“We still find comfort in thinking that there is a time of year set aside when peace and happiness are achievable.
The music of the season is part and parcel of this…”
– Bob Searls1, Indie Musician, performer of “Jon Solomon’s Christmas Eve Marathon”
It’s a week before Christmas and all across the nation radio stations have gone Christmas-only in celebration of the undeniable power of holiday music. In further celebration—possibly sacrifice to it—WPRB in Princeton, NJ does the exact opposite, providing “real radio over every other offering on the dial,” for 25 straight hours from Christmas Eve through Christmas day. WPRB DJ Jon Solomon has sat at the helm of the marathon since 1988 and “by listening, you’re choosing to hang with a real person for a couple of minutes or hours, instead of a computer generated playlist that you can’t interact with,” said Julia Factorial, lifetime NJ native and fan of the Holiday Radio Show (Karabin, 2010).
That interaction is key to the power of music and to the marathon. The 25 Hour Holiday Radio Show is a heroic feat, an eclectic spectacle and a stereo hug of welcoming cheer, but at its essence it is a humble vehicle for the power of alternative holiday music which unites thousands around the world.
“Music is the universal language,” according to Edele R. Kloss, MA, MT-BC. “Music can bring people together who have nothing in common. They may say ‘I love this one, too!’ or hear something new and say ‘Wait, that’s pretty cool!’” Kloss and Philip Wieszczyk, MMT, MT-BC are both Board Certified Music Therapists in practice at an adolescent behavioral health hospital deep in the heart of the Holiday Radio Show’s broadcast range. Though neither have heard it, Wieszczyk put his finger on the magic of the show in one skilled encapsulation; “Music takes the pulse of the people,” he said “I don’t think any musical experience exists in isolation.”
Jon Solomon is “in a unique position” to see both side of the musical experience “as a weekly radio DJ and host of this annual Christmas marathon because I put both shows together as an individual but the shows are meant to be appreciated by both lone listeners and larger groups – be they at home or in a car…”
Music connects; that is its power. It connects DJ and audience, performer and group, strangers or friends. Songs can connect us to ourselves in what Wieszczyk calls a “core experience” when people tell him “I can’t put it into words but this song says it for me.”
Soundtrack to our Memories
“I remember finding the marathon by creating an imaginary cranberry relish emergency. Just so I could get out of the house and drive to the only place that was open—Wawa. I still like to invent emergencies that get me out of the house so I can listen to it in my car.”
– Beth Baldwin1, Fan, Artist and Toymaker
Music even has the power to reconnect us to our past, but “it all depends on the person and the meaning behind the music for them” according to Kloss. Music is naturally “evoking memories or expressing emotion,” holiday music simply cranks that power dial to 11 with the already charged atmosphere of the season.
“I can personally tie so many moments in my own life to what was playing at the time,” Jon said. “What I was seeing be performed or what was happening on the radio.” He added “from both ends of the microphone” since the Holiday Radio show has been a part of his and thousands of listener’s lives for so many years that the memories now go both ways.
Every year in the chat rooms and on social media fans share memories of where they were in their holiday festivities when certain songs played. “That’s one of the reasons I do the marathon, so that my selections can score different instants and be tied together by the individual in different ways. Their memories have a unique score…the soundtrack to special moments.” Every radio show Jon reminisces of marathons past, which could include when he proposed to his wife or his daughter sang “Frosty the Snowman” live. “For the individual, it can be extremely powerful.”
Kloss’s memories are stirred by Dolly Parton’s “Sleigh ride/Winter Wonderland.” She’s reminded of driving to her grandma’s house in Southwest Philly as a child, listening to it on a cassette tape. “That’s still Christmas to me, every time I hear it.”
“We moved when I was in eighth grade…it was a hard change for me,” Wieszczyk confided, but put on Amy Grant’s “Home for Christmas” album and he remembers “my mom singing along—I listen to it and I’m back in my mom’s home, which is a place I can’t go anymore.” Music’s power, Christmas magic, bringing a young man home again.
Connecting to Something Greater Than Ourselves
“Anything that brings the people of the world together to listen to songs like ‘Oh Little Town of Deathlehem’ is a wonderful thing.”
