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Month: December 2016

Sunset reflection

holiday traditions: family means something different to me

Something has been gnawing at me this holiday season. I just don’t feel very celebratory. I know there are many factors contributing to this, including my employment situation and the outcome of the election.

But over the past few days, I’ve put a lot of thought into why things don’t completely add up at this time of year. And during the drive up to Connecticut, I discussed my dilemma with sprite, and I figured out a big part of why Christmas simply hasn’t felt right for the past many, many years: It’s because my own holiday traditions haven’t been part of the season for far too long.

Growing up in a small family with a variety of traditions meant that there wasn’t the typical family get-together on the 24th or 25th of December. We celebrated St. Nicholas’ Day on December 6th (a nod to my dad’s heritage) and did a gift exchange and celebration on Three Kings’ Day (i.e. Russian Orthodox Christmas, a nod to my mom’s heritage) on January 6th. We did celebrate on the 25th as well, typically putting up our tree on the 24th (when you buy from a tree lot and you want the tree to last until January 6th, you wait until the last minute to keep the needles intact). There were presents on Christmas Day, and my grandmother would often come over, but it wasn’t a big “focus” day for the season.

Once I was a teenager, the thing I did more often than not was go skiing on Christmas morning. Let’s face it: if it snowed on Christmas Eve, the powder in the Wasatch was one of the best presents you could get for Christmas, and the the local resorts were seldom crowded.

But the big thing that did happen on December 25th was having our family of friends over for a celebratory holiday dinner. My parents both being immigrants, the extended family was made up of fellow immigrant expats. You heard the accents from Slavic languages, German, Dutch, Danish, and French. There were a few kids my age, as well, and we kept ourselves occupied while my parents and their friends wined and dined. The food was great. The company was friendly and jovial.

Since my parents’ divorce and my move to the east coast over 20 years ago, this tradition fell by the wayside. My mom doesn’t get together with her expat friends as much these days, due to the combined effects of age and growing apart from some of the group (who now travel to where their kids – my peers – have gone). My dad now lives on the west coast and celebrates a low-key, stay-at-home Christmas with his partner. And I celebrate with sprite’s family in New England.

And while I love the New England gathering and celebration – sprite’s family has welcomed me into the fold, parts of it are quite enjoyable, and I’m grateful to be part of their tradition - it’s not quite the same. Their Christmas is not the one I grew up with, that is mine. There’s a hole in my holidays that needs to be filled.

I see my close friends as my extended family, much as my parents saw their expat friends in a similar light, and I miss having a holiday gathering like I had growing up. We have a tree trimming party each December, but it’s more of an open house style party: great for seeing a big group of friends, but not really the same thing as before. I’m always milling about, serving food and drink, and it’s a tradition for sprite and me, but it doesn’t quite fill in the missing piece of the puzzle.

I see an inkling of what I’d like in the relatively new trend toward “Friendsgiving,” where friends gather to celebrate the harvest shortly before the more typical Thanksgiving family gathering. This idea clicks with me because, to be frank, my friends are as much family as anybody. This hearkens back to the Christmas celebrations of my youth and makes perfect sense.

So perhaps this holiday season I will try to rekindle a long dormant family tradition. I realize it can’t happen on the 25th, as my friends are scattered about the country for their family celebrations. So perhaps sometime around Three Kings’ Day a gathering can occur. Or maybe it’ll be just a mid-winter gathering to start out, given time constraints and the fact that TKD falls on a Friday this year and I have to be up for ski coaching work early the next morning.

I guess what I’ve realized is that traditions matter, if only for a sense of personal place and purpose. And while some can and should pass on, some deserve to be held near and dear. I know you can’t go back to what was, but bringing part of that back to the fore may be the necessary re-centering I need around the year-end holidays.

From me to you: happy holidays.

(Special thanks to Nick C. for some editorial advice – cheers!)

Frosty the Snowman

virtual advent: the alternate holiday tv specials and movies

Yes, we all know the holiday TV specials that have become canon. A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and The Year Without a Santa Claus are all December television viewing for kids from 2 to… well, their 60s, given the fond memories many have of their favorites.

Holiday movies are also a tried-and-true sign of Christmas here in The Burrow. From White Christmas to Love Actually, The Bishop’s Wife to The Polar Express, the old standbys are always good viewing – or good background noise while writing Christmas/ Hanukkah/Festivus cards.

As sprite well knows, I tend toward parody and the obscure. So with that in mind, here are some of my favorite parodies of classic TV Christmas and holiday programs, and a few of my favorite… warped TV special faves.

A Charlie Brown Christmas – alternate ending

Aired on Saturday Night Live back on December 14, 2002, this alternate ending to the 1965 animated holiday TV classic finds the Peanuts gang harnessing the magical powers of waving their hands in the air (i.e. the action that the animators used to depict the gang de-decorating Snoopy’s doghouse and transforming the twig-tree into a masterpiece). “We have magical powers!”

