Rocking Around the Christmas Tree

Christmas eve/day, 1977

The ground was bare as my brother Jim and I walked into the now vanished Towne Tavern in Rotterdam, all those Christmas Eves ago – but it was cold.

Inside, everything was warm and ready for this rock ‘n’ roll bash. The stage was full of instruments, amps, lights and PA, a long buffet table offered mostly Italian foods, and the bar was busy, open and free.

I’d heard about this Christmas Eve musicians’ party for years but I guess I needed Jim’s presence to authenticate my invitation. He’d played with hosts Louie and Ralph Mauriello since they were all in fourth grade, rocking hundreds of high school dances and bar gigs and recording a few songs, before they graduated.  Then the rest of the band had moved out to Oklahoma, where Jim studied music theory and composition, to resume playing together. That hadn’t worked out, but they were still friends. One night on a previous visit, we went to Allen’s on Rt. 50 where they were playing. Jim brought a sax, and in the middle of a song, he stood on his chair and started playing along. 

On this particular Christmas Eve, he’d come east from Santa Barbara to visit family for the holidays; or maybe he came mostly for Louie and Ralph’s bash. The stage was as open as the bar: If you had the nerve and the chops, you’d just get up and jump into the song. Jim played some, mostly harmonica, I think. These old musical friends played with more cooperation than competition. The solos got pretty assertive at times, but people played mostly within the songs; old rock ‘n’ roll and blues songs for the most part. However,  all kinds of people played various kinds of music, including a novice classical pianist who wobbled uncertainly through some Debussy. Everybody applauded everybody.

When the wingding wound down around 4 a.m., a new world waited outside: Two feet of snow had fallen. Even if it had fallen all at once, with a thud, the music inside was so loud we wouldn’t have heard a thing.

Jim and I dug out my old VW squareback station wagon – good in the snow, but with little or no heat in the cabin – and took nearly an hour to drive from Rotterdam to my home in Alplaus. My wife Ellie had left before the storm, heading west to join her big family (she’s one of 10) in the old farmhouse in the hamlet where she grew up. Called Newville, it’s closer to Little Falls than anywhere else familiar, but it really isn’t very close to much else at all. Newville is 12 or so houses and no businesses, just a church and a Grange. After two feet of snow, it’s a Christmas card,

Jim and I slept a few hours, bundled up again and hit the road on Christmas morning. Driving the 60 or so miles to Newville took two hours, over snow-drifted roads through beautiful white countryside that was equal parts Norman Rockwell and Stephen King. I don’t think we passed another car, in either direction, and if we had slid off the road, we’d have been stuck until spring.

The big white farmhouse stood quiet among the drifts as we skated up the long driveway. We clumped into the back shed on the back of the house and into the kitchen. There, the whole family stood waiting for us in a long line, with gaps for us. The family custom was to line up in age order and to march in procession into the living room with the Christmas tree and gifts; they had left spots in the line for Jim and me. While they waited, they had fired up the snowblower, grabbed shovels and cleared every driveway in Newville. They had also done some caroling: Sorry, but nobody in the family has much of a voice and they wouldn’t have lasted long onstage at Louie and Ralph’s party. It was a moderately big crew that year; maybe not as big as the 30-plus who celebrated Christmas there one year, when opening gifts (one at a time) took more than two hours. But it was big enough that Jim and I were both nodding off as gift after gift emerged to happy ooh’s and aaah’s. 

Then it was time for dinner, then to watch “Amahl and the Night Visitors” – the whole family knew every word – and to play board games and do jig-saw puzzles.

It was as perfect a Christmas as anyone ever enjoyed, starting with the warm, loud welcome of a rock ‘n’ roll/open-bar/old friends’ get-together; the drama of a shock snowstorm and two harrowing drives; and the second warm welcome of finding our places in a big-family fandango scrupulously honored/awaited – and all those people were happy to see us.