We weren’t allowed to listen to Christmas music in my family until our Thanksgiving dinner. Then we would play two albums in quick succession: Christmas with Conniff and We Wish You a Merry Christmas, both sung by the Ray Conniff Singers. These albums — vinyl, of course — would continue in constant rotation through New Year’s Day, along with John Denver and the Muppets, Anne Murray, Elvis, and a compilation from a variety of artists put together by the ladies of Avon cosmetics.
When I listened to Conniff-arranged versions of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” “Jingle Bells,” and “Here Comes Santa Claus” while eating turkey or making Christmas cookies or fetching my mom a cup of tea after the mêlée of four kids shredding through presents on Christmas morning, I’d imagine what I thought the Ray Conniff singers to be: two dozen beautiful people walking in unison through light, fluffy snow. The men were all tall and strapping in red and green suspenders; the ladies, petite and girly in matching skater skirts paired with tight white turtlenecks, their hands and ears warmed by white fur muffs. I’m still not sure why they didn’t have coats. Probably because their Christmas cheer kept them warm.
Together, they’d walk through a winter wonderland until Christmas Eve, when they would all pair up and get engaged and then married, just like in my favorite of their songs, “Christmas Bride.”
I wasn’t too far off, at least when it came to the number of singers. The original Ray Conniff group had 25: 12 women and 13 men. Conniff himself was trombonist and music arranger in Boston before joining the Army during World War II, during which he arranged music for the Armed Forces Radio Services. He got the band together in 1959.
The group’s Christmas albums soon followed: Christmas with Conniff that first year and We Wish You a Merry Christmas in 1962. In 1965, they filmed The Ray Conniff Christmas Special: Here We Come A-Caroling, which still runs on a handful of PBS stations every year. He did a lot more than just arrange holiday tunes: Conniff recorded over 100 albums before he died in 2002.
But it’s only the Christmas music that’s filtered down to me, and I feel a bit silly for my inclination. These albums and these songs and the ideals they presented were an extension of the perfect post-war dream, the same mentality that gave us Ozzie and Harriet, Lucy and Ricky, and Frankie and Annette before the Summer of Love imploded that shiny, boy/girl/boy/girl façade of what happiness should be.
I like to think that if I’d have been alive in the 1960s, I’d have been more Sylvia Plath than Doris Day — that I’d have been the Peggy fighting in the office instead of the Betty rotting at home. When I watched the 1965 camp classic Beach Blanket Bingo this week, I begged Annette to deck Frankie for being such a jerk. And despite their many protestations about a scholarship program, I don’t for a second believe that Miss America reflects the sensibilities of modern woman.
But I still play Conniff every year (except for “Carol of the Bells,” where the singers sound like they’re being slaughtered while screaming “ring” over and over again) because Christmas is all about the willing suspension of disbelief, about holding fast to the hope that the family will come together in perfect harmony without some sibling picking a fight with over a long-ago grievance; that credit cards used to appease the holiday’s consumerism will never have bills come due; that upon gazing at Christmas tree, stuffed with decades of Christmas ornaments, we will all feel full of a holiday glow; and that someday, on a beautiful snowy December night, I’ll be that Christmas Bride instead of slaying the dragons of this world alone.
The Ray Conniff singers, in their perpetual hope and cheer recorded over half a century ago, can deliver those feelings, if only for a moment, before reality sets back in and I’m just another single 30-something from another fractured family trying to her best to stitch a holiday back together again even though the original pieces will not hold.
I’m in Southern California for Christmas this year, cruising around beach towns in summer clothes in instead of layering up against what I expected would be East Coast cold! I spent every other Christmas of my life in that chill.
But I’ll still ask to put these records on, and I’ll still close my eyes and see a perfect white field of snow, and those men and women singing as they walk through it on their way to happily ever after. And I’ll still hope against all logic and reason that, someday, I may join them.
Jen A. Miller is a freelance writer based in the great Garden State. She has written about running for the New York Times, Runner’s World, Running Times, and New Jersey Monthly. She writes a running column for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She’ll be running her next marathon — slowly — in April 2014.
Her most recent story for The Magazine, available here at Medium, was “Good to the Last Drop,” exploring the potential connection between overconsumption of caffeine and heart-attack deaths at road-run finish lines—and the need for more research on the topic.
This article was produced by The Magazine. It costs $1.99 per month for two issues or $19.99 per year for 26, and subscriptions include free access to over 160 past articles — our full archive. We commission original reported articles and essays, and run five in each issue every two weeks. You can get a free, seven-day trial via our iOS app or our Web site to try us out.