Monday, December 21, 2009

A Christmas Potpourri!

In honor of the first real snowfall of the year (seriously, outside it’s nearly like a picture print from Currier and Ives!!!), I’ve decided to return to my aforementioned Christmas devotional with some suggestions for how to make your Yuletide more Yule-tastic. I can vouch for all of them and highly recommend making them a part of your holiday.

Note: I’ve excluded any mention of Red Ryder guns, Charlie Brown trees, Rankin-Bass or angels named Clarence, not because I don’t love these things, but because they’re everywhere.

And I promise: no seven swans a-swimming….

1. The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry

This is one of my favorite short stories of all time and my Christmas season isn’t complete without it. First published in 1906, the now famous twist ending has been rehashed in everything from The Honeymooners to Sesame Street to 7th Heaven to Rugrats. It’s one of those stories that has become so much a part of American Christmas culture, you know it whether you’ve read it or not. Jim and Della Dillingham Young are a young couple living in a Manhattan tenement at the turn of the 20th century. They want to get each other something special for Christmas but there’s no money to spare. She has long, beautiful hair; he has a gold watch he inherited from his father. She really wants a set of valuable combs; he really wants a nice watch chain. The result is ironic, wrenching, darkly funny, and so romantic. By the story’s end, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry (Jim and Della do both and so do I usually) but it doesn’t matter because you love the characters as much as they each other. I’ve only read a handful of O. Henry’s stories but judging from those, he seemed to enjoy and care about his characters. And he clearly adored Jim and Della. This is a story that, while especially meaningful at Christmas, is a pleasure to read year-round. In fact, I recommend it for Valentine’s Day too. It’s one of my favorite love stories.

P.S. I also recommend Pete’s Tavern in Manhattan. It’s the oldest operating pub in New York City and has been carefully preserved over the decades. Walking into it is like going back in time. Best of all, it's where O. Henry wrote The Gift of the Magi; the booth he sat in while he wrote it is done up like a shrine and the effect is chill-inducing.

2. All I Want For Christmas Is You by Vince Vance and the Valiants

Make no mistake. This is not Mariah Carey’s classic of the same, nor is it another version of that song. It’s a whole other monster—a country song from 1989—with the same title. I love Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas Is You but so does everybody. This song doesn’t get as much play or attention, but every time it comes on, I melt. The gist is the same as Mariah Carey’s with the female singer declaring that she would trade all the ornamentations and material benefits of Christmas if only the guy she’s in love with could love her back / be with her. It’s slower and more mournful than Mariah Carey’s but still hopeful and very romantic. LeAnn Rimes did a cover in 2004 worth checking out but my money’s on the original.

3. The Lion in Winter

Dysfunctional family movies are a dime a dozen especially around this time of year, but this one, released in 1968, just might be the Mack daddy of them all. And based on a true story at that. It’s Christmas 1183 and the royal family of England has gathered to celebrate and to try and resolve an important family quarrel. The eldest son has recently died and England is in need of an heir. Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) wants the crown to go to her favorite, Richard (Anthony Hopkins), an accomplished soldier and the next in line. King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) wants it to go to his favorite, John (Nigel Terry) a spoiled teenaged brat. Standing in the background with no champion but himself is the middle child, Geoffrey (John Castle) who has been turned into a calculating, vengeful machine by a lifetime of neglect. Anybody with a passing knowledge of English history (or the story of Robin Hood) knows how it all turns out, but as always, the fun is in the journey. The cast is excellent and the movie has suspense, scandal, political intrigue, tragedy, and even romance. And it’s very funny. Throw in Henry’s young mistress / John’s fiancée (Jane Merrow), a very young Timothy Dalton as King Phillip of France, and one of the best scripts ever written and you’ve got yourself a Christmas party. It doesn’t give the same warm fuzzy as your standard Christmas faire but who can’t relate to a family just trying to get through the holidays without any betrayals, murders, or insurrections?

4. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson

This book has been a Christmas tradition in my house since I was nine years old. It’s the story of the six Herdman kids considered “the worst kids in the history of the world” by their classmates. They’re mean, they curse, they smoke cigars, they steal, and do basically everything kids aren’t supposed to do. When they crash Sunday school in search of free sweets, they end up taking over the annual Christmas pageant, a tradition nobody in town has much feeling for anymore, and bring it to life. This is one of the funniest books I have ever read. The descriptions of Sunday school (CCD to us Catholic kids), grammar school, and suburban politics all vividly echo my own childhood experiences and give me a nostalgic rush every time I reread them. However, for all its humor (and there is a lot), the book also provides a subtle, powerful message about Christmas. As the Herdmans destroy the angelic pretenses of the Christmas pageant (calling Mary pregnant! burping the baby Jesus!) they accidentally restore humanity to the holier-than-thou proceedings. By daring to imply that maybe the baby Jesus cried and had colic like the rest of us, they remind their audience that “when Jesus said ‘suffer the little children to come unto me’, he meant all little children. Even the Herdmans.”

