As I listen to my 17-year-old son practicing Christmas songs on his piano, my thoughts drift to the years past when my sister played at our family Christmas party held on Christmas Eve evening. Though it may sound like something from television, my siblings, their children, in-laws, and any other stragglers who had shown up for free food and fellowship would gather around the piano to sing carols.
Our gathering around the piano happened no matter which of us hosted the party in that particular year. It never occurred to me to question why each of our homes possess a piano. I guess that my siblings and I mimicked my dad who bought a black Gulbransen upright piano for $50 for my sister to learn upon when she was young. Manufactured in Chicago in 1927 at the height of Prohibition, the Gulbransen surely has some stories to tell. If only Fats Waller was around to coax them from its yellowed keys. My sister’s family still has that piano anchoring their basement, replaced upstairs by a much newer console edition.
I have no idea why my dad, whose side of the family never exhibited any musical talent, should have bought a piano. Maybe he found a deal and intended to turn a quick dollar or maybe he was granting a special request from his only daughter. By exposing us to the piano, he gave his children the idea that the piano was a household item necessary for the raising of his grandchildren. As my nieces and nephews grew older, their musical talents broadened beyond the piano. In recent years after the singing has concluded, they continue playing music on a variety of acoustical instruments – each note played echoing a note from the Gulbransen.
As an aside, in 1978 one out of every 316 households in the United States had a piano. By 2015 the number of households had dropped to one out of every 3,788. There’s a video game blame in that statistic somewhere.
Like my dad, my mother did not have any musical talent herself but she brought something almost as important – familial talent. The wide range of musical talent that was sprinkled on my siblings and their offspring came from my mother’s side – the Price family.
I will gladly admit that the tradition that we established was a copy of the Price family Christmas party. For as long as I can remember, it was held on Christmas Day evening at the house of my aunt Francis – my mother’s sister, to be exact. My mother was the eleventh child of Thomas and Joyce Price, so it was a big party filled with aunts, uncles, and distant cousins whose names that I could never recall. The music on those Christmas nights was from the hands of my uncle Clint Price and his sons, Joe and Sammy. There was not a musical instrument made that Clint could not play. He was an amazing musician.
The atmosphere was one of gentle familiarity and respect for each other developed over the years of being a close family. I am sure that there were tensions between some of the family members but being a child, I don’t remember a cross word ever spoken. My mother’s siblings were members of the Greatest Generation. Most of her brothers served in WW2. Maybe it was growing up during the depression then fighting a war that made them so willing to have a warm-hearted Christmas reunion every year.
These two traditions were not easily made. My father’s family was so torn by internal feuding that having a carol singing with his siblings was unthinkable. No Christmas truce on that Western Front. Having observed close hand their destructive behavior, my siblings and I learned early on to value and protect our Christmas Eve gatherings. As the years went by, we suffered the loss of our parents but not the loss of the spirit behind the gathering, which is ultimately the spirit of Christmas – the spirit of redemption and renewal. May it continue so.