Mills of the gods
I guess I have been to well over 100 Christmas parties in my life. Probably more than 200, if you count school and work and neighborhood gatherings. My favorite Christmas party took place about 45 years ago, and was one to which I was not technically even invited. My parents had lived in an apartment complex at about the time of my birth. In that complex they had met a group of Mid Westerners that they hung around with. Each of these couples, the Nases, the Mussers and the Neesers had all moved out to the newly built neighborhoods of Southwest Houston, where my parents had located. All were WW II vets and their wives, taking part in raising the Baby Boom generation, of which my brother and I were apart.
These four couples established a rotaing monthly supper club. One weekend a month they would eat at each others houses and talk and joke about what every other World War II generation couple talked about at the other 100,000 supper clubs that were going on during any particular weekend and in any particular suburb. Every four months my parents number would come up and the group would meet at our house. The way the rotation was set up, it seems that we almost always had the December meal, and so, the Christmas party.
My brother and I liked it when the gang came over because it meant we got to eat Swanson frozen TV dinners on a tray in my parents roon in front of their TV. We were particularly fond of the fried chicken and roast turkey, although the mashed potatos could be a little inconsistent, depending on how frozen the meal had been, and how long our mom kept it in the oven.After we ate ,we'd watch T.V. for the rest of the night. We were expected to make one formal appearance in the living room to talk to the folks, and then as the evening wore on, one parent or another would wander by on the way to the restroom to chat with us. They were uniformly nice people, but all of them talked with those flat, nasal midwestern accents, that may as well have been Martian, as alien as they sounded to my southern ears. I was especially fond of the Neesers, Chuck and Barbara. Chuck was, how shall I say it, the least understated member of the whole group. In all the years I knew him, I never, ever, saw him without a smile. The guy was just happy. His wife was also very positive, she used to come back and sit on the bed and talk about what "Mr Neeser" was up to. I liked the way she always referred to her husband as "Mr Nesser" around us. Dean Musser was from a small town in Nebraska or Iowa, I forget which. He had a job with Mars Candy which, as a kid, really gets your attention. You may not understand engineers or accountants, but you sure as hell knew his product as well as anyone in the country. My father once confided in me that Musser would go far because he was in good with "Old man Mars". I was pretty impressed with that.Of the three variations of midwestern accents among the couples, the weirdest belonged to Vicki Nase. I found out when I got older that she talked strangly not because she was from the Midwest, but because she was just about deaf. But Vicki was great. She loved to come back and talk to my brother and I during the party, often after a couple of drinks. We really enjoyed her.
The particular Christmas party to which I alluded was a supper club Christmas Party which happened sometime in the early 1960s. No earlier than 1960 and no later than 1963. If I had to guess, I'd say 1962.Any Christmas party my mom and dad gave had a similair beginning. It involved a trip to the neighborhood liqour store. My father usually drank only beer. My mom seldom drank anything at all. So since there were few spirits in the house, my dad would head for the store to buy a bottle of bourbon, a bunch of mixes, and a jar of marishino cherries.He would always make my brother and I highballs out of one of the Canadian Dry mixes (tasted fruity) and a couple of cherries. We'd down them with the frozen dinners. I liked the smell of burbon and mixers around the house. In a day before liquor by the drink was sold in Texas, it was a heady experience to see these drinks being mixed. This particular group had no scruples about drinking.My brother and I would make our appearance about the time the first or second drink was being consumed, and an air of relaxation had descended upon the room. We'd then head back to the bedroom and listen in at times as the night wore on and the voices grew louder and louder.
This particular evening, my parents had just purchased an album for their RCA Stereo called the "Sing Along with Mitch Christmas album". Back in the early 60s, there was a show on T.V. starring a guy named Mitch Miller. Miller was the leader of a chorale group and the group would sing old favorite songs each week. The TV screen would feature words of the song so that the family at home could "sing along with Mitch." It was a very popular show. Mictch himself was a balding guy with a goatee who looked somewhat like an aging beatnick. The Christmas album not only contained seasonal favorites, but about half a dozen song sheets so that whoever listened to the album could join right in. The album was heavy on peppy non-religious tunes and kind of light on the church favorites.I recall Frosty, Rudolph, the various Santa Claus songs being among the group. At any rate, about 10:00 p.m., or there abouts, the four couples in the living room had consumed enough alcohol to where they could pretty comfortably sing along with Mitch. Presuming they could keep up with the words. As my dad put on the album, my mom passed out the song sheets, and in a short time, enthusiastic singing was coming from the living room. It being fairly late for my brother and I, I recall being almost asleep when the singing started. Both of us listened for awhile and stiffled our laughter over the various mistakes the group was making in each song. It also struck us that the men were not taking the singing as seriously as the women, or were perhaps, just drunker.
