Welcome back to yet another installment of sprite’s Virtual Advent 2018!
Today we will take a quick journey to the land of Festivus, the anti-commercial made-up holiday that falls on December 23. It’s the product of a 1997 episode of Seinfeld. It’s best explained by watching this compilation clip from “The Strike,” the episode that started it all.
The basic gist of Festivus is that it’s a holiday that eschews the normal tropes of Christmas. It evolved out of a fight over an in-demand toy at a local store, after which point Frank Costanza decided he would drop Christmas and create “a Festivus for the rest of us!”
Rather than a tree, there’s an aluminum pole (chosen for “its high strength-to-weight ratio,” according to Mr. Costanza). Instead of singing carols, celebrants engage in feats of strength (which typically ended up with George crying). And rather than reflect on the good that happened over the past year, there is an airing of grievances over the family dinner, where members call each other out on how disappointed they are in each others’ behavior over the year.
If this sounds like typical Seinfeld fare, it is. That said, it evolved out of the family history of one of the show’s writers, Dan O’Keefe, whose father made up the holiday back in the mid-1960s. While originally a celebration of the anniversary of the elder O’Keefe’s first date with his future wife, the celebration was given a new spin when featured on the NBC sitcom. That’s when December 23 was decided upon as the date of Festivus as observed by folks not names Dan O’Keefe.
Rather than remain a bit of “nothing” like most Seinfeld gags, Festivus has been adopted all over the world as a way to cleanse oneself from the bad aspects of the ending year. In the Adams Morgan neighborhood in the District of Columbia, it was tradition for many years to celebrate Festivus with an aluminum foil clad lamppost, and a grievance board taking over the community announcement kiosk at the intersection of Columbia Road NW and 18th Street.
I see Festivus as a necessary grounding tonic to some of the overt commercialism and romanticized, manufactured sentimentality that seems to be ever-present during modern Christmas celebrations. That’s not to say I’m a humbug, but it’s good to air out the things that annoy in order to start the new year tabula rasa.
And besides: it gives you something to celebrate on December 23. Otherwise, it’s just Christmas Eve eve.
So that’s about it…. right?
In order to add a little bit of levity to this post (it is me, after all), I’m posting one of Malinda Kathleen Reese‘s excellent Translator Fails. This year, she’s taken on “White Christmas,” the Irving Berlin classic. In doing so, the song morphs into an ode to white… wine.
She also released this medley of various holiday songs that had a similarly absurd outcome:
Catalan Christmas traditions tend toward the weird. With that may I introduce…
CAJA TIO – the pooping log!
Also known as Tio de Nadal, Caja Tio is a staple of Catalan Christmas tradition. The basic gist is that a household has this wooden log sculpture, typically 30 centimeters long, in their house for the holiday season.
Starting on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8th), the “tio” is fed a bit of “food” (candy or something similar), and is kept “comfortable” by covering it in a blanket. This continues until Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, when the log is placed in the fireplace and ignited, then beaten with a stick until it “defecates” its treasures. (In recent years, the decreasing commonality of fireplaces has many families skipping the immolation aspect of the Christmas Eve/Day culmination of festivities.)
The beating of Caja Tio tends to also involve singing songs in praise – or perhaps sarcastic spite – of the holiday log. This was famously immortalized by Norah Jones on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations Holiday Special in 2011.
Another Catalan tradition around Christmas is the addition of a Caganer figurine to the nativity scene. A cajaner is a person in the act of defecation (the term literally translates to “the crapper” or “the shitter”), and is typically represented by a peasant in Catalan dress. Learn more about this strange figure here.
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.
Welcome to another stop in sprite’s Virtual Advent 2017! I love that sprite carries on this tradition every year – and I try to provide something unique to the mix every year.
This year I’m sharing the tradition of the skiing Santas. Many ski areas kick off their season in early December, and most of them have a skiing Santa to welcome skiers, especially the children.
But some ski areas go a bit further. Witness Sunday River, Maine, where the annual “Santa Sunday” brings out hundreds of skiers in full Santa garb (though the helmet is a new nod to safety). These skiers can ski for free on this day, provided they wear their full Santa regalia all day. Here is footage from this year’s Santa Sunday, which took place last weekend:
And because everything is bigger in the Alps (though the Alps are geologically younger mountains than the Appalachian Range, of which Sunday River’s peaks are part), Verbier, Switzerland, hosted over 2,600 Santas (and associates of Santa) for their annual “Santa Après Ski” festivities this past Saturday:
And because I really can’t wait for the beginning of ski season, here are two cheesy ski videos. First up: Hansi Hinterseer, former Austrian downhill racer, graces us with the latest rendition of his hit song (in Austria, of course), “Ski-Twist”:
And as Christmas for sprite and me is never complete without a bit of John Denver, here’s his video for “Dancing With The Mountains,” from his 1980 album, Autograph:
I’ll be back with more Virtual Advent later in the month – stay tuned!
The header image is a still from “Ho Ho Pro” – another fun video of a skiing Santa, this time at Telluride, Colorado.
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!
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. NicholasÂ had left a present in their shoes. The present was typically some sort of sweet treat (candy or fruit), and sometimes a small gift.
Circa 1500 icon of Nikolaus of Myra. (Image viaÂ 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).
This is far more elaborate than it ever was for me, but you get the gist. (Image via Creative Commons)
In my youth,Â 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 isÂ 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 birchÂ 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. (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 ValleyÂ area of Austria. She says that, to her and her friends, SND was alwaysÂ 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, withÂ Sinterklaas and his evil sidekick,Â 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 thatÂ 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, albeitÂ very slowly.
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, withÂ 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.