December 14, 2017

Some More Of My Favorite Things

I like books.

Ok, so that’s not exactly a revelation to those who know me. Saying “I like books” is kind of like saying Dagwood likes sandwiches. I have, well, let’s just say I have a few books. If by “few” we mean “a few thousand,” then we’re on the right track.

So it came as a surprise to me that I could only come up with three Christmas books that I can say I like. I could have stopped at two with one honorable mention, to own to the truth. But we’ll go with three in the spirit of the holidays. No more, though. I mean, do you really think I’m going to list It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Zombies (a book taking Christmas carols and making them into songs about zombies, with such classic lines as “Fresh brains roasting on an opening fire”) or a Thomas Kindcade ghostwritten Christmas story among my favorites? I almost listed Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust—All Others Pay Cash as it was the basis for the great A Christmas Story movie, but I am just not a big Jean Shepherd fan.

Now, as to Christmas TV specials, I came up with four that are worth watching. Note these are TV specials, not movies. I can come up with five Christmas movies, but you’ll have to wait until next week for that list.

With no further ado, here are the three books of Christmas that I find worthwhile to have on my shelves.

First, I’d like to mention a children’s book worth considering. Last year when I was still working at the law firm as a literary agent, my administrative assistant mentioned that she couldn’t find a children’s Christmas book that featured the baby Jesus born in a manger. Ridiculous, I thought. She’s just not looking hard enough or in the right places. Off I went to the local Christian superstore. I went through all of their children’s Christmas books. All of them. No book with baby Jesus. Then I went to the nearby Borders and Noble. Again, no Christmas book with the baby Jesus.

So when I received a copy of Little Star by Anthony DeStefano (author of A Travel Guide To Heaven) I thought, Great. Another Christless Christmas book. But no! This book actually has baby Jesus in it. Bravo! This is a good Christmas story for kids ages three to six. The illustrations by Mark Elliott are eye-catching without being too busy. A good book to bring out each Christmas for your kids or grandkids.

Now on to the books for big kids.

3. St. Nicholas by Joe Wheeler and Jim Rosenthal.  Oh how sick I am of hearing how over-commercialized Christmas is. And how that if you rearrange the letters in “Santa” you can spell “Satan.” Sigh…we Christians can be the biggest Scrooges at this time of year. Santa Claus? Bah, humbug!

If you know someone like that, this is the book for them. No, not to have them read. People who think Santa = Satan aren’t going to change their minds. But this book is big and heavy, and you can use it to whack them upside the head when they start telling you how you should boycot Target because the clerk said, “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

Joe Wheeler has compiled a series of books called Christmas In My Heart, each filled with short stories old and new based around Christmas. But in St. Nicholas, he devotes himself to the actual person of Nicholas, the fourth century bishop, and how he came to be associated with Christmas and gift-giving. It’s full of great illustrations as well. A worthy addition to your bookshelves, and would make a nice gift.

2. Christmas At The New Yorker: Stories, Poems, Humor and Art.  If you are one of those who says, “I would never read the New Yorker. It’s a liberal magazine,” then please form a line to the right. Someone will be by to hit you with the St. Nicholas book in just a few minutes. For those who enjoy smart writing and some of the best cartoons going, the New Yorker is a staple for you. Now I’ll admit: I don’t subscribe. But not because the writers are a bunch of left-leaning Obama lovers (and they are, for the most part), but because I just can’t read everything, or even a tiny bit, in this weekly magazine. I content myself to picking up a copy several times a year, usually if I’m flying somewhere.

This book is a collection of some of the best Christmas essays and poems and cartoons throughout the years from the New Yorker. You have authors like John Updike, E. B. White, Alice Munro, Calvin Trillon, Garrison Keillor and Ogden Nash contributing to this tome. But it is worth buying if just for one piece: “A Visit From St. Nicholas” by James Thurber. Thurber recasts the classic Christmas poem in prose as if written by Ernest Hemingway.

I went out into the room where the chimney was. The little man came down the chimney and stepped into the room. He was dressed all in fur. His clothes were covered with ashes and soot from the chimney. On his back was a pack like a peddler’s pack. There were toys in it. His cheeks and nose were red and he had dimples. His eyes twinkled. His mouth was little, like a bow, and his beard was very white. Between his teeth was a stumpy pipe. The smoke from the pipe encircled his head in a wreath. He laughed and his belly shook. It shook like a bowl of red jelly. I laughed. He winked his eye, then he gave a twist to his head. He didn’t say anything.

On and on like that for three delightful pages. Each year I will get this book out and my children will say, “Oh no. Dad’s going to read that Ernest Hemingway thing to us again.” Ah, tradition.

