Christmas Traditions & Holiday Films

Christmas Traditions & Holiday Films

“Ebenezer Scrooge: Let us deal with the eviction notices for tomorrow, Mr. Cratchit.
Kermit the Frog: Uh, tomorrow’s Christmas, sir.
Ebenezer Scrooge: Very well. You may gift wrap them.”

– Michael Caine (Scrooge) & Steve Whitmire (Kermit the Frog) from The Muppet Christmas Carol

It’s that time of year when those who celebrate Christmas begin to rewatch specific movies. Most people, like myself, have a favorite film they immediately watch with a loved one or save until the last moment and watch alone. The simple task, or tradition, of rewatching a festive film performs a nostalgic function. That tradition comes with rules that one must follow so as not to break with a familial custom. Personally, after the last couple of years, these traditions are equally important as well as expendable. I have had to take stock of those traditions worth holding onto and those I wish to set aside. Yes, even the practice of watching a film is one I took notice of, but rather than avoid it, I leaned in and turned on, for nearly my twentieth year, The Muppets Christmas Carol.

Today, I am going to explore the ghosts of Christmas. I will illustrate those moments of joy, those family traditions I nostalgically recall, and how the Christmas holidays have changed. In doing so, I will discuss those Christmas films that I play and replay this time of year, with particular attention given to those adorable Jim Henson Muppet characters. In the end, this post is an opportunity to get sentimental and excited about a new Christmas season and a celebratory year that will, thankfully, be nothing like last year. I will spend this holiday with extended family because of vaccines, lower COVID numbers, and great determination. Whether you celebrate or not, all are welcome to explore the holiday ghosts of my past once again.

Ghost of Christmas Long Ago

“It was the afternoon of Christmas Eve and Scrooge was conscious of a thousand odors, each one connected with a thousand thoughts and hopes and joys and cares long, long forgotten.”

– Dave Goelz (Gonzo) from The Muppet Christmas Carol

This time of year is exciting. Although shorter days and colder nights in New England are not ideal, I enjoy the seasonal change and Dunkin’ hot cocoa. My wife Corinne and I love dressing our dog, Mr. Tuttles, in his holiday sweater and taking glamour photos. It is that one time of year that seamlessly makes me feel young. Listen, I am not old, at least I don’t equate forty as old, but I vaguely remember my mother’s 40th surprise birthday party, and it may be true that if you can recall your parents being the age you are currently, you may be old. Kidding aside, whether it’s the excitement, decorations, gift-giving, or simply large buffet dinners with smiling friends and family, this time of year is magical. It’s been hard because of COVID to recapture these happy feelings, but I feel it is imperative to reclaim agency over the Christmas holiday. It should be easy, but to be honest, it isn’t, for many reasons.

Therefore, to heal and restore my holiday cheer, I must take on the persona of Ebenezer Scrooge. I seek help from the past, a blunt perspective from the present, and a stark warning from the future. I want to go back to when the sight of snow falling, lights and ornaments dangling from trees, and the North Pole led my imagination to run wild. A time when my innocence accepted the season as a magical reality. This excitement often began once Thanksgiving festivities ended. In Massachusetts, Thanksgiving includes the tradition of high school football games and a trip to the Chinese buffet for my family. Seriously, I don’t think I ate turkey on Thanksgiving until I was in college. Still, the day after Thanksgiving, my mom awoke early, and joining her was my sister Becky and me. Like how we prepared for Halloween, my mom sent the two of us, and my brothers Jeff and Bobby, into the attic to retrieve the decorations.

The attic was always an adventure, but for Christmas, it was extra vigorous. While toys were often stored close to the stairs, easily retrievable, and we kept the Halloween decorations in the middle of the attic near the chimney, we strangely held the Christmas boxes at the furthest point from the entrance. First thing, the morning after Thanksgiving, my mother opened the attic door to allow the heat to ascend the stairs, although that never worked. It was constantly freezing! Then, when we were awake, she gave us instructions and told us the order of things she wanted us to do. Now, you might think that this sounds like a chore, but I didn’t see it that way. I loved this. My mom used to call me “Mr. Christmas” because I got dressed for the occasion. Santa hat, red sweatpants and sweatshirt, really festive, yet lacking any style.

