A very merry Tuba Christmas

For Tim Hansen, a midlife crisis turned into a Christmas tradition.

When he turned 40, he told his wife he was either getting a motorcycle or returning to his childhood love of playing the tuba.

“She said, ‘Get whatever tuba you want, honey,’ Hansen said. He then started playing in LA Tuba Christmas, an annual bring-your-own-tuba, sing-along concert. Hansen has been taking part in the concert for the past two decades. He eventually started Ventura’s Tuba Christmas, too.

This year, 130 tuba players gathered in an auditorium at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills, not far from the graves of Stan Laurel and movie dog Benji. They’re able to use the venue for free, without bothering any neighbors. This was the 42nd year of LA Tuba Christmas, the third oldest Tuba Christmas in the country.

The stage was speckled with colors. Red and green garland wrapped around some tubas. A red, crocheted bell hung in the middle of a tuba bell, trimmed with Christmas greens. Other tubas were adorned with twinkly lights. But the real celebration came through the music, as the sound, like a low, melodic thunder spread through the crowd.

Charles Minetree of Pacoima has been taking part in Tuba Christmas since the late 1970s. This year, he hit Tuba Christmases in LA, Ventura and San Luis Obispo. (Photo: Susan Valot)

This holiday tradition started in New York in 1974 to honor a tuba teacher and mentor. It now takes place in more than 200 locations nationwide and a handful of venues abroad.

“I’m not very good at it, but I like to play. And when you’re in this room with a hundred tubas, nobody’s gonna’ hear how bad I am,” said Cheryl McMillan of Burbank, who’s been taking part with her high school friends nearly every year since 1979.

Participants joke that you never hear about large groups of clarinets or trumpets getting together to play Christmas and Hanukkah music.

Many participants in Tuba Christmas not only dress up for the holidays, but also dress up their tubas. (Photo: Susan Valot)

“Usually playing the tuba, you end up playing just kind of the background noise. You’re just these low notes in the bottom, but with Tuba Christmas, you get to be the melody,” U C Santa Barbara student Emmett Sams said. “You get to be, you know, what everyone comes to listen to and you get a lot more interesting parts.”

Sams has been playing at Tuba Christmas L.A. with his dad and grandpa since he was 11 years old. His grandfather can’t play anymore, but Sams and his dad planned to hit at least a dozen Tuba Christmases in California this year. They managed to play three in one weekend, which is known among the brass here as a “tuba trifecta.”

With so many tubas crammed onto the stage, you could actually feel the vibrations of the music in your body, as the group played classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Joy to the World” and “Here Comes Santa Claus.” For a few minutes, Santa Claus came to conduct the brass himself.

“It’s a very mellow sound, very melodic. And sometimes you have to listen real carefully to pick out the melody because it’s lower than you expect it to be. But the melody is always there,” Ken Sams explained.

Chris Merrick of Sylmar has been coming to Tuba Christmas LA for six years, just to sing along in the audience. (Photo: Susan Valot)

It was easy to spot Chris Merrick. She did not have a tuba and doesn’t play. But she was decked out in reindeer glasses with sparkly antlers shooting up over her head. She wore a string of Christmas lights, excited to be here for her sixth year in the audience.

“I love to sing. I love learning about the tubas. I love that there’s so many young people and old people,” Merrick said. “Last year I sat behind Mr. and Mrs. Claus in their PJ’s and she was handing out little candy canes and it’s just so fun.”

Then off she went, caroling in a holiday land of tubas.