Friday, December 18, 2015

Christmas Time! (And Time and Again)

By Art Taylor

This week's question isn't just timely, here in the thick of the holiday season, but welcome—at least to my mind (ignore that Grinchy Alan Orloff's post from yesterday).

I'm a sucker for holiday traditions—whether those traditions involve food or decorating or reading and watching...or, as this week's question stresses, rereading and rewatching.

That 24-hour marathon of A Christmas Story that TBS has run for years (and TNT for years before that, as I remember)? I've had no problem keeping the channel on in the background all day and into the night.

Does A Charlie Brown Christmas or The Grinch Who Stole Christmas or Rudolph or Frosty or... well, you can see where that list might grow—do any of those ever lose their appeal? And our son Dash has already grown to love Polar Express so much that he'll watch it any time of the year. Back in mid-summer while vacationing in West Virginia, he watched it twice in a row. (Christmas: It's not just for Christmas anymore, right?)

And it's not just films and TV shows I'm talking about. The Grinch is on our coffee table right now, I can recite from memory "A Visit from St. Nicholas," and the season wouldn't be the season without a certain letter to Virginia who'd questioned whether there really was a Santa Claus. (The answer, as we all know, was "Yes."

My wife and I are slowly building our own holiday traditions—a subject I'm planning to explore in more depth in my column for the Washington Independent Review of Books early next week—but I want to give a shout-out in the meantime to a book that has become a cornerstone of my own seasonal reading each year: William Joyce's Santa Calls.

Joyce is certainly one of my favorite children's book authors of all time (Arnold Lobel and Maurice Sendak would be up there as well), and Santa Calls is, to my mind, his masterpiece—which follows a young man named Art Atchinson Aimesworth, his sister Esther, and their friend Spaulding on a trip to the North Pole, by special invitation of the man in red himself. The story that falls out of that invitation is a stirring adventure and a beautiful coming-of-age tale, unexpectedly emotional and ultimately capturing the soul of the season. Both the story and the images are brilliant, and it's become an annual highlight to read the book aloud—a highlight renewed by sharing it with our son these days.

Need I say I'd recommend it to others?

Happy holidays to all!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

May the Force be With Me!

by Alan

Do you have seasonal re-reads or re-watches?

Not to go all Grinch here, but I’m really not big into the holidays (with the exception of National Donut Day, of course), and I can’t point to any re-read or re-watch traditions.

I’ve never read A Christmas Carol.

I’ve only seen It’s A Wonderful Life once.

I’ve never seen White Christmas. Or Miracle on 34th Street. Or most other Christmas movies.

I used to watch Rudolph on TV when I was a kid, but not in a few decades (at least).

This year, though, I might be starting a new tradition. My plan is to re-watch all of the Star Wars movies so I’ll be ready for the new one.

May the Force be With Me!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

It's Tradition Damn It!

By Tracy Kiely

I know this is going to come as no surprise to those who know me, but the Christmas season always finds me running behind schedule. I don’t know why; it’s not like it’s a pop quiz holiday – if you own a calendar, you know when it’s going to arrive. And if you venture inside a mall after September, you get an even bigger reminder. But, every year I find myself unprepared. This means that finding time to “Reread a Favorite Holiday Book” would be on the list of Things I Have Time For – right next to “Stenciling the Driveway.”
That’s not to say that we don’t have our traditions – it’s just that they mostly revolve around re-watching movies. With a movie you can multi-task. Try addressing envelopes while reading, and you'll understand.
 I have noticed, however, that over the years I’ve become somewhat jaded. Movies that I used to love unconditionally now have developed some annoying aspects. Examples:
Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer: Okay, was Santa always such a jerk, or did this just recently happen? He’s ready to drop kick Rudolph because of his nose? No wonder the other Reindeer laughed at him and wouldn’t let him in their games.  Donner even goes so far as to jam an uncomfortable fake nose on Rudolph and then offers this little gem of wisdom: “There are more important things in life than comfort: Self respect. Santa can’t object to you now.” Great message there! Santa was like the mean girl pack leader in high school. You had to conform to his dress code or you would be unmercifully mocked. Also, what’s up with the sentiment after Yukon Cornelius falls to his death?  Well, they are all very sad at the loss of their friend, but realize that the best thing to do is to get the women back to Christmas town.” Uh – gee thanks. Let’s go back there where, if you notice, girl reindeer can’t play in the stupid reindeer games either! Speaking of Christmas town, why is the toy shop run like a sweat shop? The Head Elf is a sadistic grouch who shouldn't be in any kind of leadership role.  And, lastly, what the hell is wrong with the little red-haired girl on the Island of Misfits? Granted her dress is ugly, but that can’t be it – can it? Could it because of her red hair? Oh, god. What if Rudolph is some kind of precursor to The Sixth Sense, and the color red signifies death or tragedy?  I may need to lie down as I figure out that one.
Seriously. Why am I here? 
A Christmas Carol: There really is no polite way to ask this, but is the entire Cratchit family high? Seriously, watch it with that thought in mind. Their unrelenting giddy happiness makes way more sense if that’s the case.
What exactly is in their figgy pudding, anyway?

