Inspired by the Fiftieth Anniversary of that terrible day on 11/22/1963, when President John F Kennedy was assassinated. The story explores the thoughts and emotions that darkened that Holiday Season, and finds a glimmer of light showing the way to the future of which President Kennedy spoke eloquently. This print edition makes a nice gift, stocking stuffer, or over-sized Holiday Card.
Perpetual War On Christmas For Perpetual Peace On Earth
He’s Baaaack! And he’s brought a new recruit. Bill O’Reilly has returned once again to that sure-fire ratings stimulator: The War On Christmas. This season he has help/competition from former-everything-political and Tine Fey look-a-like, Sarah Palin. The latter does not have a daily television program, nor a daily radio program, so she had to settle for ‘writing’ a book about the terrible persecution that Christians and Christmas are suffering at the grubby hands of the Secularists. Writing must be a terribly arduous task for her since, her spoken words bearing witness, her relationship with her mother tongue a strained one, if not actually a divorced one.
These two and other cohorts from the Right Wing Personality Disorder Ward rev themselves up, seemingly the moment the Thanksgiving leftovers are sealed in Tupperware or tossed in the garbage. Their raison d’être for the next few weeks is the highly organized, brutishly vicious, and completely imagined War On Christmas.
It seems like it all began . . . Well, it likely all began with a late Fall meeting between Bill and his staff to figure out a way to pump up the ratings for the show(s) and to keep the name/face of Bill O’Reilly in front of everyone else’s face during the Holiday Season, during which time people generally watch less TV because they have so many other concerns (and yes, I used the dreaded word ‘Holiday,’ because during the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s there are several celebrations that go on. For example: December 6th is The Feast of Saint Nicholas, very popular in Europe, and the day/celebration from which we derive the more blatantly Christian artifacts that have become the religious aspects of modern Christmas.). Out of thin air, someone groped and found the not very interesting observation that when shopping during the weeks in question, one was more likely to be hailed with a “Happy Holidays!” as opposed to a “Merry Christmas!” This was all the scriptwriters needed, and a dozen or so years ago a new Christmas tradition of reverse intolerance was begat in a glass and steel manger somewhere in New York City.
The yearly campaign began with bemoaning the ‘fact’ that clerks in stores were apparently being programmed to say “Happy Holidays” in place of “Merry Christmas.” The War On Christmas soldiers were positive that this was merely the first shot in the secularization of Christmas. If it might have occurred to them that it was only an act of recognizing that there were people of faiths other than Christianity, and that those people might appreciate having their winter holidays recognized — or at least not completely ignored — by the places in which they were laying down their hard earned money (amidst the otherwise Completely Christmas decoration displays in all of these stores), that did not fit their script. Worse, the warriors were offended that the less specific greeting/salutation might be an effort at inclusion of the others in the joy and peace that are at least promoted as being the heart of the religious holiday. How dare they include others of the non-dominant belief systems in such a celebration!
After refining the talking points over the past years, the Christmas defenders have pretty much settled on: The Athiests/Liberals/Secular Humanists/Hollywood Elitists/ACLU are pressuring all the Good Christians into removing all mention of ‘Christmas’ from modern society. They scour the news feeds to find even the smallest story that backs up their claim that Christmas is under attack (‘Holiday’ trees instead of ‘Christmas’ trees; ‘Holiday or Winter Pageants/Parades’ rather than ‘Christmas Pageants/Parades’), and that Christians themselves are under attack/being persecuted and treated worse than any minority in the history of the planet. Seriously. They feel persecuted. This, despite the fact that “their” holiday is a National Holiday; This despite the fact that all of the retail establishments that are supposedly ignoring them look like a Santa Claus’s Village wet dream from the middle of October till December 29th or so; This, despite the fact that those retail establishments open up for business on Thanksgiving nowadays so they and others can get an early jump on their “Christmas Shopping.” Yes. Those poor, downtrodden, persecuted Christians.
The ACLU has had to waste their time issuing statements defending themselves against most of the accusations. They have even, in their work, defended the rights of others to celebrate Christmas, even as they have also invoked the Constitutional separation of Church and State when individuals and groups have complained about religious displays on public property/in public buildings. I personally think the latter is a silly waste of time. I do not any longer subscribe to any organized religion or its doctrine, but my beliefs or lack thereof are under absolutely no threat from a public display of a nativity scene or the like, just as Bill O’Reilly’s or Sarah Palin’s marriages are under absolutely no threat from a gay couple getting legally betrothed. Just as Mr. O’Reilly and Ms. Palin are engaging in more attention-seeking than actual defense of Christmas, so too are the Athiest/Humanist/Whateverist groups looking out for press more than they are for other people’s rights.
In a previous essay I briefly described the history of Winter Celebrations that pre-date and heavily influence the modern Christmas celebration; whether one views that celebration through a Christian or a secular filter, the origins remain the same. If the reader would like take a look at those origins of the Winter Solstice, please do an internet search which will yield far greater and more detailed information than I feel like imparting here. I am more interested in looking at what truly can be defined as a “War On Christmas.”
Since the loud-mouths who constantly cry out about this imagined War On Christmas identify proudly as Christian, I will leave out of the discussion any references to Pagan winter rituals, as well as the other religious celebrations/holy days that coincide with Christmas during the winter season. Except to say: Yes, ‘Christmas’ is derived from ‘Christ’s Mass,’ meant to recognize the birth of the Christian Messiah. But since in modern usage the word or term ‘Christmas,’ due to the dominance of Christianity in the Western Industrialized World (yes, the same Christianity that we are told is being persecuted is the dominant belief system, especially in the USA) has become almost a generic term, it has to be argued that for the population as a whole, Jesus is a reason for the season, not the reason for the season. This in no way impedes upon your personal ability to celebrate the day as the birthday of your savior, but there is absolutely no reason to feel hurt if a few other people – a minority in fact – do not enjoy the day for the same specific reason.
