Music and the Unspoken Words

’Tis the season of folly for mixed LDS families

J.A. Carter-Winward
Recovering Mormon


Image courtesy of my dad, Washington Tab Choir tour, 1958…there’s my dad circled in red. I miss you, Dad.

I grew up singing songs.

Like many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, music was an integral part of our family life. I grew up hearing my father leave early, every Sunday morning, for choir practice. Sundays and one evening a week.

I grew up watching him (sometimes) on television for Music and The Spoken Word on KSL, channel 5, before church. Even if we didn’t watch, the music wafted through the house like the smell of baking rolls and the roast beef Mom was braising for the elaborate post-service meal.

My dad often sat up in the choir seats or podium since he was usually the conductor of the ward — the local Mormon neighborhood’s church — choir

Accepted for his magnificent bass vocals and perfect pitch in 1945, Dad was only 17-years-old when he began his “calling” as a member of the Tabernacle Choir. He was not only the youngest inductee in the history of the Choir, he was also the longest-serving member at 33 years.

My dad was ushered out of the Tab Choir after they passed a new rule that capped choir service/membership at 20 years (or when someone turned 60.) Dad wasn’t the only musician in our family. The “singing Carters” were corralled for Ward Spaghetti night, talent shows, Road Shows, and Sacrament-meeting solos and duets.

My mother was mostly self-taught and the pianist, accompanying Dad and me, when I began singing in the church rounds at Firesides et. al.

My brothers all play guitar, also self-taught. I’m pretty sure one of my brothers could play the bass and the other taught himself piano and, obnoxiously, the bugle. That was quite a treat in the wee hours — for all 8 of us — including him. He later went on to be a dentist if that tells you anything…

Dad also played the tenor saxophone and was the front man/singer for a band called Men of Note at the Ft. Douglas Officer’s Club and Dance Hall. He’d started his first proper band at aged 14, and had the looks of a Hollywood star, which I 100% believe he could have been had his parents stayed in Hollywood and not moved to Utah, but also, my dad converted to Mormonism and that led him down a different road.

Anyone who knew him well would tell you that being a member of the LDS Church probably saved his life. I’m inclined to agree. But it’s difficult to NOT imagine what his legacy would have been had he stayed in Tinsel Town.

If my father were alive, he’d tell you his greatest honor was his 33-year long “mission,” as he called it, in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

It’s funny. Doesn’t matter where you go, who you talk to, the Tab Choir commands respect.

There’s always a sacred hush that comes over anyone listening to the Choir’s rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been out of the Church or in exile, doesn’t matter how hardened our Laman-ish or Lemuel-esque hearts are, the second we hear the Choir singing the hymn, “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” we start to feel the familiar pull.

Most memorable for me is the Tab Choir’s Christmas albums. My dad’s face is on all of them from 1945 to 1978. I still correlate Christmas morning with the Tabernacle Choir’s performance of Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus from The Messiah. We used to attend the performances live in the Tabernacle.

Mom played piano for a singing group in our ward called “The Double Quartet,” or “The Silhouettes,” and I will never, ever, ever, find a rendition of Bing Crosby’s “Christmas Is…” that’s better than their (mostly) a cappella performance and doo-wop ooh-ooh-ooh-oohs.

My family used to go caroling. We sang in 4-part harmony and delivered Mom’s carrot bread to all our neighbors, not considering the fact that carrot bread might not have been anyone’s favorite. (Santa loved carrot bread, so…there ya go.)

Music saturated our lives, our homes, and as a family, it bound us together and as the holidays approach, I can still hear Christmas music swelling throughout my childhood home.

The thing is, it’s been over a quarter of a century since I left the Mormon church, and I can’t shake the inexplicable sadness I feel around the holidays. But it isn’t regret. It isn’t the evil spirit of Lucifer in the absence of The Spirit. Please.

What I feel is loss.

The holidays, especially memories of Christmas, can be the type of bittersweet that seems, not exactly bitter, but a dull thud of grief as all the ‘sweet’ drowns in the loss of, not just a community and faith, but on many levels, the loss of family.

No one makes room for that. No one knows how.

They Came Bearing Gifts of Frankincense, Green Jell-O, and Myrrh…

The reasons we leave our faith are as nuanced and complex as just about anything else. Some people leave Mormonism in favor of a kinder, gentler form of worship, like Unitarianism, or some vague Christian faith, where all you need to do is accept Jay-sus and ask him to save you.

Then, they bup you on the nose and you’re saved. Or something like that.

God, (played by Alanis Morrisette, obviously) bups Bethany (a female/Grrrl savior, obviously) on the nose. Screenshot courtesy of a YouTube clip from the 1999 movie, Dogma.

