Tag Archives: Christmas

Sam Elliot’s Mustache Had Better Have Saved Christmas

It's just awful.

I just watched the trailer for ‘Christmas Shoes.’ I, uh …. Well, I regret it.

I don’t really plan these out.  I have ideas in a TextEdit document and three different notebooks with bits scribbled into them.  (I don’t have any of those notebooks with me tonight.)  I start off with a general topic and before I know it I’ve careened off into some sort of red-hazed hate-spewing rage about Kids These Days and What’s Wrong With the World.  Not all of this is my fault – I blame awful Christmas television and Delilah.

I’ve hated the Christmas Shoes song for as long as it’s been on the radio.  My Holiday Mirth Meter was pegged years ago when I worked at the Evil Liquor Warehouse and the dial was permanently positioned on Lite 105.  I worked nights.  Do you know what that meant?  It meant that, after three hours of enduring maudlin or saccharine or infantile Christmas novelty songs and forgettable shrieking starlet ballads … it all started over again with the John Tesh show at 8pm.  I nearly burst a blood vessel the night I heard “Christmas Shoes” around 7:56pm on Lite 105 … and then it immediately played again at 8pm on the nationally-syndicated John Tesh Show.

Why do I hate this song so much?  It’s completely artificial.  It’s like Nicholas Sparks books – it was written solely with the intention of making you feel bad.  Also there are lite rock chimes.  And singing children.  And a sappy child soloist.  And it’s – just – so – bad – !  I’ve ground my teeth into powder just thinking about it.

Anyway, Christmas songs are another hate-filled diatribe.  Right now I’m spewing forth white-hot rage at Christmas television.  If I’m friends with you then there’s a good chance we all watched the same specials at Christmas.  The essentials, as far as I was concerned, were Mickey’s Christmas Carol, Rudolph, Garfield, and the Muppet Family Christmas.  Frosty was never a favorite, although it bears the distinction of featuring a villain who actually murders the protagonist, and the less that’s said about the ill-conceived sequel the better.  There was another special about poorly-drawn humans and mice and a clock, but obviously it didn’t stick.

I just rewatched the first part of Mickey’s Christmas Carol for the first time in over a decade tonight, and it’s absolutely beautiful, from the opening title cards to the detail given to the bleak London setting.  You know what kids get now?  Kung Fu Panda and some winter festival nonsense.  TWO Shrek holiday specials.  And worst of the worst – live action Jim Carrey Grinch.  Criminal.  (And does anyone else think the Polar Express movie is kind of creepy?  No?  Also I don’t remember that much drama and death-defying peril in the gorgeous story book.  Listen, friends, if it won’t film well as an original, maybe don’t film it … ?)

Granted, not everything produced in the halcyon days of our youth was great, either:  Last year Georgia and I subjected ourselves to “Christmas Comes to Pac-Land” and the He-Man (I cannot get over how weird that is to type) Christmas special.  We watched the latter to the end, myself more mystified than anything as I had zero exposure to He-Man as a child and thus no nostalgia.  But Skeletor got a puppy, and I was reasonably sure that was out of character.

We lasted about four minutes into the PacMan special before Georgia summed up what I was also thinking:  “I just can’t do it.”

A trouble with Christmas specials is the pressure to create one, put it out and sell advertising as quickly as possible, leading to all these already-merchandised holiday spinoffs.  Even my favorite shows have produced some pretty disappointing Christmas installments, like the poorly-animated Venture Brothers extra and the deeply unsatisfactory Metalocalypse episode.  I can almost see why people immediately jump all over existing source material, throwing scarves on their pre-existing characters and quickly painting (or computer generating) some wintery trappings into the backgrounds of familiar backdrops.

This is not to say the original material fares any better.  The title of this post comes from the trailer to something called “November Christmas.”  I happened to catch it the other night and was aaaaaaaaalmost drawn in by two factors: There was a border collie, and there was Sam Elliot, being all mustachey and noble and wise.  However there was also a sick child and an unrealistic hayride Christmas tree farm, and also dad had the remote.