For it should come as no shock to the observant that the celebration of the Christmas Holiday was secularized by a force much more powerful and omnipresent than ACLU lawyers, Socialists, Secular Humanists, or even God. That force is called Human Greed. Let me repeat that: Christmas has already been secularized. And not for reasons of destroying anyone’s faith. The only reason, the very same reason that a great many otherwise wonderful natural and man-made things have been destroyed, can be summed up in one word: Greed. Isn’t that one of the Seven Deadly Sins? Apparently not too many of our Christmas Warriors have read that far into their favorite book by their favorite philosopher.
Returning to a question I asked in my previous blog post about this subject: If these folks are so worried for the state of their religious holy day — and many might agree that there is some evidence that they should be worried — why then don’t they expose the source that makes a true mockery of the Christian observance: Commercialism?
In the 1950s a gentleman named Stan Freberg released a novelty recording titled “Green Christmas,” with dollar signs replacing the two S’s. Its theme explored the callous use of the Christmas Holiday as a marketing device by the advertising industry and the companies they served. Even fifty-odd years ago certain numbers of the population were getting wary and weary of the undeniable fact that money and materialism rather than spirituality were becoming the driving force behind the celebration. Today that situation has worsened to the point that most people probably have come to believe that, in the words of Bart Simpson, “Christmas is the day we celebrate the birth of Santa Claus.”
There are plenty of much more solid targets at which to fire in this War On Christmas. The Black Friday phenomenon alone would be a very rich battlefield in which our Christmas Warriors could loudly proclaim their allegiance to the spiritual and holy elements of the season/day. Some have even coined the phrase “The True Demeaning Of Christmas” in conjunction of this retail orgy, and in doing so have hit the nail squarely on its head. How about if Bill O’Reilly, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, et al marshaled their troops to coax people away from the malls and department stores on Black Friday — and the following four weeks in the calendar as well — and out into the streets, feeding and clothing the poor? If one is genuinely worried or afraid for the spiritual basis of Christmas, one should celebrate Jesus’ birthday engaged in the same sort of selfless acts of compassion that he taught. What would Jesus do on his birthday, help the lame to walk, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, or get into shoving matches and fistfights over a good deal on a flat screen TV, Blue-Ray player, and a Belgian waffle maker?
Think that would ever happen? Think that their corporate sponsors might have a thing or two to say about such a turn of events, such a reverse of loyalties from the almighty buck to the Almighty?
But let’s leave the fantasyland of TV pundits, because (and here is something that may come as a shock to you, but for which you will eventually thank me) they are not real. The Bill O’Reilly that you see on the small screen and on book covers and such? He is a character. And by that I don’t mean to say that he is a character like your uncle who does and says funny things at family gatherings is a character. I mean he is a character like a made up fictional entity, such as Darth Vader or Mickey Mouse. And that is also true of all the others: the Coulter and the Beck and the Limbaugh and on and on. They do not exist in real life! They are fictional characters, performance artists designed to entertain the population and to siphon off as much money from that population as they can until said population gets bored with them and moves on to something else. Part of their genius, which has led to their absurd longevity, is that they have, purposefully or accidentally, tapped into and exploited a general dissatisfaction and ennui that many, many citizens of industrialized modern societies began to feel during the latter half of the 20th century.
People were looking for reasons to explain their unhappiness, and many fell into the all too human trap of believing, “If I am unhappy, it must be someone else’s fault!” And these characters and their writers were only too happy to help us find some “other” to blame: the Liberals, the Gays, the People With Darker Skin Tones Who Keep Asking For Equality But Who Really Just Want My Hard Earned Stuff, the Poor Who Are Lazy And Just Want My Stuff Handed To Them For Free, the Women Who Refuse To Stay In The Kitchen And Make Babies, etc… And an industry was born! Doom is right around the corner, so protect you and your family with our books and our Sponsors’ Products!
But back to The War On Christmas.
If you find yourself looking around these days during Holiday Time, and even reflecting on past Christmases (depending on just how many past Christmases you can count in your rear view mirror) you would not be incorrect or alone in discovering something is not quite right with the present incarnation of the celebration. For one thing — a very important thing — the Greed Factor has created a Christmas Zeitgeist of ridiculous levels of expectation. This then leads to troubling levels of disappointment and despair. And we’re not just talking about kids not getting all of the items on their handwritten lists of requests for Santa, which have grown ever longer and ever more obnoxious as Consumer Culture has taken over and directed the Christmas celebration down the path of materialism run rampant. As one of the businessman characters collecting donations for the poor tries to explain to Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, “. . . [I]t is a time of year, of all others, when Want is keenly felt . . .” Want is keenly felt. But in these modern times, Desire has been confused with, or totally replaced the idea of Want, and its implication of basic human needs.
This sense of Want, confused with or exaggerated by Desire, is the very thing the Marketers of the Modern Christmas have so devilishly and effectively exploited with increasing dominance each year. And yet our prime time Defenders of Christmas, who wage a war of words and ideology every December, always overlook this nagging Greed and Materialism that has done more to genuinely degrade the holiday than any real (not likely) or imagined (much more likely) political and sociological-based efforts at “taking over Christmas.”
So basically, if you do listen to those folks (O’Reilly, et al), please stop. You will gain nothing by it except for an ulcer or some worry lines. They are the only ones who gain, by increased ratings which translate into increased revenue for their shows, and increased sales of their books of fantasies of horrible bogeymen out there, lurking in the shadows, just waiting for their chance to run up and kick over your crèche.
Keep celebrating Christmas as you wish. You are safe, and it is in no danger of going extinct, not as long as the retailers are in business. But if you do feel the need to step back a little from the currently adopted Holiday Mayhem, please do so. It does take a bit of courage to buck such firmly entrenched trends, but with a little bravery and creativity, you can find, for yourself and your family/friends, a deeper meaning to Christmas than you are being offered at present from these outside forces. The day is not about fear, and should not be about greed. There are other ways.
