The carols are playing in the background, pretty much everywhere I go. But I don’t hear them anymore. They seem to appear a little earlier every year, so that the first one causes me to say out loud – even if I’m alone – “Is that Christmas music?” The shock lasts for several seconds, just long enough to confound me. I glance at the calendar and see that it’s the middle of October, and in my confusion I put my bathing suit on backward. I don’t even know why I’m wearing a bathing suit, because I haven’t gone swimming since 1997. Also, it’s nine degrees outside, with the wind chill. This is a clear sign that I’m suffering from what I call Seasonal Disorientation Disorder.
Symptoms of SDD can occur at any time. In early January, when Valentine’s Day has already taken over the retail landscape, I feel unsteady on my feet, inching into the new year the way I would venture out, cautiously, onto a frozen lake. Then, before the month of February has even begun to flutter its heavy eyelids, jelly beans and Easter eggs have invaded store shelves, launching into a two-front war with the heart-shaped and rectangular boxes of chocolate. Within a couple of weeks, leprechauns and four-leaf clovers will enter the fray.
And so it goes, into spring and through summer and fall, with major holidays arriving in long, hazy periods that spread and overlap, the way cities expand outward and become metropolitan areas that blend into each other. There are now only eleven regular days in the entire year, and these are set aside for changing the decorations.
But we were talking about Christmas carols, which have been troubling me since I was a little boy. There were two girls named Carol in my class, and when I first heard the word, I was immediately baffled. For some time afterward, I believed my classmates had something to do with the songs. I assumed they were the Christmas Carols. I know you think I’m kidding, and I wish I were.
It was The Little Drummer Boy that started it all. I was in the second grade and we were doing some kind of Christmas pageant. The teacher gave us each a piece of paper. Apparently, I had a role in this event, and what we were supposed to do, I now surmise, was go home and read what was on the slip of paper, and memorize it. The only part I did correctly was go home. I don’t think I ever read my lines, and when we gathered at the front of the room to perform this show for the older grades, I was lost. All of my friends, including the two Carols, were singing pah-rum-pah-pum-pum over and over. I had no idea what was going on, or what the strange words meant.
This was followed by We Three Kings, which was filled with more peculiar language that had me struggling to interpret its hidden message:
We three kings of Oree and tar,
Bear ring gifts, we travel so far.
Feel the fountain, moron mountain,
Following yonder star.
I no longer attempt to comprehend the lyrics. Now I just try to endure, to hang on, hoping to emerge on the other end with some shred of my sanity. The problem is that there are only about six Christmas songs, each recorded by more than three hundred different people. Radio stations feel compelled to play each version of each song, every day and around the clock.
After I’ve recovered from the shock of hearing the first few, I manage to tune them out. Still, some of the phrases do slip in, usually when I’m tired and my guard is down. I’ll be standing in line at the bank, wandering around the mall, or sitting through a traffic light for the fourth time. And I’ll hear it:
In the meadow we can build a snowman,
Then pretend that he is Parson Brown.
He’ll say, “Are you married?”
We’ll say, “No, man.
But you can do the job
When you’re in town.”
Who the heck is Parson Brown, and why is he asking such personal questions? Also, isn’t that a disrespectful way to address a member of the clergy? I imagine myself, as a young boy, calling our parish priest “man.” I doubt I would have survived the encounter. And what does it mean that he can do the job when he’s in town? Do the job? That sounds like we’re hiring him to fix the roof. And if we’re talking to him, isn’t he already in town?
But it’s a children’s song, one that I thought I understood, that I now find most irritating, and bewildering.
All of the other reindeer
used to laugh and call him names.
They never let poor Rudolph
play in any reindeer games.
Then one foggy Christmas eve,
Santa came to say:
“Rudolph with your nose so bright,
won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?”
Then all the reindeer loved him
as they shouted out with glee:
“Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer,
you’ll go down in history!”
Then all the reindeer loved him? See, this is exactly what’s wrong with our culture. We ignore people, or treat them horribly. But as soon as they become celebrities, we love them, for no other reason than that they’re famous. The other reindeer laughed at Rudolph, called him names, and never let him play with them. Where were Santa and Mrs. Claus when all of this was going on? Didn’t it matter that Rudolph was being shunned?
I suppose that, in the end, none of it matters. The 26th of December will be here soon, and the carols will cease, at least for a few months. What’s important right now is that I get out of this bathing suit. It’s almost Cinco de Mayo, and I can’t find my sombrero.