Building Musical Traditions for the Holidays

In days when life was simpler, when grandmother lived in the same state and families married within the same religion, the building of traditions happened by itself. Aunts and uncles were geographically accessible: to see them was the norm; not to, was the result of some family feud or unspeakable act. Travel was time consuming, so one did not go to the Caribbean to eat Thanksgiving dinner under a palm tree, but rather to grandmother's house or to the nearest geographically feasible relative's. Several weeks later, preparations for Christmas or Hanukkah began. The season ended with New Year's, a holiday for grown-ups, occasionally with children peeking through banisters at parents and friends dressed in their finery, with glasses of champagne and colored streamers floating from the ceiling. But today, life is not so simple, and if our children are going to have memories of the holiday season, traditions to pass down to the next generation, we, as parents, need to create those traditions, those memories that begin, "When I was little, we always....," for family traditions today do not happen, they are created.

The sounds of the holidays are a tradition that are not geographically specific, dependent upon relatives' plans, religious affiliation, or who is willing to cook the holiday meal. Sounds take many forms: the new instrument that arrived for Christmas or Hanukkah, singing holiday songs, going to see The Nutcracker, attending a sing-along or learning the words to "Auld Lang Syne." As the visual component of our children's lives becomes increasingly intense, I always caution parents not to forget their children's ears. Sounds are like tastes and smells: even without a picture, they can conjure up memories that are more real and intense than anything that they might see. So take a moment and create an "audio audit."

How many songs does your child know that relate to each holiday?

Schools used to take care of many of these, but now, in the interest of not favoring one tradition over another, they usually provide nothing rather than some of everything. Has your child taught you a Quanza song? Have you taught your child every Christmas or Hanukkah song that your parents taught you? Why not find the words to one song that you vaguely remember and teach it to your family this year. Why not, as a family, learn the second verse to some Christmas carol or Hanukkah song to remember together? (I guarantee that in 40 years, one of your children will challenge the other to see if he or she can remember it, groaning at the effort, demanding that his or her children do the same!) Hunt for holiday sing-along concerts or create your own. There is a rich body of American holiday music, from "Frosty the Snowman" and "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" to "Silent Night" and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" to "Hanukah, O Hanukah" and "Dreidel, Dreidel." Don't let your children grow up without knowing this wonderful body of music.

Have you listened with your family to Dylan Thomas' own reading of A Child's Christmas in Wales? Appropriate for children 9 and up, this is a purely aural treat, which should be part of every child's holiday memories. If your 9 year old is not ready for it, enjoy it yourself and put it away until he or she is in 7th or 8th grade, and then put it in the car for carpool listening on December 1st. Caution: Do not buy anyone else's version of this recording, for the Welsh accent and gruff voice make it a timeless treasure.

Performances of Dicken's A Christmas Carol is another literary holiday experience, which should not be missed and can be highly recommended as a tradition. I have one child for whom this was the most cathartic experience of the year. A good production will include songs and text and the true non-religious significance of the Christmas spirit is one that every child can understand.

The season provides one of the few opportunities to expose your male child to ballet, generally without protest. ​

The Nutcracker has enough swords and cannons to make most boys think that it is "cool." All major ballet companies have an annual production of The Nutcracker. Before you buy the tickets, sit with your child and watch a video of the ballet (my favorite continues to be the old American Ballet video with Baryshnikov). As you are watching, stop the video and explain what is going on; this is one of the great assets of videos as opposed to attending the real performance. If your child is not ready to sit through the entire video non-stop, wait until next year to take him or her to the ballet. And, if you are going to be in New York City in December, the New York City Ballet's Nutcracker is legendary and a great treat for any child. (Tickets are very difficult to obtain, so this requires planning.)

Similarly, the holiday season provides one of the few works to introduce a child to opera. One of my favorites is Amahl and the Night Visitors. Keep your eyes open, for occasionally there is a small production somewhere in the area.

For many families, this is a time to play music together. I was one of four children with two parents who played instruments, and we had a family orchestra, beginning the day after Thanksgiving and continuing until Christmas. Every evening after dinner, we all played Christmas songs from a collection that my father had found. We complained appropriately, performed on Christmas Day for visitors, and waited until next year to begin again. To this day, friends define Christmas as coming to our house to hear music....and we do not feel that it is Christmas unless we have all played. Most families are not so fortunate, but the holiday time is a good occasion for a child to have a piece ready to play for relatives. The piece should not be his or her latest, most difficult encounter, but rather something that is easy and fun to play, short enough for no one to get bored, and appealing to friends and relatives his or her own age.

Finally, there is the question of, "Is this the time to give Herbert his new tuba?" There is no easy answer to this question. If Herbert has wanted a tuba for two years but you simply could not afford it and he's lived in hope that his school would buy one so that he could switch from the baritone horn, a tuba would be a wonderful gift (if your budget will allow.) If Eloise hates to practice the piano, hates her music teacher, and has kicked the legs of your piano to the point where it is in danger of collapsing, but you want a new Steinway and have found a wonderful pre-season deal, give Eloise the new American Girl doll she wants and just have the piano delivered to you with a tag that reads, "To Mom, from Mom, Merry Christmas." The middle ground is the child who likes (note, not "loves") to practice. Such a 13-year old, when asked, responded, "Well, you need to get something special like a new instrument on a special occasion, like Easter or Valentine's Day. Christmas? Well, yes, it's okay if you are getting other things too. Like, you know...."

The audio audit should include a full palette of actively "doing", as well as "input" from professional cultural organizations, namely, orchestral, ballet, theater productions. Most of the input is available on audio and video for home consumption, but the experience is not the same. Reflect upon your own childhood: do you remember an adult who took the time to take you to something special, an experience you have never forgotten? And if you can't, don't you wish you could?

Bonnie Ward Simon, BA, MA, M.Ed, M.Phil.,

President of Maestro Classics

Maestro Classics, classical music for kids

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