What if — and just fantasize along with me here — what if, on the day after Christmas, people returning to work or kids meeting up at each other’s house did not ask, “What did you get?” or even “What did you give?” but instead asked, “Who did you help?” We would have a Christmas rich in experiences as opposed to cluttered with stuff. I can already hear protests forming in the reader’s mind of, “Well, that would be okay for me, but what about my kids? They want their stuff!” They can still get their stuff, as I will explain in a later paragraph. But what about that thing you would be giving them by going out and helping? That thing that can’t be purchased, returned, or forgotten in the back of the closet by February? I’m talking about planting the seed in them that we are all here at this time and on this planet together. That we are not individual special icons, starring in our own personal movie, and that those others we encounter — irrespective of the conditions we meet them in — are not just bit-players in our movie. You’d be giving your children something much more valuable and better for them than PlayStations and TVs and iPads and socks; You’d be giving them something their future selves and their future world will find tremendously valuable: generosity towards and compassion for others. The understanding that they are not The Whole; they are A Part of a Community. That’s a gift that will never break, go out of fashion, and can only grow with them so it will always be the right size. And it’s never too late for grownups to find some of that as well.
But heck, I like giving gifts. I like receiving gifts as well. That kid-like part of us never grows up, no matter how far we travel forward into adulthood. And I am not suggesting that you have to give up that fun part of Christmas. Maybe just tweak it a little.
Number one: STOP listening to the advertisements and the news stories drumming up more shoppers for the retailers! Don’t be taken in and duped by the marketing — the Perfect Gift or even a whole Merry Christmas should not and does not depend on price tags. Think Quality not Quantity, and think service over accumulation.
Number two: Want Christmas to still come in material form and wrapped up in paper and bows? Of course! Just rethink it. The best explanation I have seen regarding this concept of rethinking Christmas gift giving is something I read on the Internet a few years ago regarding what the author called “A Recycled Christmas.” It is easily explained by a few simple rules: 1) You may give a gift to anyone you choose. 2) The gift must be either something you already own, or a used item purchased at a Thrift Store or garage/yard sale, or something you made/cooked/baked. 3) If it is to be wrapped, you must use recyclable materials (newspaper/Sunday Funnies, brown paper, wax paper, foil). 4) When presenting the gift you must explain to the recipient (and any others present) why exactly you chose that gift for that person. I think all of us, including our young children, can not only live with that, but will find that it produces warmer thanks and greater Christmas memories than can be bought on Black Friday.
And if someone wishes you “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” just say ‘Thank You’ or wish him or her whatever glad tiding you prefer. They are not the enemy; they are not the foot soldiers of a Secular Humanist New World Order; they are not trying to ruin your day/belief/Christmas. They are just like you, trying to get from the beginning of the day to the end of the day with as little melodrama as possible, and trying to spread some good cheer. And even if some of us can do nothing else during the Christmas Season, spreading Good Cheer is within everyone’s means and within everyone’s ability.
So go to it!
Top Five Film & TV Rewrites/Updates of “A Christmas Carol”
The basic storyline of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” has been borrowed many times by the Entertainment Industry. The simple plot points—Grouchy Person hates Christmas, makes everyone else miserable, is visited by variations of the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future, Grouchy Person has a change of heart, Christmas is saved—have been the source of many Sitcom and Drama plots, as well as fertile inspiration for many, many Variety Show skits. This list concerns itself with Films and one-off TV Movies, many of which are nearly impossible to locate for viewing these days, but are worth the effort to find on cable TV or via tired and used VHS tapes or DVD-Rs.
5. Ebbie: One of the few to feature a female Scrooge character. Susan Lucci (All My Children) is the owner of Dobson’s department store, and as per the iconography of “A Christmas Carol,” she is a stingy, self-involved boss. Her ghostly visitors show her the events that created her animosity towards Christmas, what she is missing out on today, and the dark future path she is following. By Christmas Morning Ebbie is a changed woman. No big surprises in this adaptation, aside from a woman in the role of Scrooge, but it is an enjoyable take on the classic story. The Lifetime Channel often offers this movie during the Holiday Season.
4. John Grin’s Christmas: This is a hard-to-find one-hour TV movie from 1986, featuring an all-black cast. Robert Guillaume directs and stars as the title character, a Scrooge-like toymaker. A fire on Christmas leaves the young John Grin an orphan, making him not only alone but estranged from the holiday. Roscoe Lee Brown, Ted Lange, and Jeffery Holder are the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, respectively. Carolers are replaced with break-dancers, and the Tiny Tim character is not sick, he just needs a job in John Grin’s toy factory. Not available today except on a few home-recorded video tapes stacked in closets here and there, this is one production worthy of a grass roots letter-writing campaign demanding its release on DVD. Hey, it worked with “The House Without A Christmas Tree.”