1. The Nonesuch Dickens: Christmas Books.  Nonesuch Press was founded in 1922 in London by Francis Meynell as a private house specializing in reprints of classic books. They were unique in that they used a hand press to design the books, then had a commercial printer print them for distribution, thus making the books appear to be handprinted but available at prices the masses could afford. A few years ago, the publishing arm of Barnes and Noble brought out new editions of the Nonesuch Dickens books, including Christmas Books.

In this one volume you’ll find all of Charles Dickens’ Christmas stories, including “A Christmas Carol,” “The Chimes,” “The Cricket of the Hearth,” “The Battle of Life,” and “The Haunted Man.” If you have never read “A Christmas Carol,” please treat yourself this season. There is a reason Dickens is still read going on a hundred and seventy five years later.

Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Please, before you tell me how great Glenn Beck’s The Christmas Sweater is, or Skipping Christmas by Grisham, read that short excerpt again. Maybe you’ll understand why I can only find three adult Christmas books to list among my favorites.

Now onto Christmas TV specials.

You may have caught on by now that I don’t get too excited about mass-produced crapola that is not, well, good art. Again, the schmaltzy TV specials that come out like worms after a rainstorm have less than zero appeal for me. If my TV broke tomorrow, I don’t think I would get too worked up until it was time for March Madness. But there are four Christmas specials I make time to watch, if possible, each year. And they are…

4. The Muppets’ Christmas Special. No, not the one with John Denver. And not The Muppets’ Christmas Carol. This is the one where all the Muppets are gathering at Fozie Bear’s mother’s house, but a blizzard sets in, and Miss Piggy is still out shopping. I don’t want to give it away in case you haven’t seen it, but let’s just say there is some high drama in this one. Oh, the cast of Sesame Street and Fragglerock make appearances as well. And there is a notorious icy patch that about does them all in. They just don’t make TV like this any more.

3. The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Honestly, this could flip-flop with number two for me any given year. I mean, how much better does it get then Max the dog? And Cindy Lou-Who? Boris Karloff’s voice is beyond perfect in this role. And who doesn’t get a lump in their throat when the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes larger?

2. A Charlie Brown Christmas. The tree. Snoopy kissing Lucy. Linus’ recital. And Schroeder banging out the tunes on his toy piano. This is what a classic is.

1. A Wish For Wings That Work. My all-time favorite cartoon strip is Bloom County, starring Opus the Penguin and Bill the Cat. (Those of you who say you “don’t get” Get Fuzzy would have no clue what was going on in Bloom County. You need to stick to Nancy.) Some years ago, their creator, Berkley Breathed, was enticed to create a Christmas special where Opus writes to Satan, er, Santa asking for wings so he could fly. Honestly, this is hilariously funny (for those of you who can get it) and very deep at the same time. But instead of telling you about it, I have included the entire show (in three commercial-free parts) below. Watch for the Elvis-looking dude singing carols, and the cross-dressing cockroach. My favorite line: “Zey been handing out those lobotomy coupons in ze Little Friskies again?” And see if you recognize what old classic movie is used in part three.

No doubt you have your favorites I haven’t mentioned. Now is your turn. Mention away.

Comments

  1. “And how that if you rearrange the letters in “Santa” you can spell “Satan.”

    I thought that was the joke about the dyslexic devil-worshipper?

    Seriously, there are people out there who do a bit of anagramming and think it’s a knock-down argument against godless atheist materialist commercialism at this time of year? “Yes, I would have spent all my time and energy making a pest of myself trying to get the name of the festival changed to ‘Winterval’ until I realised that “Santa” is “Satan” spelled differently! Now I’ve invited the Lord into my heart and instead will spend all my time and energy making a pest of myself in a completely different fashion!”

    I think I preferred it when the Puritans flat-out banned Christmas puddings; at least they had a rationale for what they were doing.

    • You should really visit over here (USA) sometime when you can stay a bit and read what’s in section “B” of most daily papers. We seem to specialize in groups that take something trivial and expand it to an extreme. Usually with a dose of hypocrisy built in.

      I guess that’s one of the down sides to not having a fairly homogeneous society.

  2. Randy Thompson says:

    No Christmas is complete for me without a look at “Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance” by Clement A. Miles (Dover, a reprint publisher worth knowing about). This is a terrific 100 year old study of what Christmas was really like in the good old days——-and why the Puritans weren’t completely nuts for trying to ban it. It demonstrates what an odd holiday it is (or was)—the birthday of the Son of God, and, at the same time, Halloween, New Year’s Eve, and Mardi Gras all rolled up into one. If you read this, you’ll never sing “Here We Go A Wassailing” innocently again! (FYI: Wassailing was a common form of trick or treating (bordering on home invasions) for (usually drunk) adults in old Europe.

