30 October 2003

Some of My Own Answers #2

1. What is your earliest Christmas memory?

It is probably spending Christmas with my relatives. We never stayed home on Christmas. When I was small we would do some visiting on Christmas Eve, but I was abed early. Christmas was spent, after opening the gifts under the tree and having eggnog for breakfast and then getting dressed to the nines in a little dress with one of those itchy net petticoats under it and warm leotards and little patent leather shoes, at my Papá's house.

We'd all go upstairs to see the tree, of course, with its old fashioned lead-foil tinsel and old ornaments, some dating back to World War II, and the crechè under the tree, and of course there was the usual long toil up the steep stairs to "use the facilities," but the afternoon would be spent downstairs in the roughly converted cellar, where the big cast iron wood stove converted to gas made dinner and then kept copious pots of coffee warm. Aunts, uncles and cousins would come wandering in and out, bringing in wintry breaths of cold and proffering chilly cheeks as you kissed them. Papá would serve his homemade wine and brandy and anisette to whoever wanted some, but mostly everyone drank coffee and the other kids had soda and I had milk. :-) Everyone, including the kids, would have a stash of pennies and we'd all play Pokeno, then the men and some of the more adventurous of the girl cousins, like my cousin Kathy, would settle in and play poker while everyone else talked and I could sneak upstairs and lie down under the Christmas tree and look up into the colorful wonderland that was inside the tree.

Behind the board wall that separated the proper part of the cellar from the boiler was a more fascinating world. There was the oil tank, of course, and an old icebox, and some type of old kitchen dresser, and a set of shelves where Papá and Uncle Guido kept their tools, nails, and screws, and the rows of ropes where the summer clothes lived in the winter and vice versa, since upstairs had no closets except in one room. You could sneak in the back and peek at the grownups talking and playing cards through a knothole in one of the boards and pretend you were a spy.

Later in the afternoon the poker players dispersed and Aunty would serve coffee and pie and cookies, and more aunts and uncles and cousins might show up. One year when Kathy and I were young enough to follow directions and yet old enough to follow directions, the older cousins staged a Christmas pageant that we put on in one half of the cellar, using a rope and a blanket for a curtain.

The other early Christmas memory is going to see Santa Claus at the Outlet Company in downtown Providence. Other stores like Shepard's also had a Santa, but we in the know understood the Outlet's Santa Claus was the Real Thing. We stood in long lines to see him in the Toyland in the basement. One year the Outlet people went all out and made a wintry path for the kids to wind through and all the children received a story and activity pamplet with mazes, games, and puzzles which I kept and cherished for years. The Outlet Santa was always big and genial and gentle--nothing like the manic Santa in A Christmas Story--and I always remember it being a fun and exciting experience.

29 October 2003

Some of My Own Answers #1

Thought I'd pick at random:

2. What are your favorite Advent and Christmas traditions?

For the past couple of years I've been trying to get us to do something Christmasy during the weekends of Advent. Last year we got a bit distracted by James' new job and I missed the one thing I wanted to do, the Christmas exhibit at the Marietta History Museum. We did get to see the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company perform at Stone Mountain Park. The year before, 2001, was quite fun. We went to the Candlelight Walk at the Atlanta History Center one weekend, out to the monastery in Conyers another weekend, etc.

I also like to spread things out so everything does not abruptly end December 25. I can't tell you how many people have surprised me by saying that the Twelve Days of Christmas are the twelve days before Christmas. This is some henious propaganda and rot that television and magazine advertisers have gotten people into believing. Christmas Day begins the Christmas season/Christmastide/the 12 days of Christmas, which lasts until January 6, the feast of the Epiphany, when, tradition says, the Wise Men reached the stable where Jesus was born. It at least lasts through what is usually Christmas vacation at school and New Year's Day.

A couple of years back James and I decided the two-hour trip down and then back again to Warner Robins on Christmas Day was just Too Much, especially since we like to go to Midnight Mass at a friend's church. We never got any time to ourselves on the holiday.