3. An American Christmas Carol: Starring Henry Winkler (Fonzie from Happy Days), this 1979 made-for-TV movie takes place during the Great Depression year of 1933. Fonzie—I mean Winkler plays Benedict Slade, Big Man in a small New Hampshire town. The big granite quarry that employed most of the people in town has been closed for many years, and the townspeople implore Slade to use his resources—from his furniture and home appliance business—to reopen the quarry and put the town back to work. This goes over with Slade about as well as the local orphans requesting a cash donation for the Children’s Home. Now we are set for the hauntings to begin. Christmas Past is accessed through old broadcasts coming from Slade’s bedside radio. The orphans he encountered asking for donations are his guides for Christmas Present, and during Christmas Future Slade witnesses his personal belongings being sold off and burned. He awakes on Christmas Morning a new man, returns the furniture and other items he had repossessed the day before, and at the orphanage selects a young boy, one that reminds Slade of his younger self, to become his apprentice. By no means perfect, “An American Christmas Carol” is nonetheless an admirable attempt at updating the language and story of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
2. Scrooged: This is one of those adaptations for which there seems to be no middle ground as far as viewers are concerned—people either love it or hate it. After my first viewing I was on the side of the Haters. The film seemed too mean-spirited and I found very little about it humorous. Then I saw it again, and again, in different frames of mind, and I started to see that it was actually a fairly clever adaptation and updated telling of the original story. Bill Murray plays the lead character, Frank Cross, the youngest Network executive in Television history. His IBC network is putting on a live Christmas day broadcast of the Dickens’ tale of Scrooge (A Christmas Carol), but Frank Cross is only interested in ratings and ad revenues. David Johansen of The New York Dolls gives a great comedic performance as the cabbie/Ghost of Christmas Past, and there we see events that made Frank Cross emotionally closed off and success driven. Carol Kane is a strange, fairy-like Ghost of Christmas Present with a penchant for S&M. Comedian Bobcat Goldthwait is almost unrecognizable as the Cratchit-type character, and Alfre Woodard, Robert Mitchum and Karen Allen also stand out in the cast. The ending scene of the new-and-improved Frank Cross is less than effective, but “Scrooged” can be appreciated as a heart-felt if subversive updating of the old Christmas tale. And it actually got funnier the more I watched it.
1. Karroll’s Christmas: As the title implies, this A&E made-for-TV movie gets a lot of things in the story backwards, purposely. Allen Karroll (Tom Everett Scott) is a once idealistic and romantic man who suffered a humiliation on a previous Christmas and is now less than enthusiastic about the Holiday. But he tries, even while enduring the grouchy onslaught from his cranky neighbor Zeb Rosecog (Wallace Shawn), who seems to take special pleasure in tormenting Karroll. Christmas Eve arrives and brings with it the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future (Alanna Ubach, Larry Miller, and Verne Troyer, respectively) to haunt the old coot, Rosecog. The only problem with this is that the ghosts arrive at Karroll’s house by mistake. In an effort to salvage their night of Christmas haunting, the Ghosts prevail upon Karroll to take the place of Rosecog as they travel through Rosecog’s past, present and future (although the order gets fouled up and they travel to the present, past and future). Along with learning that his neighbor was not always the nasty piece of work he knows today, and that Rosecog was once sentimental and in fact the owner of the greeting card company for which he now works, Karroll gets a look at his own Christmas missteps and sees that he is on a similar past, present and future path as Rosecog. Christmas Morning, Karroll awakes in his own easy chair, and decides to help the resistant Rosecog find his Christmas Spirit. He is aided in the task by the inept ghosts, whose skills seem questionable at best. In the end Karroll not only saves Rosecog, but himself as well. In his last conference with the three ghosts, Karroll says that it turned out to be a good thing that the ghosts had made the mistake of haunting him instead of their original target, Rosecog. The ghosts respond that maybe they made mistake, and maybe they didn’t. This is another movie not available commercially in any of the formats, but which sometimes shows up on cable channels during the Holiday Season.
Top 5 TV Christmas Specials
Aside from the Holiday stories presented on episodic TV, Television has brought viewers Christmas entertainment in the form of seasonal specials geared towards the whole family. Here is a short list of some the most memorable. Add your own memories in the comments.
5. Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol(1962). For many persons of the later Baby-Boom generation, this animated special was their first encounter with the Charles Dickens story of Scrooge. This musical Carol featured songs written by the team of Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, who a few years later worked on Funny Girl. The story is highly edited from the Dickens original, and seasoned with jokes about Mr. Magoo’s bad eyesight, but Magoo’s usual mishaps are reserved for the scenes that take place outside of the Broadway theater in which Mr. Magoo is starring in the play. Many folks today still prize Mr. Magoo as their favorite Scrooge.
4. Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964). Beginning life in 1939 as a booklet given away by Montgomery Ward department stores, then evolving into a popular song in 1947, the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer matured into an hour long TV special in 1964, with more characters and songs added to round out the tale of the young reindeer ostracized for being different, who later employs that difference in the service of Christmas, after which he is hailed as a hero.
3. The House Without a Christmas Tree (1972). Based on the book by Gail Rock. Despite being rather cheaply produced and shot on videotape instead of film stock, this well-written adaptation won many fans through the touching story and the superb acting – especially that of Jason Robards and Lisa Lucas as the widowed father and his daughter. After much clamoring and letter writing by the special’s original fans, it has finally been re-released on DVD.
2. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966). The original children’s book by Dr. Suess gets a colorful makeover in this animated special. Boris Karloff (the original Frankenstein’s Monster) uses his distinctive voice to narrate the story and speak as The Grinch. The music for the songs was written by Albert Hague, who some may remember as Mr. Shorofsky , the music teacher in the movie and TV show Fame. This is another old special that has been repeated every year and delights new generations of fans – something the horrible live-action version produced in the year 2000 will never achieve.
1. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965). A Christmas tradition that almost wasn’t. Television executives hated the Peanuts special from the get-go. They complained that: it was too religious (Linus quotes Luke 2: 8-14); there was no laugh track; the music was contemporary Jazz (by Vince Guaraldi); it used the voices of real children. But audiences and reviewers fell in love with A Charlie Brown Christmas at first sight. The night it premiered – Thursday, December 9, 1965 – the special was seen in over 15 million homes, capturing nearly half the possible viewing audience. It went on to win an Emmy and a Peabody award, and in the 45 years since its debut it seems like Christmas Season cannot officially begin until it has been broadcast.
