For many, the presents found under the tree as kids changed their lives and shaped their careers. Plus, read their heartfelt Christmas 2020 wishes for the world after a very tough year.
Just about everyone has that warm-and-fuzzy memory of the absolute favorite Christmas gift they received as a child.
Support our coverage of
West Michigan's music scene
I’ll never forget the thrill of ripping off the colorful wrapping paper from a humongous box that could contain only one treasured, please-pretty-please-let-it-be thing: a slot car racing set with a figure 8 track.
For many Michigan musicians, these are more than just nostalgic memories but often the pivotal launching points for a life in music.
Take bluegrass superstar Billy Strings, who grew up as William Apostol in the tiny hamlet of Muir east of Ionia. His favorite Christmas present arrived under the tree at 10 years old.
“It was my little red Stratocaster (guitar) and pignose amp,” he told Local Spins, with the joy still evident in his voice decades later.
“It was a mini-red Squier and I had a pignose amp that was battery-powered. That started it all. After that, I started to learn Jimi Hendrix songs and I had a little band with my brother, Aaron, and Chris Heilman on bass.
That started my lead guitar-playing journey. Before that, I was just this little rhythm guitar player.”
He’s not alone in fondly recalling a gift that had a lasting impact.
With Christmas just days away, Local Spins asked a group of West Michigan musicians to reminisce about their favorite gifts from childhood along with revealing their holiday wishes for the world in 2020.
In many cases, their responses are revealing. In others, it’s just recalling the joy of youth on a special holiday.
Klay Fennema, lead singer for the Grand Rapids rock band Trixy Tang: “As a child, my favorite gift I ever received was a karaoke machine. I come from a family of singers, so we all got some major use of that thing.”
His Christmas 2020 Wish: “For everyone to have a positive outlook and attitude. I know this is tough given the difficulties we’ve all faced and the tremendous amount of devastation, but if we can all move forward, set our differences behind us and focus on being happier people all around, I believe it’ll make all the difference in 2021.”
Alex Austin, frontman for Grand Rapids band Deerfield Run: “My favorite Christmas present was a Crosley record player/media station that has a radio, plays CDs and cassettes. I still have it and still use it every now and then, and has led me to having a pretty good-sized vinyl collection.”
His Christmas 2020 Wish: “My wish for everyone is that they get a chance to truly relax and decompress as much as possible. This year has been difficult and stressful for many, myself included, and I hope everyone gets a chance to breathe and remember the blessings and good things they do have.”
Mary Sue Wilkinson, Traverse City singer-guitarist, owner of Singing Heart to Heart: “My favorite Christmas present was the little black Kay guitar that my mom bought for me with green stamps (grocery stores used to issue these for purchases and shoppers would collect them to buy certain items). I was 12. My mom saved our family’s green stamps and used them to buy my first guitar. It was 1966. This was definitely a beginner’s guitar, but I loved it immediately. I had been taking piano lessons for some time, but this was the ‘60s and folk music was a big thing. I loved to sing, and I wanted to play guitar like Peter Paul and Mary and so many others.”
Her Christmas 2020 Wish: “My wish for everyone in 2021 is harmony. I chose that word because I miss singing harmony. I miss playing music with others, and it’s also my wish for our country: harmony.”
Katie Larson of Traverse City’s The Accidentals: “When I was around 10 years old, I got a pink child-sized acoustic guitar for Christmas. It was my first instrument … but I couldn’t hold the strings down tight enough and I gave up. I didn’t touch it for years, then after I started playing cello, I gave it a second chance and fell in love. That little pink guitar is in our kitchen, and while I’m waiting for something to cook, I’ll pick it up, noodle a melody or serenade my toast.”
Sav Buist of Traverse City’s The Accidentals: “It’s gotta be a direct tie between the purple-and-yellow keyboard I got when I was 7 that came with a drumbeat setting and a microphone (I wrote some total hits on that one) or the entire collection of Magic Treehouse books for my fifth Christmas, which inspired me to write the ‘Kim and Kendy Cheetah’ series that will never, ever see the light of day.”
The Accidentals’ Christmas 2020 Wish: “Healing. There’s a general anxiety in our industry and a complex system of recovery that not all of us will be able to navigate. We’re carrying around what feels like PTSD. … We wish for healing, real healing, where we come back to the center and try to see each other – where we remember who we are and how we are not solitary creatures, where we remember how to care for one another.”
Jake Allen, Grayling singer and fingerstyle guitarist: “The gift that impacted me the most was the first legit electric guitar I got for Christmas from my dad one year. It was a Les Paul, an Epiphone, but a Les Paul nonetheless. I had just started getting drawn to playing guitar at the time and it was basically the portal into the world that I’ve built my life in ever since.”
His Christmas 2020 Wish: “Keeping the element of wonder alive and well in our lives. To me, wonder is the driving force behind everything worth pursuing and sharing. This year has taken a major toll on our sense of not only wonder, but also our sense of security and overall peace of mind. Having enough adaptivity and resilience to rebuild our hierarchy of needs and getting back to the exciting things that enhance and color our lives is my greatest wish personally right now.”
Jordan Hamilton, Kalamazoo hip hop/R&B artist and cellist: “I do have a most memorable gift. In late middle school to early high school, I got really into playing basketball so I started practicing a bunch. My parents bought me a basketball hoop. It was thoughtful and I was excited. My basketball career never took off … but that was a great time of practice and development.”
