Top 5 Christmas Recordings of the Rock And Roll Era

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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.

Christmas Therapy

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Christmas Therapy

 

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”

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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.

Top 5 Christmas Movies

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Top 5 Christmas Movies

(Those that are not versions of “A Christmas Carol”)

One of the most powerful of the modern Christmas Traditions is the yearly dusting off of movies that feature an overt Christmas Season theme. Generally spiritual as opposed to religious, many modern Christmas Movies often employ storytelling motifs of tragedy, magic and redemption, all three usually visited upon some poor character that has “lost the Christmas Spirit.” Here is a humble, and by no means definitive, list of some of my favorite Films of Christmas. Feel free to add your own in the comments section!

5. Miracle on 34th Street(1947). Santa Claus is put on trial because of a sort of sanity clause, in this classic film. A young Natalie Wood holds her own on screen with Maureen O’Hara, Edmund Gwenn and John Payne. This is really the best film to start the season with, as the story itself begins on Thanksgiving Day. It was remade a few times: once in 1973 with Sebastian Cabot (Family Affair’s Mr. French) as a made-for-TV movie, and again in 1994 for the big screen, but neither of these can match the original. Why mess with perfection?

4. White Christmas(1954). Often undeservedly passed over by critics as the poor relation of the film Holiday Inn, this film is worthy of more attention. With Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen, a cast rounded out by some of the best character actors of the time, and wonderful songs by Irving Berlin (including the already famous title song), White Christmas is a treat for the eyes and ears, with a simple but effective story involving the once proud and still respected General Waverly, under whose command Crosby and Kaye meet and cement their song-and-dance partnership, who needs to be reminded that he is not forgotten. And a little snow would be helpful, too.

3. Joyeux Noel. The famous Christmas Truce of 1914 is reenacted in this terrific film from 2005. During the first year of WWI many of the troops, without ‘official’ permission, observed Christmas by climbing out of the trenches and sharing food, drink, songs, photos of loved-ones back home…with the enemy. The dead were buried, and in a few areas soccer matches were engaged in. Once back in their respective trenches many of the soldiers no longer felt much compulsion to shoot at their new friends. This film is an amalgam of many of the different stories that survived that event, and because of that it is taken to task by ‘war buffs’ for its authenticity. Those wishing a more factual study of the event are encouraged to read Christmas Truce: The Western Front December 1914 by Brown and Seaton. The movie features wonderful performances by the international cast and a terrific soundtrack with singing by Natalie Dessay, and Rolando Villazón. Joyeux Noel is a wonderful reminder of the power that the Christmas Spirit has to override the whims of Man and to bring out the species’ better nature.

2. A Christmas Story(1983). I have to be honest and admit that when this film was first released, the idea of a Christmas movie directed by the same man who did Porky’s left me with no enthusiasm to view his version of one of my favorite holidays, so I avoided it – despite a very good friend of mine insisting it was worth seeing. I ate my Christmas crow a few years later when A Christmas Story appeared on cable TV. It immediately became one of my favorite Christmas movies, and I never miss returning to it during the holidays (in fact it would be nearly impossible to miss since station TBS plays it for 24 hours every Christmas Day). Based on the book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash by humorist and radio raconteur Jean Shepard, and narrated by his distinctive voice, the movie follows the travails of a post-war boomer child named Ralphie as he dodges neighborhood bullies, boredom at school and iron-clad grownup logic in his pursuit of the ultimate Christmas present. No doubt unintentionally, this movie also tacitly documents the shift in American society from Christmas as a humble, family celebration to the modern frenzy of consumerism that induces more stress and anxiety than laughs.