Top 5 Old Time Radio Christmas Programs*
(*That are available for listening to on YouTube)
People even celebrated Christmas in the olden days – before cable TV, HD TV sets, DVDs, Bluerays and hand-held video players. Click on the titles to go and listen – and many of the links are only Part 1 of the particular program, so please be sure to listen to the other parts available at the YouTube site.
The Sublime, and the Sublimely Bizarre
Because so many deserving recordings were left off the Top 5 list.(Click on the individual song titles to hear the recordings)
The Yogi Yorgensson Ouvre:
” ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” by:
Songs about the 1914 Christmas Truce:
“Christmas 1914 In No-Man’s Land” – Mike Harding
“Christmas in the Trenches” – John McCutcheon
“Snoopy’s Christmas” – The Royal Gardsmen
A Red Sovine Classic:
“Christmas Balls” – Ben Light and his Surf Club Boys
” ‘Zat You, Santa Claus?” – Louis Armstrong
“Everywhere It’s Christmas” – The Beatles (1966 Fan Club Record)
“Santa and the Purple People Eater” – Sheb Wooley
“Donde Esta Santa Claus?” – Augie Rios
“Monster’s Holiday” – Lon Chaney Jr
“Christmas Boogie” – Canned Heat with The Chipmunks
“Linus and Lucy” – Vince Guaraldi (from A Charlie Brown Christmas Special)
“The Littlest Christmas Tree” – Red Skelton
“White Christmas” – Walter Brennan
“All I Want For Christmas is a Beatle” – Dora Bryan
“I Want A Beatle For Christmas” -Becky Lee Beck
“An Old Fashioned Christmas (Daddy’s Home)” – Linda Bennett
“Santa Claus is a Black Man” – Akim
“Happy Birthday Jesus” – Little Cindy
Top 5 Christmas Novelty Recordings
There is never a greater need for a sense of humor than during the Christmas Holiday season. Over the years many recording artists, the famous and the obscure, have done their best to carve out a few minutes within which we can take a breath and laugh as we are dragged into the desperate, eccentric follies of the modern Christmas Celebration. Here are some examples to get you started – leave your own favorite Christmas Novelty recordings in the comments.
5. “Santa Claus and his Old Lady” – Cheech and Chong (1971). “The Christmas Story” for the Stoner Generation. This single by the famous counter-culture comedy duo made the Billboard Christmas Chart for three years running – #4(’71) and #3(’72 & ‘73) – and is still dragged out and dusted off annually at most AOR stations.
4. “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” – Gayla Peevey (1953). This is one of those recordings for which there seems to be no middle ground: one either loves it, or one hates it. Sung by 10-year-old Gayla Peevey (who in 1960 recorded the song “My Little Marine” using the name Jamie Horton), the song reached #24 on the Billboard Pop charts. The recording often appears on various Internet sites mislabeled as being performed by Shirley Temple.
3. (Tie)“Green Chri$tma$”(1958) & “Christmas Dragnet”(1953) – Stan Freberg. “Green Christmas” is a brilliant satire of the advertising profession and the commercialization of Christmas by the same. Borrowing from Dickens, Scooge is the COB of a large advertising firm, who is confronted by Bob Cratchit, the owner of a small spice company who is resisting the push to use Christmas as an advertising bonanza. Many of the most prominent products being hawked in a Holiday vein at that time (Coca-Cola, Chesterfield cigarettes, etc…) were slyly parodied, and subsequently many advertisers of the day refused to have their commercials air anytime the record was played and as a result the record received no commercial airplay. Nevertheless, the record sold, and there was a newspaper report on December 27, 1958, that the day after Christmas of 1958, Stan Freberg presented a check for $1,000 to the Hemophilia Foundation of Southern California as his royalties from the first year’s release of “Green Chri$tma$.” He gave all royalties from the song to charities to quell any criticism that he was profiting hypocritically from the subject of his satire. “Christmas Dragnet” is a terrific parody of the then popular police drama starring Jack Webb, and is almost as funny as the real Christmas episode from the TV show.
2. “A Christmas Carol” – Tom Lehrer (1959). Piano-playing humorist Tom Lehrer also found the overt commercialism of Christmas a fat target for his incisive musical wit. His nightclub act at the time consisted predominantly of satirical takes on different popular song forms, and his “A Christmas Carol” combines a merry original song with snippets of familiar Holiday hymns and carols featuring reworked lyrics reflecting the unabashed marketing and consumerism that was suffocating the Holiday even in the 1950s.
1.“The Twelve Gifts of Christmas” Allan Sherman (1963).The late, great Allan Sherman – King of the Song Parody – gave us this reworking of the interminable old workhorse “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” and saw it rise to #5 on the Billboard charts in 1963 and back again to #32 in 1965. Though some of the gift items listed in this 47-year-old recording might require a brief history lesson for some young listeners of today, the Christmas Bacchanalia Theme will be universally recognizable, and the gross Holiday Materialism of 1963 seems somewhat quaint by modern day standards. It’s amazing – and sad – what we can become accustomed to.
Top 5 Christmas Recordings of the Rock And Roll Era
Whether in the car, office, department store or the home, Radio provides the soundtrack for the Holiday Season so often and for so many. Here is my list of the Top 5 Singles released during the Rock And Roll era. The recordings included are not necessarily Rock And Roll music. I just wanted to limit my choices a bit. So much Christmas themed music has been released every Fall and Winter for the past century, that narrowing the list of favorites down to less than half a dozen would be like trying to pick your favorite 5 hairs on your head (regrettably much easier when it comes to my head).
5.“The Little Drummer Boy” – Harry Simeone Chorale (1958). Aside from a triangle or two, just human voices heard on this popular recording. This song is the English translation of a Czech carol titled “The Carol of the Drum.” The recording was released every Christmas season from 1958 to 1962, and made the top 40 each of those years.
