Chris Mitchell Music

Christmas 1986


There are moments in time that define you. There are events that happen in your life that shape who you are and that put an imprint so deep in your soul that you’ll carry that mark forever.

For me, that moment was Christmas 1986.

Hard to believe it was thirty years ago. Before we make it to Christmas, let me give you a little background…

Ups and Downs

In 1986 I was twelve years old and in middle school. I had lost my grandma that summer to cancer. It was the first time I understood the loss of a loved one. I remember lying in bed that night after the funeral and it hit me. I would never see her again. That was the first time in my life that I actually realized that death was final.

One thing that you have to understand for any of this story to make sense is that my dad was bi-polar. He had a unique bipolar disorder that was a more rare form of the illness. It was a bitter cycle throughout his life that could lay dormant for years. Then it would rear it’s head every three to five years and he would cycle through a bought of mania - then followed by depression. My sister once said that Manic Depression is the best name for the illness. The name itself tells you both of the dirty words of the illness. Mania and depression. It showed you both sides of that ugly coin.

My sister was right.

Mania had it’s own season. When dad was manic, he was on a constant high. He never slept and constantly had delusions of grandeur. There was always a new plan and a new career. He felt like he could conquer the world in three days. He felt like 10 million dollars. He also felt like he could spend just as much. The mania was bad because it was embarrassing. Dad would say off color things around people. He would often pretend he was somebody he wasn’t. He would revert back to a period in his life around 1962 when he served in Caramursel, Turkey in the Air Force, and often dwell on friends that he lost in Vietnam. Twelve years old is plenty old enough to understand that the things he was doing and saying weren’t socially acceptable.

Then there’s depression. Depression is what happened when dad’s plans didn’t work out. Depression was dark. Depression meant that dad couldn’t work. When dad couldn’t work, we became a four member household with a single parent income. Needless to say, living got harder.

The Saints

My mom worked as the clerk for the city hall in Hagan, Georgia. She had been working there for about three years. It wasn’t a high paying job but mom knew how to make a meager paycheck go as far as it could. She was our rock. When times got hard, she pulled the family together and did what needed to be done to make ends meet.

Mom was the church pianist at Hagan United Methodist. She had played in church since she was a teenager. Mom had a soft touch on the piano. She wasn’t your typical backwater church pianist that just hammered the shit out of chords loud enough for the congregation to sing. She actually had a certain finesse to the chords she played. She had a softer touch. She was always self deprecating about her musicianship but she was actually a very good musician. A great alto with a knack for harmony, mom was a perfect fit for a small, but tight knit congregation.

We lived in a house that was built around the 1880’s with my Aunt Gussie. Mom and Dad had a reverse mortgage arrangement with Aunt Gussie where we lived with her while they bought the house. Aunt Gussie was always a loving spirit that helped in our time of need. I will go so far as to to say that Aunt Gussie was a saint. I never heard her say an unkind word about any living creature. Her skin was soft and already aged with time by the time that we moved in with her.

It was a perfect fit for our family. It meant that mom had an extra hand to help with us when times were tough. It also meant that Dad couldn’t go so far as to lose the house. Aunt Gussie saw to that in the lease. Saint Gus was as wise as she was kind.

A Long December

The month of December rolled in and I remember a couple of thoughts that began to bother me. First, it was clear that Dad was going through a manic phase. He was out of work and his behavior was erratic. The second thought was far less important but more nagging. It was a thought that I felt guilty for having. I was afraid to make a Christmas list. In reality - I knew that I probably shouldn’t. I knew we were struggling financially and I knew that mom was doing all she could to make ends meet.

I decided to keep my list short and ask for one thing.

I asked for the Cobra Crimson Guard action figure from GI Joe. He was red, had a sweet helmet (I’m a sucker for any action figure with a cool helmet - always have been), and he would be a nice addition to my budding army of heroes and villains.

