Sarah Coyne: Christmas songs can teach us about parenting

“So this is Christmas,” I sing to myself while surrounded by half-risen cinnamon rolls, flour on the floor, gift wrapping supplies on the kitchen table. The kids are sprawled in the living room, watching “Elf” or “Home Alone.” The clock on the wall declares the impatient passage of hours: Tomorrow is Christmas day.

It’s a season rife with messages. Nuggets of wisdom and guidance are crammed into our mailbox on holiday cards. They’re plastered in magazines, preached from pulpits, sprayed across the world in a universal plea for peace, goodwill, comfort and joy. Forced from speakers in every venue.

Christmas songs are, of course, heavily riddled with seasonally inspiring messages. Something I’m realizing thanks to my near constant focus on good-enough ways to raise our kiddos is that some of my favorite Christmas songs impart some parenting wisdom of their own. I might have to squint to see the relation, but it’s there nonetheless.

Here are some parenthood take-aways from holiday tunes.

‘Have Yourself aMerry Little Christmas’

The original lyrics, said to have been written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane in 1944, were much more somber than the popular version.

They sounded almost defeatist, saying things like “Faithful friends who were dear to us will be near to us no more, but at least we all will be together …” The song sounds as if it was meant to recognize the ephemeral quality of our days, an embrace of the best moments, no matter how fleeting. It was probably intended to be far-reaching and philosophical, but as a parent, I hear something more specific.

I hear the reminder about how we’ll treasure these exhausting, challenging days of childhood Christmases. The bursting schedules, the overtired kids, the commercial worries — it won’t always be like this.

Our kids will grow and scatter, and “we’ll have to muddle through, somehow.”

Yes, it could be depressing. (Good thing Judy Garland and, later, Frank Sinatra jollied it up a bit for wide-release.) But it’s also honest: We’re only in a season, and seasons change. “No good times like the olden days, happy golden days of yore …” I’d better soak up the moments because in hindsight, they can transform into sparkling, precious memories.

‘The 12 Days ofChristmas’

Ever repeat yourself all the live-long day? Ever wish you didn’t have to anymore? Well, too bad, because that’s parenting.

OK, hold on, I’m sorry I sounded so brusque. It’s Christmas, and because I’m an unreformed cheer-spreader, I’ll start over. Ready?

Parenting is 90 percent repeating things you already thought your kids should know by now and five percent trying to be happy about it.

The rest is divided between tripping over shoes and realizing you’re out of peanut butter.

When I listen to “The 12 Days of Christmas,” I feel myself internalizing the pattern of accumulation, the words on top of the words on top of the words. Much like I do when I relay one more time why my son simply must wash his hands after using the restroom.

If I thought it would behoove me to create a cumulative, folksy chant about the situation, I would. (“On the first potty training, my toddler gave to me, a hand that had freshly been cleaned …”)

Another lesson I’ve learned from this classic is that there are dozens and dozens of versions. Between the first known release of the poem in 18th century England, there have been at least 20 variations on the tune, and American pop culture has added innumerably more. What that means for me is that things keep changing and it’s fine. People do things differently and that’s fine, too. Just keep singing.

‘Carol of the Bells’

Such a beautiful song, am I right? The way the melody swells and dips, the choral resonances, the gonging that strikes against one’s breastbone and makes one want to stand up straight and sing!

If only one knew the words.

Here’s the thing about “Carol of the Bells.” I skip along the lyrics, pretending to know what I’m saying, but honestly unable to keep up with the pros. And when I do remember what comes next, I become so momentarily giddy that I trip over the words. A performer, I am not.

But a fallible human, I am. I don’t always know the right words to say when a kid comes to me with a problem.

I don’t always remember what comes next.

And as soon as I think I’ve got the perfect stanza lined up for belting out, I tangle the words in my own incompetencies. I think we parents expect ourselves to always do the right thing in raising kids. It’s such an impactful job, which leads many of us to hold ourselves to impossible standards.

I try to remember “Carol of the Bells,” though, when perfectionism hits: the perfect lyrics may elude me, but the result can still be soaring and timeless. It’s still beautiful, even when peppered with my apologies and shrugged shoulders.

‘Little Drummer Boy’

Christmas, I believe we’ve already established, is a busy, wild ride. And being a parent at Christmas is even wilder.

But hearing “Little Drummer Boy,” with his “shall I play for you?” and his insistent “pah rum pum pum pums,” communicates a stark reminder for me: while I’m busy trying to make a perfect Christmas, I fail to hear the drumbeats of my kiddos. The people for whom I’m presumably working to create memories. The small humans for whom the magic is still bright and peaceful and unfettered.

When my oldest wants to snuggle-chat before bed while I need to be wrapping presents, her drumbeat is worthy of being heard. When my dancing girl wants to show me her original choreography, but we should be baking our party treats instead, her drumbeat is worthy of being heard. When my son wants to play, but the frantic seasonal preparations have worn me down, his drumbeat is worthy of being heard.

Their drumbeats teach me about life. “Little Drummer Boy” reminds me to listen.

Sarah Coyne lives in Joplin. She writes about life and motherhood at her personal blog, http://this heavenlylife.blogspot.com.

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