1.It’s A Wonderful Life(1946). Director/Producer/Co-writer Frank Capra took a thin, and rather dark, short story, The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern, and from it created an iconic film of the Christmas Season. Through the first-rate cast – headed by Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed – we follow the life of George Baily as he grows from a brave, honest boy to a brave, honest man. The promise of a more glamorous and prosperous life elsewhere keeps George’s head in the clouds, while his self-sacrificing devotion to doing the right thing for those around him keeps his feet firmly rooted in tiny, unglamorous Bedford falls. A terrible tragedy befalls George on Christmas Eve (of course) and from the deepest well of his despair is brought forth a life-altering gift. Even though Christmas is represented in only the last third or so of the film, It’s a Wonderful Life, with its message of redemption and reminder of the truly important things in life, has become a Holiday tradition.

Top 5 Christmas TV Episodes

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Top 5 Christmas TV Episodes

(From Sitcoms and Dramas of the Boob Tube)

From its inception Television has offered its own take on the Christmas Season. From sixty and ninety-minute dramas to situation comedies, as well as regular variety shows, Made-For-TV movies and Christmas ‘Specials,’ TV has brought its version of Christmas into the living rooms of those who were not getting enough of it out on the street. Here are a few episodes that I consider worth seeking out. Add your own in the comments.

5. Dragnet – The Big Baby Jesus. All the usual Dragnet self-seriousness, combined with Christmas schmaltz, and we get an episode sure to produce giggles of enjoyment. The Baby Jesus is stolen from the nativity display of a small, poor-but-proud church, and Sgt. Friday and his partner are hot on the case. The investigation turns up lots of Christmas red herrings – but can it be solved before Christmas Mass?

4.The Honeymooners – ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. Pretty simply a Honeymooners’ version of the O. Henry story The Gifts of the Magi. Jackie Gleason shows off his slapstick skills, as well as his ability to make an otherwise jerk of a character sympathetic. One of the great episodes from the Golden Age.

3. The Brady Bunch –  The Voice of Christmas. One of the penultimate so-bad-it’s-good, guilty-pleasure Christmas TV episodes. Just days before she is to sing the solo at Christmas Services, Carol Brady loses her voice. Home remedies don’t help. Medical science can’t help. Finally, cute little lisping Cindy Brady turns to the only person who can possibly deliver a Christmas miracle – the department store Santa Claus.

2. The Simpsons – Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire. There are many Christmas-themed episodes from this long-running animated TV show, but the first is still the best. Homer’s ineptitude and Bart’s shenanigans conspire to ruin the Simpson Family Christmas celebration, but Dumb Luck proves to be the most resilient Christmas Angel of all.

1.The Twilight Zone – Night of the Meek.  A poignant and ultimately uplifting Christmas episode from this unique program. A disheveled, melancholy department store Santa Claus (Art Carney), tortured by his empathy with and sympathy for the forgotten men and the hungry, sad children he must pass everyday on his way to and from his skid row abode, offers a drunken plea/prayer skyward. Moments later in a dark, filthy alleyway he stumbles upon an old sack that brings forth whatever gift the folks on the street request. Will there be one gift left for the ersatz Santa himself?

Top 5 Christmas Stories

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Top 5 Christmas Stories

(other than the original and the stories contained in my book “Christmas Wishes”)

This is a short list of stories containing a Christmas theme that have become annual favorites of mine. Some are stand-alone stories; others are excerpts from longer works. Some you have heard of, some you have not. Some you may agree with their being placed in the “Top 5,” others you may not – Feel free to add your own Top Christmas stories via the comments.

5. Christmas Eve by Washington Irving. Irving’s 1812 publication The Sketch Book contains five entries regarding a traditional Christmas celebration at a country manor house in England. Because of these chapters, the Sketch Book is often credited with revitalizing the celebration of the Christmas Holidays in the United States as well as England, both of whom had been indifferent to what was then considered a minor holy day by most Christian faiths. Indeed, in most areas of Puritan New England the celebration of Christmas was illegal, probably due to its past history as a time of unbridled revelry and debauchery by the lower classes. Irving presents the reader with a polished, calm, fictionalized account of a ‘traditional,’ Old World Christmas, complete with blankets of pure, white snow, mistletoe and holly, merriment and gatherings of family and friends.

