts can be so hit and miss. Only two of the tracks are songs that are still under copyright, so licensing for the album was very cheap. Pop and rock and other genre musicians often do a Christmas album when they’re in the downside of their careers because they are usually cheap to produce, and while people were still buying most of their music as physical media, mass-produced copies were reliable sellers year after year. I still see some of the racks of Christmas music CDs in some stores, but even my inner Christmas music packrat can seldom get me to stop and look at them any longer.
Which is probably a good thing. Yeah, maybe I’m missing the occasional surprise treasure, but I have so many great treasures already! And I just got a new idea for a Christmas playlist. Gotta go!
I have mentioned many times that I am a packrat from a long line of packrats. Other people might refer to us as hoarders, and certainly some family members leaned more toward that end of the spectrum than others. After Grandma died, for instance, my mom and her older sister found at least five “spare” microwave ovens squirreled away among the thousands of boxed up things stuffed in every closet of Grandma’s home. One of those microwaves my Aunt recognized immediately, and not just because of the scorch marks, as one that my Aunt had thrown away when it suffered a major electrical problem.
For years after Grandma’s death, mom and her sister have been ocassionally producing weird things that were packed up at Grandma’s that they hope that one of us will take and use.
My maternal-maternal great-grandfather (who insisted all of us kids call him ‘Shorty’ rather than Great-grandpa) died when I was 14 years old. At the time he and Great-grandma lived in a little house that was about a three minute bicycle ride from our home. Grandma and all of her brothers and a huge number of the grandchildren (Mom’s first cousins) and great-grandchildren (my second cousins) came to the small Colorado town for the funeral and to help with the arrangements. Great-grandma went back to southwest Washington to live with Grandma, then she died a year later.
Because of a couple of photographs, we know that during the first Christmas after Shorty’s death, that Grandma and Great-grandma decorated a tree in Grandma’s house with a combination of Great-grandma’s ornaments and Grandma’s. As far as any of us know, Great-grandma’s ornaments then stayed boxed up and unused for the next 32 years. When Mom found them, they were still in the original box packed inside a bigger box with other things of Great-grandma’s. There was a note attached to the outside of the box in Grandma’s handwriting that said, “Mother’s decorations.” Inside the box Mom found a handwritten retail receipt from the little “five-and-dime” store that had once been in the tiny Colorado town where I was born (And where Shorty and Great-grandma lived for a bit over 20 years). It had a date: December 1956, and noted that the ornaments were being sold at half price because two of the glass ornaments broke during shipping.
Mom split them up, with myself and one of my cousins getting three each. Mom kept four for herself.
I suspect that the reason they sat unused in that box for all that time was three-fold. The first Christmas after Great-grandma died, I suspect Grandma was just too sad about them to use them. The next dozens of years if Grandma thought about them at all, she probably decided not to use them because she was afraid they would get broken, and then she wouldn’t have these things of her mother’s any longer. And I think the third reason is that the longer they stayed boxed up, the less often Grandma even remembered they existed.
The last phenomenon is one I became accutely aware of during the move 20 months ago, as I kept finding boxes of things squirreled away in the old house that I had forgotten we had.
This is one of the reasons I insist, no matter what colors and theme we’re doing on any Christmas, that Great-grandma’s three ornaments always go on our tree. As kitschy and ordinary as they are, they represent my Great-grandma and make me remember happy times with her whenever I look at them. But the other part is that I don’t want them to sit in a box unseen for years. There is no point keeping them if they aren’t going to be seen and used. Their only value is in being seen.
Yeah, if one ever got broken, I would be upset. But I would also remind myself that for 19 years they gave Great-grandma (and anyone who visited her during the season) a bit of holiday cheer, and for 10 years and counting they have contributed to my Christmas cheer. That’s a pretty good return on G-grandma’s original investment of less than a dollar.