It’s A Wonderful Life: Yes, a tear-jerking classic. But, when George must see the hellish life that will unfold if he gets his wish to have never been born, we see that his wife Mary is a librarian who never married!  Noooooo! The horror! And, how come Mary wears glasses in this hellish future? Does marriage to George cure near-sightedness?
Thanks to George Bailey, I have perfect vision!
However, there are some that pass the test of time. We always watch Elf, A Christmas Story, The Bishop’s Wife (because – duh – Cary Grant) and Scrooged with Bill Murray.
But, despite some of my North Pole Elfish musings here, all of these movies are a part of our Christmas tradition, and I love watching them every year with my family - even if I do heckle Santa from time to time.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Christmas in the Wilds

By R.J. Harlick

Do you have seasonal re-reads or re-watches?

Like Meredith, Christmas for me is all about tradition and I love it. It’s a constant in the fickle cycle of life. But unlike Meredith, this tradition doesn’t include the reading of Christmas themed books nor the watching of movies. But it does include plenty of other traditions.

For my husband and me, it starts with the tree, a real one of course.  With our log cabin surrounded by a forest of Christmas trees, we haven’t bought one in years. About a month before the big day, when the snow is still walkable, we search for the perfect spruce tree and mark it with red tape. The weekend before Christmas we trek out in snowshoes to retrieve that lucky tree usually buried under successive snow storms, which makes chopping it down a challenge. But my husband, now an expert in Christmas tree chopping, has it down to an art. The next challenge is to half-drag, half-carry the awkward and heavy tree back to our cabin through the deep snow with our two dogs stepping on our snowshoes.

I remember one particularly memorable year, when we were doing this during a blizzard. We arrived home ready to collapse only to discover the power had gone out. And so it remained for several days, putting our Christmas celebrations in jeopardy. For that is another tradition. Our cabin has been host to our family Christmases since before my sisters’ kids were born. All have reached their twenties, with one or two entering their third decade. On this particular Christmas, with our cabin filled with their laughter and mirth, we were trying to figure out how to cook the twenty pound turkey on the barbeque, when miraculously the power came back on and saved dinner…and our backsides. A useless electric water pump had us trekking out into the cold and snow to use the outdoor facilities.

We never put the tree up until everyone has arrived, usually the 23rd, and after it has dripped its
melting snow onto the basement floor. We play Christmas music, drink wine, sometimes mulled wine, and decorate the tree with decorations that span our lifetimes. I still have the decoration my grandmother made for my very first Christmas tree. Each ornament, string of beads, strand of tinsel or shimmer of icicles has a story to tell; like the glass balls bought in Moscow during our posting to the Soviet Union or the purple icicles picked up at Harrods during a pre-Christmas business trip to London or the glass beads that date back to my husband’s childhood Christmas trees. Once the tree is shimmering and glittering in its full Christmas glory we stand around and say “It’s the best Christmas tree ever.”

Even though all the kids are now adults, we still get up early on Christmas Day, turn on all the Christmas lights, inside and out, play Christmas music loudly to ensure everyone is awake, make pots of tea and coffee and begin the great Christmas unwrapping. Needless to say the piles of gifts are flowing out from under the tree.

Christmas day meals are also special. Growing up, the main treat, apart from the turkey, was the escargots dripping in garlic butter that my father used to make for lunch.  Now we have an enormous breakfast of eggs, bacon, smoked salmon and pancakes dripping in maple syrup, cooked by one of the nephews.

And of course the turkey dinner. I don’t think the menu has varied since I was growing up, though over the years there have been variations on the stuffing and the dessert. Lots of turkey with crispy
skin, mashed potatoes with sour cream, squash and beans, all smothered in gravy, with homemade cranberry sauce. My mouth waters just writing about it. For many years I would make pies made from my special homemade mincemeat laced with liberal amounts of brandy. But the kids never liked it. Part of our tradition was to listen to their ‘Oh no, not again’s and watch their faces wince as they sampled a taste. But for the last couple of years, after the last batch ran out I haven’t bothered. I am still searching for another traditional dessert.

Although the number has gone up and down over the years, we are usually about twelve sitting around the festive table, snapping our Christmas crackers, laughing at the wimpy jokes, and sporting the colourful paper hats, at least some of us do. Others refuse to wear them, insisting they are silly. My husband carves the turkey and I dish out the veggies. Because we are such a crowd, by the time the last people are served, the first are anxious for seconds.

After dinner, various libations appear, from very old single malts and cognacs to vintage ports. Often cigars are enjoyed in the freezing cold of the porch. While most of the time we are flaked out on the
sofas and chairs, digesting the enormous meal, there have been occasions when the music has roused us to dancing. Once we even had a raucous conga line threading its way through the living room and kitchen.

But as with anything, traditions evolve with time and life’s passages. This year with above normal temperatures bringing in rain instead of snow, it promises to be a very green Christmas…unless by some miracle we get an unforeseen snow storm. The nieces and nephews have all grown up with some bringing significant others into their lives. There is even a baby on the way. So I expect the make up of our future family gatherings will change as some of us head off to other destinations to start their own Christmas traditions. This year, we will be fewer in number as one of my sisters and her family will be spending it in the Canadian Rockies with their daughter who is working out there. We’re going to miss them.

I imagine like us you have your Christmas and other holiday traditions that have evolved over the years. It’s what helps make this time of year so special, that and families, for this is a time of year for families.

I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy Holiday. Take care until we meet again in the new year.