After four or five warm up songs, the Mitch Miller Band began to play the first strains of the "12 days of Christmas." This song was not a favorite of mine. I had only recently learned that the tree in the song I could never place, a "Partrdrginapear tree", was in fact a partridge in a pear tree.I thought that the song was too long and very boring, full of anachronistic language that never failed to give me a headache. But once Mitch and the boys started in, I closed my eyes and listened to the song.
The first few verses went along fine. In fact, almost quiet, as if perhaps the alcohol was now having a dulling effect. By the time Mitch got to "three French Hens " things were beginning to pep up, and,in fact, Chuck Neeser in particular, seemed to be warming to the verse. Neeser had a loud booming voice, even when he was quietly asking you about your school teacher. After maybe half a dozen bourbons he could become positively booming, especially, we learned, when singing. The fourth verse was sung in a rather rousing fashion, as if all knew that the climax of the song was near. I herard the flat nasal midwestern accent sing out "Four calling birds and then proceed down the list. Throughout the song my brother and I had been lying in the dark. I was unsure whether he was asleep or not as we approacched the true loves gift for the fifth day of Christmas. From out of the living room came a thundering Wisconsin sound that rattled walls and shot galsses ass it reverberated down the hall and into our room "FIVE GOLDEN RINGS". Both my brother and I were now up, eyes wide open, wondering at the unprecedented strains we had heard. Chuck Neeser had, through his singular interpretation of the the fifth verse, lifted the choir to unimaginable heights. Laughter punctured the sixth verse as the choir struggled to get through the six geese a laying, only to be immediatly greeted by "FIVE GOLDEN RINGS", this time, sung solo by Chuck as the rest of the group watched in amusement. After a few verses, Neeser began to drop out of some of the less exciting presents, choosing to focus his voice solely on the "FIVE GOLDEN RINGS". Both my brother and I were rolling on the bed, in fits of uncontrolable laughter, quieting each other only as the song would once again reach the fifth day which would send us, convulsed, falling back onto the bed. Throughout Pipers piping and ladies dancing, and I recall particularly the midwest accent on the "maids a milkin", Mitch and the supper club sang on. Sometimes Nesser was alone in his golden rings, sometimes he was joined by the other revelers. But the verse would only grow in volume. By the time Twelve Lords lept off the stage and the song wound down to its final crescendo, Neeser was able to summon one last monumental effort for the final Partride in a Pear tree. With that, the eight inebriated in the living room laughed as hard as my brother and I. It had been quite a performance. One that I would remember the rest of my life.
Finally we drifted off to sleep, and I suppose, the party wound down. The next morning my brother and I set off the hangovers of the parental units by marching into their bedroom and belting out "FIVE GOLDEN RINGS." For years afterword, each Christmas we talked about our memories of that song and that night. On two or three occassions, when the supper club Christmas Party was at another house, Barabara Neeser would call to let us know that the annual addition of Tweleve Days of Christmas was coming up and we would listen in over the phone. It was a nice tradition, and we appreciated it. But never again would the song be sung as it has been that night, although Chuck always gave it his best. The rendidtions were too artificial and lacked the spontanaity and perhaps the lubrication, of the original.
So that song and that night have stuck in my mind now for over forty years. And ever after , when I think of the joy of Christmas, no matter how many toys I got, or how many trees I decorated, or how many bourbons I myself drank , I am not sure that anything could quite equal the sound of those eight thirty something year old members of the greatest generation, singing along, as Mitch had intended them to do. No Christmas Carol since then has ever sounded so sweet, or meant quite the same thing, because you are only young once at Christmas. And only the young believe in magic.