So we made our trip to Revco and I showed her where it was. On the aisle in the back. As soon as I showed her, she told me to go to the front of the store. Now that I think about it, she was just as bad at hiding gifts as I am…

I honestly don’t remember asking for anything else. I assumed mom would come through with the usual pair of Lee’s, socks, and the like. But I also knew that I didn’t want to hurt her feelings by asking her for something that she couldn’t give. Again - there was the typical twelve year old debate raging in my brain. Was I going to get anything this year? I was truly worried about it. I remember thinking that I could probably bank on my brother for a good gift. He was working pretty steady and he had been giving pretty amazing gifts for an older brother. Just last year he got us our first VCR. That was a pretty big gift for 1985 so you can see why some of my own thoughts were banking on Santa Mark in 1986. I also thought that our gift exchange at family Christmas might be a good chance to snag a few sweet gifts. My cousin Troy and Joe usually gave pretty good gifts. So in the back of my twelve year old mind - there was always that to look forward to.

That was the part of my train of thought that really began to bother me. I knew that Christmas wasn’t about presents but I was still twelve. I still had my own selfish desires. I was also beginning to learn that life wasn’t exactly fair all of the time.

The Solo

I forgot to mention that Mom had enrolled me in a Christmas production of The Littlest Angel earlier that year and I auditioned and got a couple of acting and singing parts. The ensemble sang a version of “Angels From the Realms of Glory”. I really liked that piece. I thought that I had done a good job in the production and began thinking to myself that I really enjoyed singing. I still had quite a few high notes in my falsetto and began to think of myself as a singer. This was a dangerous thought for a twelve year old boy to have. Unbeknownst to me, horrible, horrible things were happening to my body… each horrible pre-pubescent trial seemed to creep up at different times that year.

As we got through the second or third week of advent, I was singing a solo at the church. I suggested “Angels From the Realms of Glory”. I was excited. I had known this song since November. I had already performed it with a group and I was certain that my ability to sing it solo would leave the folks at Hagan United Methodist in awe of my newly found talent. Mom asked me the week before if I wanted a starting pitch. I shot that idea down pretty quick. After all, I had sang it with such fervor in The Littlest Angel, that there was no way I could mess this up.

So the night of our Christmas service came. We did the same thing every year. We started out by lighting an advent candle. Then the kids acted out the parts of Luke chapter 2 to form a live nativity at the front of the church. I was usually a shepherd. Then we would sing a few Christmas carols and we’d all welcome Santa Claus (which was usually Danny Miller) and we’d close the night out by eating in the social hall.

Of course, this night was much different. I had a solo. It wasn’t different because I was nervous. I wasn’t nervous at all. I was about impress Holly and Mandy (my fellow 6th graders), the women of the UMW who had prepared the meal that we were about to eat, and my Mom. I knew I’d be the talk of the town for days to come.

My time came. I got out the pew, walked to the front of the church (without a starting pitch), and began singing my verse in a range that seemed to be about a fifth too high.

Now I’m gonna tell you this in front of God and everybody and swear it on a stack of bibles in front of sweet baby Jesus that my voice decided to change at that very moment on that very night. The monstrosity of cracks and disregarded pitches that came out of my mouth on Sunday, December 14th, 1986 were bouncing around the exposed rafters of Hagan United Methodist Church in such a way that no person of goodwill would’ve wished that sound upon their greatest enemy. In short, my performance was nothing less than absolutely awful and I was completely aware of it.

I made my way down from the alter, red-faced and embarrassed, and back to the rear of the church when many of the church members patted me on the back and told me what a good job I had done. It was that point in time where I learned a certain truth…

Methodists lie….and thank God they do.

Family Christmas

The following week we had our family Christmas. We always had it at our house because it was a massive house. It had about 12 rooms, each large enough to hold 20 people with ease. Like I said, it was built in the late 1880’s, had been in our family for generations, and since my grandmother Evans was the matriarch that tied us all together, it was only fitting that we celebrated there.

After dinner, we did our usual family gift exchange. I don’t remember what I got. Whatever it was took a back seat to the events that were now unfolding before me. I remember dad going on and on in what seemed to be a pseudo turkish language. It was actually gibberish. I remember that at some point his hands were around my body pinning me to the ground and he was yelling in this false language to the point where he was running out of breath. Evidently, he was aware of something that I wasn’t. The only thing I was aware of is that the rest of the adults in the room were trying to get him to stop. I was embarrassed and it was clear that they were embarrassed for me.

