On The Road: The Politics of Holidays

Welcome to the Hallmark Holiday Channel. Annette Hinkle photo.

Well, the holidays are officially upon us — or I should say they’re officially upon the inside of my car. At least, that’s what Sirius XM Radio has been telling me since adding Channel 70 to its roster back on November 1. In case you weren’t yet aware, Channel 70 is, for the next month or so, the Hallmark Channel and thanks to the miracle of modern satellite technology, you can now listen to all the Christmas music you could possibly ever hope to devour 24-hours a day, seven days per week, coast to coast.

Yes folks, the Halloween-themed Scream Radio is out and “Countdown to Christmas” is in, having passed over Turkey Tunes entirely (I’m guessing there just aren’t enough ditties about the joys of slaughtering turkeys or celebrating the arrival of the white man to these shores to justify a Thanksgiving satellite radio station for a whole month).

Oh well. “Joy to the world” I say, with glee. Methinks I need to go buy a pine scented air freshener for the rearview mirror in order to complete the tableau. Who cares if the pumpkins, leaves and trick or treaters were still out in large numbers when the holiday station premiered. Once you’ve heard “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas,” and put the heat up really high in your car, you can’t help but be swept up and sweated up in the excitement of it all. Call it a Yule Log for your vehicle and pretend that you’re rushing home for the holidays instead of just commuting to and from work amidst the usual trade parade on an average gray and suspiciously dark November day.

I have to say, though I don’t generally look forward to Christmas starting before all the leftover Halloween mini-Snickers have been thoroughly devoured and digested, the “Countdown to Christmas” channel is actually coming as something of a welcome relief and, dare I say it, a comfort this year.

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that, as an empty nester, I’m already envisioning the cookies we will bake and the decorating we will do once my daughter finishes up her first semester at college and flies home in mid-December. But I think even more consequential is the need to escape the discord.

You know what I’m talking about — the partisan political rhetoric that is heating up big time in Washington with the impeachment hearings now well underway. The unending details of those, too, can be found on satellite radio via the cable news channels.

Could anyone have imagined back in the days of Sputnik and the Cold War that the offspring of those first satellites would now be beaming back to us news of an American president getting a little too cozy with the Russians? Strange days indeed. Also strange is the fact that I never realized how much I didn’t need visuals until I started listening to MSNBC in my car. But now, avoiding the voice of a particularly irksome senator, congressman or other elected official with whom I will never agree (and lo, there are many in these troubled times) is as easy as a simple flick of the wrist, which takes the dial and ultimately, me, back to a simpler time.

Ahhhhh. Channel 70 … that’s where Nat King Cole’s chestnuts are roasting on an open fire, Bing Crosby is in sunny L.A. pining for a “White Christmas,” and Dan Fogelberg is sharing a six-pack with his old lover in the car as the snow turns into rain.

For me, these seasonal tunes make for an interesting kind of time travel. As familiar as the hallways of your childhood home, yet also limited in terms of their relevant airplay, by January, the Christmas music is tucked back into the attic of our minds, just like the twinkling lights and tree decorations. There, they sit forgotten until the following November when they are brought back out into the light of day.

And that’s when the opening of that attic door takes you right back to childhood. Why is it that the whiff of year-old pine or the sight of a cherished ornament can snap you right back to a specific Christmas long, long ago and conjure distinct memories of family members who have long since left this earth? I’ve found that surprising the mind like that by sneaking up on it triggers the most powerful and emotional memories. But it’s not a trick that can be easily duplicated, no matter how many times you bury your nose in the old Christmas box. It works only once and it takes time — specifically, a year’s worth of seasoning in which your mind puts those memories back on the shelf largely forgotten, until that waft of the holiday hits you squarely in the face the following year.

That’s how it is with the music as well, and what was so strange to me about being confronted recently by those old time Christmas songs is how hearing them took me \ to a specific memory that wasn’t just about the holidays. It was also about politics — specifically, 1973, and the impeachment hearings of another president, this one named Nixon.

Though I was only a kid, I had a very strong, visceral dislike of Nixon (my instincts have always been fairly solid on that score). In our family, the Christmas of 1973 was linked to discussions of impeachment and I recall it fondly, not only because I loved to hear adults argue politics, but because it was also the year that I received my most favorite gift of all time — a tape recorder … I kid you not. The irony may have escaped me then, but it doesn’t now.

Given to me by a favorite uncle with a wicked sense of humor, he had left a message on the cassette that came with the push-button recorder. In it, he claimed to be Santa and he mentioned that the recorder was a gift from my aunt and uncle — for which I must pay. Then he added that whenever I visited them, I would have to wash all the dishes, sweep the back porch, feed the dog and perform any other chores that they asked me to do. He added that at home, I had to do the same, only more. In the background of his recording, a jazzy version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” played softly.

Though in the years that followed, that tape recorder got tons of use as my friends and I sang songs, secretly recorded our parents and yes, even did interviews with one another, unlike Nixon I always made sure to not record over the most important thing on that tape — the message my uncle had left me on Christmas morning all those years ago.

I miss those days, and those people. Will the impeachment hearings turn out the same way this time around as they did back in the early 1970s? Highly doubtful. Despite his failings, Nixon had a sense of honor and understanding of rule of law that is sorely lacking in these days.

Wow. Did I just write that sentence?

Hey look! It’s snowing outside.