Christmas Eve in my boyhood home was filled not with the anticipation of opening presents so much as the thrill of opening night. Somewhere along the line, the tradition of singing carols after dinner morphed into a pageant in the truest sense.
Rather than gathering to sing together, each family member performed a solo song in front of the tree, sometimes with my sister Molly accompanying on our upright piano, sometimes a cappella.
My dad went the latter route after Molly learned the hard way that no amount of instrumental support could salvage the steaming musical messes he dispensed on the night before Christ was born.
I'm not the son of a sinner. I'm also not the son of a singer. You'd best don protective eyewear and Kevlar when my father sang. He liked to sing bass even though bass notes were as much within his reach as was the presidency.
We squirmed in our skin in anticipation of Dad's harrowing caroling. His repertoire, like his range, was limited. His go-to tune was "We Three Kings," where he'd start out in a key so low there was no room to create musical sounds below where he started. Undaunted, he would modulate between keys, or what some might call keys, his voice lurching up and down like a broken elevator, causing the most terrifying trip for the Three Kings ever imagined.
He dragged out the "Ohhhhhh, ohhhhhhhhh" part that starts the chorus, the part right before the "star of wonder" lyric. He really milked this, summoning the power to unleash further violence onto the song. I looked down the length of our yellow sofa, and there, in the warm glow of the tree lights, I'd spy my sister and Mom, their eyes closed, their fists filled with tightly gripped wads of couch cover.
Baby Jesus didn't deserve this. King Herod and his tribunal didn't deserve this. But on he warbled, tilting toward the star, through the fields and fountains, a wanderer adrift in a sandstorm of missed notes. The bulbs on the tree dimmed in and out and then, just before the needles started to release from their branches and fall to the floor, he was done.
The room, depleted of all oxygen, was silent. High above our rooftop, where air traffic had been temporarily, mysteriously redirected, arrival flights from Memphis and Cincinnati resumed normal approach into the city of Louisville. Dad took a formal, theatrical bow, then returned to his place on the sofa next to the frozen bones of his family.
Dad's evisceration of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" ran a close second to his death-row treatment of "Kings." One can get away doing "Bethlehem" with a monotone if one has to. As a result, it was more of a dull, plodding pound than the merciless waterboarding of "We Three Kings."
The best thing about people who can't sing is that most of them don't know it. Dad opened his mouth in song and he heard Robert Goulet. We heard the noises of beef cattle being slaughtered.
I was the second-worst voice in the house, so I did my best to always follow Dad. Since I was a glass-half-empty singer - and knew it - I had to choose songs like "Rudolph" that could be slathered with antics and movement. Flashy stuff. The same misdirect a magician makes when he has you look at one hand while he pulls a lit cigarette out of your ear with the other.
They say heaven is a particularly good place to be this time of year. I imagine bright, solar-powered lights, ribbons of spun sterling silver, and boughs sent from Earth's highest mountaintops.
There is, of course, always singing in heaven.
These days, after my own family makes music on Christmas Eve, I sit on our sofa in the warm glimmer of our tree lights. And I look skyward for my late father.
As Molly and Mom did all those years ago, I clamp my eyes closed. I search for Dad among the members of heaven's choir. I look for signs that I'm close, scanning the faces for wrinkled eyebrows, or downcast eyes, or looks of nausea.
There are none of those things. Behold! Why, he's singing a solo! The people surrounding him are smiling! Their arms are around him, swaying back and forth in glee. How could this be?
It's because, my brothers and sisters, God's greatest commandment of any believer is compassion. And, by God, that's what I wish for this Christmas season. For you, too.