Today is December 24 – Christmas Eve – and it is already Christmas day in parts of the world.
Last year, my wife and I traveled to Israel, and among the many places we visited was the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. This church is built over the traditional site of the birth of Jesus Christ. Of course we cannot know for sure if this is the exact location of His birth, but as I have told many people, that is not important to me, or to most who come to this place. We were in the neighborhood of this world-changing event, and we were able to take in the mystery of the Incarnation in a concrete way, and share in the devotion of millions of pilgrims who have come to this place over the centuries.
Here is the traditional site of the birth of Christ, beneath the floor under the altar in the grotto of the Church of the Nativity. Many years ago, people began chipping off pieces of the floor so a marble floor was laid with a hole surrounded by a silver star where you can put your hand to touch the original ground.
Across the room from this spot is the traditional location of the cattle manger where Jesus was laid after birth. Again, we cannot be sure this was THE spot, but the coldness of the stone reminded me that Jesus’ birth was not in a modern hospital with today’s clean and comfortable conveniences. His birth was humble in the extreme.
In the courtyard of the church, we saw a sign in two languages – we’ve seen them around the world in England, Greece, throughout the United States, and several places in Israel – that reminded us once again of the truth of what happened on that night so long ago.
We also visited the traditional Bethlehem shepherd’s fields, and a cave that was used by shepherds. We used our imagination to picture the sight of the angel announcing Jesus’ birth:
Fear not! For behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10-22)
Here is a painting of the announcement of the angels that is in the Chapel of the Shepherd’s Fields in Bethlehem:
In our home, we have a nativity set that was given to us in 1978 by my grandmother. We’ve always displayed it around this time of year and in our home in Arizona, it sits on the mantle above our fireplace (yes, even in Arizona, a fireplace is welcome in the winter, although I confess that instead of hauling firewood for our wood stove like I did in Massachusetts for so many years, I am very grateful that this natural gas fireplace is operated by a remote control in my hand).
When we moved here in 2012, we noticed something quite nice: on Christmas Day, the sun shines through a small glass block window over our front door and at 8:30 am, it comes to rest on the central figures of Mary and Jesus. We didn’t plan this; it just happened.
It is a remarkable little thing, with this happening every year at the same time. The light on Mary and Jesus reminds us of the important truth of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ:
Then Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
The light of life. Everlasting light. Yes, we have fun with Santa Claus and Jingle Bells and all the rest. But the Truth of Christmas is much more interesting. And important.
As a reader of The Last Trombone, you know that I enjoy seeing how the trombone intersects with popular culture. At this time of year, it’s time to bring out some of my favorite images and a great recording about that famous man in red and white, Santa Claus. Who, as we all know, plays the trombone. Right?
I’m writing a book about the trombone right now and have just finished the chapter on the history and evolution of the instrument. One thing that we always have to keep in mind when looking at images of the trombone throughout history is that iconography is not always a reliable indicator of how an instrument actually looked. Santa is no exception. Sometimes we see him holding the trombone just right, like the image at the top of this article, and this one (Santa not only plays the trombone, but he think’s he’s really cool, too):
It’s hard to see his embouchure but apart from a posture that’s going to give him trouble when he’s 3000 yeas old, he seems to have the trombone under control.
Then again, sometimes Santa puts the trombone together backwards. But he still thinks he’s cool. Time to get your glasses checked, Santa. Here we go again: iconography as a poor indicator of what and instrument looks like or how it works:
Then there is Santa with the music to “Jingle Bells” on his lyre (seriously, Santa, do you really need to use the music after all these years?). And the trombone put together backwards? Again?
Well, when he puts his glasses back on, evidently Santa can remember how to put the trombone together correctly, but from the look of things, he isn’t exactly making beautiful music – what note IS that?
Actually, Santa’s trombone doesn’t always play music. Sometimes he uses it as a present delivery system. Pretty great, don’t you think?
It’s clear that Santa is a really cool trombone player. But when you see a trombone playing snowman, well, that is a REALLY cool trombone player. Cool as in temperature cool. I hope he’s using a mouthpiece with a plastic rim.
If you want to HEAR Santa play the trombone, then here you go. Poppa John Gordy and his Dixielanders recorded Santa’s favorite song, “Santa Plays the Trombone (In the North Pole Band),” with Clint Garvin, vocalist. The trombone player isn’t identified on the record label so, of course, is HAS to be Santa himself. Right? Have a listen by clicking the video below, or view/listen to it on YouTube by clicking here.
If this doesn’t jump to the top of your Christmas music play list, then you’ll probably get coal in your stocking.