4. Gifts of the Magi by O. Henry. As the pen name of William Sidney Porter, O. Henry became synonymous with the ironic or ‘twist’ ending. This is on full display in what is his best-known short story, “Gifts of the Magi.” In this 1906 short story – allegedly written at Pete’s Tavern in New York City – an economically disadvantaged young married couple each give up their most precious possession in order to buy the other a special Christmas gift. Often re-written and/or parodied, the original story has never been improved upon.

3.A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. A boyhood memory of young Buddy (Truman Capote) and his elderly distant cousin in which she engages Buddy in the annual hunt for special ingredients with which to make her Christmas fruitcakes as gifts for friends and family. You do not have to be a fruitcake fan (and let’s be honest – most aren’t) in order to be warmed by this recollection of the holiday during simpler times, prior to unrestrained commercialization, when the love that went into making a gift and the time spent in receiving it were often of greater value than the gift itself.

2. Christmas Fare by Rip Rense. In a chapter from his fictionalized autobiography, “The Oaks,” writer Rip Rense recounts (how’s that for alliteration?) a treasured Christmas memory. Young Charlie Bogle, getting off the bus en route to visit his mother for Christmas, finds himself in a strange town and discovers he has lost all his money. It’s a Christmas only Santa himself can save.

1. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It seems so obvious for this book to be on the list that I debated its inclusion for quite awhile. But, as I write in the beginning of my book “Christmas Wishes,” while most folks are familiar with the title of this Dickens book and much of its iconography, it turns out very few have actually read it, and that is a shame of tragic proportions. Everyone owes it to himself or herself to read the story of Scrooge and his dark night of the soul and his eventual redemption by the grace of Christmas, in its original version and at least three times during their life. A diligent reader can plow through the novella on a Christmas Eve, and the lazy ones can start the book during Thanksgiving weekend and easily finish by Christmas. The humor and humanity of the story will give the modern reader pause for reflection regarding what the Holiday Season has become, who exactly is really ‘at war with Christmas,’ and inspiration to create something more meaningful, within their own family at the very least.

‘Tis the Season: The Christmas Wars

‘Tis the Season: The Christmas Wars

‘Tis the Season. But which Season? Whose Season? What is the Reason for the Season?  Answers to these questions will be explored in the currently annual War on Christmas, as donation-seeking mega churches and attention-seeking megalomaniac pundits have dubbed it.

Controversy and Christmas have often been observed together ever since the Reformation in England, when Puritans had the celebration of Christmas banned as having the “trappings of Popery.” The Protestant Puritans who settled in the New England colonies imported this same attitude towards Christmas to Colonial America. For many years, among those of Christian faith, Christmas was considered a minor festival in comparison to the Epiphany and Easter. Closing down a business in observance of Christmas was illegal in many parts of Colonial America, and government was kept in session. In England and America, during the late 1700s to early 1800s, the celebration of Christmas very nearly died out. It took the triumvirate of Washington Irving, Clement Clarke Moore, and Charles Dickens to revive the winter holiday through their pens.

Today, at the dawn of the Twenty-first century, one learns— sometimes from the pulpit but mostly from the in-home family altar built around the television set that is its heart—that there is a new War on Christmas. But this new war is the inverse of the one the Puritans waged. Whereas those colonial Protestants battled against anyone celebrating Christmas, the new Christmas soldiers are essentially waging a war against too many getting in on this Christmas thing.

Like certain other Holy Days, Christmas has been asked, altered, and forced to straddle the wall between Religious and Secular. Loosely translated, that means someone has figured out a way to make a buck off the holiday and that the more who participate in the holiday, the more bucks there are to be made, respecting the law of the marketplace above any and all non-secular law. To this end, both custom and commerce have fomented an inclusive Christmas Holiday, in which All are welcome to participate—The More the Merrier, in other words, and don’t forget to bring your checkbook/charge cards.

