How The Beach Boys Saved Their Christmas Spirit

This family was struggling in snowy Wisconsin. But the upbeat music from the California band helped turn things around.

Posted in , Oct 26, 2020

Illustration by Tanguy Jestin

Walking into the empty kitchen in my fuzzy robe, my eyes fell on our radio, silent like the rest of the house. I passed it by without turning it on, just shuffled over to the refrigerator. “The West Coast has the sunshine, and the girls all get so tanned,” I sang to keep myself company. I couldn’t have chosen a song with less to do with my own life.

It was a snowy December morning in Wisconsin, where we lived in 1979, just a week or so before Christmas. School had been canceled, but my parents had already gone to work.

Mom was a loan officer, and Dad drove a snowplow. My brother, John, was off somewhere with friends, so it was just me, alone in our house.

I was 12 years old and used to being unchaperoned, especially with my brother David off to Arizona State University, and Hal, well…

My oldest brother, Hal, was 20. Once so smart and industrious, an Eagle Scout, he’d barely graduated high school. A camp counselor had introduced him to pot a few years earlier, and everything changed.

My mother tried her best to steady his path. Indulging him, begging him, buying him a guitar. Nothing worked. He wanted to buck society, play by his own rules.

Maybe he didn’t understand how much we loved him, I thought, pouring myself some orange juice.

I’d tried to show him. When Hal started getting into trouble, my parents told me to keep an eye on him. Because I was the only girl, everyone thought caregiving was my responsibility. I was already in charge of laundry, cooking and cleaning. How on earth could I be expected to keep a 20-year-old man from walking out the door and out of our lives?

On a beautiful day in June, the kind the Beach Boys liked to sing about, Hal gathered his belongings and left without a word. I didn’t know what to do, how to stop him. I didn’t ask where he was going. Maybe Hal himself didn’t know.

Since that day six months ago, my parents had become despondent. My mother, already prone to depressive episodes, stopped eating and fell into bed as soon as she got home from work. Dad stayed out in his plow as soon as the weather turned, and John escaped to basketball in the school gym. All of us were cut off by our own private sadness.

I dropped a slice of bread into the toaster. Even Christmas can’t bring us together, I thought, watching the toaster heat up. “I just don’t have it in me,” my mom said whenever I asked what our plans were.

I took the butter from the fridge. If we could just have Christmas, I thought desperately, maybe things would feel normal. Even just for a day. could be the start of our family healing. But I was kidding myself. Christmas was never going to happen. We had no tree, no decorations, certainly no Christmas spirit. Why did I even get out of bed?

My toast popped up, and I spread it with butter. Once again my eye fell on the radio. Turn it on. It wasn’t just a whim. It was the kind of thought that God used to reach me through the static of life. I switched on the dial. “Stay tuned,” the DJ said, “for our all-day Beach Boys marathon.”

Well, that’s a start. Those five handsome men with tans and ocean-swept hair, singing in perpetually sunny California—their music always filled my heart with joy, no matter what.

I wouldn’t count on that this morning, I thought, crunching into my toast as the DJ picked “Little Saint Nick” to play first. “Well, way up north where the air gets cold,” the Beach Boys sang, “There’s a tale about Christmas that you’ve all been told.”

By the time the boys mentioned the “real famous cat all dressed up in red” I was smiling. How could I not?

I should bake some Christmas cookies while I’m listening. There was no one home to stop me, and the Beach Boys would keep me company through the afternoon.

“The Christmas spirit grows with each new day...” I sang along to their classic “Christmas Day” and plopped balls of dough onto parchment paper. “And it’s so close but seems so far away.” The Beach Boys understood perfectly. While the first batch of cookies baked in the oven, my cloud of sadness started to lift, and before long nothing could stop my Christmas spirit from kicking in.

One batch after another, my Christmas cookies went into the oven. “Let’s go surfin’ now. Everybody’s learning how,” I sang at the top of my lungs, twirling through the kitchen. I felt so light, so carefree, my usual feelings of loneliness and guilt taking a back seat. To me the Beach Boys had always sung like angels, but today they had me believing that all good things were possible. Even for my family.

Maybe I could drag the artificial tree up from the basement. It wasn’t too big. As if on cue, “Little Old Lady from Pasadena” sauntered in through the speaker. “She drives real fast, and she drives real hard. She’s the terror of Colorado Boulevard....” If a frail old woman could drive a souped-up Dodge, darn it, I could put together a tree. I got to it.

Just as I started to struggle with getting it in the stand, John got home. “Mom said we weren’t having Christmas.”

“This isn’t Mom’s Christmas,” I said. “It’s ours. Would you like to help or not?”

Together we set up the plastic evergreen in the corner of the living room. Who knew that the light strands would be an endless tangle of knots? Or that we needed to string them up before hanging the ornaments? It was a learning curve for John and me, but we were happy to be working together.

The DJ hadn’t lied about the all-day marathon, either. The last song ended just as Mom walked in. My heart did a somersault, fearing her reaction. When she saw what we were up to, her face softened. She didn’t say a word, but she didn’t go to bed either. She changed out of her work clothes, and later that night, relaxed by the glow of the tree.

When Dad saw Mom relaxing, he took me aside. “There’s still time to get a few presents after all,” he said. “How about it?”

We gathered around the tree on Christmas morning. When John reached under the branches to grab his first gift, the entire tree came crashing down. The lights flickered and several ornaments broke free, rolling loudly across the room.

My head spun to catch Mom’s eye. Was our Christmas going to go up in smoke?

Mom burst out laughing, and so did Dad too. My brother and I joined in, and the four of us laughed for a good long time.

Now, 43 years later, I still think of God’s California angels, who reached me when no one else could. They made me believe that for all of life’s struggles and heartbreak, good things were always possible. It took a few years before Hal found his way back to us, but he did return, safe and happy, if a little bit of a hippie. He makes and sells crafts, and he knows how much I love him and always have. Even before the Beach Boys brought sunshine to snowy Wisconsin and Christmas to a family who might have let it pass unnoticed.

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