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Christmas 2020

A Barry Manilow Christmas song came on the radio in the car not long ago. “Seems strange,” someone commented to me, “for a Jew to be recording Christmas records.” It actually didn’t seem strange to me at all. Surely a large percentage of his fans would be Christmas-celebrating Christians, so why not try to please them? Besides, Jesus was a Jew anyway. Mostly though it got me thinking on the special day and its different meanings. It’s because of the multiplicity of meanings that it so important to us.

Obviously, to some, the day is a purely religious day, one picked to mark the birth of Jesus in that manger some 2000-odd years ago. There’s enough historical data and non-religious referencing of him to know he surely existed; if you’re devoutly Christian, you further believe he was God walking among us and hastened the transition between the angry Old Testament God and the more tolerant and loving New Testament one. Which of course is reason enough for a pretty big celebration and giving of thanks. Even some other religions like the Bahais acknowledge Jesus’ life and his role as a blessed and significant messenger of God. So there’s that.

Then there’s the modern, secular Christmas too, a day of a whole different species. The Christmas that lights up small kids’ faces with thoughts of Santa Claus coming to town. For adults, sure there is a downside to it all – the hustle and bustle, the new year’s credit card bills – but it’s a pretty special day of being with family, other loved ones. Of giving and getting gifts and smiles and laughs. And there’s the food…

For me, both are valid and both are reasons to celebrate and enjoy, Christian, Jew, aetheist or other persuasion. I’ve not much liked the shopping or the crowded malls historically, but I’ve always loved other aspects of it. The nighttime Christmas lights, the movies and specials, the getting together with family and friends (which some years ended up getting short shrift while I was working overtime and being too wrapped up in the …well, wrapping of the day.) My mom and I used to watch the old Alistair Sim A Christmas Carol annually for years, very often on Christmas Eve. The season still doesn’t seem complete without seeing the Charlie Brown Christmas or Rudolph, fond memories of my ’70s childhood that still persevere to this day. More recently, since having family of my own, Elf and A Christmas Story have been added to that list of must-sees. Those happy traditions mean more to me than most of the boxes I might open from underneath the tree, though I do quite like that too, as well as seeing the smiles of those opening the ones I placed there.

This year though, as so many have pointed out, will be a bit different. We’re still seeing the beloved shows and movies and hearing the festive songs. We’re still going to have a nice meal – ham or turkey hasn’t been decided yet – but there’ll be no big gathering of my sweetie’s extended family. We’ve been ordering a bit more online and going into stores a lot less. The pile underneath said tree may look modest this year compared to many. But that’s OK with me. I hate the reason for it – the pandemic obviously (which I must admit, back in March, I never really thought we’d still need to be talking about in December, let alone taking precautions against) – but I don’t mind the changes. As my mother-in-law said in her aged wisdom, “this isn’t the year to celebrate.”

She’s right, if that means not celebrating like most years. But I think perhaps the scaled back Christmas itself might be something worth celebrating, if we really look at it. It’s a day to really enjoy those still around us in our household and perhaps consider the importance of those who aren’t here to us; maybe appreciate them more when things go back to normal and we can once more enjoy their company. Maybe we can celebrate that having a little more time to relax at home and less time in crowds, pushing and shoving is a good tradeoff for one or two less boxes to rip open on the 25th (which in too many cases are stashed away in the closet by the 27th). A time to celebrate, those of us lucky enough to be feeling fit, enjoy our health and lives, and sad as it may be, to remember those who’ve left us this year , from Covid or any other unfortunate demise, and celebrate the time we had together.

So, yep, 2020’s been a trying year. But I raise a glass to it and its lessons, and raise a glass to all you dear readers hoping you’ll have a happy Christmas, no matter what that might mean to you.

Christmas With Pizza-zz

I heard this one come up on a radio morning show again last week. It’s no surprise since it is almost as routine a December topic as the “cost” of giving the gifts listed in the Twelve Days of Christmas. When the morning show hosts were debating turkey vs. ham, inevitably someone phoned in and said essentially, “turkey’s not that great, give me a pizza instead.” So the question becomes not so much “turkey vs. ham” as “big kitchen-made dinner vs. pizza delivered.”

Now, I quite like turkey and like ham a lot more. My sweetie makes a great green bean casserole (a side dish I only encountered when first having Christmas dinner in the southern states) which is great. She has some Mexican in her background, so it’s a family tradition for her to have tamales at Christmas-time, another food new to me that I find quite palatable although, lacking the history, not such a cherished part of the season. My Mom used to make some very good stuffing to go with the turkey when I was younger,so big, nap-inducing dinners at Christmas are a part of my background. Cranberry sauce is one of the few examples of a sweet that seems to “go” with meat or the main course particularly well.