I’m sure he saved me from pain.

Look:  Not one tree farm actually looks like that.  Not one family is that goddamned shiny-smile and happy.  Someone has always lost a mitten or has gotten stabbed with hay or is stabbing his brother with hay or is coooooold and wants to go hooooooooome.  No one laughs that much or with their eyes and mouths open that wide – you can see the strain of pushing jolly all over the actors’ faces and frankly I don’t buy it.

Oh lord, I just checked the abcfamily site out of morbid curiosity and discovered something called “Christmas Cupid” will be airing.  From the copy, “With just days away from Christmas, Caitlin takes Sloane on a journey to meet the ghosts of her ex-boyfriends from the past, present and future to try and guide her to true love.”  So … we’re doing “A Christmas Carol” again.  And poorly.  When can we stop rehashing this story, and “It’s a Wonderful Life?”  At mom’s the other night I caught the tail-end of some Lea Thompson Christmas movie (does that woman age? Serious question.)  The acting was so bad I couldn’t believe it ever made it to television, and I just had to look it up to better mock it.  The description?  “A stressed out lawyer and mother of three gets her yuletide wish to see what her life would be like if she had chosen to pursue her career in law rather than marrying and becoming a working mother.”

Stop it.  Just stop it!  What can any modernized pop culture take on either classic tale do better than Bill Murray or the Muppets?  (I’ve actually never seen “Scrooged,” but hey, Bill Murray.  The Muppet Christmas Carol is the only post-Jim Muppets I like and the only Christmas movie I own because ALL RIGH ALL RIGHT I AM A SCROOGE).

This is pretty long and I haven’t even gotten into “Santa Buddies” or “The Dog Who Saved Christmas Vacation” (Jack finds personifying animals embarrassing) or HEY ABCFAMILY IS RUNNING MICKEY’S CHRISTMAS CAROL ON TUESDAY NIGHT!  It only half-counts if the three shorts that ran with it originally are shown.

Anyway.  Tomorrow I am going to talk about Christmas specials I actually like, including my personal mother-of-all Christmas specials sadly butchered by copyright conflicts.

 Stay tuned.


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Getting carded

If you’re looking for a creative way to drive a wedge between yourself and a family member, may I suggest designing the annual Christmas card together.

This will be the tenth collaboration between dad and myself on our Christmas cards.  In 2000 we turned a tiny little church painting I had done on a whim into a popular card, and we continued the project each year after.  I’m not bragging when I say my cards are collectibles: Everyone in the family saves them and one of my uncles hangs them all up every year, including the new edition.

The year after the little church I scribbled a rough sketch on the back of a neon orange flier in the URI Union building and turned it into the 2001 painting.  In the sketch there was a little log cabin and a deer standing in the front yard.  The deer was ambitious and I am lazy; instead of figuring out how to refine a blob with four sticks and a triangle head into something resembling a graceful animal I changed it into a black Lab in honor of our good dog Skeeter.  We had been without a dog for some time by 2001 and it was nice to add a little life to an otherwise still and quiet image.

The little black dog became the trademark, appearing on the envelopes and inside the cards along with a stand of tiny snowy spruce trees, my other hallmark.  In 2002 I painted two black dogs, one for Skeeter and one for Shadow, and eventually Jack the border collie appeared.  I promised if he was good, he could join the other good dogs on the front of the card.  He wasn’t , but I added him anyway.  There was only one year without dogs, 2007, when I painted an extremely tiny cabin on an extremely tiny piece of board for an art show.  It was purchased within hours of being hanged – by my uncle.

So there are nine Christmas card paintings, as best as I can figure it.  The 2007 original isn’t in my collection, the 2008 is missing (I have a good idea as to where it’s buried), and 2009 was an embarrassment.  There was no 2009 painting.  We did send a card out, but it was a repeat from a previous year.  Last year I Actually Did It – I was feeling too low and miserable to draw, the ultimate failure in our creative venture.

