Sounds of the Season

by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Exec. Editor



Richard Johnstone

Do you hear what we hear? Yes, above the unsettling background buzz of politicians and pundits in unending news cycles, you’ll hear it: the soft, sweet sounds that reside in the mind’s ear, gently yet insistently calling us home for the holidays.

Sights, smells, tastes and touch can all magically summon memories of people and places, moments and moods.

But memories can also be stirred and summoned by sounds: by festive songs, both sacred and secular … by hushed tones sharing holiday secrets and surprises … by unabashed exultations as children round corners into everyday rooms made magical one night a year … by emotional reunions, as families and friends claim again, if only for a day or two, the closeness denied them for much of the year by other duties, other places.

Other seasonal sounds take us back: the steady crackle and startling pop of an awakening wood fire. The crunch of late autumn’s laggard leaves underfoot. The amalgam of animated voices, rising and falling, as family and friends bustle breathlessly from the chilled darkness into the warm light of a holiday home.

During this season, magical memories can also emerge in quiet places. In the blessed silence outdoors as midnight approaches, foggy breath filling the night air, sparkling stars filling the night sky. And indoors too, in a dark family room, the showy holiday tree now a shadowy prop, the lively wood fire now a skeleton of scattered embers, dying on the hearth, as sleepy children, exhausted, nod off in the warm darkness, the day’s excitement now a world of dreams.

As the close of 2017 approaches, we extend a long tradition, and herewith offer a few selections from much-loved works celebrating sounds of the season. 

Opening the gate, we tread briskly along the lone country road, crunching the dry and crisped snow under our feet, or aroused by the sharp, clear creak of the wood sled, just starting for the distant market, from the early farmer’s door, where it has lain the summer long, dreaming amid the chips and stubble … .

— Henry David Thoreau, “A Winter Walk,” 1843.

“I knew it before I got out of bed,” she says, turning away from the window with a purposeful excitement in her eyes. “The courthouse bell sounded so cold and clear. And there were no birds singing; they’ve gone to warmer country, yes indeed … .” It’s always the same: a morning arrives in November, and my friend, as though officially inaugurating the Christmas time of year that exhilarates her imagination and fuels the blaze of her heart, announces: “It’s fruitcake weather!”

— Truman Capote, “A Christmas Memory,” from Selected Writings of Truman Capote, 1956.

Christmas began when pecans started falling. The early November rains loosened the nuts from their outer shells and sent them plopping like machine gun bullets on the roof of the veranda … And so you lay there, listening to the drip drip of rain and plop plop of nuts, feeling something good is going to happen, something good and it won’t be long now.

— Lillian Smith, “Tree-Shaking Day,” from Memory of a Large Christmas, 1961-’62.

The bobsled would move off, creaking over the frost-brittle snow ... As the horses settled into a steady trot, the bells gently chiming in their rhythmical beat, we would fall half asleep, the hiss of the runners comforting. As we looked up at the night sky through half-closed eyelids, the constant bounce and swerve of the runners would seem to shake the little stars as if they would fall into our laps.

— Paul Engle, “An Iowa Christmas,” from Prairie Christmas, 1960.

I had scarcely got into bed when a strain of music seemed to break forth in the air just below the window. I listened, and found it proceeded from a band … They went round the house, playing under the windows …The sounds, as they receded, became more soft and aerial, and seemed to accord with quiet and moonlight. I listened and listened — they became more and more tender and remote, and, as they gradually died away, my head sank upon the pillow and I fell asleep.

— Washington Irving, “Christmas Eve,” from The Sketch Book, 1819.

ower across the land.



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