Now we go down to visit his mother, sister, and niece on the weekend after Christmas. It's nice and relaxed and we don't have to worry about going to bed late or getting up early. We spend New Year's Eve with friends and then have a Twelfth Night party on the closest Saturday to January 6. It stretches out the pleasure of the holiday.

25 October 2003

10 Questions for Christmas

Here's a questionnaire from Celebrate the Wonder by Kristin M. Tucker and Rebecca Lowe Warren:

  1. What is your earliest Christmas memory?
  2. What are your favorite Advent and Christmas traditions?
  3. Is Advent special to you? Why? Is Christmas special to you? Why?
  4. What do you want yourself and members of your family to remember most and value about Advent and Christmas?
  5. How would you spend Christmas if you had no money to spend on gifts?
  6. How do you think Jesus would want his birthday celebrated?
  7. How will this year's holiday season be different from other years (due to age changes, finances, marriages, deaths, health problems, community and church responsibilities)?
  8. How would you like this year's holiday celebration to differ from last year's?
  9. What are your friends and other relatives going to be doing during the holidays?
  10. Whom would you like to spend time with during this year's holiday season?

How would you answer them?

22 October 2003

21 October 2003

Now I'm Hungry...

"Googled" "Christmas" and "Rhode Island" and came up with this delightful account of an Italian Christmas dinner from Bluewolf.

15 October 2003

Holiday DVD Warning

Since we were on the subject of DVDs...I was so excited last year when they released the Rankin-Bass special Santa Claus is Comin' to Town on DVD, particularly since they included another R-B classic, The Little Drummer Boy on the disk. In fact, to be honest, I bought the DVD for the latter, which I love, although I enjoy the former, too, and it's a Christmas favorite.

If you love Santa but have never cared for Drummer Boy, or if you love Santa but have no uncut copy of Drummer Boy, by all means buy the DVD. Santa is absolutely gorgeous--restored, the songs and sound sharp. But for heaven's sake, if you bought this because you also love Drummer Boy and were going to toss your videotape of it--don't!!!!! Especially if you have the Broadway Video/FHE version of the story, which wasn't a bad transfer.

Why? Because the Drummer Boy DVD sequence is, in a word, horrible. I can't believe the Rankin-Bass folks allowed such a hideous copy released. I inquired why of someone associated with R-B and was told that the R-B people had to work with the master they had--and that they thought the transfer had been "great." This was a person whose opinion I trusted and I was aghast. Good heavens, it would have come out better had the FHE version simply been copied to the DVD.

First of all the quality of the DVD transfer is terrible. It's muddy in places, and is strewn with flecks of white dust. Even worse, in places parts of the soundtrack is completely absent. For instance, there is the sequence where Aaron plays his drum for the crowds in Bethlehem. The sequence begins with Aaron beating his drum, the music then cuts in and he then sings "Why Can't the Animals Smile?" When the song is finished, the music also fades and Aaron is left beating his drum.

On the DVD all the sound except Aaron singing is completely missing. He enters the scene beating the drum but there is no sound on the soundtrack, nor does the music ever come in, and the concluding drumbeats are gone as well! This isn't the only time it happens, either. Later on one line of Greer Garson's narration is read by a man.

One of the first things I intend to do if I get a DVD recorder is commit my FHE version of The Little Drummer Boy to DVD--because the DVD "professional" version is rated "D" at best.

14 October 2003

Christmas Tales

Back at "Yet Another Journal" a few days ago, I'd posted a comment about the first of three Christmasy DVDs I had ordered:

Played the first half of the Little House on the Prairie Christmas DVD, one of my favorite holiday stories, "Christmas at Plum Creek." Call it "Little House meets O. Henry." To my complete surprise, not having seen the unedited version since it ran on NBC 29 years ago (!!!!), the "professional copy" I had on VHS from Goodtimes was edited! Two entire scenes following the Ingalls' family visit to the general store in the beginning were missing; my tape cuts in on the action back at the little house where Carrie asks what Christmas is. There also is a missing scene where Laura asks Pa how he knew how to make a fish trap. Some "professional copy"!