There’s always some sort of “episode” when it comes to putting together the Christmas card.  I don’t think it’s ever gone off completely without a hitch save for that first year – I doubt we would have kept doing it, if we had screwed up the first time around.  The problems range from minor and irritating, such as DickBlick.com running out of the cards we use or the sheer amount of time it takes to print them – outside, inside, and hallmark on the back – to hugely aggravating, as when we feed the cards the wrong way through the printer and either double-print or produce an upside-down image, to nearly catastrophic, like the year dad listened to my propaganda and upgraded to a Mac.  After years of Adobe Photoshop on his PC we were suddenly bereft of editing software and had to go as far as digging out and hooking up the old computer.

The best-worst disaster was the year dad was having a more miserable time than usual getting the justification of the cards right.  After five or six wastes he figured it out and printed the whole damn stack, staying up until 3am just to get them all out of the way.  After he went to bed I sneaked downstairs to check them out, acting on one of those “funny feelings.”  I flipped over the first card in the pile and my heart dropped: Every last one had the message on the inside printed upside down on the top flap.  Standing in the kitchen in that cold, dark preternatural predawn hour I felt a growing chill of horror from the inside out.  This is it, I thought.  This is the last straw.  He is going to burn down the house.

I absconded with the entire pile and when dad went to work the next day I opened up Word (to this day I regret not learning Photoshop) and mashed together a lovely insert.  I printed about fifty and spent the afternoon folding them in half and gluing them into the cards.  At lunchtime dad asked where the cards were – he wanted to start filling his out – and I promised to return them after I had done my own.  If he noticed the new deluxe edition he never said, and I got to say I legitimately saved Christmas.

Part of the problem with that particular situation, and indeed every year, is the vicious cycle of responsibility and procrastination.  It always starts around Thanksgiving.  “What are we going to do about a card this year?”

“Oh, I have some ideas.  Have you ordered the blanks?”

“I will.”

It always starts with the intention of ordering blanks online, and with ideas and an image folder of inspirational and reference pictures on my desktop, and it always ends in a panic to finish the painting before it’s too late for dad to get the printing done.  I usually end up handing out my cards in person, while dad gambles with the post office.  Every year I say I’m going to do better.  Every year I vow to start drawing the day after Thanksgiving.  Every year I’m awake until 2 or 3am two weeks into December, drinking buckets of tea and going through two or three foil-covered paper plates of mixed paints.  I think I need that panic for focus – as a rule I’m critical of my own work, but there has only been one painting that I felt was truly half-assed.  The rest I rather like.

The image on top of this post is my brother’s favorite.  It’s an idealized and composite version of our actual living room – there are about four times as many books on the shelves and three more clocks, but again, I’m lazy and am usually doing this right before dawn on the last possible day (also the fireplace is actually in my mother’s house; ours here is brick).  The bottom picture is my favorite; I love the little cottage and this was the first year I figured out how to paint white pines.  There are elements that appear in almost every card – dogs, marbleized winter skies, snowy spruces, something red – one year it was a highly impressionistic Farmall tractor, before dad went full John Deere.  I expect this year’s card to have at least two of those features, unless I get crazy and try something completely new.

The 2010 process begins tomorrow, I swear – I have some ideas.

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“Where’s the dog?!”

Christmas is probably a weird time for the family animals.  The outdoors comes inside and they’re not allowed to do normal outdoor things to it:  Cats may not climb the tree or hide in the center to startle you.  Cats may not remove foreign objects from the tree.  Cats definitely must not eat tinsel from the tree.  Dogs may not mark the tree as their own or happily chew it to bits.  Consider the confusion of my brother’s 4-month-old puppy tonight at my mother’s house:  Because mom and Bill own an oversized yellow Lab with an enthusiastic tail they always hang unbreakable and mostly soft ornaments from the lower branches in case of tail-activated launch.  Dexter the pup has only recently learned soft toys exist and loves them.  What is the Christmas tree, then, but a wonderful, giant compilation of his favorite thing (sticks) hung with toys?