4. “White Christmas” – The Drifters (1954 & 1955). The rockin’ Doo Wop version of the Christmas Pop standard was recorded by the original Drifters with Clyde McPhatter late in 1953. It hit #2 on the Billboard R&B charts in 1954 and entered the Pop charts in 1955. In 1957 Elvis Presley recorded a version of “White Christmas” heavily influenced by the Drifters’ single, and this one caught the attention of the song’s composer, Irving Berlin, who hated Presley’s rendition and waged a serious campaign to try and get radio stations to ban the Presley version. He was unsuccessful, the Elvis Presley “White Christmas” single topped the Billboard charts, and the royalty checks rolled on in.
3. “The Christmas Song” – Nat King Cole (1946 & 1960). Written one hot July day by Mel Torme’ and Bob Wells, who were just trying to see if they could mentally cool themselves off by writing about a different season, this modern standard was originally recorded in 1946 by the Nat King Cole Trio. Nat rerecorded the song in 1953 with Nelson Riddle’s string arrangement. The orchestral version was released in 1960, only spent a couple of weeks on the Billboard charts, but that was all it needed to earn a Gold Record. Often called/referred to by it’s first line, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”
2. “Happy Xmas (War is Over) – John Lennon and Yoko Ono (1971). In 1969 the Lennons put up billboard advertisements in major cities around the world that stated simply: “War is Over! (If You Want It).” This became the theme around which John Lennon composed an anti-war Christmas song. Recorded with the Harlem Community Choir and produced by Phil Spector (who’s own legendary Christmas Album suffered the fate of having been released the very same day President Kennedy was assassinated, and was quickly pulled from release), the single did not initially chart well. But as with so many records with a short but annual shelf life, it sold much better the following year. It has since been covered by a wide variety of musical artists, and the original recording is regularly heard on radio and TV whenever the Christmas Season rolls around.
1. “Merry Christmas Baby” – Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers (1947). Slightly pre-dating what is generally accepted to be “the Rock And Roll era,” this influential 1947 composition was and continues to be covered by nearly every performer who feels a need for a Christmas song in their set list whenever December rolls around. It’s been recorded by such authentic artists as Chuck Berry, Bonnie Raitt and Otis Redding, as well as wanna-be artists like Jessica Simpson, Christina Aguilera and Hanson. For the original recording Johnny Moore stacked things in his favor by hiring guitarist Oscar Moore of the Nat King Cole Trio, and singer/pianist Charles Brown. The single reached #3 on the Billboard R&B charts.
The modern Christmas Season, at least as practiced here in the United States, produces more anxiety and dread than joy and peace in most adults. The out of control commercialism and forced socializing that feeds unnatural expectations and feelings of emptiness and lack is, for the most part, impossible to avoid. Coming right on the heels of all of this Holiday splendid-osity is the arrival of the New Year, and its attendant year-end tallying up of the columns, both the material (taxes, etc…) and the spiritual (assessing the past, and aspiring for the future). It can all add up to Crazy-Making, to use the non-clinical term.
A decade ago, give or take, in the midst of my own Christmas Holiday disquiet, I bumbled into creating a little self-help exercise that actually succeeded in taking a good portion of the loaded holiday stress from my mind. I’ve repeated it every year since, and I offer it here in the much ballyhooed Spirit of Goodwill.
To make it short and sweet: Write a letter to Santa Claus. Wait! Don’t leave! Hear me out!
The idea at first may sound stupid to many, but is it really any dumber than standing in line to spend a half a week’s pay buying Starbucks gift cards for the office Secret Santa exchange you just found out about the day before? Allow me a little more time to make my case.
Children are encouraged to write letters to Santa Claus, the general motivation being the acquisition of desired material goods. Many thousands of letters addressed to Santa are sent by children every year, and the postal service has even instituted Operation Santa Claus, a program in which volunteers open the letters and try to fulfill some of the wishes contained in them.
For adults, belief in Santa Claus is tacitly and aggressively discouraged. And yet adults are actively encouraged toward, and even praised for, belief in a host of other entities that one is told are not seen but felt. So why should Santa Claus be treated any different? I say he’s as good as any other invisible entity to which one may plead.
As a therapeutic tool, writing letters has been proven to have great palliative value. So gather pen and paper, an envelope and a stamp (very important!), and sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve jot down a few ideas you would like to share with the Jolly Old Elf regarding what you would like to see happen in your life, and the lives of those you love, in the coming year(s).
It does not need to be a long missive. Start with saying hello to Santa and ask how he’s been. Steer away from the unapologetic materialism of the typical childhood letter to Santa. Instead, tell Santa Claus what you need that can’t be easily bought: a new or better job, a healthier body, success for an endeavor, a new philosophy, meeting the right people, wishes for the New Year(s)—tell Santa what you need, why you need it, and then how you will pay the gift forward. Sign the letter (I usually just use my first name—Santa Claus is magic, after all, and he will know it’s me when he reads the letter). Then put it in the envelope, address it to Santa Claus, North Pole (or whatever derivation of that basic address you choose), put a stamp on it (yes, you may feel like you’re wasting a good stamp, but the Post Office still has to handle your letter, and you can think of it as akin to the blood sacrifice required in many of the Hero’s Journey stories) and, most important of all, mail it! Before Christmas Eve.
Send those hopes and dreams out there. It only takes a few minutes of your time and costs a stamp, but something nice may come to you in return. You just never know. That’s the magic of the Christmas gift—anything could be wrapped up in that colorful paper.
You just never know.
The Top 5 Film Versions of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”
On this list we will numerate what I feel are the best film adaptations of the Charles Dickens novella, “A Christmas Carol.” This is the most common means by which the average person, over the past 5 decades or so, experiences the Dickens story. Rating the quality of the various “A Christmas Carol” movies is never without controversy, as most people who care about such things already have their own sentimental favorites. My own favorites have changed and evolved over the years, never more so than subsequent to finally reading the original book. This list will concern itself solely with ‘authentic’ adaptations – films that aspire to telling the Dickens story as written. Movies that involve huge overhauling and updating of the original book will be discussed in a separate list. As always, please feel free to offer your own list in the comments section.