I haven't had the chance to play the second selection on the DVD. The first takes place during the Ingalls' first Christmas in Walnut Grove. I was a bit taken aback when they showed the family with a Christmas tree, when family trees did not become common in this country until several years later unless you were of German descent. The real Laura Ingalls saw her first Christmas tree as a teenager at a Sunday School gathering. But the story is so sweet that I can overlook the fact; Little House the TV series only barely touched the real Ingalls' family life anyway. The second story, "A Christmas They Never Forgot," takes place after Laura and Almanzo Wilder are married and the entire family is snowed in at the Ingalls' little house. They take turns telling stories about memorable holidays. Aside from the "Mr. Edwards meets Santa Claus" sequence that they took from the series' pilot movie, my favorite sequence was Hester Sue's story of her father donning a Santa suit borrowed from his master to prove that "Santa Claus isn't just for white children." Unfortunately the sequence about Caroline resenting her stepfather until he gives her a pretty gift irritated me no end. Caroline and her family were actually struggling when Frederick Holbrook married her mother and while they were unsure of him, they knew he was a good man. A pioneer child would have never been allowed to sass any adult the way Caroline did in the story.

Of course I waited for James to play A Christmas Story. We both love the story of Ralph Parker and his quest to receive a Red Ryder BB-gun for the holidays. This story reminded me so much of my childhood the first time I saw it that it made me homesick: like Ralphie I grew up in a solid working class neighborhood, attended a junior high school that is the spitting image of Ralph's grade school, and occasionally had wonderfully snowy Christmases. The fact that Ralphie's childhood and my own were about 25 years apart mattered not one whit: he listed to radio programs, I watched TV; he wanted a rifle, I just wanted more books; his dad fought with a furnace, mine with a snowblower; he stood up to recite in school and I did not...all the textures of warm home, schoolmates, bullies, teachers, department stores at Christmas, holiday preparations, and daydreams are exactly the same.

The DVD comes with an amusing commentary track with Peter Billingsly and director Bob Clark talking about how they did various sequences--that is the real Higbees in downtown Cleveland and real downtown Cleveland streets with authentic decorations, for instance--and how shots cut from studio sets to exteriors in a totally different place. A short documentary features Peter Billingsly--who has grown up from what my sister-in-law refers to as "that ugly fat kid" (???? I never thought he was ugly) into a very nice looking fellow, still with those stunning blue eyes--and the actors who played Flick, Schwartz, and Scut Farkus talking about the movie, and there's also a hilarous bit about the leg lamp--do you know you can buy a leg lamp? I saw them at Media Play. And the film is letterboxed, finally!

Monday I sat down and watched The Homecoming: A Christmas Story, so that I could toss the receipt from Amazon.com. No commentary on this, more's the pity, since it's my favorite Christmas story. There are bits about the filming in Earl Hamner's book Good-Night John-Boy, but not anywhere near as many stories as I wanted. What's Mary Ellen saying under Jim-Bob and Elizabeth talking in the loft, for example? She's saying something more than "natter natter grommish grommish." Why did they pick Fibber McGee and Molly as the radio program the Waltons were listening to, as this was done for CBS television and the McGees were on NBC? I suspect availability as the main reason, but it would be interesting to know.

(Interestingly enough, I've discovered the Waltons must have a time-traveling radio. The Homecoming takes place in 1932. Fibber McGee and Molly didn't premiere until 1935. Doesn't bother me; I just think it's amusing.)

The movie does come with a little interesting bit: the CBS "bumper" that came with the movie when it was originally broadcast: clips from the movie with the announcer presenting the title, the two stars Patricia Neal and Richard Thomas, and the tag "the story of a family and a Christmas Eve that changed their life forever." Cool to see it again.