As my mom had tea in the kitchen, Becky and I marched up those attic steps, and, one by one, we retrieved all of the boxes labeled “X-Mass.” Sure, we often bumped our heads on the attic beams, skinned our knees crawling to avoid said beams, and froze our asses off; picture Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold, in National Lampoons Christmas Vacation. We achieved our goal, made my mother happy, and had a meal of sausage and biscuits for breakfast or Polish hamburgers for lunch. With the living room and entryway of the home filled with boxes, we ransacked them, looking for our favorite decorations, and beginning the exciting process of decorating our 1930s Colonial New England home. The decorations included garland on the banister, a snowman on the back deck, wreaths affixed to every window, plug-in candle lights centered in each window, and stockings hung from the mantle above the fireplace and a tree in the living room.

As far as I can remember, we never had a real tree. Although, I admit the fake one was of imposing quality. But it was a pain to put together. It was usually me, alone, putting it together, branch by branch, but once done, it looked great. We usually waited until later in the evening to conclude the entirety of the tree decorating. That way, the entire family was home, and together, we strung the lights, often getting delayed because one set was busted or tangled. Still, once the lights were sufficiently attached, we dove into the ornaments. Sure, we had some cherished “ones” like baby’s first Christmas, that each of us, my siblings and me, clamored to locate and hang on the tree, but as the years went by, Walt Disney World ornaments that my mother collected filled our tree. My favorite was Goofy, of course, which I still have. The tradition of decorating became a solo endeavor as I got older.

While I was a kid, decorating for Christmas was exciting, and when finished, the house looked terrific. Yet the feelings unearthed as we decorated carried outside the home too, as the school held a winter concert, and my friends eagerly shared with me, and I with them, plans for the two weeks off from school around Christmas and New Year. Trips to the mall and walking around parks with light displays were ordinary, and preparing for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day was thrilling. As my parents hosted an annual Christmas Eve for my extended family, it makes sense that we were busy for days leading up to it. While my family is small, it was exciting the morning of Christmas Eve when my mother went to the grocery store, and my dad purchased goodies from local eateries, and we meticulously cleaned the house.

Often, family members I had not seen in years attended. As one can imagine, I was eager to see who drove up, parked, and walked to the front door. I sat in our sunroom, and as the sun went down and darkness ascended, I waited, peering outside the large floor-to-ceiling windows, as one by one people arrived. I was always excited to see my Aunt Madeline and Uncle Frank, and cousin/Godfather Michael, who heartbreakingly passed away September 2021. I hugged my Aunt Sybil and Uncle Ron and saw my cousin Kristin and Ronnie if he was in town. Sometimes there were aunts/uncles on my mom’s side who showed up, my dad’s coworkers, family friends, neighbors, acquaintances from youth sports, and, well, anyone my parents invited. I was young when my grandparents passed away. I don’t remember them at holiday parties, but photos offer a physical reminder of what I can’t recall.

I look back at these parities with happiness and sadness. Loved ones have passed on, but the memories they left behind are glorious. Oh, and I can’t forget about the food. My mom often had food cooked/prepared, usually the main dish, and desserts like a chocolate cream pie or coffee cake. My aunt Madeline made her signature dish of Portuguese chouriço sloppy joe, linguica and cheese balls, and a meat sandwich that I still drool over. My aunt Sybil picked up Chinese fried rice, eggrolls, chicken wings from Wah Mays in Fairhaven, and lasagna from Ma Raffa’s in New Bedford. We had more, of course, either homemade or from local eateries, but we never lacked options. I recall eating sour cream and onion dip with chips, like a madman. I shot daggers from my eyes at anyone who came close to touching that chip & dip bowl.

While the food was aplenty, my siblings and I opened up gifts from my Aunt Sybil/Uncle Ron and Aunt Madeline/Uncle Frank, a Christmas Eve tradition. From my Aunt Sybil/Uncle Ron, I often received something Star Trek-related, and from my Aunt Madeline/Uncle Frank, I got Megabloks. A Christmas Eve tradition, at least until my parent’s separation/divorce, then it was never the same. In those years when my family was as it had always been, Christmas Eve included times when I added friends to the mix and moments when I visited a friend’s house to celebrate briefly. One year, when I was in the sixth grade, I saw my first girlfriend at her home and, under a mistletoe, awkwardly had my first kiss. Cliche, of course, but a Christmas memory, nonetheless. That’s how it was for nearly two decades, a Christmas Eve that rarely changed and included an abundance of love.

Since these parties ended, it has been challenging to measure or compare new Christmas traditions with the old. Christmas Day was another story. I spent those mornings with my mom, dad, and siblings. Becky and I were always up first and organized the gifts placed under the Christmas tree. We emptied our stockings and, of course, enjoyed leftovers from the night before, like we hadn’t eaten enough already. The rest of the morning, I will leave out. Those memories are precious. In the afternoon, we visited with my aunts, uncles, and cousins. After a day of opening gifts, more eating, and seeing family and lots of laughing, we always spent Christmas night watching movies. Sure, we often repeated the films we watched, but they were always holiday-themed and, today, add a touch of nostalgia to this season.