5. A Muppet Christmas Carol(1992). The only musical version of the story that does not make me cringe, the ‘Muppet Carol’ is unfairly disregarded by most people. Underneath the songs and humor is a production nicely faithful to the book. A lot of the weak points in casting that cause trouble for the other live-action films (the role of Tiny Tim is a chronic problem, affecting even the best of the film versions) are avoided by the use of Muppets for many of the characters. Michael Caine brings an interesting, if understated, reading to the main character of Scrooge; there is a foundation of deep sadness in his portrayal that is unique in the pantheon of film Scrooges, and his scene in the graveyard will rip your heart out. His Christmas Morning scene is the weakest part of his portrayal, but in that deficit he is in good company as only one actor in the entire list of film Scrooges has ever fully realized the potential in expressing Scrooge’s joy in receiving a second chance to make his life right. The original songs, written by Paul Williams, are used to punctuate rather than tell the story, and are the finest of all the attempts at a musical Christmas Carol. Why the song “One More Sleep Till Christmas” has not yet become a Holiday standard is perplexing.
4. A Christmas Carol 1938(the Reginald Owen Version). There was a time when this version was at the top of my list, and I’m sure it still rests unchallenged at the top for many other people. This was the third telling of the tale I ever saw (fourth if we include the December, 1969 production by Mr. Chapman’s 6th grade class at El Oro Way Elementary School, featuring my neighbor Kevin Gitane in the role of Bob Cratchit, and an impressive blacklight and fluorescent paint graveyard scene), and the first non-animated version I experienced. Owen plays Scrooge with a fierce growl in his voice, and the make-up employed to transform him to an appropriate age is impressive, especially for its day. Unfortunately, the actor chooses to convey Scrooge’s advanced years with a stiff-neck-and-back forward lean that fails to accomplish the task, eventually giving one the impression of a man severely constipated by too much Christmas pudding. The young actor cast as Tiny Tim is fine in the early scene watching the other boys slide on the ice, but by the Christmas dinner scene has become annoying. The casting of Tiny Tim is the most common weak link that plagues all the productions of A Christmas Carol, and it is a shame because while the role is small it is important. Gene Lockhart is a sympathetic if over-fed Bob Cratchit, and Leo G. Carroll plays the ghost of Marley as a weary, but less than frightening apparition. The producers solve the difficulty of portraying the Ghost of Christmas Past as described in the Dickens story by ignoring the author’s creation and having the Ghost played by a woman. This version leaves out Fezziwig’s Ball and Scrooge’s courtship of Belle, and the eventual destruction of that relationship due to his growing alliance to greed. The Christmas Morning Scene fails to truly demonstrate the transformation of Scrooge. Owen acts happy, but does nothing to show us the depth and the mix of emotions, which must necessarily result from such a profound look at the past, present and future and the 180-degree alteration in Scrooge’s baseline behavior. He is changed, but not humbled by his night among the spirits, and seems to feel no concern whatsoever regarding how his sudden change of heart will be responded to by those he formerly kicked and pushed away. Franz Waxman’s score is one of the highlights of this film version, perfectly embellishing the many fine performances. This is a fine film adaptation, so please understand that the deficits I mention for this and the other films are merely meant to explain the things about the different productions that keep me from rating them higher.
3. A Christmas Carol aka Scrooge 1935(the Seymour Hicks Version). Obviously made on a small budget, the rarely seen 1935 version makes up for its production limitations with an impressive performance by its lead actor and co-writer, Sir Seymour Hicks. Sir Seymour was already familiar with the role, having scripted and starred in the 1913 silent version. He plays Scrooge as a tough, cantankerous, bullying old man. The lighting design, inspired by German Impressionistic Cinema, is wonderful and spooky (“A Christmas Carol” is a ghost story, after all). The dialogue is lifted almost word for word from the novella, and most of the key points of the story are hit upon. We get to see the disparate Christmas celebrations described in the novella, from the busy shopping stalls to the fancy dinner at the Lord Mayor of London’s residence. Marley’s Ghost is invisible to us, represented by voice over and camera movements, and Hicks’ great performance will have you believing he sees the spectral Marley as he interacts with him. The Cratchits are presented as poor working class rather than the unexplainably posh Cratchits of most of the other productions, and the actor playing Tiny Tim is one of the few to pull off the role without becoming a sickly sweet annoyance. He only gets a few scenes though. The Ghost of Christmas Present is the weakest link. The actor portraying this spirit is just plain awful, and seems to have been the inspiration for the Jon Lovitz Master Thespian character on Saturday Night Live. The Ghost of Christmas Past is a glowing shroud, while the Ghost of Christmas Future is the usual spooky dark shrouded figure that we experience mostly from its shadow. The story gets truncated, and some key elements unfortunately get tossed out in this telling of the tale. For example, we are shown only one scene from Scrooge’s past – his losing the love of his life, Belle. But we get no clues as to when and how Scrooge developed into the poster child for selfishness and avarice. The Christmas Morning scene is well played by Sir Seymour, giving us a look at a tearfully happy Scrooge, and offering the lead actor and the supporting cast an opportunity to display their comedic skills. The final scene of Scrooge revealing his new self to Bob Cratchit at the office is shortened but gives Sir Seymour another chance for comic relief as he struggles to maintain his former gruff exterior while he sets up Bob Cratchit for his big change of heart. The 1935 Scrooge/A Christmas Carol is a very good film adaptation that deserves to be seen and enjoyed by a much wider audience.
