Christmas is a weird holiday for me. I’m not really in on the religious aspect. I like the fact that it happens around the winter solstice, which heralds the arrival of my favorite season of the year.
It snowed this morning in New York City, where I happened to be on business. The city is particularly beautiful in a fresh coating of white, with the lights of the holiday decorations (both Christmas and Hanukkah) adding a dash of color to the mix (necessary in a city where black winter coats rule the fashion landscape).
But today isn’t that day. Today is December 15th. There are 9 shopping days left until the big day.
December 15th is also International Tea Day – so appropriate for sprite, given her fondness for a nice, hot cuppa.
“That’s trivial,” you say. Well, it is, to an extent. And I like trivia, so here are some random bits of Christmas trivia (thanks to the Daily Mirror and The Telegraph UK for giving me some insight on these).
From 1647 until 1660, Christmas celebrations were banned in England by Oliver Cromwell in the aftermath of the English Civil War.
Greek (i.e. Orthodox Christian, including Russian) Christmas falls on January 7th, thanks to an adherence to the classic Julian calendar. In Greece, the presents of the season are opened on New Year’s Day.
January 7th is Three Kings’ Day in most non-Orthodox Christian traditions, the day it’s said the three wise men arrived with their gifts for the baby Jesus. Some folks call this “little Christmas” and exchange gifts on said day (as was the case in my house growing up, a mash-up of Orthodox Christmas and the “little Christmas” gift giving).
The needles of conifer trees are edible and are a good source of vitamin C. That said, I’ll stick to orange juice.
“White Christmas,” as performed by Bing Crosby, is the best selling Christmas song of all time, with over 50 million copies sold since its release in 1942.
Electric Christmas lights (i.e. “fairy lights” in the UK) were invented in the U.S. in 1882. Certainly the first case of frayed nerves from trying to deduce which light threw off the whole strand started that same year.
Even though a decorated tree is a tradition borrowed from Saturnalia in the pagan traditions, the first reference to a tree used specifically for Christmas celebration dates back to 1570, as seen in a German pamphlet.
In Japan, practicing Christians will often source their holiday meal from Kentucky Fried Chicken – one of the easiest places in the country to find a (mostly) whole chicken for sale. Colonel Sanders may look a little like Santa… sorta.
Estonians celebrate Christmas Eve with some time in the sauna – never cold on Christmas, those Estonians.
Oh to live in Greece, Italy, Spain, or Germany, where workers receive a Christmas bonus of one month’s salary by law.
So there’s a list of weird facts and traditions about Christmas. Trivial? Absolutely.
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, Iâ€™ve put a lot of thought into why things donâ€™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 havenâ€™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. WeÂ 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 happenÂ 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 IÂ 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 -Â it’s notÂ quite the same. Their Christmas is not the one I grew up with, that is mine.Â 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.Â 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 muchÂ family asÂ anybody. This hearkens back to the Christmas celebrations of my youth and makesÂ 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!)
Yes, we all know the holiday TV specials that have become canon.Â A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman,Â andÂ 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. FromÂ White Christmas toÂ Love Actually,Â The Bishop’s Wife toÂ 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 onÂ Saturday Night LiveÂ 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 (fromÂ 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 drunkenÂ 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 AnimagicÂ® style, this one features the one-and-only Darlene Love (of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” fame who performed said songÂ 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 (albeitÂ extremely stereotypical) customs of December 25th.
This new classic first aired on December 17, 2005.
Community: “Abed’s UncontrollableÂ 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.Â 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, thisÂ technically didn’t air over Christmas, but it fits with the BBC’s tendency to parodyÂ 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 isÂ 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 theÂ best way to enjoy it is with theÂ 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’sÂ terrible (I think sprite sat through it once, and possibly not through the whole thing). But hey:Â 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 filmÂ 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 isÂ 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.
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!