    Another terrific read is Stephen Nissenbaum “The Battle for Christmas,” which picks up the story where folklorist Clement A. Miles ends, and explains how and why Christmas celebration moved from tavern and street to home and children, resulting in the commercialization of Christmas.

    There may be a lot wrong with modern celebrations of Christmas, but it may not look quite as bad when compared with older celebrations!

    Christmas, like the Church, has a very checkered history!

    • Two excellent recommendations, Randy!

    • I know about the Wassailing traditions in part thanks to Peter, Paul & Mayry’s “Soalin'” from the Live in Concert album (remember Paul Stookey’s joke about children on Halloween “going from door to door demanding protection money”?). Strange custom for the birth of the Savior … but then, no more so than Black Friday or the releases of Oscar-bait films in the same season.

      Another book recommendation — Stanley Weintraub’s “Silent Night,” about the World War I Christmas Truce. On 25 December 1914, soldiers on both sides along a huge stretch of trenches in France laid down their arms, exchanged gifts (and even uniform parts) with the enemy, played soccer with them, shared the occasional bottle and generally acted like the Prince of Peace had actually come to earth — all against their superiors’ orders. The next day, of course, they went back to shooting, but it still stands as a precious moment in history’s most violent century.

    • “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” is more of a threat than a song. The bit about not going until they get figgy pudding? You better bring that stuff to them now, or there’ll be trouble to pay. (The original figgy pudding is a fruit cake with quite a bit of alcohol still in it after baking.)

  3. Christiane says:

    Our Family all gather at the Holiday and my son and daughter (and their dogs, my grand-dogs) stay over on Christmas Eve. Then their friends come over to see them. Then our friends come over to see us, then the neighbors come over. Then carollers come by . . . you get the picture.
    And if THAT wasn’t enough, my husband and the WHOLE family argue about WHEN to show ‘The Christmas Story’ movie, with Raphie. More volume. And the FOOD, oh my goodness, the food !!!!!
    So much . . . so much . . . . 🙂

    It is only much later, after Midnight Mass, when everyone is asleep, that I will light many candles and get to sit quiet with a glass of cheer, and feel the warm blessing of all the dear ones who have gone on ahead of us, to adore the Holy Child.

  4. I LOVED Bloom County, Jeff, and was sad when Berkeley Breathed decided to stop writing it. I will watch the videos you attached tomorrow when it’s not so late and I am not so tired.

    • “An ALBATROSS! She wanted an ALBATROSS!”

      Egad, I miss that comic strip! Thankfully, the complete collection is finally being released, albeit not always in its full irreverent humor.

    • Bloom County was so far ahead of its time that it’s becoming relevant again with WikiLeaks. Oliver Wendell Jones, boy genius, was hacking into Pravda, the FBI, the New York Times, even back in the ‘eighties.

      What Berke Breathed did with Ollie North was priceless too, but I think the way he treated Tammy Faye Bakker… was… unkind…

      Oh, how I miss that strip…

  5. Well… I’m really sad to say that I cannot think of a favorite Christmas book. Its semi-scandalous actually. I know I’ve read “A Christmas Carol” but its been some time now and I should probably re-read it, maybe this year.

    The Christmas specials though, thats easy. Number 1 is always going to be Charlie Brown, no contest. Nothing gets me like Linus telling us all what Christmas is all about.

    Second is The Grinch, of course. I know I’m copying you but the best is still the best, even if somebody else thought of it first :).

    Third is one they don’t play anymore, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. Oh wow! Its on Hulu! Yay:)

    Another one they don’t play anymore is the Walton’s Christmas. I don’t know if that would be classified as a movie or a special. After the Christmas version, they started the series.

    There are a couple other cartoons, Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus is coming to Town that are fun to watch too.

  6. Growing up in a fundie church it was hard to find anyone who appreciated Bloom County or Monty Python. Nice to see you list Opus. I had no idea this was out of DVD. Time to visit eBay. Thanks.

  7. Every Advent we read aloud “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “A Christmas Carol,’ by Dickens, “The Gift of the Magi,’ by O. Henry, a wondrful children’s story about the writing of “Silent Night,” the section of ben Hur that Andy talks about below, and the Gospel story with beautiful illustrations. It doesn’t matter that our kids are older, it still has to be done. We also have to watch “A Christmas Story” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

  8. I was just reading on wikipedia about How the Grinch Stole Christmas and was surpised that it came out in 1957. I thought it was later than that. I also read there, “The book was translated into Latin as Quomodo Invidiosulus Nomine Grinchus Christi Natalem Abrogaverit: How the Grinch Stole Christmas in Latin by Jennifer Morrish Tunberg with the assistance of Terence O. Tunberg in 1997.” I wonder how popular THAT version was?