12 October 2003

That Shopping Thing...

It always surprises me when I read those stories in January about people who are in massive amount of debt after Christmas.

I think part of it is that much too old saw that one has to give a lot of expensive presents, especially to children, for them to have a happy Christmas. I've seen my own cousins open box after box after box of gifts until they are cranky and unhappy. They don't seem happy or thankful for any of the things they've received.

I'm sure some people will say, "Well, they're just little kids." Maybe. But it's easy to see when a child just doesn't care because he's being drowned in toy after toy after toy. None of them is special. And, indeed, is that really what Christmas--or any of the midwinter holidays, for that matter--is all about? It used to be about having fun with family and friends, playing games, having parties, doing things together whether it's an annual hunt or an annual skating party or, in the case of the folks in the Southern Hemisphere, an annual cookout or beach party. If you got a special gift or two, all the nicer.

Anyway...the shopping thing...never understood the enormous debt in January because I buy things all year round. I've been known to buy a next year's Christmas gift for someone on the day after Christmas. This is tucked in a photocopy paper box, several which sit in the spare room closet, to wait for birthdays and the holidays. By the time Thanksgiving comes, most of the gifts are waiting, except for a few that will be bought in the next few weeks: maybe a new bestseller that has just come up, for instance.

I still have Christmas gift fantasies: I know what all my friends like and I sometimes long to buy a sweater or book way over my budget because I know so-and-so will just love it--and I can't. I hope I make do most of the time and give them something they like. Like anything else it's sometimes by guess and by golly; an interest last year will have faded.

But at least I don't face January with dread...

(Later...sigh...I'm lecturing again, aren't I? I guess it's because I can't bear to see what is supposed to be a fun, happy time of year become an anxiety-ridden buyfest.

Check out these ladies: they say it much better than I could:

Unplug the Christmas Machine, Jo Robinson and Jean C. Staeheli

The Christmas Survival Book, Alice Slaikeu Lawhead

Simplify Your Christmas, Elaine St. James)

11 October 2003

Welcome to Holiday Harbour!

I grew up in New England.

Don't let anyone tell you it's not hot in NE in the summer--and most folks still don't have air conditioning. So the weather cools and the first holiday of the season comes along on Columbus Day weekend, leaving everyone breathing in relief.

Columbus Day is a last hurrah. Most of the tourist attractions will be closing for the season soon. Plus, the leaves in New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, and upper New York reach their peak that weekend. Hundreds of people pack up their things in dozens of cars and head north for the weekend to go "leaf peeping," and, on the way home, stopping at the state liquor store in New Hampshire to stock up on their liquor for the holidays. (It's not as depraved as it sounds. :-) There's no tax on liquor in NH and we always stocked up on a big jug of hearty burgundy to make the Christmas and Easter wine biscuits, plus, if we were out, a bottle of vermouth or brandy to offer the uncles on a holiday visit. These bottles could last many years; none of us drank and Christmas portions to visitors were served in shot glasses.)

I always thought of Columbus Day as being something else: the unofficial start of a larger holiday season than was encompassed by frantic shopping cumulating in dinner and torn wrapping paper on December 25. The weekend excursion was only the beginning: things continued with the somberness of Veteran's Day, the cheerful gluttony of Thanksgiving, the anticipation of the days before Christmas, the Yuletide season itself, and the snowy winter that lingered through Valentine's Day and many times into March. It was a special place, one of scuffling leaves and the scent of gingerbread, peppermint and cold noses, savory smells of baking cookies and Christmas trees, surprises, anticipations, the chocolatey taste of Valentine candy and the mysterious turning of one year into another--a welcome harbor after a journey through broiling summer and the onslaught of insect life and heat rash.

So here you will find "holiday" chat and chitter, books and magazines read, hopefully friends and celebrations.

And now, on with the festivities!