Sleigh bells ring – are you listening? In the lane, snow is glistening. A beautiful sight, we’re happy tonight, walking in a winter wonderland. (music by Felix Bernard, lyrics by Richard B. Smith – released in 1934)
I can see my mother sitting at the old black upright piano in our tiny living room right now. She had to move the bench closer to the keys because the giant Christmas tree she just finished decorating poked her in the back while she played and sang loudly to lead my dad and grandmother and me in some of her favorite Christmas tunes. Winter Wonderland was sure to be a part of the holiday repertoire.
It was an interesting choice for many reasons. Number one, no one in my living room had ever heard a sleigh bell ring unless it was on the radio – we didn’t have sleighs, much less sleigh bells in the rural town of Richards, Texas – a town where the weather in December might be as warm as it was on an island in the Caribbean or as cold as could be if a blue norther whipped through town blowing with it the wind chill of our version of the North Pole. But never a Christmas snow… and definitely no sleigh bells.
Problem number two, we had not the first “lane” in Richards. We had a few dusty roads in between the maybe thirty houses in the town – roads that became red mud after a rain, dangerous to travel in anything other than a pickup truck, but not even a poet could call them “lanes.”
Finally, neither my dad nor grandmother nor I was interested in walking anywhere. Decorating the tree was an ordeal supervised by my petite mother who was very domineering in her strict supervision. Each strand of lights, every decorative ball and other hanging ornament had to be carefully situated on the tree. The final touch was the silver icicle threads that she draped individually one by one on the tree branches with just the right degree of separation from the next one.
My dad and I were banned from working on the tree alongside my mother because we did not have the proper respect for the decorating process. We were caught throwing the icicles randomly on the tree and rebuked by my mom who retrieved the errant shimmering strands and patiently added them to her group.
Regardless, finally, after much ado, the tree would stand as a testament to my mother’s passion for perfection, and she would move on to what we called singing around the piano. No Christmas tree was ever complete without being serenaded.
“Let’s sing around the piano,” she’d say. My dad was always up for a song, and my maternal grandmother would sit on the dark green living room sofa next to the piano and occasionally join in for a chorus if she knew the words.
I learned a lot of Christmas carols plus a variety of other popular songs and traditional hymns in those singalongs around the piano. I didn’t worry about the words then – I just learned to sing them with as much gusto as my family always did.
The “beautiful sight, we’re happy tonight” lyrics were true for me. My beautiful sight was my family together in that living room with the perfect tree…we were happy those nights…whether we were walking in a winter wonderland or singing about one…
I will miss them all this Christmas.