I’ll close this little popular culture tour of Santa and the trombone with a poem I wrote that’s made the rounds over the years. It first appeared in December 2012 when I was in my first year as Professor of Trombone at Arizona State University. Santa plays the trombone. He really does.
A Visit From Santa Claus To A College Trombone Player
T’was the night before Christmas and all through my home,
All the horns were in cases, including trombones.
For after the finals and juries and tests,
It was time for some shut-eye; I needed some rest.
I was dreaming of straight mutes and pBones and more,
When I woke to a sound that I’d not heard before.
And what should I see on my roof up on high?
A Moravian choir, with trombones playing fine.
Alessi and Lindberg, Kleinhammer and Yeo,
Were all playing their horns, their heads covered with snow.
And who should be leading this heavenly band?
But old Santa himself, a trombone in his hand!
“On JJ! On Jörgen! On Tommy and George!”
This band was so sweet, I sure did thank the Lord!
“On Norman and Pryor, Ron, Urbie and Frank!”
Some others played, too, but my mind drew a blank.
I grabbed my trombone and I lubed up the slide,
With no time for a warm-up, I hurried outside.
The gang was all playing some mighty nice tunes,
And we jammed some cool charts by light of the moon.
I invited them in just to warm up their chops,
But they just kept on playing, man, this sure was tops!
Saint Nick put his horn down to fill up my stocking,
With valve oil, and slide cream, CDs – so inspiring!
In time, things wound down and they packed up their horns,
And the sleigh got revved up and was heavenly borne.
But Santa looked back, and he said with a smile,
“Merry Christmas to all, and don’t forget to keep practicing even though you’re on vacation!”
— Douglas Yeo (with apologies to Clement Clarke Moore)
The least frequently performed of Paul Hindemith’s sonatas for various instruments is his Sonata for Alto Horn in E-flat and Piano. It was written for an instrument that is not played in concert bands and symphony orchestras, but rather is mostly used in British style brass bands. Still, I believe this Sonata is one of Hindemith’s finest and it also has a unique feature. Before the final movement, Hindemith wrote a poem to be recited in dialogue by the soloist and accompanist. Titled The Posthorn, the poem speaks about technology, memory, and beauty. Its final lines are among my favorites in literature:
Your task it is, amid confusion, rush, and noise
to grasp the lasting, calm, and meaningful,
and finding it anew, to hold and treasure it.
I am very interested in “the lasting, calm, and meaningful.” The world is a loud, busy, chaotic place. I seek out its antidote: quiet, beautiful, and ordered places. One of the reasons why my wife and I moved to Arizona in 2012 when I retired from the Boston Symphony is so we could be in proximity to the great National Parks of the west, places we have turned to time and time again for refreshment.
This past August, we took a three week road trip through California and up to Oregon, where we spent time hiking in several National and State Parks. Here are a few photos from that trip. I don’t need to provide extensive commentary; you can click on the links in the caption to each photo for information about each park, but perhaps at this particular moment in time, you, like I, might receive some refreshment from looking at these photos. Perhaps they will stir your own memory of a visit to these places, or inspire you to want to see them yourself. They are, indeed, “lasting, calm, and meaningful.”
Sequoia National Park
The giant sequoia trees of Sequoia National Park defy description. These trees are the largest living things on earth; some are as tall as 275 feet high. Think about that. Nearly as tall as the length of a football field. We took a long hike through the Giant Forest Grove and did not see another person for over two hours. We were alone with these magnificent trees. Here is a photo of Sentinel Tree, mature sequoia tree that is just outside the Giant Grove Visitor Center.
It’s difficult to get a sense of perspective of just how large these trees are from a photo. So here is a video to help get a grip on this. It shows my wife, Patricia, standing in front of “The Happy Family” group of giant sequoia trees in the General Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park, adjacent to Sequoia National Park. A picture is worth a thousand words. A video is worth a million. And listen carefully while playing the video in a quiet place; you can hear the chirping of birds. We took this video very early one morning when no other people were in the area. To view this video on YouTube, click on THIS LINK:
Kings Canyon National Park
As mentioned above, Kings Canyon National Park is adjacent to Sequoia National Park; they are jointly administered by the National Park service. A small part of Kings Canyon has giant sequoia trees, but most of the park is the dramatic canyon, a mile deep, through which flows the Kings River. There are peaks in the park that are over 14,000 feet high; here is a photo of the Grand Sentinel peak which is at the end of the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway.
Mount Shasta region
From Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks we entered California’s Mount Shasta region. Mount Shasta is 14,179 feet high and covered with snow year round. On the way to our trailhead, we passed thousands of perfectly formed pine trees. I had never seen such symmetry in trees; it was stunning to behold.