Some cool things about this “TV Funhouse” animated short: Louis CK was one of its co-writers; Brad Pitt voiced himself; and it was dedicated with full love and respect to Charles Schultz, Lee Mendelson, Bill Melendez, and Vince Guaraldi.

The Narrator That Ruined Christmas

Another SNL “TV Funhouse” animated short, this aired on December 15, 2001, when New York City and the country were still a bit raw from the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Leave it to Robert Smigel and his writers and animators to take Sam the Snowman (from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) and make him find the entire annual recitation of the classic story a bit pointless in the shadow of the recent attacks. So after going on a drunken depressed bender (while kids watching from home on the TV watch in bewilderment), Sam takes the kids, Rudolph, and Hermey to the World Trade Center site. Santa needs to intervene, and eventually leads the assembled crowd in a healing, unifying sing-along.

I tip my hat to the animators of this short for really capturing the Rankin/Bass stop-motion animation style.

Christmastime for the Jews

Yet another SNL “TV Funhouse” short, and another nod to Rankin/Bass Animagic® style, this one features the one-and-only Darlene Love (of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” fame who performed said song on David Letterman’s late-night shows for 28 consecutive years) belting out a Christmas ode to those of the Jewish faith, and their unique (albeit extremely stereotypical) customs of December 25th.

This new classic first aired on December 17, 2005.

Community: “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”

Community loved to film parodies that were loving nods to their influences. In 2010, their Christmas episode was a stop-motion special in the Rankin/Bass style.

The whole episode is available on Netflix, for those who wish to see it in its crazy entirety.

Doctor Who Holiday Shorts

While new series of Doctor Who traditionally debut at Chrismastime, the famous time traveler often performs other holiday feats. The Doctor often features in short subjects for Comic Relief or Children in Need, two excellent British charities. Here are a few classics that featured over the years:

Doctor Who and the Case of the Fatal Death (Comic Relief 1993):

This short from 1993 features Rowan Atkinson as The Doctor, Jonathan Pryce as The Master, and many others as… The Doctor. Luckily, this didn’t burn through any official regenerations. (And no, this technically didn’t air over Christmas, but it fits with the BBC’s tendency to parody Doctor Who during their various charity drives – which leads us to…)

The Doctor meets Newt Scamander (Children in Need 2016):

One of the big end-of-year blockbusters this season is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a Harry Potter prequel, of sorts. Eddie Redmayne plays the lead character, Newt Scamander, and after filming one scene, he calls the BBC on the hunt for the “Children in Need” campaign, Pudsey Bear.

Sure, The Doctor doesn’t appear until well into this (at the 2:02 mark for those playing at home), but the whole thing is a great tribute to BBC stars with some excellent comedic timing.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

Who introduced Pia Zadora to the filmgoing public? Santy Claus, of course:

This is an awful B-grade film, a crude attempt at mashing up sci-fi and Christmas movies. It routinely makes “Worst Film of All Time” lists – for good reason. But the best way to enjoy it is with the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 crew providing rolling commentary, their wit first hitting the airwaves on December 21, 1991. Seriously, it’s the only way to make the movie palatable.

But I’ve saved the worst for last…

The Star Wars Holiday Special

This is possibly the worst holiday TV special ever made – honestly, it’s terrible (I think sprite sat through it once, and possibly not through the whole thing). But hey: Star Wars was a hot commodity in 1978, so it made perfect sense for Lucas and company to cash in on things. After all, the cast was all signed on to film The Empire Strikes Back, and music-variety shows still had some clout on network television, so have a look. I encourage you to scan around, because it’s a really rough 96 minutes.

Yeah, it is that bad. After the opening credits, there is a nearly nine minute stretch with nothing but wookie grunts. The plot drags. The all-star cameos read like a who’s who of 1970s panel game shows. The Jefferson Starship performance is odd. The Diahann Carroll bit is soft-core porn, for all intents and purposes. And Carrie Fisher is very obviously on some… chemical enhancement as she warbles the atrocious “Life Day” song.

Sir Alec Guinness dodged a serious career tarnishing bullet by sitting this one out.

But hey: it is the show that introduced Boba Fett to the Star Wars universe, so there’s a plus. And yes, I have this on DVD from a less cleaned-up copy than this stream. The vintage TV commercials are often (always?) more entertaining than the show. For what it’s worth, this show aired exactly once, on November 17, 1978. Lucas was so embarrassed by the end product that he ordered it permanently removed from circulation, and for a very long time his company worked tirelessly to remove all copies from online distribution (though that stance seems to have loosened since Lucasfilm was sold to Walt Disney).