6. The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E.T.A. Hoffmann

The holiday season wouldn’t be complete without the classic love story of a seven-year-old girl and her favorite Christmas present. First published in 1816, it’s become a holiday tradition thanks to the beloved ballet, but unfortunately, the ballet only tells half the story. If you want the full dirt (and a happier ending) this is the road to take. On Christmas Eve, young Marie (yes, Marie—not Clara!!!) receives a special present from her godfather, Drosselmeyer. It’s a Nutcracker and it’s love at first sight which isn’t weird at all because he’s really a handsome prince under a spell. Of course, he is. And of course, there’s a horrific band of mice he must fight before he can change back. And of course, all the toys will come to life and help him so he can return to his fantasy land kingdom that, of course, needs a queen. We get to see the relationship between Marie and the Nutcracker Prince develop and grow into a real romance in which they are equal partners. It also tells us the back story of how he came to be a Nutcracker and why only Marie’s love could set him free. Hoffmann has a lot of fun messing with us here, blurring the line between fantasy and reality to the point where we have no idea what really happened and what Marie dreamed. If she dreamed any of it. This story is definitely the reason I became obsessed with nutcrackers as a kid and now have a huge collection of them headed by one special fellow who just refuses to turn into a prince. Ah well, a girl can dream.

7. Double Feature: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) and A Christmas Carol (1984)

There are countless adaptations of Charles Dickens’s classic novel about an uncaring miser’s Christmas redemption and how he returns to humanity with the aid of three Spirits. The 1951 version, Scrooge, starring Alastair Sim is almost universally regarded as the best and it is great, but my heart belongs to The Muppet Christmas Carol above all. There are those who would challenge me, call it a generational thing, say I have no idea what I’m talking about and to those naysayers, I would simply have to hum a few bars of any song in this unsung masterpiece to feel I had made my point. Michael Caine is hands-down my favorite Scrooge, making his character’s transformation real and emotionally wrenching. It’s slow, it takes time, and it’s so real. More than any other Scrooge, Caine shows us the good person underneath all along, done in by bitterness and neglect. To say nothing of the fact that he acts alongside the Muppets as well as if they were human actors. And I don’t think human actors could have done a better job than Kermit as Bob Cratchit, Robin as Tiny Tim, Miss Piggy as Mrs. Emily Cratchit, Statler and Waldorf as Marley and Marley (avarice and greed!) and of course, Gonzo as “a blue-faced Charles Dickens who hangs out with a rat” (as in Rizzo the). When I read the book, I imagine the characters to look like the Muppets. And the music…I dare you not to cry during When Love is Gone or Bless Us All. Or get all warm inside when the Hagrid-like Ghost of Christmas Present leads all of London in It Feels Like Christmas. I’ve seen this countless times and yet every time I still laugh and cry and want to be a better person. Beautiful.

However, if you’re in the mood for something a little darker and more unsettling (which is saying something considering the Muppets version scared the bejeezus out of me way back when), there’s always the 1984 British TV version starring George C. Scott as Scrooge. Though A Christmas Carol is ultimately life-affirming and joyful, it presents a terribly dark and dismal journey. After all, it centers around a man who must revisit the most painful moments of his life, witness his mistakes, and face the prospect of his death and the death of an innocent child he could have helped if only he had cared enough. Scott makes a great Scrooge, even though he stays gruff a little too long, in my opinion. Scrooge needs to melt slowly (something Caine did wonderfully). But Scott does a fantastic job with Scrooge at his meanest and at his most joyful, bringing me to tears when he realizes he still has time to change and drawing belly-laughter when he scares Bob Cratchit to death with his kindness. And speaking of Bob Cratchit, he’s played by the one and only David Warner (Gregory Peck’s unfortunate sidekick in The Omen) who is wonderful. But of course, I’ll watch him in anything. The three Spirits (Angela Pleasence, Edward Woodward, and Michael Carter) are morbid, sarcastic, frightening and don’t seem to like Scrooge very much, something I found oddly refreshing. Never has the Ghost of Christmas Present’s speech about Scrooge’s ambivalence towards “the surplus population” haunted me so much. To add to the horror, Ignorance and Want show up in all their terrifying glory. The sight of these two proved to be one of the my most powerful movie experiences as a kid and marked the first time a movie ever truly disturbed me. This version also includes the relationship between Scrooge and his beloved sister, Fan (Joanne Whalley) and shows how her early death led to his cruel treatment of her son, his nephew, Fred (Roger Rees) who loves him anyway. If I have one problem with the Muppet version, it’s that they cut Fan out, choosing to focus on Scrooge’s forsaken love, Belle instead. Watch the Muppets for Belle and this one for Fan. Either way, your heart will break.

I highly recommend watching these two as a double feature. A Christmas Carol is one of those stories that lends itself to being retold. You don’t have to pick just one if you don’t want to. These are two great, very different interpretations and both are worth watching.

Until we meet again, my pickles.

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