The Muppets Christmas Carol & Festive Movies

“A cup of kindness that we share with another/A sweet reunion with a friend or a brother/In all the places you find love/It feels like Christmas/It is the season of the heart/A special time of caring/The ways of love made clear/And it is the season of the spirit/The message if we hear it/Is make it last all year.”

– Jerry Nelson (Ghost of Christmas Present) from The Muppet Christmas Carol

Last year, I discussed a recent addition to my favorite holiday movies, Anna and the Apocalypse. I did a movie rewatch with my wife, Corinne, and we chatted about our favorite scenes, songs, and acting performances. Holiday horror is a sub-genre I enjoy tremendously. Films like Krampus, Anna and the Apocalypse, and Gremlins are my favorites of this sub-genre, but not my favorite holiday-themed films. I want to use this time to chat about those Christmas/holiday films that find their way onto my television each December. Die Hard will not be included, although it’s a Christmas movie. I recently purchased my brother Jeff, A Die Hard Christmas, a “children style” book written by Doogie Horner and illustrated by JJ Harrison. Its existence proves the rule, but I will avoid any great debate since the Netflix film, Love Hard, starring Nina Dobrev, Jimmy O. Yang, and Darren Barnet, discussed it.

I know that there are hundreds, if not thousands of holiday films, thanks to what I imagine is a massive seasonal budget for the Hallmark Channel. Still, none of those are worthy of note, well maybe Rose McIver in A Christmas Prince, but that was on Netflix. The question then is; what types of films do I turn to each holiday season to make it festive and, sometimes, nostalgic. Well, if avoiding holiday horror, which I enjoy in October, there is an eclectic mix of films that are on my watch list. Sure, I am always looking for “new” holiday movies, like Love Hard, The Christmas Chronicles, and Godmothered, which helps to shake the season up, but more often than not, I am stuck in the ‘80s and ‘90s, with few exceptions. When selecting a film, it has to hit the right cord, like watching Planes, Trains & Automobiles on Thanksgiving. I seek the holiday film that triggers my festive impulse, makes me clap my hands, or “happy ugly cry” as I did at the end of The Christmas Chronicles.

Richard Donner’s Scrooged, starring Bill Murray, is easily in my top five. Similar to The Muppet Christmas Carol, I like a retelling of Charles Dickon’s A Christmas Carol, even those with George C. Scott, Patrick Stewart, but not Jim Carey. In Scrooged, I enjoyed that this is not solely a retelling, but a reimagining, with a 1988 flare only Bill Murray could bring. Even so, Carol Kane as the Ghost of Christmas Present offers a beautiful heat check performance. But Scrooged is a dark comedy opposite of two films I loved as a kid and eagerly watch. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Year Without a Santa Claus, both using incredible stop-motion “animagic” that has aged terribly, are nostalgic yet timeless. I enjoy the songs and messages of joy, acceptance, and love. I am excited to hear Heat Miser (George Irving) and Snow Miser (Dick Shawn) sing and root for Hermey the elf (Paul Soles) to become a dentist, and thrilled when Yukon Cornelius (Burl Ives) sings “Silver and Gold.”

Sure, I enjoy the beauty and blunt message of Frank Capra’s 1946 post-WWII holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, where the impressive James Stewart as George Bailey, who has given up on life, must, with the help of an Angel, see what life would be like if he was never born. He learns an impactful lesson of life’s importance and seeing things as they are. The film holds up and is watched each year around Christmas, but its meaning makes it a year-round movie too. Still, other classic films like Miracle on 34th Street, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and The Nightmare Before Christmas, has never interested me. Not that they are lousy, actually quite to the contrary, they are superb, frankly not what I choose to watch each year. When thinking of “classic” holiday films, which does not necessarily mean older movies, those with immense popularity I do enjoy are, A Christmas Story, The Santa Clause, and Elf.

Now you have an idea of the films I “enjoy” watching each year, but which ones are my favorite? Three films sit near the pinnacle of my holiday movie, apex mountain. First is National Lampoons Christmas Vacation, written by John Hughes and starring Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo. This film was a trilogy of sorts, this film followed the Griswold family as they planned their family Christmas, strung up the intense lights, and Clark expected a work bonus to help support his dream of a private home swimming pool. Yet, disaster follows the Griswold family, and the holiday doesn’t spare them. Filled with timeless laugh-out-loud comedy, awkward moments, and, somewhere, a solid message, National Lampoons Christmas Vacation is on each year.