Some members leave in favor of the Holy Trinity of Science: ‘Father Evidence,’ his son, ‘Logic Christ,’ and of course, the Holy Spirit of Critical Thinking, so hey, let’s make Christmas all about family and the LOOT, man!

Some former members like to go back in time to a mystical fairytale belief structure in the form of Earth-based religions and Solstice — hey, I’m not here to burst bubbles, but I kinda am. Pagans were not always peaceful, gentle, loving people of the ‘live and let live’ variety, either. Specifically after the Upper Paleolithic, early Neolithic periods… but I digress (and I love Solstice celebrations, btw.)

Instead of religious holiday worship, we might throw ourselves into whatever Christmas mode we’ve cultivated with heathen friends and close family (who knew eggnog with rum could be so delicious?!)

Sooohhh very delicious. Photo courtesy me & Puerto Rican rum

But as we gather with extended family, it’s as if we’re suddenly at the funeral of someone we loved and knew well, except the person is still alive to all your believing family. To you, however, they’re gone. Deceased, invisible and inaccessible.

And as your family laughs and reminisces with them, you suddenly feel how separate and alone you are. You feel the cold outside, even as you stand by the fire, practicing peaceful, tolerant facial expressions during miniature bursts of testimony-bearing and ward/missionary chitchat emanating from all corners of the room.

As it is with many individuals who leave the LDS Church, it’s not uncommon to have a loss of faith lead to the loss of your marriage, sometimes children. Maybe, as you’re finally free to express your sexual preferences to the world, you’re unable to fully be yourself with your family. Or maybe you’re a young family whose lives are in a liminal space as you wait for your spouse to finally step away from the Church — or you.

Perhaps you have adult children who still believe and you’re the grandparents whose house the grandkids aren’t allowed to stay at overnight because coffee will wake them in the wee hours à la Folgers commercials. (WTF, Folgers? Ex-Mos have a hard enough time. Jeez…)

Image captured from GQ’s Folger’s Incest Ad: an Oral History? Jeez & ew!

It could be that both spouses stepped away along with their children, sometimes an ideal-from-the-outside situation, but you find yourselves standing with your faces pressed up against the frosted glass while extended family beckons you inside where it’s warm, safe. Where you’re loved and accepted. Where all seems right and certain in the world again.

I sometimes wish I could do it and I’ve been tempted, more than once, to walk through that door into their loving arms. Hey, I’m not saying you should or shouldn’t. I just know for me, it would require a quick and brutal partial-lobotomy at the door’s threshold before I could slip my shoes off at the coatrack to be welcomed back into the fold.

The bottom line? Christmas is still Christmas, right? We have our own lives now, so we’re free to make our own memories, our own traditions, surrounded by family — or are we?

Because after leaving the Mormon faith, there seems to be invisible lines of demarcation in extended families, made by old-school Book of Mormon placeholder ribbon. So, when we suddenly show up with expectations that our new worldviews (à la hemp twine) will be welcomed with Wonderland wonder, well… never the twain (twine?) shall meet.

Shears Wikicommons

So how do we weave together a harmonious braid of mutual respect and familial fa-la-la-la-la?

No idea. There was a time when untying the family knot was unthinkable for me. But as I’ve heard stories from former Mormons all over the world, they all seem to have the same tenor and tone, and with each telling, I find myself wondering whether it’s not only reasonable, but necessary, to pull out the pruning shears to free yourself from ties that not only bind, but choke the life, and joy, from the holidays.

How the Church Stole Christmas

This is not real, but the photo is from or some Mormon housewife’s blog who didn’t properly cite it and also? Weird angle on the whole… Nativity… thing-a-ma-bob, there. S’up Joseph? Backrub time?

While music has historically been used to rally sentiment, provoke emotion, and most importantly, unify and unite, it’s also been used to rally sentiment, provoke emotion, separate and divide.

Speaking only as an American, where our “version” of Christmas has always taken a garish and decidedly un-Christlike tone, when I come back to the music and the power it has over the human heart, I find that fact both reassuring and unsettling. It’s such a powerful language that crosses almost all barriers.

So I’d like to address the other side of the holidays, especially Christmas, when you’re no longer a member or believer in an organized religion, specifically the LDS Church’s version of Christianity, because growing up Mormon, the holidays were inextricably conflated with the religion.

It was as though the LDS Church had co-opted every facet of the holiday and made it “Mormon,” especially when it came to the music. There was, and is, nothing more emotive, more bosom-swelling than music.

And that, kids, is the truth of it. The music is a part of what made it all real and true because it’s all based on our emotional states. It’s based on our very primal need to belong to our familiar tribe, our “people.”

