I have happy early memories of singing “Hanukkah, O Hanukkah” around the candles, but I was also enraptured by Christmas music coming from stop-motion TV specials and department stores. The warm and expressive “A Charlie Brown Christmas” by the Vince Guaraldi Trio tops my expansive list of favorites.
Like me, many of Southern California’s finest family-music creators believe that, in the season of giving, one meaningful gift can be sharing songs that touch your spirit, whether from your childhood or a recent moment when a holiday tune knocked your brightly colored seasonal socks off.
In chats with eight family-music acts, we discussed their treasured holiday songs, traditions and personal recordings.
Jeremy Toback, the bassist and singer-songwriter who, with Renee Stahl, forms the indie-folk duo of Renee & Jeremy, says Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time is Here” was a childhood favorite.
“As an adolescent, it was ‘Last Christmas’ by Wham!” he continues with a laugh. “Our family has mixed religions [Judaism on Toback’s side and Christianity on his son’s mom’s side] and ethnicities. Music goes on as a part of that.”
With his sons, ages 16 and 21, he has also shared Ella Fitzgerald’s holiday renditions, Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby” and James Brown’s “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto.” Toback says the 1940s-1960s was an age when “musicality combined with sentiment.”
Of Renee & Jeremy’s holiday recordings, Toback describes “Winter Wonderland” as a dreamy version of the classic. Their “Sunny Christmas,” meanwhile, is more upbeat.
After a long run leading Choo Choo Soul, which was featured on the Disney Channel, Genevieve Goings now creates TV music and teaches voice and recording skills.
The childhood holiday songs she adored were the Jackson 5’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” Gene Autry’s “Here Comes Santa Claus” and Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”
She plays these for her 2-year-old son, but also shares newer music, such as Jazzy Ash’s “Zat You, Santa Claus?” and the Alphabet Rockers’ “My Holiday.” That last song, Goings says, “conveys that wherever you’re from, that’s my holiday.”
On her recent holiday EP, her song “Crazy for Christmas Lady” is “about a woman who has everything in her attic, then December strikes and she brings it all out. It has a Motown vibe, which gives me that holiday feel.”
Lucky Diaz and Alisha Gaddis, parents of two children, lead The Lucky Band, and they’re always looking for fun ways to present a diverse, culturally rich world, Diaz says. “Growing up, I liked Chuck Berry’s ‘Run, Run Rudolph’ and the Beach Boys’ ‘Little Saint Nick.’ Alisha’s background is Broadway. For her, it’s ‘White Christmas,’ the movie musical. The kids enjoy ‘White Christmas’ and those Crosby and Sinatra crooner tunes.”
In his early years, Diaz played with Darlene Love, whose “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” appeared on the 1963 Phil Spector-produced holiday album. He says the memory “still gives me goosebumps. Now, my kids hear that single and say, ‘That’s my dad’s song,’ even though the original recording had nothing to do with me!”
The Lucky Band’s own holiday music includes covers of “Feliz Navidad” and “Jingle Bell Rock.” “It feels good to play those songs,” Diaz says.
Polly Hall of Andrew & Polly savors “The Latke Song” by Debbie Friedman. “My heart melts for the lesser-known lyrics of ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’” she says. “Don’t we all ‘have to muddle through, somehow?’”
Her co-creator and husband, Andrew Barkan, is partial to “Carol of the Bells” from “The Muppet Christmas Carol.” And for their three children, whether it’s the mystique of Duke Ellington’s “The Nutcracker Suite,” the novelty of “Frozen’s” “In Summer” or new additions such as Pierce Freelon & Fyütch’s “This Kwanzaa,” “we love to spark their imaginations with diverse songs full of humor and magic,” Hall says.
The pair enjoys playing holiday parties for fans and has “a tradition of driving by the neighborhood festive lighting decorations, listening to old holiday music,” she says. For the first holiday episode of their musical podcast for kids, “Ear Snacks,” they wrote a song called “Thank You for the Box,” an ode to the magic of packaging, which appears on their EP “Other Days.”
Growing up in Colombia, singer-songwriter and music therapist Nathalia Palis enjoyed everything from “Burrito Sabanero” to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas.” Her childhood home was steeped in a tradition called La Novena de Aguinaldos. “Nine days before Christmas, we’d gather around the nativity and sing carols,” she explains. “The songs were joyous and fun. Everyone would try to ‘outloud’ each other.”
Having children in the states with her American husband, she shares the music of her culture with her kids. Her 18-year-old daughter plays ukulele, while her 12-year-old son harmonizes when they sing at home. To create the big family effect she had in Colombia, she invites neighbors over to sing.
Palis, whose latest album is “Mis Colores,” has an earlier piece she wrote, “Navidad Latina,” as a tribute to the various Latin American traditions around her.
C.J. Pizarro is another artist who uses multicultural influences, including for his “Island Folky Rock ‘n’ Roll for the Inner Child.” He’s performed with his stepkids (now 18 and 21) as Mista Cookie Jar & The Chocolate Chips at venues from the Getty museum to Lollapalooza. “My second-grade class sang ‘Nuttin’ For Christmas,’” he recalls. “The melody gave me the feels — how sad! But it also gave me the chuckles.”
With his family, “Feliz Navidad” and “Hanukkah, O Hanukkah” are favorites for guitar sing-a-longs. “At my holiday shows, I sing ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.’ Round one is the traditional version; round two is done with the ad-libs.
“I’ve done a few holiday releases myself,” he says. “One of my favorites is a ‘White Christmas’ revamp called ‘Robot for X-Mas.’”
The married duo of Martin and Rose Music, parents of four, chatted with me while road-tripping to a show. Their style has evolved from high-energy pop to folk-Americana-country.
Stefanie Rose loved “White Christmas” because “where I grew up, we didn’t have a white Christmas, which was my kid fantasy,” she says. “I liked ‘Pablo, Santa’s Reindeer,’ but I can’t find a recording of it!”
“When I was a kid,” Daniel Martin reflects, “we’d go to my aunt and uncle’s house. It was Crosby and Sinatra [holiday tunes] that I heard in the ‘80s.”
The family listens to songs about Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. “The 4-year-old plays them over and over,” Martin says. “We like ‘Dominick the Donkey.’ The kids know all the classics.”
For their own recordings, they have an album called “Welcome Winter,” which features their daughter on a track.
Four years ago, Jaque Becker, known as Mama B (who has recorded with Uncle T), started making voice memos of her son cooing and crying. “I began building catchy melodies” with them, she says.
She, too, has loved “A Charlie Brown Christmas” album since she was a kid. “We got my eldest a vinyl version of it,” Becker says. “He knows it’s special.”
She also favors “The Christmas Song,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and other jazz-inspired songs. She adds that the “Home Alone” movie score is another favorite.
Becker says that she wants her two children to form their own memories of the holidays and music. “I want them to think of the foods they like, smells in the house, specific places,” she says. “I want it to remind them of their parents as they grow up.”
All of these musicians possess a collective belief that music can color children’s lives with fun, hope and love. “We live in a highly disconnected time,” Toback says. “The holidays are about connection between people and in family. Music evokes that.”
Hall agrees. “Holiday music can positively mark the passing of time and build anticipation toward a seasonal event, both of which are great strategies for cultivating happiness,” she says. “It provides a sense of belonging.”
Gregory Keer is a husband, father of three, high school educator and grizzled veteran writer. Find his columns and more at FamilyManOnline.com.