– Michael Gerald of Killdozer 2 Performers of “Oh Little Town of Deathlehem”
Music, especially holiday music which began as hymns or songs sung around family menorahs, has the power to touch that universal yearning to be welcomed into something greater.
For musicians, that means becoming part of the pantheon of Christmas music, since, as Jon noted “people have expectations of these songs popping up starting in November” as part of the commercial holiday rush, but “for a lot of bands, it is also a rite of passage because so many before them have done the same.” The legacy has a hallowed protection which makes it “…hard for newer—and by that I mean the past two decades—original Christmas tunes to break into the canon,” he said. “Even ‘Christmas in Hollis’ [A Holiday Radio Show favorite] is closing in on 30 years old!”
This passing of the holiday torch is part of Kloss’s Christmas memories with a conversation about David Bowie and Bing Crosby’s duet of the Little Drummer Boy live on TV in 1977. “I remember my Dad telling me over Christmas dinner that Bing hated the idea because Bowie represented everything evil in music…you should see Bing’s face in the video; in the beginning you could tell he so didn’t want to do it, but enjoyed it by the end.” Kloss sees these new renditions of the classics as an opportunity to bond. “The older and younger generations making this beautiful duet; that’s Christmas.”
While the versions of “O Holy Night” that we hear on the Holiday Radio Show will assuredly not be the ones heard in churches that day, it must be said that part of the show’s unifying magic is that raucous punk Christmas songs or discordant holiday anthems still have spiritual significance to those with whose souls they connect. Like me as a punk teen, in self-imposed angsty exile on a Christmas morning drive. I swore that I was cooler than Christmas…until I connected with 103.3FM and the Holiday Radio Show. On that morning I found my Christmas—that I was not alone—and it may have been there I began to walk my spiritual path.
Wieszczyk is a Christian lover of Christmas who is devoted to people of all faiths in his work. One of his strongest beliefs is that “I think of every musical encounter as a spiritual one” because of its power to connect the listener to the divine experience.
To my daughter, who has listened to the Holiday Radio show all her life, the power of holiday music is that “When I sing it, I feel like God is right next to me singing it, too.” That doesn’t matter if it’s “Immanuel” in church or The Law’s “What did Santa Claus Bring You for Christmas?” in our car looking at lights during the marathon.
Jon’s daughter, right now learning “What Child Is This?” on the piano, also shares in the legacy. “I do love the fact that my daughter will hear different holiday songs and say “Oh! You’ve played this one!” even if the version she’s talking about is one I’ve never personally broadcast,” because the power of holiday music is bigger than one certain version of the song, or one certain version of Christmas. It is to be shared and to be passed on, growing and changing to fill the life of the listener.
There will be music wherever we find ourselves this holiday season, be it old classics, new classics or “holiday music you will hear nowhere else,” as Jon once said on-air during the marathon. Let us not forget this Christmas Eve that no musical experience can exist in isolation.
“The sense of community at WPRB during the holidays is one I want to replicate over the air,” Jon said in 2010, “especially for folks who might not be around family and friends during that time of year.” So please tune to 103.3 WPRB in Princeton, NJ. 5PM on the 24th to 6PM on the 25th. Live stream it at WPRB.com.
Let’s celebrate the holidays together. In music’s powerful embrace we share a holiday legacy, singing along with united spirits and always welcome, never alone.
My deepest gratitude and respect to the gracious Edele R. Kloss, MA, MT-BC and sagacious Philip Wieszczyk, MMT, MT-BC for their insights, openness and holiday cheer; this article couldn’t have happened without you.
As always, a heartfelt thank you to Jon Solomon who never fails to bring fresh brilliance to these articles and wonders to the airwaves every year. I’ll be listening to you next week, sir.
1 Karabin (2010) Christmas Rock United. KeithKarabin.com. Retrieved from: http://keithkarabin.com/2010/12/23/christmas-rock-united/
2 Karabin (2013) 24HR Holiday Radio Show Behind the Music: The Magic of the Marathon. KeithKarabin.com. Retrieved from: http://keithkarabin.com/2013/12/20/24hr-holiday-radio-show-behind-the-music-the-magic-of-the-marathon/