That’s me, too. I’m a sucker for holiday lights, frosted cookies, and the smell of a Douglas fir Christmas tree in the corner of my Oak Park living room. So when my editor called to ask if I wanted to write a Christmas book about Elvis, it was impossible to say no.
I was raised by two Elvis-loving parents (my Dad’s go-to karaoke song is “Return to Sender,” and my Mom has embedded the words “hunka hunka” as a superlative in her everyday vocabulary). I was a music journalist in my 20s, and I long ago made my first pilgrimage to Graceland. I also own nearly every boxed set of the King’s music, and I joke with my wife that I want to be buried in my backyard, by the pool, like Elvis (although we’ll need to install a pool).
So I got to writing. This was my pandemic book, written just as everything was shutting down. It was a perfect time to focus on the joy of Christmas, even out of season.
To Elvis, Christmas was a time to go home, to relax at Graceland with family and friends. It was a respite from the road and his hectic recording schedule. It was a time to sing gospel songs around the piano and give out extravagant gifts.
All of this was in contrast to his roots in Tupelo, Mississippi, where money was tight and his family was forced out of the two-room house where he was born when his father couldn’t continue the payments.
“My Mama and I used to plan Christmas for days, even when we had no money at all,” Elvis remembered. “We weren’t the only family who was thankful to have a Christmas basket of groceries.”
Christmas remained his favorite holiday, and some of his first performances were in Christmas plays in fifth and sixth grade. It was the holiday closest to his heart.
“I believed in Santa Claus until I was 8 years old. Some of the kids at school told me there was no such thing. Mama explained it to me in such a way that Christmas didn’t lose its magic,” Elvis said in 1961.
When Elvis finally became “Elvis” and started dyeing those dirty-blonde locks jet black, he gave out more than Cadillacs. When he had money, his friends had money. And Christmas was special.
“It was like being in fairyland and Santa Claus was my first cousin,” remembered Billy Smith, Presley’s cousin, about Christmas celebrations at Graceland.
But lavish decorations and gifts were beside the point, Elvis told Jim Kingsley of the Memphis Commercial Appeal Mid-South Magazine in 1966.
“There is a lot of difference in Christmases today and when we were growing up in East Tupelo, Elvis said. “[But] honestly, I can’t say these are any better. We are just in a better position to spend. But that’s not the important thing. It’s the friendships and the devotion that really count. Everything is so dreamy when you are young. After you grow up, it kind of becomes — just real.”
So with the book, I designed a Christmas party that Elvis himself might like. Not only do I tell the stories behind the holiday music he recorded — and its roots — but I also dig into the Graceland archives and tell some of Elvis’ favorite holiday stories. I even brought out a few holiday cocktails and left a few cookies on the plate for Santa. Since Elvis didn’t leave behind any favorite cookie recipes, I included some from my own Grandma Irene, who loved Roy Orbison and Liberace more than Elvis. However, I still think she’d approve. She loved Christmas, too.
The release of “Christmas with Elvis” will have two local events, the first being a concert with the School of Rock Oak Park, Sunday, Dec. 5, from 4 to 6 p.m. Local teens will be singing Elvis songs while Oak Park author Robert K. Elder tells the stories behind his holiday classics. School of Rock, 219 Lake St., Oak Park. Vaccinated folks only, kids in masks welcome. Sunday, Dec. 12, from 2 to 3:30 p.m., signing and multimedia talk, Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore, 7419 Madison St., Forest Park.