2. A Christmas Carol 1999(the Patrick Stewart Version). By the time of this production, Patrick Stewart had already spent many Christmas seasons performing A Christmas Carol as a one-man play, acting out all the characters in what must have been an exhausting holiday tradition. Because of this he achieved an intimacy with the material and with the character of Scrooge that none of the other actors who have portrayed Scrooge on film could match. One of the most recent of the many made-for-TV film versions of the Dickens book (others run the gamut from the equally fine 1984 version with George C. Scott, to the interesting 1954 version with Fredric March, to the somewhat bizarre 1949 version with Vincent Price as host/narrator), in the promotional materials for the 1999 version Patrick Stewart sets for the cast and crew the daunting task of “…creating the definitive version of A Christmas Carol for the New Millenium.” That is really raising the bar. Patrick Stewart’s Scrooge is not the somewhat crotchety old man found in other interpretations. His is a Scrooge of strong physical power and presence, with a quick mind and a definite cruel streak, who does not walk so much as strut. Not many in his small world are willing to or capable of standing toe-to-toe with this Scrooge and look him in the eye. But we get the impression that all this bluster is not much more than a defense mechanism, and that there is more going on underneath the pose than Scrooge has the courage to admit. Stewart also shows us that Scrooge possesses a shrewd, analytic mind, and that he did not achieve his business success through bullying but through smarts. We see this when he abates his fear over the presence of the spectral Jacob Marley by trying to debate the causes of Marley’s penance of eternal torment, and later in the graveyard scene: when Scrooge demands of the Ghost of Christmas Past, “Why show me these things if I am beyond all hope?” he points his finger at the Ghost and exclaims “Ah-ha!” as in, “There! I’ve defeated you with logic!” The Stewart version also keeps Dickens’ subtle wordplay and humor intact, and even adds to it. For example: during the scene of Scrooge’s meeting with the specter of Jacob Marley, when he is listing the disorders of the stomach that could be the source of the ghost’s appearance, Scrooge says, “…and British beef, that can be very hard on the stomach,” no doubt a sly reference to the current worries over Mad Cow Disease plaguing the British sheep and cattle stocks. One of the biggest treats in this version is the Cratchit Family. These scenes make the viewer feel like he or she is eavesdropping on an actual family, so natural are the performances by the actors. The Cratchits are presented as lower working class/working poor and their accents and language seem much more realistic than the ‘drawing room’ upper-crust line readings in many of the other film versions. And we finally get a decent Tiny Tim portrayal – the young actor who plays Tim, and this is also true of the other young actors that round out the Cratchit family, seems natural and believable and a sympathetic character without falling into the trap of being saccharine. The weakest link in this version of A Christmas Carol – and it seems there must always be at least one weak link – is the Ghost of Christmas Present. The Ghost of Christmas Present is supposed to be the jolly embodiment of the Christmas Spirit, but alas in this version he is a rather dour old man who appears to be thinking more about his worsening prostatitis than the Spirit of Christmas. The Christmas Morning scene is not entirely effective, but Stewart gives a unique interpretation of the just redeemed Scrooge as a man completely alien to feelings of Joy and out of practice with expressing those feelings through laughter. This production benefits from the judicious use of a tool not available to the earlier productions: digital special effects. The art direction, photography and score are all top-notch, and the scene at Old Fezziwig’s Ball is one of the best and most authentic looking yet attempted.
1. Scrooge aka A Christmas Carol 1951 (the Alastair Sim Version). The reigning champ of A Christmas Carol film adaptations remains the 1951 Alastair Sim version, despite stiff (the Patrick Stewart and George C. Scott versions) and not-so-stiff competition in recent years (the horrid Jim Carrey computer animated version. First The Grinch and now A Christmas Carol – how many more of our Christmas traditions are we going to allow Jim Carrey to ruin?). And the bulk of that weighty responsibility rests squarely on the not-so-broad but deceptively strong shoulders of the lead player, Alastair Sim. Sim’s portrayal of the World’s Greatest Miser is multi-layered and unhurried. He lets his eyes and his body-language say more than is printed in the script; his voice is a musical instrument capable of the perfect nuance of tone and timber in order to convey Scrooge’s inner secrets, shame and self-pity, as well as his outer contempt and sneering bravado. We are treated to the most complex and fully realized performance of the character ever captured on film. Alastair Sim became Scrooge instead of just playing Scrooge. But all of his hard work would have been for naught without a terrific supporting cast, wonderful art direction, perfect lighting and photography, sensitive directing, and a score that hits all the right ‘notes.’ Marley’s Ghost, as Michael Hordern portrays him, is at the same time terrifying and piteous. And this version boasts one of the few good Tiny Tims. Many adaptations of the book add original scenes and this version has several: During the trip through Christmas Past a new businessman character named Mr. Jorkins is seen first planting the seeds of the money-grubbing miser that Ebenezer Scrooge will become, and this same sequence shows the young Scrooge and Marley meeting for the first time. We are shown Scrooge’s sister dying postpartum. And we see Marley on his deathbed, trying to warn Scrooge with his last breaths. Certain things are inexplicably changed or left out as well: For some reason the script leaves out Nephew Fred’s wonderful Christmas Speech, given when he visits Uncle Ebenezer on Christmas Eve. And Scrooge’s former fiancé is now named ‘Alice’ rather than ‘Belle,’ and she goes on to become a spinster instead of a happily married mother as in the original story. But, these imperfections aside, there is not much that can tarnish this, the Gold Standard of A Christmas Carol films. The Christmas Morning scene is a complete seminar in acting. Sim takes us on a roller coaster ride as he lets loose all of the powerful and sometimes contradictory emotions Scrooge is feeling: relief, ecstasy, giddiness, embarrassment, joy, humility. All fans of A Christmas Carol will forever feel grateful that a certain phonetics and elocution teacher from Scotland decided to enter the acting profession at the relatively advanced age of 30, and gave us the portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge by which all others are measured.