What holiday specials, parodies, and movies are on your must-see list every year? Talk about it in the comments!

This post is part of spritewrites’ Virtual Advent Tour.

Virtual Advent Tour 2016

Lennon's bloody glasses

what would john lennon think?

Thirty six years ago today, John Lennon became, as Jimmy Breslin wrote on deadline for the New York Post, “another person who died after being shot with a gun on the streets of New York.”

And I wonder: what would John Lennon think about the recent turn of political events here in the United States? Certainly he would think of Trump as a charlatan, a fraud, a madman bent on marginalizing and trouncing his enemies, all while distorting (or flat-out ignoring) the facts to his own benefit.

So while I want to believe the optimism of “Give Peace a Chance,” “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” or “Imagine,” I think that one of John’s more venomous songs, “Gimme Some Truth,” is the right choice for this time. It was written during the throes of Nixon, Whitehouse, Vietnam, and the Cold War, and has one simple demand: the truth.

As is customary, Yoko Ono tries to turn the anniversary of her loved one’s murder into a call for peace – in this case, for better gun control.

R.I.P. John Lennon (1940-1980)

virtual advent: st. nicholas’ (and krampus’) day (and night)

For many European families, St. Nicholas’ Day (SND) is the beginning of the holiday season. On December 6th (the anniversary of the death of Nikolaus of Myra), children would wake up to see if St. Nicholas had left a present in their shoes. The present was typically some sort of sweet treat (candy or fruit), and sometimes a small gift.

16th century icon of St. Nicholas

Circa 1500 icon of Nikolaus of Myra. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

In my family, with Euro parents, we always did a little something for SND. My shoes would be filled with candy (typically M&Ms or Hershey Kisses) and a small gift (often something for skiing: ski socks, goggles, a hat, and the like).

Candy in shoes from St. Nicholas - used via Creative Commons

This is far more elaborate than it ever was for me, but you get the gist. (Image via Creative Commons)

In my youth, St. Nicholas was always a benevolent gift giver. And we would return the gift in kind to our neighbor, Nick, delivering him a bottle of brandy on his namesake day.

The night before SND is Krampusnacht, when the embodiment of the devil, Krampus, scours the towns looking for poorly behaved children. Krampus punishes the bad children – in the stories, he either beats them with a birch switch or stuffs them into his large sack, kidnapping them into a life of hard labor to pay the price for their evildoing. He evolved from pagan traditions, being wrapped into the Christian faith – specifically in relation to Saint Nicholas – sometime in the 17th century as a “bad cop” to Nicholas’ “good cop” persona.

Krampus on a sled

Krampus on a sled. (Image via Creative Commons)

And most European kids were scared to death of Krampus.

St. Nicholas and Krampus are fairly common figures throughout Europe, even if they don’t go by identical names. For example, in parts of Switzerland, St. Nicholas and Krampus are Sammichalus and Schmutzli. Rick Steves has a great clip of the Swiss Sammichlaus tradition that always brings a smile to my face (and yes, the vistas of the Alps and all the snow may have more than a little influence on that smile).

I asked my mom about her recollections of SND as a child during her time in the Salzach Valley area of Austria. She says that, to her and her friends, SND was always Krampustag (on the 6th rather than the 5th), with St. Nicholas and Krampus working their way through the small alpine village, going from house to house to see if the kids were good. As this was during World War II, the evil aspect of the holiday was at the fore, and the kids – especially refugees like my mom – took extra precautions to make sure they were on St. Nicholas’ “good kid” list.

My dad celebrated St. Nicholas’ Day growing up, with Sinterklaas and his evil sidekick, Zwarte Piet, making the rounds on the night of December 5th. One thing I didn’t know from this (as it was never really explained), is that Zwarte Piet is traditionally portrayed in blackface, as Piet is intended to be a Moor from Spain. Is it culturally insensitive? You bet! Luckily, the blackface aspect is dying off in The Netherlands, albeit very slowly.

St. Nicholas and Krampus

Saint Nicholas and Krampus examine a bag full of “evil” children. (Image via Creative Commons)

The Krampus never made his way to my household as a kid. I only discovered him via my German classes in high school and college. Over the past decade or so, Krampus has developed a growing following here in the States, with Krampusnacht celebrations popping up all over the place (typically on a Friday or Saturday night to allow for a lot of drinking, as these celebrations typically center around a pub crawl).

In our household, sprite and I typically get a visit from Saint Nick and enjoy the sweet treats he leaves in our shoes (luckily for us, he tends to favor some of the less funky footwear in the house). And Krampus? He only really appears on a t-shirt in my holiday wardrobe.

This post is part of spritewrites’ Virtual Advent Tour.

Virtual Advent Tour 2016

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