The next film is Love Actually. I know what you are thinking; is this a holiday film? Yes, like Die Hard, it certainly is, and I enjoy it as such. I did admire its use in Love Hard and how the main character Natalie Bauer, Dobrev from Vampire Diaries, despised it and cut down its holiday worthiness. Yet, Josh Lin, Yang from Crazy Rich Asians, loves it, but hates her favorite holiday film, Die Hard. Yes, I enjoyed Love Hard very much! Love Actually has many terrific actors and is written/directed by Richard Curtis. True, this 2003 film feels a little more dated than the other, and some moments have aged poorly, at least those involving Andrew Lincoln. But it has a dancing Hugh Grant, a brooding Liam Neeson, Bill Nighy as hilarious rocker Billy Mack, the fabulous Emma Thompson, and brilliant Alan Rickman as a couple on the rocks with a Joni Mitchell song in-between. It’s an ensemble film, with outstanding performances and including a message of love and holiday joy.

Macaulay Culkin is just a little older than me, believe it or not, so when I first watched Home Alone, I felt a kismet connection to the character. Sure, my parents never accidentally left me home alone, like Kevin was, but the thought was frighteningly intriguing and offered me many moments of speculation. Still, this is a movie I have watched dozens of times, and it never gets old, and the film never feels dated. It helps that the acting, particularly Culkin, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern, Catherine O’ Hara, and a brief appearance by John Candy as Gus Polinski, is outstanding. Directed by Christopher Columbus, and written by John Hughes, Home Alone is every parent’s nightmare and most kid’s dream scenario, minus the criminals and attempted child murder. It’s a movie with a ton of heart, great comedy, a perfect John Williams score, and a script that offered excellent dialogue read to perfection.

That brings me to the one film that “rules them all.” Wow, I went a Lord of the Rings there. If I start speaking in the third person, break into riddles and bite off someone’s finger, please call for help. The Muppet Christmas Carol is, by far, my favorite holiday film. The first Muppet-centric film without Jim Henson, The Muppet Christmas Carol, is directed by Brian Henson. Jerry Juhl, who wrote Muppet Treasure Island, another favorite of mine, wrote the screenplay. Rated 7.7 on IMDb, the film has all of the famous Muppets taking on Dickens’ characters, with Gonzo as the narrator/author Charles Dickens, Rizzo the Rat as his sidekick, and Michael Caine as Scrooge, with Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit. Running about 85 minutes and rated G, The Muppets Christmas Carol is for the entire family and has enjoyable songs and stellar imagery.

Watching The Muppets Christmas Carol always makes me think of my mom. I watched it with her each Christmas for nine years in a row. Since then, we watch it whenever we get together around Christmas, which is sadly not as often as I would like. I know of several occasions when my mom has called me in December and, no matter what we are talking about, she asks if I have watched “our” Christmas movie. While the film is excellent, and there is no better Scrooge than Michael Caine, it warms my heart with a sentimental touch. The music has a way of centering me with holiday excitement, and the Muppet style of comedy makes me chuckle loudly and intently. I could watch Rizzo and Gonzo trade commentary barbs for hours, yet it’s heartbreaking when Belle, Meredith Braun sings “When Love is Gone.”

Songs like “Marley and Marley” get my blood pumping for the rest of the film, and I enjoy how the two older “balcony” Muppets set the cinematic pace. “Bless Us All” is a song that I can still vividly see my mom singing along to, and one filled with the spirit of the season. I enjoy this time of year, even if it is different from when I was growing up. Just the other day, I watched The Muppets Christmas Carol and was not surprised by how emotional I got when the first significant song came on, “Scrooge.” The imagery is powerful. The need to care for one another, support those in need, and let go of our hang-ups – all are themes of that momentous opening song. There are superb comedic moments, and Scrooge is cruel, but his ability to change is right in front of him. Posit that song alongside “It Feels Like Christmas,” music illustrating everything good about the holiday season, and observe a message of warmth that can melt Scrooge’s, ice-cold heart.

