I heard the bells on Christmas Day ... but it started at Fiorello's

J. H. Osborne • Dec 13, 2019 at 4:30 PM

I’ve yet to put a Christmas tree up. Mom thinks it’s too late. Personally, I most value a tree between Christmas Eve and Epiphany. But we both agree on one thing. It’s never too early to play Christmas music. Our tastes sometimes differ wildly. But mostly we agree. We especially love “the bells.” And we’re pretty much on our own in that among the rest of the family. There will be no fight over the bells whenever Mom “is through with them.”

I’m it. The irony is I have a backup set.

I’m getting ahead of myself. This column was to be my “Top 12” Christmas songs. I had that thought as I drove from Orlando to Raleigh last week, listening to the random Christmas CDs I’d thrown in the backseat as we left home a week earlier. Of course, a “Top 10” would be basic. But I got to 10 quickly. So I thought I’d be clever and do a “Top 12” — playing off one of my sure favorites, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (which ties back in to Christmas Eve until Epiphany). But 12 wasn’t enough. I started sorting religious from secular. I didn’t want to look like a heathen!

I’ve thought about this off and on for a week now. I began to think about two things: the Christmas music of my childhood; and my “exceeding great joy” at what has become a part of my Christmas experience — the Candlelight Processional at Epcot. I was blessed to visit Disney over Thanksgiving weekend, thanks to the generosity of friends, for my eighth year in a row. Sunday before last the stars aligned just right and two friends and I were among the last seated for the first Processional of the evening. By some miracle, we ended up fourth row right, giving us a perfect view of it all. We were very near the sign language interpreter. I was thankful for the seats, delighted that night’s narrator was Neil Patrick Harris, and excited to see the conductor is my favorite: John V. Sinclair, a professor of music from Rollins College.

Maybe it was the emotion projected by the interpreter, but I think it was simply the live music. I was overcome with the feeling of Christmastime. A ringing endorsement considering I’d been roaming around Disney World’s four heavily decorated parks and numerous resorts for three days.

I’ve thought about the songs I love best at Christmas. And remember I heard most as a child, played quietly in the background, on floor-model stereos at home and at my grandparents’. Many of our LPs were “collections” from department stores we frequented. A lot were from Grant’s. A few were from Montgomery Ward. All featured a mix of singers, usually singing standards. Or what have become standards for me. It’s when I fell in love with “Silver Bells” (Doris Day), “Go Tell It on the Mountain” (Mahalia Jackson), and “I Heard the Bells” (Bing Crosby). Two childhood favorites were “The Little Drummer Boy” (you can’t beat the Bing Crosby/David Bowie version) and “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Another was “Do You Hear What I Hear?” (Perry Como?).

Three adult favorites are “Christmas Canon” (Trans-Siberian Orchestra); “Il Est Ne Divin Enfant” (Annie Lennox — but during last week’s Advent Open House at First Christian Church the stars again aligned for me and I heard a magical instrumental version by a harpist, who might have been old family friend Martha Painter); and “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem” (by anyone Bluegrass or “Old Timey). For fun, I have to mention three whimsical songs: “Don’t Forget to Feed the Reindeer’ (Peggy Lee); “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” and “Christmas is Coming” (John Denver and the Muppets). I adore “Carol of the Bells.” 

In church, I enjoy singing “Angels We Have Heard On High,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Angels From the Realms of Glory,” and the ultimate Christmas song: “Silent Night, Holy Night.”

Back to “the bells.” The set has been hanging over our living room mantel longer than I remember. They’re electric, but not synthetic. Each bell is real metal, has a real clapper, and really rings its own tone. They play a series of 25 Christmas tunes lasting about 35 minutes ... and repeat ... repeat ... repeat. I’ve forgotten how old they are. I doubt I’ll forget their provenance. They came from Fiorello’s, the florist and gift shop that for a time occupied the old McCrory’s building on Broad Street. I want to say right off that Mom and I became loyal Fiorello’s shoppers. But “the bells” were purchased on one of our first forays into the store. Mom usually doesn’t go out without cleaning up. I can’t say the same for myself. I think we’d actually been working in her booth at the Haggleshop. I must have looked like a street urchin. A poor one who maybe had wondered in thinking it was still a five-and-dime.

So when I pointed past the ... let’s say more reasonably-priced merchandise on the counter ... to the “real metal, real clapper” bells behind on a shelf, Mom and I, in my memory, had a “Pretty Woman” moment. I don’t think that movie had been released. If you’ve ever seen it, you must remember the title character’s attempt to shop at a fancy boutique. The sales ladies, looking her over as she asks the price of a garment, respond “It’s very expensive” and “It’s very expensive.” We were similarly warned when we asked to see the bells. They were $99.50 (adjusted for inflation, an estimated $235 today).

“Oh, you had me thinking they cost a lot,” Mom said with a smile. “We’ll take them. And ... we need a bow for the top of our tree. Can you do that?”

Mom and I really love the bells. Still. And at this point, their cost works out at about $3 per year, or less, I think. Just turning them on makes it feel like Christmas to me, tree or no tree. (But I’m going to have a tree.)