“Playing your requests from now until 6pm Christmas Day.
This is WPRB in Princeton.”
“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives.” Maybe you remember Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life stating the movie’s theme pretty heavy handedly, maybe you don’t. Either way, the touch of a life is what elevated the movie’s pretty bleak subject matter into a Christmas classic.
You and I are also witnessing another, younger Christmas classic as it grows year after year; the 24 Hour Holiday Marathon on WPRB in Princeton, NJ. Yes, 24 hours of the wildest, wackiest, most poignant Christmas music to ever hit the airwaves played from 6PM Christmas Eve to 6PM Christmas day.
Feel free to scroll to the endnotes if you’d like more info about the show, its history, the fan-base or the man at the helm for the full 24 hours, Jon Solomon. This year we learn more about all those things, but from the context of the lives he, and the show, touch most intimately; his family. After all, the holiday season (Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Ramadan, Christmas—whatever your flavor of winter fest) is all about family.
The Family and the Man
“Playing records and singing songs…Interviewing people.”
-Jon’s daughter Maggie,
in response to “What does Daddy do for 24 hours?”
“I like the idea of talking to my family,” Jon said in discussions about “playing his request” for a Holiday Marathon article this year. “I’m sure between my folks, wife, daughter and sister there might be some interesting stuff said…” and he was quite correct.
Jon’s younger sister, Debra Solomon, who is now living in San Francisco and working as a budget analyst for the city government, set the stage for our conversation. “As you know, our family is Jewish. I would say we grew up moderately religious. My parents keep a kosher home, we celebrated many holidays, and Jon and I were each Bar or Bat Mitzvahed.”
Following the move to San Francisco “I actually have a whole separate West Coast tradition that involves listening to the Christmas marathon from out here,” Debra said. “For the past nine years, I have been going out on Christmas Eve with a group of friends. Usually my husband and I are the only Jewish ones, but we like to live up to the classic ‘Jewish on Christmas’ tradition of Chinese food…for the past few years, our friends have joined us to listen to Jon’s show, so now they are all in on the tradition. In fact, last year, we even decided to do takeout Chinese for our tradition, in part to focus more on the listening.”
Nicole Scheller, is the Transition Coordinator at the Newgrange School in Hamilton, NJ, wife of Jon and mother of their four-year-old daughter, Maggie. “Maggie and I go visit my parents for Christmas since my family has a long-standing Christmas tradition that I wasn’t quite willing to give up,” she said. The show has, of course, impacted their lives. “We listen as much as possible and check in on the web cam and via instant messenger. Then we head back in time for the last hour, so we can be in studio, and Jon can conduct his annual hard-hitting live interview with Maggie.” Those who’ve heard previous years’ “hard hitting interviews” will recall delightfully meandering topics interspersed with questions about the amassed detritus of 24 hours worth of celebratory studio habitation and giggles at Daddy in his Santa hat.
Maggie said that she was “nervous at first” about being on the show and singing Christmas classics like Frosty the Snowman and Jingle Bells but that now it was fun. Maggie grew up with the show, so her life didn’t change, but she does have a bedtime adjustment to make with Daddy in the station on Christmas Eve. Jon asked her about being away from him at bedtime and she said it was “okay” because, “You say goodnight to me” over the holiday airwaves.
Jon’s Mom, architectural historian Susan Solomon, may hear that goodnight since “Bob [Jon’s father] and I are avid listeners. We try to listen to the whole thing. I can’t say we understand a lot of the music but we get a thrill out of hearing Jon and how he handles each break.” They are not alone in that. Many fans have said that Jon’s commentary is the marshmallow goodness in the show’s eclectic Rice Crispie treat of music. “The most famous moment, of course, was when Jon proposed to Nicole on the air. Only Maggie being born on the show could have topped that.”
Perhaps Jon could have referred to the hypothetical on-air birth as his “Career Highlight of 2008”which refers to an “article from 2004” that Nicole will always remember, not so fondly. “Jon was quoted as saying that our engagement was ‘a career highlight of 2003’” she said. “I took umbrage at being considered a professional achievement (one of many no less) and showed up at the show the next year in a homemade ‘Career Highlight of 2003’ shirt.”