But for all that, I say “make it pizza.” Maybe with a nice store-bought salad on the side. I mean, who doesn’t like pizza? If you have a large family or gathering of friends, you can always order up a veggie one or two, perhaps a Hawaiian, for those who don’t like pepperoni or “supreme” that much.

It’s not that pizza is inherently better than a turkey or a ham feast. Rather, it’s a lot easier. And when you add it up, even with a good tip thrown in – and I do advocate tipping the driver heavily and handsomely, for having to work on that special day – it’s likely going to come out cheaper than turkeysor spiral hams, all those side dishes, rolls and so on. Not to mention, does anybody really like eating dry turkey sandwiches on the 28th, microwaved turkey chunks and four-day old stuffing on the 29th or flakes of turkey for breakfast on the 30th? There’s the real point to me – those big meals leave far too many leftovers (of course, if you have a big family pooch, they may help out on that!) . More importantly, they take a lot of time and effort.

If you have a maid or personal chef, if you’re retired and independently wealthy, maybe the hours upon hours spent prepping, cooking, checking the temperatures, then washing up later are no big deal. But for the rest of us, where people are busy and perhaps have two or three days off to enjoy all the Christmas they can cram in, it’s a different story.

How many Christmases have you seen where half the family doesn’t see the others until the all-too-short meal because they’re cleaning turkeys, snoozing because they were up at 5 AM starting the dinner for that evening or running to the supermarket to get that can of cranberries they forgot? If you’re like me, the answer is “quite a few”.

This year I’m happy and fortunate to be spending the season again with my sweetie and much of her family. we had the big family “get-together” last night. The food was good, and plenty too. But the good stuff – the things we’ll remember – were watching one of her nephew’s girlfriend’s little ones playing with toys and a “walk on” piano and laughing it up, full of the wonder of Santa; us adults having a few drinks and laughing over bingo games, sharing stories of the year gone down and so on. Finally tonight we’re watching a handful of Christmas movies together, which is always one of the highlights of Christmas to me.

So again, I say “big kitchen-made dinner vs. pizza delivered?” Whichever your choice, I send you wishes for the best of dinners and moreover, the best of company for you through the day and the entire season. And as a PS, cheers to all of you who remember those who wouldn’t have much food or company at this time of year and take it upon themselves to help them out a little one way or another.

Merry Christmas All!

Christmas Movies Are Like… Beer?

It’s as predictable as the car blocking traffic in the mall parking lot waiting for the perfect spot to open up or the fruitcake under the tree from Aunt Madge – it’s the most wonderful time of the year for people to get hot under the collar debating movies. Or in particular, the best Christmas movies. Every year we seem to be inundated with a new horde of lists telling us what the “best” holiday movies are; every year people argue over said lists endlessly at the work water cooler and family dinners. 

A perfunctory google search quickly offered up Esquire magazine’s top 40 and Rotten Tomatoes list of the best 50. Each had its own quirks and things to get tongues wagging. Both for instance, included the 1974 slasher-horror flick Black Christmas (#38 on Rotten Tomatoes, #19 over at Esquire). Both had more than one version of “A Christmas Carol” – four on Rotten Tomatoes, which picked the 1951 Alistair Sim one as “the definitive”, and three on Esquire which agreed the ’51 B&W take on it is “still the finest adaptation of Charles Dickens’ legendary tale… yet rated The Muppet Christmas Carol higher. If only director Brian Hurst had thought to have Ebenezer Scrooge visited by Fozzie Bear in the night.

Both lists did agree on the top pick. Rotten Tomatoes call it “the holiday classic to define all holiday classics.” Esquire suggest “few films define Christmas like” it. Yet, surprisingly, when It’s A Wonderful Life came out in 1946, fans were indifferent to the now-classic Frank Capra ode to friendship and loyalty.

It’s hard to argue with the choice…particularly if like me, your sweetie’s hung a framed movie poster of it in the bedroom. But to me, asking my favorite Christmas movie is like asking me to pick a favorite color. Well, I like teal blue tones, but not if we’re talking about cuts of meat. Actually, it might be more akin to asking me what my favorite beer is. Sure I might prefer Blue Moon or Sam Adams to Bud Lite, but the answer is still “whichever is cold and in the fridge”! The favorite Christmas movie is often the one that we’re watching in the moment. The one that brings the whole family together sharing old memories and creating new ones.

