As I’ve stated in my previous entry in this series, I am a hardcore fan of Christmas. I have no dog in the “Christmas Wars” fight between the multicultural-Happy-Holidays-secular-humanists and the Merry-Christmas-baby-Jesus-Christians. Of course, in essence I am on the side of the former, but I am also a traditionalist in certain ways. “Christmas vacation” instead of “winter break”? Why not? “Merry Christmas” instead of “happy holidays”? Sure! Very, very few non-Christians are truly offended by these expressions, and those that are are probably assholes year-round.
OK, with that out of the way, let’s examine the ritualistic glee of a Christmas-loving atheist.
First of all, let it be known to all and sundry that I am a compulsive watcher of Christmas specials and Christmas-themed episodes of TV shows. But I’m discerning. Not just any old special will do. Many will cry “heresy” when I say that I am not a fan of Rankin-Bass and their stop-motion tomfoolery. The animation is bad, and the voices are shrill and grating (except for Jimmy Durante as the Narrator on Frosty the Snowman). So each year I give those shoddy puppets a miss, unless my kids want to check them out, in which case I’ll tolerate them. That’s what being a good parent is all about. The animation on A Charlie Brown Christmas is also a little sub-par, but you can’t deny its charm, and some traditions are written in stone. So the Peanuts gang and my DVR have a date for Monday, Dec. 8 at 8:00. Conversely, if you want to talk good animation, go no further than the Chuck Jones-directed How The Grinch Stole Christmas (Dec. 17, 8:00, Cartoon Network), featuring the voice of horror icon Boris Karloff. (I avoid the loud, stupid live-action Jim Carrey movie. It’s like someone figured how how to deliver a migraine in cinematic form.) Olive the Other Reindeer (Dec. 9, 7:00, KQCA 4) is a relatively recent classic, and I keep hoping to see childhood favorite Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas turn up, but the Disney people can be pretty inconsistent with what they decide to yank out of their vaults each year, and it looks like ’08 won’t be seeing Emmet and his boys nor the River Bottom Nightmare Band blow the roof off the Waterville Talent Contest.
Our local public television channel has stopped showing The Andy Williams Christmas Special, a compilation of his variety-show Christmas specials from 1962 to ’71. Numbingly cheesy, folksy, and reeking of the scent of grandparents, The Andy Williams Christmas Special makes Lawrence Welk seem like Swedish death metal. It’s idea of cutting edge musical guests was the Osmond Brothers. It was absolutely irresistable. I furtively tuned in each year, and if someone else came in the room when it was on, I quickly turned red and switched channels as if caught watching porn. I suppose I could easily acquire the specials that aren’t running anymore on DVD, but that cancels out the “special” aspect. If you don’t catch them on TV, it’s cheating. (DVR-ing them is NOT cheating. These are my rules.)
My no-DVD rule does not apply to Christmas episodes of regular TV shows. Thanks to my DVD library, I never miss Christmas episodes of The Bob Newhart Show, The Office, Family Guy, The Simpsons, Newsradio, Cheers, and 30 Rock.
On to Christmas movies. I have no stomach for the treacly, fluffy made-for-TV movies that the Hallmark Channel and Family Channel have made a cottage industry in recent years (and allowed washed-up shmoes like John Schnieder and Patrick Duffy to continue making their alimony payments). Nor am I inclined to sit through sentimental dramas of the theatrical variety. Miracle On 34th Street, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Meet Me In St. Louis, and others of their ilk are not on my must-see list. I remain an It’s A Wonderful Life virgin. Never seen it, probably never will. For me, Christmas movies are all about comedies. (See my article “Top 5 Holiday Comedies” in Issue #2 of Idle Times for more info.) At some point between then Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, I will have watched Bad Santa, The Ref, Elf, Scrooged, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and of course, A Christmas Story (at least once on DVD, and again during TNT’s traditional 24-hour marathon.) For some reason, ABC decided to show the original Muppet Movie on Christmas Eve from about 1981 to 1985 or so. I was at prime Christmas age during those years (7 to 11) so recently I’ve been tossing that one in the ol’ Netflix queue for nostalgic holiday viewing.