While Nicole may have “taken umbrage” at the time, it’s clear that the years have gentled that memory to the point of humor, which was surely aided by a crafty T-shirt. It is a fine example of how the lines can affectionately blur when one brings their heart to their job. Jon makes no secret of the emotional impact that the marathon has on him every year. It is only fitting that the impact, while hitting him the hardest, should ripple outward to those he loves.
The Man and the Marathon
What is your favorite thing to eat? -Maggie
“I like Burritos.” -Jon
“Tacos, and going out for Indian food.”
-Excerpt from Maggie’s turnabout interview
of Jon, following his interview of her.
Twenty. Four. Hours. What could provoke someone to such a feat? What stuff must he be made of to pull it off year after year? I turned to the Solomons seeking that ephemeral archeology of spirit; the mix of motive, will and temperament that helped bring forth a holiday tradition which is beginning to span the globe.
“Jon, as a child, was very verbal, curious, and inventive,” Susan recalled. “Our bedroom hallway was a changing construction site where he built elaborate cities; there were complex stories, many inspired by Richard Scary’s Busytown, to go along with these creations.”
While Susan can see how those qualities are put to use during the holiday marathon and in Jon’s weekly show on WPRB, “I am not sure that I would say that Radio is Jon’s profession. I think that music and his passion for it drives his radio performance. He is also an experienced basketball writer. That part of his career has also emerged from a long time personal love. So I guess I would say he works in different media, each of which has come from his own deep personal interests.”
Nicole, again with a joking insight, would also say that there is a personal connection between the man and the radio shows. “He shares more details about his personal life on the air than he does at home! He once said, ‘if you know me, you know that I love…’ and what followed was totally news to me.”
To Debra this expression of personal love and passion for music seems blended with a core character quality in the holiday marathon, though not a religious one. “I don’t think of my brother as a particularly religious person…but something that’s interesting about Jon is that he is very steadfast about the observance of some holiday rituals,” she said. “For instance, though he does not go to synagogue on Yom Kippur, he always fasts for the full twenty five or so hours required by Jewish law. And I think he does the whole thing–no water, nothing. On Passover, he is also very strict about cleaning his kitchen of all chametz (leavened bread) and maintaining a kosher-for-Passover home throughout the holiday.”
“I’ve always thought that Jon’s interest in completing those holidays was a combination of a kind of belief in ritual for ritual’s sake (certainly not a strange phenomenon in Judaism) and maybe something like determination to test oneself and make it through these endurance events alive,” Debra continued. “Now that I’m thinking about it, it sounds a little like the Christmas Day marathon!”
“Ritual is very important to me, as are challenges and imposed limitations,” Jon confided, mulling over his sister’s observation. “That’s something people rarely consider about the Christmas show – there’s a pretty strict limitation on what can be played versus what can’t be played (all the other music in the world).”
The Family Marathon
“Santa’s gonna be on the Christmas show…maybe Santa would be your helper.”
-Maggie, as interviewed by Jon
“When Jon first did the show it seemed like a fun thing to do. December 25, especially in the 1980s, was a quiet day in a home that does not celebrate Christmas,” Susan shared, when asked about the birth of the marathon. “As the show evolved, two things became apparent. It gave Jon tremendous pleasure to put together something unique each year and to have people respond positively to it; and, that there is a growing world wide audience that has adopted the show as a new tradition.”
Every birth, however, has its share of risks. “I did worry when Jon was alone at the station but that was probably more when he was in high school and was doing regular shows at 2 or 3 am. The Marathon has brought out friends so there is sometimes someone else in the studio.” Sometimes those friends are the Solomons themselves. Jon has mentioned his mom during breaks and his dad reading the paper in the studio. The world owes them a giant thank you for allowing a high school student to do shows at 2 and 3AM. Julia Factorial, fellow WPRB DJ, dynamo of music and intelligence, is also a regular.
Debra is also involved, despite the distance. “I really enjoy joining in on the online chats, because it makes me feel involved and like maybe I’m helping out during some off-hours when West Coast folks are more awake than East Coasters.”
