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The Unstoppable, Adaptable Christmas Marathon

I enjoyed the Marathon more knowing that Jon was in his home with his family…

– Suzapalooza,
Pseudonym (I assume) of a respondent to
the 2020 Holiday Adaptation Survey

Jon Solomon, host of the 25 Hour Holiday Radio Show on WPRB in Princeton, NJ is no stranger to non-traditional Christmas. In fact, that’s pretty much the theme of the show; holiday music that you’ll truly hear nowhere else played from 5pm Christmas Eve to 6pm Christmas day for the last 33 years. As with most American Christmas traditions last year, the pandemic brought changes to the Holiday Radio Show since, for the first time, Jon held the marathon at home.

“I really loved broadcasting from home last year,” Jon said, “even though I was worried during the terrible storm that we would lose power.” Though “the extended crazy rainstorm and the flickering lights certainly added an element of drama,” we were all glad that Jon didn’t need to enact the contingency plans for a power loss that he mentioned in last year’s piece.

Due to Princeton University’s continued COVID-19 precautions, fully vaccinated non-students are not yet able to enter the building which houses WPRB, so Jon cannot broadcast at the station this Christmas either. “But it isn’t a choice I mind – at least for the marathon,” he said. The uniqueness of broadcasting at home had been a benefit “but also having sunlight shining in during the day and my family as an audience cooking in the kitchen helped keep my energy up.” The family interaction will no doubt continue to stoke Jon’s yuletide energy even if the experience is not as unique after doing 40+ of his weekly Death of Pop radio shows live from home over 2021.

The Holiday Radio Show is far from the only holiday tradition that has been adapted for a second year running. Based on data gathered for this piece 75% of survey participants modified their traditions due to COVID-19 precautions last year—and interestingly, an equal percentage are doing so again this year. Their reasons are as personal as the traditions themselves, but they all align with one of the key reasons that the WPRB Holiday Marathon has weathered COVID-19 and lasted over three decades.

Holiday Your Way

The biggest lesson is that holidays can still be magical without having to do things you don’t want.

– Harley,
Survey participant, on lessons learned
 from the 2020 Holiday Season

I’ve told the story many times. Me, disaffected teenager driving around in my Ford Escort on Christmas morning at age 16 and finding the (then 24 hour) Holiday Radio Show due to my love of WPRB. Okay, I mostly loved the punk shows on WPRB and ‘lo I heard, among even stranger treats—punk rock Christmas songs! This was decades before the mind-blown emoji, but there it was.

That Christmas morning was when I realized that I still had a Christmas—that I didn’t have to give it up because I wasn’t into Bing Crosby classics and the waning childish irreverence of “Grandma got run over by a Reindeer.” What I needed to know was that Christmas was strong enough—vast enough—to grow with me. I could adapt and so could my Christmas.

Adaptation is used in psychology to describe the process by which a person or group makes crucial cognitive, emotional or behavioral changes in response to new situations or demands in their environment in order to maintain health, safety and a good quality of life. Our understanding of this process goes all the way back to Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget in 1936.

In 2020 we surfed a wave of adaptation (intentional Pixies reference) nearly a century after Piaget defined it as the guiding force of human development. For Harley (above) that adaptation was doing “Hanukkah over zoom, allowing us to light our hannukiahs from our own homes vs having to join and light one then go home and light our own.” Another anonymous Jewish survey participant also moved to a virtual menorah lighting and said that “we found we were included in distant relatives’ activities more…and that part seems to be sticking.”

That participant struck on the interesting thing about adaptation—it sticks if we let it. It sticks if we truly grow, just like the Grinch’s heart. But, just like the Grinch, that growth requires learning from the change even if—or especially if—it is a painful change.

All survey participants shared that as 2020 forced a re-evaluation of celebratory trappings they learned that “family will always be most important,” as one respondent said. I’m sure many would echo Laurie’s revelation that “Holidays are less stressful when you stay home” while still being able to connect with others if desired. Suzapalooza (header quote) extolled the holiday virtues of their choice to continue virtual interactions in 2021 since “everyone is more comfortable in their own homes, especially our children. No one has to set up or clean up a party. There is no risk of drunk driving accidents because no one is driving. Saving travel time means more time to relax and more time to visit. Everyone with pets can bring them to the camera” she added with a smile-face.

“I’ve learned a lot about the essence of the show as I stripped it down to plan for an inaugural home broadcast,” Jon said, echoing the re-evaluation of tradition which adaptation required. “I also learned as I cried on the air down the stretch that the broadcast means as much to me as it does to people who listen. I’m not sure I fully grasped how much I needed it until I was doing it.”

