Family's holiday tradition preserved in songby Curtis Gilbert, Minnesota Public Radio
Every family that celebrates Christmas has its own traditions -- sending out cards, wrapping gifts, making cookies, singing carols. For a dozen years ending in 1999, the Temple family, from Mendota Heights, would actually record its own album of Christmas music every year.
Mendota Heights, Minn. — Those tapes document a father's love as he watched his three daughters grow up and they capture the special joy that children find in Christmas.
"Here's a song I wrote about what I want to be when I grow up," Gregg Temple joked from the stage.
His band struck up a lively, Country & Western number with a catchy chorus:
I want to be a teenaged rock & roll star. I want to be rich, rich, drive a big old fancy black car.
It was 1975, and at the time Gregg, thought he would be a professional musician his whole life.
He was full-time gigging around the Twin Cities with his band Skunk Hollow, hoping some music label would discover him.
But when he and his wife had their first daughter five years later, Gregg realized he needed a day job.
"We wanted to buy a house," he said. "We wanted to start a family, and it was just no way to make a living."
He eventually found work at a printing company. He has worked his way up from the maintenance department, to sales, to president of a division. And, as his business career took off, his music career slowed down. But to this day he still has all the gear.
Sixteen guitars line the wall of the makeshift music studio in his basement. He also has a pedal steel, a couple amps and -- most important for this story -- recording equipment.
That brings us to Christmas, 1988. He knew his parents were giving his grandmother a boom box that year, and he decided to make her something to play on it. He recorded a collection of Christmas songs with his daughters.
"That was kind of a hit with the family," Gregg said. "And then the next year, kids were a little older, could sing a little better, too, and at that point it was a tradition."
They recorded a new collection of songs every year. The three Temple girls are all grown up now.
Sarah, 20, was just a baby when the Christmas tapes started.
"So, they basically encompass all of Sarah's adorable years, and all of my numerous awkward years," said Betsey, 27, the oldest Temple daughter.
"There was a period, I would say when Sara was four to six, when she did her own impromptu compositions," Betsey said, "and the most famous one is called 'Lord Bless the Christmas Tree."
Its most memorable line goes:
God bless the Christmas tree, that beautiful silk tree.
Another one of Sarah's infant masterpieces was 'I love Jesus Christ the world everybody lets me,' which ended sacrilegiously:
I care more about Jesus than he cares about me.
The tapes also preserve a brief period in Suzanne Temple's life when she thought she could do a pretty mean Elvis impersonation.
"Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the wayeeayeeay," she drawled back in 1992. It doesn't sound much like Elvis at all.
"I think I learned how to curl my upper lip that year," she recalled. "So I went through this small phase where I would curl my lip and say, 'thank you, thank you very much.'"
Suzanne, 25, made her last appearance on the tapes in 1996, when she was in 8th grade.
"I refused after that," she said, "because I was far too cool."
Gregg Temple made his last batch of Christmas tapes in 1999.
"[The girls] just got older and busier, and it just sort of fell by the wayside," he said.
All told, they recorded more than 100 songs. The tapes chronicle twelve years of his daughters' lives. And, even though Betsey, Suzanne and Sarah are all in their 20s now, on the recordings, their childhood is preserved forever.
"When I listen to those things, I am back there," Gregg said. "I picture myself standing there at the recorder with the headphones on and these little girls singing behind me."
All the Temple girls went through phases when they were embarrassed by some of their performances. Now those are their favorites moments on the tape. But, the song that touches them the most is from the very first tape. Their father wrote it. It's called "A Christmas Song," and they all know all the words:
When I look into my children's eyes, I know that I can see
The purest and the best of human possibility. Their love shines through the darkness as that star did in the east
And it guides me back to where I ought to be.
"You just, you can tell how much he loves us, and how important we were to him when he wrote that song," Suzanne said.
- Morning Edition, 12/24/2008, 6:25 a.m.