We had intended to hike from Gray Butte but the road to the trail was closed. It was blocked by snow. In late July. So we parked at Bunny Flat and hiked to the Sierra Club Cabin at Horse Camp. The view of Mount Shasta was stunning.
Pat has an aunt and uncle who live in northern California so we stopped to see them a few days. It was a bit of a family reunion, too, with several of her cousins and their families there as well. We spent a morning driving and then hiking to a remote alpine lake, a pristine body of water in a stunningly beautiful setting. This panoramic photo gives only an idea of the majesty and solitude of this remarkable place.
Crater Lake National Park
I have been fascinated by Crater Lake National Park since my childhood. Located in Oregon, the lake formed when Mount Mazama literally blew its top. The lake is 1,943 feet deep at its deepest point and is six miles across. I was unprepared for its size; it is breathtaking. Inside the lake is Wizard Island, a volcano inside the volcano. Sometimes things come together to allow our eyes to see an iconic view that is then called to mind every day thereafter. Such was the case at the moment I took this photo, below. The stillness of the water, the reflections of the crater and clouds in the water, the bits of snow, and the deep green of the trees all came together to give us a memorable moment in time. A panoramic photo of Crater Lake I took a few minutes later is at the top of this article.
In addition to Wizard Island, there is one other geologic feature that comes up through the surface of the water at Crater Lake. That is Phantom Ship, a rocky outcropping that stands 200 feet high. Getting close to Phantom Ship was the last thing we did at Crater Lake, and seeing it was the realization of a long held dream. You can also see the difference in the clarity of the air between this photo and the one above. Smoke from wildfires in the area created a light haze, and these fires were precursors to the horrific and damaging fires that burned in the San Francisco Bay and Los Angeles areas later in the year.
Redwood National Park
Giant redwood trees are not the same as giant sequoia trees. Redwoods grow taller, and do not have the same, thick, soft bark as sequoias. They are also not as wide at their base as sequoias. Redwood National Park in California is one of the few places in the world where these majestic coastal redwoods grow. The park is actually a collection of parks, some of which are state parks, that form a chain of areas that protect these majestic trees.
As we took hikes on the Hope Creek and Rhododendron Trails in Redwood National park, we were instantly transported into a dramatic, quiet, lush forest. It reminded me of the opening lines of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem, Evangeline, where he wrote:
This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud, from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.
The tallest redwood tree is 379 feet and like the giant sequoia trees, a photograph simply cannot give a sense of perspective. So here is a video of me looking up at a giant redwood in Redwood National Park. Again, if you listen carefully, you can hear the sounds of birds. We did not see another person on this hike. To view this video on YouTube, click on THIS LINK.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
We had intended to visit Lassen Volcanic National Parkon the first part of our trip, on our way up to Crater Lake. But the park road was closed due to snow. We kept checking the status of the snow plowing at the park and we were very pleased when the road cleared just as were beginning our trip south back home to Arizona. We rejigged our plans so we could spend a day at Lassen.
This was an unexpectedly wonderful park. Like Mount Shasta, it features a snow covered mountain as its centerpiece. But on our hike around Manzanita Lake, we saw a group of deer, a doe and two fawns. They were aware of our presence but we quietly passed. It was a beautiful moment.
Manzanita Lake provided us with another of those remarkable views that combined water, sky, mountain (Lassen Peak), and trees. It was a “postcard view” that we stopped and took in for quite awhile.
We did not climb to the top of Lassen Peak but we did go to its trailhead. It was this area of the park that had the most snow in the winter of 2016-17 and the last to be cleared of snow. As we walked around the area, I did something I had not done since the winter of 2011-12: I made a snowball. Pat snapped this photo of me tossing the snowball up in the air and she caught it just as it was at the peak of my toss. Holding snow in my hands brought back a lot of memories of our life in New England, although I confess I had never done this before in the month of August!
These trips to National Parks refresh, invigorate, and inspire us. They are, indeed, part of what God has given to us to enjoy that embody Hindemith’s memorable words, “the lasting, calm, and meaningful.” We never tire of visiting them, either for the first time, as was the case with all of the parks we visited on this trip, or over and over, like Grand Canyon National Park. The Parks are, indeed, in the words of historian Wallace Stegner, America’s best idea. But while their preservation and access are the responsibility of our great National Park Service, it is the Creator who made all of this for us to enjoy who receives my greatest thanks and praise:
O Lord, how manifold are thy works!
In wisdom has thou made them all: the earth is full of Thy riches.