AS THE SEASONAL favorites get pumped through every hardware store and supermarket I find myself in, I remember this scene from my childhood. I think I was in sixth grade, which would have made the year 1988 and me not quite eleven. Our music teacher, a Southwesterner with a booming voice and a funny, vigorous manner that made us like him despite his being pretty old, took me and a couple of my friends—kids who sang in the choir—out of Social Studies for a special one-day assignment. When we sat together at a table in the music room, Mr. Ellison (as I’ll call him) handed each of us sheet music with the staff left blank and the words written in underneath. We all recognized the song as “Jingle Bell Rock.”
“OK, so here’s what we’re going to do,” he said. “You’re going to sing this for me so I can notate it, and then I’ll be able to play it.” Mr. Ellison played the piano and composed—in addition to teaching music theory to grades four through eight, he was integral to school musicals, some of which he helped write. In hindsight I realize he was brilliant, and shaped all the children’s understanding of music in ways that would be hard to measure.
We looked at each other and kind of shrugged, then spent the next hour picking out the piece note by note, filling in the notes on the staff of lines as he had been teaching us for years to do. Mr. Ellison used the piano to confirm each note we sang, like an eye doctor asking if it was better like this or better like that. It was not exactly fun, but it was better than Social Studies, and a week later Mr. Ellison played “Jingle Bell Rock” at whatever pageant the school did that year for the secular portion of the festivities. (Being a parochial school, we already had an organist and the above-mentioned choir to deal with the religious portion.) Songwriters Joe Beal and Jim Boothe would have been proud, as might Bobby Helms, who released the first, iconic version.
Decades later, the thing that amazes me even more than his love of music and his dedication—to us, to his employer—was the fact that Mr. Ellison didn’t know how “Jingle Bell Rock” went. He had not gotten sick of the tune after year twelve of not being able to avoid it every time he walked into Duane Reade all month. No festival of eggnog-and-mistletoe excess had blared it from anyone’s stereo in his presence, at least not enough times for him to memorize it, and with his ear I’m guessing that meant less than twice. For me, this phenomenon is on par with not knowing, say, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” And, I can’t decide if that is wonderful or sad.
It might be a great experience to live more like Mr. Ellison did in 1988, happily ignorant of annoying holiday songs, too busy making and studying “real” music. Many believe the world would be a better place if we didn’t have to hear “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” or “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer”—not in December, not ever. But, loving pop music as I do, I can’t imagine a holiday season without songs, even the irritating ones. I don’t think I want to. After all, the same spirit that brought forth “Jingle Bell Rock” also sent us totally awesome songs like Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa,” The Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping,” Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run,” The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York,” the Kinks’ “Father Christmas,” The Beach Boys’ “Little Saint Nick,” The Ramones’ “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight),” and Otis Redding’s “Merry Christmas Baby.” A few of you will take exception to my including these, because you find them irritating; others will be mad that I didn’t include certain others, the ones you’ve enjoyed since you were ten.
This year, the day after Thanksgiving, I stopped at a pizza place that had the radio on. There it was, “All I Want For Christmas is You” by Mariah Carey—for the first time in 2012. I surreptitiously sang along while my slice was heating up, and if “Jingle Bell Rock” had been next up, I wouldn’t have minded at all.