In the first grade I learned to sing “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” before learning how to spell Rudolf. And, the woman who taught me the song couldn’t pronounce the hyphenated adjective correctly and always rolled her r’s – no matter what language she was speaking. So, my first Christmas carol can be more accurately described as “Rude Off the Ray Knows Rain Dear.”
I became very interested in Holiday music since then. Luckily, my dad had a nice selection of Christmas records, which helped feed my Christmas caroling addiction.I’d play those records year-round, in the hopes that it would help me figure out what a bough of holly was or why white Christmases are so special when all the white people I knew were boring.
My particular favorite was Christmas with Johnny Mathis and the Ray Conniff Singers. Only because his voice was what I imagined God’s voice to sound like. That is if God sang “We Three Kings of the Orient Are.” I was also fascinated with Mr. Mathis’ accent-less singing, as I assumed by his sultry sideburns and perfect tan that he was Hispanic*.
I suppose it’s normal to reject your own accent. Especially when the majority of the population doesn’t sound like you.
A few years later, at another end-of-the-calendar-year-all-inclusive-non-denominational Christmas pageant, we sang songs, acted out scenes from ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, and played Jingle Bells on the, well, bells. Only, this time the closing song was Jose Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad.”
All of a sudden people clapped to the beat and sang along and, when it was over, they gave it a roaring standing ovation. I don’t think it was a particularly moving rendition of the song. I’m pretty sure we were all out of tune screaming along with the track. And, I don’t think it was a sympathy clap because the songwriter was blind.
I think it was his accent.
Finally, I felt inspired and proud of my rubber sounding t’s and harsh sounding sh’s. It was truly a transformational moment in my life.
Most particularly when I realized that the song was, in fact, bilingual and not half in English and the other half with an accent.
*(It wasn’t until very recently that I found out Johnny Mathis was not originally named Juan Martinez.)