The Muppets Christmas Carol is a perfect nostalgic reminder of when I sat with my mom in front of the television in the living room. We inserted the VHS into the receiver and sang and laughed. No other holiday film, no matter how much I enjoy them, offers me that “vital” holiday image. I am grateful for so many moments I had as a kid. Opening gifts I am sure I didn’t deserve, eating food that could feed a small army, and watching movies that made the season merry. Yet, it’s memories, like my parents’ faces as I ripped through the wrapping paper on Christmas morning, hugging my aunts and uncles, and my mother singing the finale song “Thankful Heart,” as we watched The Muppets Christmas Carol, that matter most today. It helps to play John Denver & The Muppets Christmas music album, A Christmas Together, and the memories flow back.

Ghost of Christmas Present

“Rizzo the Rat: Boy, that’s scary stuff! Should we be worried about the kids in the audience?
Gonzo: Nah, it’s all right. This is culture!”

– Dave Goelz (Gonzo) & Steve Whitmire (Rizzo) from The Muppets Christmas Carol

By my mid-20s, and after my parent’s divorce, a couple of years removed from the sale my childhood home and moving out on my own, Christmas had long since changed. There are no more Christmas Eve parties, no more Christmas mornings, no more holiday movies in the living room. It’s sad to recall. Still, I adapted and have formed some beautiful memories with my family members individually over the holiday since those “traditions” ceased. Over the last two decades, my wife’s family has been an invaluable source of holiday cheer. I have spent nearly every Christmas morning in that period at her home in upstate New York. I have, since day one, been welcomed into the family and offered incredible love. Their traditions have become my traditions. I am grateful to them for helping me see Christmas in a fresh way.

I celebrate Christmas Eve with Corinne’s family, but I sometimes see my mom, dad, or siblings separately. We have always woken up on Christmas morning in New York, except last year. That was the first time Corinne didn’t see her parents on Christmas in nearly forty years. Watching her miss that was depressing, but this year we will reclaim it. We plan to wake up on December 25th and wrap ourselves in comforters, sit outside her parent’s room, even at our age, and wait for them to awake so that we may begin the celebration. I make coffee, her mom prepares breakfast, and gifts get unwrapped according to age (youngest to oldest). It resembles the final scene in Love Hard when Josh tells Natalie, after his mother, Barb, shouts “it’s time for presents,” that he “has to warn” her; his “family is pretty intense when it comes to Christmas presents.” Her comment, “you don’t say,” is perfect, and exactly how I feel, in the best way possible.

The Clock Strikes Midnight

“And yes, the time has come for us to say goodbye. Yes, some dreams come true. And yes, some dreams fall through. And yes, the time has come for us to say goodbye.”

– Meredith Braun (Belle) from The Muppets Christmas Carol

American Dad has some of the funniest holiday episodes, although Bob’s Burgers is close. Whether fighting evil Santa, going through the Rapture, or Stan realizing the true meaning of Christmas, the show illustrates Christmas through a dystopian lens. Recently, Corinne and I watched American Dad Christmas-based episodes on HULU, as we do each year. Our first selection was “Minstrel Krampus,” from the 9th season, which is our favorite. It includes a fantastic song, incredible comedic moments, and Roger being Roger. It might be a little off-beat for a Christmas viewing tradition. Still, when Corinne and I watch these animated holiday-themed episodes, we are gleeful, even if we get the song “Bad, Bad, Bad Boy,” written by Asa Taccone and performed by Scott Grimes, stuck in our heads for a while.

Just the other day, Corinne and I went to get our first real Christmas tree in a long time. It’s five foot nothing and sits weirdly in the tree stand, but we love it. It reminded us of when we bought our first tree while living in Salem, and we put it in our bay window, which had a glorious view of the bay. That year, the same year we bought our home, the tree was near seven feet tall. We decorated it, laughed, and snuggled our dog Mr. Tuttles and took way too many photos. We remembered that memory as we put on Christmas ambiance music followed by American Dad and decorated this year’s tree while displaying lovely decorations around our house. In the end, the pandemic only delayed our most recent Christmas traditions, not erased.

Last year, we didn’t bother to put up a tree, and I barely watched any holiday films. I am trying to reclaim the spirit of Christmas this year. It’s not easy, especially with all the trauma we, and more, have suffered. We try, nonetheless. I am eager to feel that sense of joy, continue recalling fond holiday memories from long since gone, and excited to reinforce my desire to live my merriest days, even after acknowledging how things have changed. My goal this holiday season is to accept change. This season offers an opportunity to reflect. There is no better time than the present, with a foot in the past and one towards the future. As reflected in a “somewhat” holiday medium, the song “Seasons of Love,” from the Broadway production of RENT, implores us to remember that life is a gift and “share love, give love, spread love.”

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