And of course, A Christmas Carol. I read the original story by Charles Dickens each year (and so should you – it’s short!), and watch every variation I can get my hands on. The 1938 Reginald Owen version, the 1951 Alastair Sim version, the 1970 musical with Albert Finney, the 1984 TV version with George C. Scott, the 1999 TV version with Patrick Stewart. I try to catch them all. I have Blackadder’s Christmas Carol on DVD. I remember as a little kid liking Rich Little’s Christmas Carol on HBO, where all the characters were piss-poor celebrity impersonations by Rich Little. (How did that guy luck into a career? All of his “impressions” are variations on Johnny Carson or John Wayne. He makes Frank Caliendo seem touched with the subtle hand of genius.) Mickey’s Christmas Carol, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, A Looney Tunes Christmas Carol, The Flintstones Chistmas Carol etc. are all part of a beloved extended family. I recently discovered that a holiday tradition of the 1930s and 1940s was a radio play of A Christmas Carol featuring the voice of Lionel Barrymore, broadcast each Christmas Eve. I snagged some audio files (I love the internet!) last year and have added that experience to my growing list of traditions.
I’ll be missing out on putting up a Christmas tree in my apartment this year. Because of visiting relatives from far out-of-town, my kids will be spending the two weeks before Christmas with their mother. Usually I take my oldest son out on a wild goose chase from lot to lot looking for the perfect tree. (For the last couple of years, it was found at Home Depot.) Then getting it home, hoisting it straight (with the help of several magazines stuffed under the teetering stand), draping it with lights (the more the better), and then getting on the ornaments. It’s a time-consuming and sometimes frustrating process, so however much I enjoy having a Christmas tree, it’s just not worth the hassle, mess, and expense when it’s just me looking at it. I thought about putting one up extra early this year, but even when I put one up around the usual time (Dec. 10-12), it’s dry, brittle, and ugly before New Year’s no matter how much water I dump into its stand. I’ve even toyed with idea of a (shudder) artificial tree, but I can’t yet bite that particular bullet. The only decent-looking ones are out of my price range anyway.
I live a pretty climate-controlled life. I enjoy a good thunderstorm or cold snap because I so rarely have to be out in it. Walking from my car to whatever building I’m going into (and back again) is about the extent of my exposure to the elements. Sometime in December, though, I do like to get out in the cold for an extended period. A couple of times I’ve headed up into the foothills for Nevada City’s Victorian Christmas Stroll, sometimes its Yuba City’s Christmas Stroll, and this year it was the Marysville Christmas Parade. A warmer but no less festive tradition is one I know I share with a lot of other people, and that’s taking a Christmas light drive. Throw some Christmas music on the car stereo, throw the kids in the backseat with a mug of hot chocolate, and drive around town checking out the houses of those that have much more energy and money than I do. The houses off of El Margarita Rd. in Yuba City, Sacramento’s Elmhurst neighborhood (around T & 53rd), and the “Fabulous Forties” have some of my favorite exterior light displays.
Finally, there’s no place like home for the holidays as Perry Como reminds us, and it’s absolutely correct. I still remember the Nightmare Christmas Tour of 2000. Six different family members’ houses spread across three different towns. In one day. We celebrated most of Christmas that year in the goddamn car.
Well, no more of that. I generally spend the night before Christmas at my parents’ house with my kids. Mom has made sure bowls of nuts and candies are within easy reach no matter where you sit. Dad cooks beef stew, the Duraflame napalm log burns merrily in their undersized fireplace, and the TV tells of a kid who wanted nothing but a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. Once the kids are tucked away in the sofa-bed in the back den, I sit reading and sipping until it’s time for Santa to visit. At which point, Santa hauls his half-drunk ass out of his reading chair into the garage where the loot is hidden. After filling the stockings, eating the cookies that were left out (and dumping the milk), I sleepily head for the guest room and the requisite visions of sugar plums. Christmas morning is its usual kid-oriented chaos. Presents are opened, messes are made, some assembly required. By noon we are breakfasted, groomed, and ready to meet any “extended family” obligations in the afternoon. These vary from year to year, but I have long ago decreed that from December 24 at 8:00pm to December 25 at 12:00pm, I, for one, am at Chez Isenhower. No exceptions.