The yearly rebirth of the marathon also has its share of demands. “[Jon] tends to be focused and disciplined prior to the show more than anything. He doesn’t partake in the indulgences of the season because he doesn’t want to risk getting sick or not being his best.” Nicole said. “The day or two before, we go shopping, check the list, and pack up supplies and then it gets serious.”
But every year is also stuffed like a stocking with rewards, both profound and poignant, be they world wide or personal. “I love checking in during the night,” Nicole said, echoing a sentiment of my own and countless others. “…and hearing the long Christmas-themed stories and the heartbreak and hard times songs that tend to occupy the wee hours. Late night/ early morning on Christmas always has a quiet, timeless, time-stopped feel to it, and Jon gets that. He fills that space perfectly and catching moments of it every year is my secret favorite part.”
Crossing the Finish Line, Eyes on the Next
“You have to [do the show] it’s your job.” -Maggie
“It’s also something that I really like doing.” -Jon
-Jon interviewing Maggie, interviewing Jon
There’s a moment late in Christmas day, usually after dinner, when a feeling settles over. The rush has ended, the gifts have been shared, the smiles and laughs—long anticipated—have burst like fireworks in our souls—and then…it’s over.
“He’s very sentimental after the show as listeners probably know. The end always involves poignant thank yous and emotional reflections,” Nicole said. She would know, since she “helps with the checklist (which gets revised annually) and preparing food for the show,” Jon said, just like many of us prepare for Christmas.
The checklist isn’t the only thing that gets revised annually. Santa works on Christmas all year long, many of us file away gift ideas which we missed for next year and the “quality control and the ‘no repeats’ rule” which bring much of the challenge to the Holiday Marathon leave Jon “no choice but to keep seeking out new recordings to avoid my fear of playing the same songs year after year.”
An architectural historian like Susan would know good craftsmanship when she sees it, and she sees it in the marathon, the efforts of Jon, the Solomon family and the WPRB friends and most of all, in the show’s impact. “It is pretty awe inspiring to know that your own kid has created something himself and that this achievement has had an affect on how loads of other folks celebrate their holidays,” she said.
According to Nicole “once the mic goes off” amid reflection and assessment, Jon’s thoughts already turn to next Christmas, like children across the globe. “That continues into the next day,” she said, “as he receives emails from people and even songs for next year’s show—and he usually listens to them immediately!”
But, there must be a moment of pause between this year and the next. The 24 Hour Holiday Marathon is not a holiday miracle. Jon would be the first to assert that he’s no Saint Nick or Holiday Hero. Everyone recuperates after the holidays, how does the man at the helm, with no sleep for 24 hours, do it?
According to Nicole, “Directly after the show, there’s a little relief, some assessment of how things went, the labor intensive load out, and then he falls asleep in the bathtub.”
This year, Mr. Solomon, as you drift in the bath and finally allow yourself to rest, may you take a moment to remember these words of thanks from a punk rock geek who found your show in a moment of High School angst on Christmas Eve and held fast to it for years until he found the true meaning of Christmas, and gained a family of his own to share it with.
To you, Solomon Family, who offered me the great humbling honor of getting to know you and share your story, first I am truly grateful. Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and thank you. Second, thank you for your seemingly constant, quiet support and sustenance of the man and the marathon. I offer that thanks for myself and all of those listeners who cannot do so in person, because we now see—not just the lives that Jon’s life touched, as old Clarence said—but the family who touches his life. We see that without you the marathon could not have run so long, or gone so far, or be ready, once again, to launch on Monday night.
Please tune in to 103.3 WPRB in Princeton, NJ at 6PM this Christmas Eve. Listen through your travels; it’ll be there for you, because the Solomon Family (and WPRB friends) are there for it.
Happy Holidays, one and all. Merry Christmas.
If you’d like more information on Susan Solomon’s endeavors in architecture, check out her site www.curatorialresources.com or click her name in the article above.
If you enjoyed this article but would like to have a clue what we’re so fuzzy over, feel free to read:
You. Should. Listen – This article offers 24 reasons that you should do just that. It’s a good starting point.
Christmas Rock United – Read all about the show from the POV of the fans. This one will get you excited.
Better than Santa Himself –My 1st interview with Jon from 09 on my old Blogger site.