His Christmas 2020 Wish: “That (people) take walks, get comfortable with themselves – the good and less desirable parts. They they’re able to take care of their bills, know they’re loved. Laughter. Community. Critical thought. Empathy for others.”
Joe Wilson, Traverse City Dobro player and leader of the Joe Wilson Trio: “My favorite gifts were sleds. I remember my big blue sled leaning up against the fireplace.”
His Christmas 2020 Wish: “In 2021, I hope everyone stays safe and sane. We’ll make it through this.”
Her Christmas 2020 Wish: “My holiday wish is that everyone practices kindness toward ourselves and others, especially those who share different views than us, and to take time for self care. I feel that when we take time to nurture ourselves, we are more available to give our best energy to everyone around us.”
Nicholas James Thomasma, Grand Rapids singer-songwriter: “My racer red, 10-speed Huffy bicycle. I rode it everywhere. We lived in the suburbs so it got a lot of miles on it. It got stolen just after high school and I haven’t owned a bike I enjoyed nearly as much since.”
His Christmas 2020 Wish: “I hope everyone has had time for self-reflection and been able to connect with themselves and the people they care about most this year. My wish is that we all take the model of love and respect that we’ve given to our inner circle and treat the outside world the same way in 2021.”
His Christmas 2020 Wish: “To be safe and healthy. We hope that everyone does their part to make sure live music is able to return in some capacity in 2021 and that they are still able to find ways to safely celebrate life and music until then.”
Elizabeth Landry, Traverse City-area singer-songwriter: “My Cabbage Patch kid I named Sandy, after my aunt. She had dark brown hair and freckles just like me. My dad built her this amazing rocking crib with a rocking chair attached. I wish I still had that.”
Her Christmas 2020 Wish: “I hope for everyone to keep their health, of course. But I also deeply wish that as humans we can learn to love each other equally. We can disagree on surface level issues, but I hope for us to one day be able to see each other and care for one another despite our race, gender, sexuality and social statuses.”
Tom Hymn, aka Chad Houseman, Grand Rapids singer-songwriter, drummer and guitarist: “I started playing drums when I was 10. I had a snare drum, and for birthdays and Christmas, I’d get another piece. I think one Christmas when I was 13 – I was a little spoiled brat – I said, ‘Mom and dad, I don’t want to keep getting one piece of a drum set. Either give me it all or get me something else.’ (That year in opening presents) they brought up a piece, it was like another cymbal, and I was really frustrated and mad. And then like consecutive rounds, there would be another piece and it ended up being full kit. It was really, really sweet. I got a full kit.”
His Christmas 2020 Wish: “That we all continue to grow and learn and love and to live our lives well.”
Drew Hale, Traverse City country singer: “One year, my dad put in a basketball hoop for us in our backyard. The man dug a hole, poured concrete, put a steel pole in, and installed a professional backboard without us noticing. It was Christmas surprise-level ninja and I’m still not sure how he pulled it off.”
His Christmas 2020 Wish: “That we would have our eyes opened to one another as human beings – that we would make a concerted effort to empathize with other people, especially those who think, look, believe and act differently than us. … In the grand scheme of things, people matter more than anything else. Humanity is the one inarguable factor that each of us has in common and my wish would be that we begin from that in 2021, and rebuild our collective idea of community and communication from that perspective.”
Jack Droppers, frontman for Grand Rapids rock band Jack Droppers & The Best Intentions: “When I was a kid, my parents got us a beagle puppy named Dutchess. My dad had to turn up some pop Christmas record to 10 all Christmas Eve to cover up her whimpering and barking. In the morning, they pulled the whole, ‘Oh, forgot about the final present’ shtick. She was such a great dog.”
His Christmas 2020 Wish: “That we would all find healing ways to process the grief of this season. My hope is that we all find wholesome ways to deal with the reality of the limits of this life, so that (the period after the pandemic) might be defined by love, hope and justice.”
Darin Bluhm, drummer for Traverse City rock/funk band The Brothers Crunch: “My favorite gift was a purple Ninja turtle wallet.”
His Christmas 2020 Wish: “I wish for all animals to be safe and happy and treated well.”
Jacob Betts, frontman for Grand Rapids’ band The American Hotel System: “I love hats. I’m a big hat fan. My grandma got me my first-ever Stetson hat when I was 2 years old. Now, I’ve got 20 to 25 hats.”
His Christmas 2020 Wish: “That we all can put differences aside and support each other in love and care after a year of physical and emotional isolation.”
His Christmas 2020 Wish: “I just hope that more people take this pandemic seriously and stop making it political. It’s a shame some people have made it into a divisive argument. I hope that we can begin to be more civil to each other and speak with meaning and healing, rather than just blurting out hateful speech – and that we can someday all gather again with music everywhere.”
Christopher “Wink” Winkelman, lead singer and rhythm guitarist for Traverse City jam band Soul Patch: “I was overly fortunate as a child and my three standout gifts were my Skull Mountain with sound-effect microphone, my Air Force One basketball shoes and my first Michael Jordan basketball.”
His Christmas 2020 Wish: “Go easy on your neighbors, go easy on the clerk at the store, go easy on yourselves, just simply go easy because we know nothing of anyone’s day, moment, month, year. Also, take care of your neighbors – people, plants, animals, all things.”
Copyright 2020, Spins on Music LLC