It is the trappings of this inclusionary philosophy towards Christmas that seem to set the Mega Churches and TV pundits off: store banners and their employees offering up “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” (or “Happy Hanukah,” “Happy Kwanzaa,” “Happy Winter Solstice,” etc . . .); the stores advertising “Holiday” sales instead of “Christmas” sales; schools changing the name of their “Christmas Pageants” to “Holiday Pageants”; and likewise offices hosting “Holiday” rather than “Christmas” parties, and municipalities throwing “Holiday” Parades. The pundits puff up their chests and denounce these (sinister) evolutions of the winter holiday as unchristian, unpatriotic, and the work of Socialists and Atheists, who won’t be happy until they ruin everybody’s good time (rather than being a broader recognition that there are beliefs other than Christian, and that those others have also been invited to the celebration—providing they remember to bring something ‘green’). “They are trying to take the Christ out of Christmas!” the pundits and preachers shout, “Jesus is the reason for the season,” they rhyme. Theirs is a stunted world-view that ignores reality and history, in exchange for publicity. Granted, the Atheist penchant for suing in the courts to have Christmas displays and festivities removed or homogenized is just as absurd from the other end of the philosophical spectrum, and just as counter-productive; No one enjoys having anyone else’s beliefs shoved down their throat, and confrontation is the surest method by which to alienate those who might otherwise find merit in a cause.

Decorated evergreen trees, wreathes of holly, year-end feasting, caroling and gift giving all pre-date Christianity. As the Christian forces moved in to the ancient societies, they found it easier and more productive to usurp rather than eradicate the winter symbols and ceremonies of these “pagan” communities. Thus, at its very beginning, Christmas was an inclusive idea, borrowing and appropriating the entrenched winter festivals. December 25th —falling on or near the Winter Solstice— was arbitrarily designated as the birth date of Jesus to coincide with the Pagan festivities, and most biblical scholars will confirm that.

I have often wondered, if these heralds of the War on Christmas were truly concerned for the spiritual foundation of the Day, why don’t they attack the real enemy of Christmas: the unbridled, unholy commercialism of the Modern Christmas Season? Could it be that they wish to avoid angering the advertisers that make at least twenty-five percent of their annual profits during the four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and who often donate portions of those proceeds to houses of worship? Is that too cynical?

Every year inside the large department store chains the commercial Christmas decorations and greeting cards make their first appearance, alongside the Hallowe’en items, at the beginning of October. Gradually, the Christmas aisle grows until by October 31st it has all but pushed the Hallowe’en items back into the storeroom. Ads enticing shoppers with hints about the great deals to be had on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) appear in the first week of November. Madison avenue and its ilk have been gearing up for the Christmas onslaught since at least the mid-point of Summer, planning an attack that puts military strategists to shame. Everyone witnesses this year after year, so there is no need to go into more detail.

So one has to ask again, why don’t these self-proclaimed protectors of all that is holy about Christmas attack the commercialism of the Holiday, which is truly doing more to desecrate the observance than any of their present targets? Is Christmas really under more threat from the cashier who tells customers, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” or from the retail corporation itself that cynically uses ‘Christmas’ to manipulate shoppers into buying more and bigger? Who has actually created the culture in which a “Merry Christmas” is synonymous with, and impossible without, a huge stack of expensive gifts? Hasn’t the commercialization of Christmas done more damage to Christmas than a few noisy Atheists bitching about a crèche on City property? If one wishes to discover the foe which is waging war on Christmas, one need look no further than the colorful ads that arrive with the newspaper, or the incessant commercials that interrupt television programs—including those of the pundits and mega churches—with such menacing regularity.

Want to save Christmas? Then stop making enemies lists, and start compiling lists of those you can help. Want to save Christmas? Then stop trying to buy a Merry Christmas and start trying to figure out ways to make Christmas merry, for everyone.

(And let me state here that the irony of my criticizing the commercialization of Christmas in an essay on a web site devoted to the selling of a book of Christmas stories is not lost on me. But readers of “Christmas Wishes” will find that within its pages the struggle to discover a Holiday spirit more valuable than that which can be purchased is promoted and explored. The world is not made up of only black & white—or red & green, as the case may be—and nuance exists between the extremes. Try it, you’ll like it!)