For the past seven years, I’ve spent Christmas in sunny Orlando, Florida. It doesn’t generally feel like Christmas, even when December 25 is fast approaching. Unless one has memories of winters past from farther north, it might not be noticeable.
Christmas feels more like Christmas when Mannheim Steamroller is playing.In my case, I grew up with Tennessee Christmases. They generally didn’t involve snow, but there were mountains in the background, and it was cold and gray. Living in a city meant that traffic saw an uptick as people came in from surrounding counties to do their Christmas shopping. There’s an excitement and energy in the air in the lead-up to Christmas that tends to draw everyone together.
Christmas in Florida feels entirely different. Neither the weather nor the traffic give hints that Christmas is coming. If anything, the traffic dissipates in our part of town because we live next to the university with the largest undergrad enrollment in the country. Everyone’s gone once finals are over so the energy actually goes in the other direction.
It can be hard in this setting, to maintain Christmas traditions. Or, at the very least, to feel as if Christmas is coming once it is December. The weather certainly doesn’t help, but everyone tries to mitigate that by still decorating for Christmas. Even the theme parks tend to go all out. The other day, my wife and I were at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, and in the midst of its Christmas makeover, I noticed some very familiar music playing in the background.
If you’ve ever heard Mannheim Steamroller’s rendition of “Deck the Halls” or “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” or countless other arrangements, you probably won’t soon forget their distinctive style. While electronic music has come a long way since Mannheim’s pioneering days, they still have a very recognizable mix of instrumentation. By an innovative use of keyboards, orchestral instruments, and rock sensibilities, they created a signature sound.
Mannheim Steamroller was originally a one-man band created by musician Chip Davis. After a series of albums through the ’70s that helped establish the New Age genre of music, Davis turned his attention to Christmas music. At the time, this might not have seemed a particularly wise choice. Artists who could be going places didn’t make Christmas albums in the ’80s, most likely because they didn’t sell well. In 1984, Davis didn’t care and chose to make an album of reinterpreted Christmas classics. It was aptly titled Christmas and would go on to become one of the best-selling Christmas albums of all time. That same year, he decided to go on tour, kicking off what would become an annual tour that still runs to this day (they were in my hometown two days ago).
The year 1984 is particularly significant to me because it was also the year I was born. By the time I had memories of Christmas, Mannheim Steamroller’s first album—while still wildly popular—was joined by a second, A Fresh Aire Christmas. Both ended up on repeat in our house throughout December. My parents appreciated them too and played their albums through our downstairs sound system as background through much of December. On Christmas morning it was playing while we opened presents. When I picture the Christmas tree in our den, I hear Mannheim Steamroller. At this point, whether or not the music was actually playing, it is what plays in my shared memories of Christmases with my parents. In addition, my best friend during those years was also really into Mannheim Steamroller; I remember jamming out to it with him.
While I eventually found more Christmas albums to enjoy (and even recorded two with my band), those albums don’t have the same significance. That could have many causes, but I think it is because the other music was what I primarily listened to by myself.
This ended up having a more formative influence on me than I originally realized. Before I started college, I had put a recording studio in the upstairs attic (that was insulated, mind you) and had the capabilities to be my own one-man band. When you listen to the album that I recorded shortly before my last Christmas at home before college, it sounds like a blend of elements from New Age, classical, and rock. It even follows a four seasons trajectory, something Mannheim Steamroller did in the ’70s in a series of albums. It didn’t particularly make sense if you took stock of the music I listened to in the late ’90s and early 2000s. But it makes perfect sense if you know that I’m a classically trained pianist in addition to being a guitarist and drummer—and if you know what music I absorbed through the Christmases of my childhood.
I don’t think we purposely made this music a Christian tradition. It happened that way as we continually listened to music we enjoyed. It solidified our Christmases so much so that now it feels more like Christmas when Mannheim Steamroller is playing. The familiar sounds of the opening trumpet melody line in “Deck the Halls” never really gets old. And having shared that with my mom and dad growing up means it will continue to awaken memories and bring the Christmas spirit to wherever I am.
We can all benefit from anchor points like this in our Christmas tradition. While we celebrate with family and friends the same great truth year after year, that God sent his Son to take on our flesh and blood and redeem us, our traditions may come and go. In the midst of the changes, it is comforting to have some traditions that can stand the test of space and time. We love and serve a God who transcends time and space and traditions that can do the same to point us back to him. And this is why, almost a decade since living in Tennessee, I still carry on the family tradition by letting those same albums fill our house, while the orange and palm trees sway in the Florida breeze. It doesn’t particularly feel like Christmas outside, but it does inside, which is what counts.
Image via YouTube