But those lines made of ribbon and hemp could start to grow into chasms, crevasses, and even canyons over the years. As a matter of fact, as your life becomes fuller and more peaceful, the lines become more and more canyon-like because that, young (lady, man, person), is NOT what we agreed to do — in the minds of your believing family members, anyway.

No, no. We made an unspoken pact once upon a time, that if someone leaves the Church, their lives will fall apart, and they will be unhappy and unsuccessful. Well, guess what? That ‘someone’ is YOU, now, and you’re not playing your part very well, are you? (Wipe that grin off your face!)

Understand, your happiness, your joy, your successes, these are all direct cognitive threats to your believing family members. Try not to take it personally. But… doesn’t change the facts, though, does it?

And your believing family members, along with your still-niggling-at-you Mormon brain, no matter how faint the yammering, will be more than happy to give you all the reasons why you’re not filled with joy during the holidays. (Satan?)

No. It’s because ex-Mormons’ lives are supposed to be miserable. Haven’t you heard?

Milk Before Kool-Aid

You never said jack-squat about “easy” OR “worth it,” didja, Big Guy? Nope. Creative Commons licensing

Like much of Mormon “culture,” this poster is a misquote and misattribution, but that’s okay, right? One and Only and all that. Yes, on sale at Deseret Book, this and other rip-offs are popular wall-dressings in many LDS homes. Thankfully, instead of using tape to stick posters on the walls, (tacky, tacky…) they frame it under glass. You know. ’Cause it’s Art.

Here’s the real author, below.

Why Ms. West, what do you and Jesus have in common? Eh, she likely saved more souls. Photo courtesy IMDB

Yes, Mae West.

So, you see how it starts small, quietly, with innocuous “we believes.” Milk, then carrot bread, and soon, you’re being asked to swallow some pretty nasty gristle-laden meat, gagging the wiggling blubbers of fat down your gullet. And it’s so untenable, you’re forced to think of something — anything — other than the absolute nonsense you’re supposed to relish swallowing with everyone else. It goes way beyond “supportive,” yeah?

It’s a slow boil, the immersion (no pun intended.) And it doesn’t begin with baptism, it ends with it so a new era (pun, intended) of immersion can begin.

“Milk before meat” isn’t wisdom in small doses. It’s a tactic from the “Domestic Abuser’s handbook.” The “Playbook for Pedophiles.” It’s a ploy, a device, that’s used to gradually mind-f*ck you, or a whole group of yous.

But the problem I see, time and again, is that former members often get angry at the wrong person or people. One woman I recall from an “ex-Mo” support group kept saying how angry she was at Joseph Smith. She practically hissed it. I wanted to ask her why. Had he baptized her himself? Converted her? No, she was born into the Church so, her parents had done… what, exactly? Their best. So why not be mad at them?

I can tell you why. Because they knew not what they did.

Because believer’s only “sin” is believing. And being immersed, entrenched, in these beliefs belies, not how faithful they are, it’s really saying, “Our belief and faith is so fragile, we need reminders on every, single wall. We need our entire identities wrapped up in this all-encompassing thing because we’re so terrified.”

I don’t say any of that from a superior or “more enlightened” place nor to encourage you to do some faith “call-outs” during Christmas dinner. And no, you’re not a contentious piece of shit if you can’t stomach the bullshit because there are zero concessions made for non-believers. In fact, I’d posit that if someone moves in and out of true-believer circles with the greatest of ease, they’re probably very good at playing pretend (or they might still be ensnared in an MLM.)

That said, try to remember that the faithful’s seemingly-total Mormon-centric arrogance isn’t arrogance at all, but obliviousness, along with the nervous fear that you’ll bring up an unsanctioned topic that’s forbidden in the new “LDS Cultural Expectations Handbook.” (Is that a thing? It could absolutely be a thing.)

And when believers tell me how worried they are for my eternal soul, I sincerely, with love and true gratitude, thank them for loving me enough to share their beliefs with me (again.)

…But We Love You!

In closing, I have no words of comfort for you.

That’s what it means to live an authentic and courageous life, without the delusional safety net of “belief” cushioning the blows that come our way. In fact, if you can imagine that net below your extended family’s good cheer, try to find compassion for them.


Try and remember that repairing that net, reinforcing it, is their #1 objective, and it’s why, or partially why, you’re outside in the cold. It’s not that they don’t love you or care about you.

They literally see the damn net. And they secretly believe and fear that those shears you’re carrying are meant for that — and them.

Peace out and peace in



A song about this article: “The Untitled (Mormon) Song!”



J.A. Carter-Winward
Recovering Mormon

J.A. Carter-Winward, an award-winning poet & novelist. Author site, , blog: Facebook and Youtube