Traditions are a huge part of Christmas. To mangle a line from The New York Sun, how dreary would be Christmas if there were no traditions. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. For me, traditions come in many shapes and sizes – from Christmas trees to antique ornaments to home-made cookies. Growing up, holiday baking was a family activity – Mom made the dough, Dad squeezed it out of the cookie press, my sister and I were in charge of the red and green colored sugars. Butter cookies were shaped like trees; cream cheese cookies, my favorite, were shaped like wreaths.
With age and lack of time, many traditions either fall by the wayside or become chores that compete with day-to-day life. It seems with each passing year, it becomes more and more difficult to maintain the spirit of the season.
And it’s when I feel myself slipping into that frame of mind that I return to two of my personal favorite traditions.
The first can only happen in the early twilight of morning. There is a brief moment that captures me, my frosty breath like clouds in the still winter air. Rather than hearing heaven and nature singing, there is no sound, no movement. In fact, I think I can almost hear the earth breathing. It is during those few seconds that I am absorb the wonder and awe and overwhelming sense of holiday peace. Then, as the sun climbs higher, I become aware of the sounds of civilization and time begins to return to its frenetic pace.
If you are familiar with previous posts, you would know that television and films have played an important role in my life – and that is the basis for my second tradition.
I recently remarked to Joe, on a stroll down Memory Lane, that when I was a kid, part of the fun of Christmas was watching all of the Christmas specials. Every sitcom had a holiday-themed show, large celebrity families like the Osmonds and Kings had musical specials, and the spirit of made-for-tv movies filled the air. Each show renewed the faith of the season and restored the child-like wonder in Santa Claus. If you don’t believe me, just watch “The Brady Bunch” episode where Carol comes down with laryngitis just prior to her solo in church.
Today, it seems that the entertainment industry does all that it can to destroy the spirit of this time of year. My heart goes out to the parents of young children. Between the raunch and cynicism of shows airing during the “family hour” and commercials shattering the image of Santa Claus, it is a true Christmas miracle that children are able to believe in anything.
Thankfully, there are still the same old standbys, like “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and all of those animated puppet specials from Rankin-Bass to fill the Arctic tundra that is television today. To these broadcast specials, I would also like to add a few holiday films that help to keep my spirit alive.
Topping my list is It’s a Wonderful Life, a film that is, without a doubt, a true holiday classic. I remember the first time I watched it. I was a teenager — and I was not prepared for the effect it would have on me, especially the ending, which still makes me cry with joy. Each year, I see more details that I missed the year before — or perhaps I have convinced myself of that so each year’s viewing is still as special. I love the corniness and the wholesomeness and the Norman Rockwell-like imagery. Above all, there is the message that we all have value, and that we unknowingly touch so many lives. And each year, when George Bailey’s family and friends arrive to help him and, in doing so, put old Mister Potter in his place, I cheer for the common man.
Next up, A Christmas Carol. There are so many (too many) versions of this film adaptation of Dickens’ classic, but I always return to the 1951 one starring Alastair Simm. To me – and I am no expert when it comes to life in Dickensian London – this one looks and feels authentic. It’s as if a camera crew actually captured life in Ebenezer’s world. Then there is the overall plot, a series of ghosts warning Scrooge that he must wake up and smell the holly. Each year, I can think of many people who should be visited by the ghosts. Some years, I think I need a midnight a visit. This year, politicians and Wall Street CEOs top my list for their trampling the livelihoods of the Cratchitts of the world – but that would be a rant that would challenge the length of this post.
For pure comedy, there are two films that are a must see. Funny Farm stars Chevy Chase as a writer who moves from the city to a small town in order to perfect his craft. Naturally, he clashes with the townspeople and his wife upstages him. The charm is in the ending, when everyone comes together – for pay – to help him sell his house. Priceless.
It’s amazing to think that A Christmas Story became a classic in my lifetime. Its imaginative and nostalgic look brings me smiles and laughs each year. Watch Ralphie in his quest for his bb gun enough times, and you can begin quoting from the film, even using lines in your everyday life. I would give this one an A + + + + + + + + + +. (See what I mean?)
An old film that is relatively new to me – and one that I cannot stop thinking of each time I sit down and write – is Christmas In Connecticut, a romantic comedy of errors starring Barbara Stanwyck as a home and garden columnist. Her articles of home, hearth, and holiday stir the memories of a returning GI – only Stanwyck’s character knows nothing about cooking and gardening.
Finally, while made for tv films have been relegated to cable channels, there was a time when they were shown during prime time on a major network. There is one that has stuck with me for almost a hundred years, “A Christmas Without Snow,” starring Michael Learned (of “The Waltons) and John Houseman (of “The Paper Chase”). It’s the story of choir members and the demands of the choir master as he prepares them to sing Handel’s “Messiah.” Not only was I moved by the story and the acting, but I was also exposed to the majesty of Handel’s masterpiece. That was good television.
For accessibility’s sake, I have to add YouTube as a source for today’s holiday inspiration. In the spirit of the season, click on the link below. The clip has been around for some time, but it gets me each time I view it – so get your tissues ready.
But before you click away, I’d like to wish all of you Peace and Joy, Health and Happiness this Holiday Season . . . and always.
A Gift For You: A Holiday Experience Like No Other