  9. david carlson says:

    Put me down as another non subscriber, yet lover, of the New Yorker.

  10. We’ll be watching “Millions” this Christmas Eve. If you’ve never seen it, you should check it out.

    • Dana, I saw that movie and wondered why I hadn’t heard about it before seeing it. I don’t now remember all the details, but I remember being charmed by it.

      Have fun!

  11. Hands down, my favorite Christmas book is The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror by Christopher Moore. It’s absolutely hilarious, stars some reoccurring characters from Moore’s other books, and is not for the little ones. Here’s the dust jacket summary:

    ‘Twas the night (okay, more like the week) before Christmas, and all through the tiny community of Pine Cove, California, people are busy buying, wrapping, packing, and generally getting into the holiday spirit.

    But not everybody is feeling the joy. Little Joshua Barker is in desperate need of a holiday miracle. No, he’s not on his deathbed; no, his dog hasn’t run away from home. But Josh is sure that he saw Santa take a shovel to the head, and now the seven-year-old has only one prayer: Please, Santa, come back from the dead.

    But hold on! There’s an angel waiting in the wings. (Wings, get it?) It’s none other than the Archangel Raziel come to Earth seeking a small child with a wish that needs granting. Unfortunately, our angel’s no sporting the brightest halo in the bunch, and before you can say “Kris Kringle,” he’s botched his sacred mission and sent the residents of Pine Cove headlong into Christmas chaos, culminating in the most hilarious and horrifying holiday part the town has ever seen.

  12. Ha, your #1 is a nostalgic punch in the gut, not because I’ve seen the special, but because one of my absolute favorite books growing up was “The Last Basselope.” (http://www.amazon.com/Last-Basselope-One-Ferocious-Story/dp/0316126640). Can’t wait to watch the 3 parter!

  13. I have to recommend “Barrington Bunny” by Martin Bell. My high-school chorus teacher read it to us every year and I’ve read it almost every year since. Definitely not a happy book – more of a parable of giving and sacrifice and well, so much more. It will almost definitely make you cry.

    You can find it in Bell’s collection of short stories, “The Way of The Wolf”.

    Also found the text of the story here.

  14. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    You may have caught on by now that I don’t get too excited about mass-produced crapola that is not, well, good art. Again, the schmaltzy TV specials that come out like worms after a rainstorm have less than zero appeal for me.

    And after watching way too many of them as kids, you come up with Mister Hanky from all those South Park “schmaltzy TV special” parodies.

    I mean, each year adds new accretions to the Santa Claus mythos. All it needs is an afterlife belief (like the one the euthanasia “Scientists” tacked on in Night of the Comet) to become a bona-fide religion.

    And this is nothing new. Over 30 years ago, A Charlie Brown Christmas had an uphill fight getting Linus’s recital past gun-shy network executives.

    • “Over 30 years ago, A Charlie Brown Christmas had an uphill fight getting Linus’s recital past gun-shy network executives.”

      Hmm. Network executives. Is there a theme at work? Opus refers to them when contemplating his useless, flightless appendages:

      “Why don’t penguins have wings that work? This? They call this a wing? This is a bad joke! This is built-in obsolescence! I’m an Edsel! I might as well be a dung beetle! Or a fly-infested, worm-infused, molded, mildewed scrap of rotten banana! Or a network executive… “

  15. The all-time favorite Christmas book is still The Gospel According to St. Luke

  16. Hands down, the best Christmas special is Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” with George C. Scott as Scrooge. It’s not shown on television any more, but is well worth finding on DVD. It is magnificent.

    And for just plain fun, how about Tim Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas”?

    (P.S. I have subscribed to the New Yorker for 37 years.)

  17. Christiane says:

    “Come To The Stable” is a sweet Christmas movie (very old) with Celeste Holm and Loretta Young as two French nuns. It’s on tv sometimes during the holiday. Catch it, if you can, and enjoy. It’s lovely.

  18. One of my favorite christmas books was ‘Tumbledown Dick’ by Howard Spring. It’s about a farm boy whose mother falls ill, so he is sent to spend christmas with his uncles in Manchester. I’m not sure how it would hold up now, but as a child I loved it for its mix of winter scenes I was familiar with and British customs I knew nothing of, like the costume contest and the street entertainers.

  19. Greatest Christmas TV special mashup of all time – –
    “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” meets The Police:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5N4EFVgtB0Y

  20. I love that Muppet special too! As a poor kid with no HBO, it was my only exposure to Fraggle Rock (until last winter when I finally saw the whole, wonderful series on Netflix) and I would have loved it if only for that. By the way, it’s called “A Muppet Family Christmas.”