That said, to me a season wouldn’t feel like Christmas without seeing most, if not all of the following ones from the Silver Screen and small screen: A Christmas Carol, It’s A Wonderful Life, How The Grinch Stole Christmas, Love Actually and A Christmas Story.

The Grinch – the ’60s animated TV version, true to Dr. Seuss’ words and other-wordly visuals- was a family tradition for me growing up and even as I got to be reading adult novels and reference books, was a reminder of how much those Seuss books entertained me and made me want to read on my own. I still feel curiously happy when walking past a rack with hardcovers of it, Green Eggs and Ham, Hop on Pop and the like. Subconsciously I guess it harkens me back to one of the happy times in my young childhood; consciously it pleases me to know that kids today are still learning to love reading and words through his rhymes just like I did.

I’ve seen many good adaptations of A Christmas Carol, but I go with the lists I mentioned in adhering to the ’51 version as the definitive one. Sure it’s B&W, the sound a little tinny and the special effects, Scrooge flying through the ghost-ridden air and so on, are cheesy but its tough to beat the charm of Sim as the changed man on Christmas morning or not to break out laughing at the frightened maid who encounters a freak of nature – a singing, cheerful Ebenezer Scrooge! Of course, the real reason it perhaps is my pick of the many is that it was for years a Christmas Eve tradition for my Mom and I to watch it. It would be quite a letdown if no station was running it!

It’s A Wonderful Life is wonderful, plain and simple. It never hurts to be reminded of how we impact those around us more than we know, or how doing the right thing will get noticed and eventually be returned to you. I don’t think I saw it until I was in my 20s, but now not a year goes by without watching it with loved ones.

Love Actually is a bit of a variation. I first saw it at a local library mid-summer, during a thunderstorm. And of course that’s not all together unreasonable. It’s more of a romcom than straight ahead Christmas flick; it just happens to revolve around all those intertwined stories happening at Yule time. Since it came out 15 years back, there’ve been a slew of movies which have imitated its entanglement of storylines, but none I’ve seen do it as well. As a music fan, I’ll forgive it for making Mariah Carey richer still by re-popularizing “All I Want For Christmas Is You” because, hey has there ever been a cuter kid than little Sam playing drums watching the love of his life, 12 year-old Joanna, belt it out on stage at the school pagent? Besides, it makes up for that “digression” with the knowing cynicism of Billie Mack and his laughably honest assessment of his “crass” Christmas single as being crap! There are a hundred things that make me laugh every time I see it, from the kids’ dismayed “We hate uncle Jamie!” when he takes off from the house without dropping off presents to the intentional juxtapositioning of the shy, bland conversation of John and Judy with the X-rated sex scene they’re supposed to be filming. Speaking of, it’s a classic you really want to have the DVD of… TV is prone to cut out their whole storyline and edit some other parts so much as to make it almost unrecognizable.

A Christmas Story likewise makes me laugh… the father’s joy at the Leg Lamp, his simmering hatred for the Bumpkuses’ hounds , the pink bunny pyjamas and of course the greatest Bad Santa ever… they never get old. Naysayers who’ve popped up this season complaining that it’s not politically correct (being nostalgic for a time when women stayed at home and cooked, making fun of people with accents, a kid who’s only interested in the gifts part of Christmas all rub them the wrong way ) miss the point, and maybe a funny bone. It’s funny because it’s nostalgic and relatable for so many of us. Like Rotten Tomatoes (ranking it #13) it’s “warmly nostalgic and darkly humorous.”

But back to the beer analogy. The one on hand is often the best one. As time goes by and my life changes, my personal list shifts too. I first saw the Family Stone (picked by Esquire as their 30th best) about three Christmas’ back. It was already a favorite of my sweetie. So seeing it with her has made it special to me now, and a newcomer to our joint “must see” list. That one by the way, was surprisingly under the radar for one with as Esquire term it, an “all star cast” headed by the likes of Rachel MacAdams, Sarah Jessica Parker, Luke Wilson and Diane Keaton. It blends humor and sorrow rather superbly studying one dysfunctional family”s – is there any other kind?- holiday. Likewise, last weekend we all watched Elf, a bigtime fave and annual tradition for her and her kiddo, which has elevated its status on my personal list considerably.

Some movies for you to consider over the next couple of weeks… but more importantly, a call for you to look back on your own happy holidays of years gone by and make your own, personal and meaningful list. Time flies by, so remember to take a moment or two to live in the present,not just the presents this December. And maybe grab me a beer if you’re going to the fridge!