That shared need—be it of belonging, or for Christmas, diverse holiday music, tradition or something more—draws many of the listeners year after year, as well as family and friends to their own personal celebrations. It’s the beauty of an adaptive holiday; it can fit all of us, if we let it. Even those like the cats in our header photo, who feel like they’re outside the holidays looking in. The marathon offers songs and no-strings-attached connection to people who are missing family, feeling isolated, or just trying to endure the holidays. Last year’s virtual gatherings afforded a less intense way connect with people whom, if offered the chance to come to a holiday party, would have refused. The need of the diverse is just as valid this year as last and it’s my hope that these connections remain, just like the broadcast, since, as Suzapalooza said “everyone is stressed and hurting, giving and receiving kindness and patience is free but priceless.”

I needed the marathon when I was 16, and I needed it again last year at 45. Last year, Jon was not the only one tearing up at that moment. Across the literal globe, people of different races, nationalities, tastes and walks of life joined in the knowledge that though we may all celebrate slightly different personal holidays, we all shared the marathon and in 2020 it never faltered.

Either Way, the Broadcast Will be There

The test broadcasts I’ve done with the same rented equipment as in 2020 (thank you Reid Sound!) have gone pretty well…hopefully it feels like a marathon to people on both sides of the microphone.

– Jon Solomon,
DJ, WPRB in Princeton, NJ
and online at WPRB.com

We talked last year about how, for a tradition like the 25-hour Holiday Radio Show, every year it returns may be the most important year for some listener. Last year was vitally important for so many people at home on Christmas. As we continue to emerge from social distancing, even as Omicron looms, in my opinion, the idea of safe adaptations which safely enhance the holiday experience—not just adhere to old tradition—is key for the marathon and for all holiday celebrants, listeners or not.

“In 2020 I felt like we were all ‘together’ for longer stretches of the marathon than in other years,” Jon said. “People weren’t running around to spend time with family and friends but hopefully those same folks will be able to make the show a part of their Christmas regardless of where they’re safely going to or coming from. Either way the broadcast will be there!”

I was on the live listener chat at marathon.christmas more than ever before and I intend to be there again this year though my family hopes to mix new virtual gatherings with cherished in-person ones this year. Laurie will again be watching movies, hanging out and sharing the love of family. Another anonymous respondent will continue their long tradition of driving around and looking at Christmas decorations as “a safe way to enjoy some holiday cheer” but will “skip the major commercial light displays” this year, as they did in 2020.

Mixing the old with the new keeps the holidays fresh, vital and current as well as comfortingly familiar, as the marathon has done for many years. “This is the 10th year I’ve been directly soliciting ‘Christmas stories,’” Jon said. For those who have never listened, these voluntarily offered Christmas memories of musicians or listeners are woven into the show new every year. Some are humorous, some are touching, some thought provoking. “It provides such a boost to the playlist and my feeling towards the marathon,” Jon said, and I agree.

Other long-loved features will return with new songs like “Ramones-A-Clock” at 12:34 AM and the “All-Misfits Set,” at 1:38PM Christmas day, both of which are full of Christmas themed songs inspired by their respective bands. Listeners will be glad to hear that Jon declared at the time of our e-conversation “We’re on pace to debut a new piece an hour during the marathon again for 2021 [and] who knows what else I’ll uncover between now and 12/24! There’s gotta be a new Fall-inspired track I’ve yet to unearth.”

“The ‘form’ of a tradition can change without the ‘meaning’ of the tradition being lost,” Suzapalooza summarized. The 24-Hour Holiday Radio Show became the 25 Hour Holiday Radio Show after 24 years of broadcasts and even became the 30-hour show on the 30th anniversary. Last year it was “Live from Home” which Jon said, “my knees and lower back certainly appreciated.” While Jon’s parents may not be able to visit the station and fall asleep on the couch, as this year’s graphic* below (by Artjerk) depicts, at least there is no long load-in and load-out of extensive holiday collection and equipment again this year.

Perhaps this is the year that your holiday tradition includes the marathon for the first time. You are welcome. Perhaps it’s been decades. Welcome back. We would not be here without the flexibility, creativity and adaptation of one specific person and his very supportive family.  Being able to return to the broadcast is a truly precious gift that Jon crafts all year long. Thanks to him—and he would say thanks to us, there will still be the music, there will be the listeners and there will still be that timeless holiday spirit which connects us all over the airwaves, online, in Zooms, chat rooms and living rooms. No matter where, no matter how, Christmas, and the Holiday Marathon, adapt and live on.

Did you know you could get this on a T-shirt?! Seriously! Look here and here. Merry Christmas!

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