Thanks to my unbridled enthusiasm of the holiday season, I've been called the 'Christmas Kid'. The day after Thanksgiving, I decorate at least one Christmas tree. I pick a color theme each year and make sure the ornaments and wrapping paper are complimentary. Treasured mementos are placed around the house. Perhaps most significantly for me, the Christmas music is turned on, the volume high.
For this, I have my family's original 'Christmas Kid' to thank: My maternal grandfather, Robert L'Heureux.
One of the mementos I display in my home each year is a ceramic church belonging to my grandparents; next to it, I place a photo of my grandfather, dressed in a red sweater and hauling an Army bag full of gifts. He has a gleeful smile on his face, and I still remember his bellowing, 'Ho! Ho! Ho!' as he rummaged through the sack, handing out gifts to his grandchildren.
The most treasured holiday memory for me, however, is the music. Every year, after we opened gifts, my grandparents, their three children, the in-laws and grandchildren would gather together in voice or with musical instruments and perform Christmas carols.
My grandfather and my grandmother, Norma L'Heureux, were both music teachers in Dixon, Illinois. My grandfather was the band director at Dixon High School from 1948-1980. He also directed the city band and helped found the Sauk Valley Community College Band. My grandmother taught elementary vocal music at Washington Grade School from 1966-1984. Following retirement, she taught piano lessons in her home.
Although I was quite young when we enjoyed Christmas in Dixon with my grandparents, I do remember the excitement of everyone gathering together to perform the holiday carols: my grandfather on trombone, my grandmother on piano, my mom on flute, her sister on clarinet or vocals, my uncle on guitar or vocals, my other uncle on trumpet, my aunt on French horn, my great aunt on vocals.
When we grandchildren were old enough, we also learned musical instruments. I played flute and my sister took up French horn, as did two of our cousins.
As everyone joined together in song, we created what sounded like a band and choir concert. It was thrilling to absorb all of the sounds together, weaving in and out of harmony, charging toward the chorus. I wondered how many families had enough musical inclination and ability to do the same? I felt I was witness to something unique and special.
In addition to the yearly concerts, my grandparents compiled their favorite holiday music on a reel-to-reel tape for my parents, which I recall listening to every year as a child. The recordings included the Firestone Christmas albums and 'The Many Moods of Christmas' with the Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra (1963 version). Today, although my personal holiday music collection is varied, it doesn't truly feel like Christmas for me until I turn on my grandparents' favorites.
My maternal grandparents have been gone for many years now; my grandfather died at age 69 in 1992. After that, we ceased the Christmas concerts. My grandmother passed away in February 2000.
Now, however, we have a new generation of children in the family. It is my hope that we can perhaps revitalize the concert tradition, so they, too, can experience the excitement of joining together in a family band.
'The Many Moods of Christmas' album, one of the L'Heureux family favorites: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLKFMqqY7Jlnd8VaLaSsSHrY8DEHeqZiCQ
Sara Stromseth-Troy is a freelance newspaper feature writer for The Cresco Times Plain Dealer, and serves as Young Adult Librarian and manages the social media accounts for The Cresco Public Library. Fortunate to grow up surrounded by an extended family of music educators, she is honored to volunteer in blog writing and social media for The Spirit of Harmony Foundation, on whose advisory board she sits. She lives in Cresco, Iowa.