I don’t remember how the rest of the events of the night unfolded but I do remember that dad ended up in Georgia Regional shortly thereafter. He would spend Christmas 1986 in a mental hospital.

The week of Christmas came and Mom and I went to visit Dad in the hospital. I made it clear that I did not want to go but I guess mom felt it was the only way I was going to even begin to understand this illness. Mom was wise like that. She was intuitive. She knew that more than anything she wanted to keep this family together.

We went inside Georgia Regional and there were all sorts of people from different walks of life. Some seemed institutionalized. Some were wandering up and down the hallway mumbling nonsensical language at varying degrees of intensity. I remember thinking that dad was with these people. It was a pretty terrifying thought for a twelve year old.

Shortly after our arrival, Dad came to the front. He had a gift for me. He had one of those red mesh stockings that you can get from a convenient store. You know the type - there’s usually candy cane striped paper on the top that’s stapled and it holds the stocking together. This stocking was exactly that. It had the usual assortment of Christmas candy, a plastic puzzle with a cardboard backing where you had to manually guide a BB through a maze to get from one side to the other, a cheap plastic race car, and a small coloring book. It wasn’t much but it was all he could give.

It bothered the hell out of me but I still couldn’t quite put my finger on it as to why.

Christmas eve came and I remember the tree was in the front of the house that year. The day gnawed at me and the night began to plague my every thought. I went to bed pretty late worrying about the gifts that I would find the next morning. I really couldn’t sleep. I looked out the window at the water tower and took a subtle appreciation for the Christmas lights that adorned it. It looked like a giant Christmas UFO in the middle of downtown Hagan.

Restless, I turned on the clock radio by my bed. Just getting up to turn the thing on and tune it was a challenge. I was under about 20 pounds of quilts because it was freezing in my bedroom. I could see my breath. Like I said - the house was old…

Then a song that I had never heard before came on the radio. I never will forget it. The lyrics started out, “So this is Christmas, and what have you done? Another year over, and a new one just begun…” The more I listened to it, the more I became enthralled by it. It drew me in. Then there was a part where kids started singing and being happy that “War is over”.

I started crying. The overwhelming guilt of my own thoughts finally came to light. This was the first time where music had actually touched me on an emotional level. It was also the first time where I truly realized that people had it way worse than I did. Despite what I considered at that point to be the most embarrassing time of my life, I was suddenly aware of people in other parts of the world and in my own community who didn’t have or know the luxuries that I did.

I cried myself to sleep.

Christmas Day

I woke up a little later than usual that morning. I wasn’t as eager as usual to look to see what was under the tree. The time came and we opened presents. My brother Mark had gotten me not one - but two extra hamster cages. I already had two cages. My hamsters could now live in two cages atop two aquariums - all connected by orange tubing that created a little hamster mansion. I assure you - it was the Barbie Dream House for hamsters.

I had given mom a little hanging flower pot that was suspended by a rope of sea shells that were threaded together with fishing line. I was worried that she wouldn’t like it but she assured me that she did. She must have. That ugly little pot hung in our house for at least another 10 years.

At some point between the socks and jeans I opened the package. I could tell it was the figure I wanted because I had been an expert in scoping out action figures on blister packages for quite some time. I had already mastered the figures of the Star Wars variety and now I was on to GI Joe.

I peeled back the paper and there he was - the Crimson Guard. The action figure that I told mom I wanted. I think it was the first time I looked at a piece of plastic and understood the absolute value of three dollars and ninety six cents. It was also the first time in my life that our entire family wouldn’t be together for Christmas.

From that point on, everything seemed to have a different value.

December 25th, 2016

It’s Christmas day and my cup runneth over. I’m sitting in my house surrounded by family and the most amazing wife ever. I’ve been fortunate enough to start three successful music companies and a toy store that helps children at Christmas.

That twelve year old kid that bombed his first solo performance became a musician. Maybe it was his desire to always do better than that first performance (dear God, I hope they’ve been better). Maybe it was because of how music speaks to him.

Maybe it was because of a mark imprinted on his soul.

There are moments in time that define you. There are events that happen in your life that shape who you are and that put an imprint so deep in your soul that you’ll carry that mark forever.

For me, that moment was Christmas 1986.

Merry Christmas!



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