Christmas is also potentially lethal time for the pets of stressed and distracted owners.  See, for example, Cuddles, a yellow Lab who ate $7000 in Christmas ornament surgery. ‘Tis the season for selecting gifts, wrapping them in festive paper, stowing them in secret hiding places and dosing the family Labrador with ipecac after she burrows into the closet, unwraps and devours a 2-lb box of Russell Stover chocolates.  Oh what a merry Christmas that was!  Grade-school aged me got to learn all about poison and projectile vomiting in dogs AND had to buy dad a new Christmas present.  Thanks a lot, dog.  (Fun Fact the Internet Assures Me is True: According to petinsurance.com, chocolate poisoning is the number 5 reason for visiting an emergency vet on Christmas day.)

We had two black Labs growing up, each motivated nearly entirely by their mouths.  Shadow was the more crafty of the two.  After her taste of living on the edge (and of chocolate) she came to anticipate the annual appearance of the tree in the living room and the piles of potential edibles beneath it.  I remember hearing a strange sound coming from the living room and arrived in time to find a now-elderly Shadow lying on the floor under the tree, lips pulled back as she delicately tore paper in long strips from a popcorn tin.  A tin!  How on earth did she smell that one out?

This is why, for years, we couldn’t put presents under the tree until Christmas eve.  Shadow made an apprentice out of Skeeter, who carried on the tradition after the old girl died at the chocolate-resistant age of 15 and a half.  Not all dogs display such abandon with gifts – my best friends’ old yellow Lab Jake opens his own presents every year on Christmas day but leaves the rest alone.  My mother’s dog Bucky, even mouthier than Shadow or Skeeter ever were, tends to leave presents but gets excited about (apparently) delicious balls of wrapping paper.  It’s made a whole new game out of opening gifts – get the paper in the trash bag before you have to extract it from the dog.

Speaking of dogs and gifts I found myself wondering this week why we buy our pets presents.  They will never write thank you cards.  I suppose they’re bribes, little acknowledgments of good behavior (or not) during a rather trying time.  Consider a dog (or, I suppose, a non-lazy cat, but you cat people will have to just tolerate my bias on this particular piece) will probably spend most of Christmas day being decorated with a festive bandana or ribbon, shoo’d away from satisfyingly crunchy crumples of paper, pushed back inside every time the door opens to admit another unfamiliar and excitingly new-smelling visitor, being ejected from the bevy of wonderful food smells in the kitchen, told to go lie down during the feast itself, and being embarrassingly personified in treacly televsion specials (I’m looking at you, ‘Santa Buddies’ and ‘Dog Who Saved Christmas Vacation’).  I suppose a new toy or some special treats are the least we can offer our faithful companions on this potentially lethal human holiday, even if they’re more likely to end up on Santa’s naughty list like my dog Jack (see photograph above).

At least he does seem to appreciate his gifts, not like those other dogs that only play with the paper.


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Light It Up

We all hate the “12 Pains of Christmas” song.  I know we do, because I just said so.  But when I was listening very carefully to the words last year as part of my annual audio sacrifice (I listen so YOU can laugh!), I realized I still have sympathy for the guy with the lights.  His is the most compelling story: We witness, in twelve parts, the evolution of a full-scale holiday nervous breakdown, beginning with mild irritation and progressing through the steps of major aggravation to all-out apoplectic fit.

To the best of my knowledge this one of two pretty accurate mass-media representations of the holiday agony of putting up the Christmas lights (the other, of course, is Chevy Chase and “Christmas Vacation”).  I remember dad’s annual dread of the Phone Call summoning him to Narragansett to put up his mother’s lights and try to figure out how the wire-frame electric reindeer stood up.  I myself only dabbled in outdoor decor once:  Several years back Johnny and I were feeling particularly festive and decided to string lights into the spruce trees in the back yard.  We learned a couple of things from the experience.  First, the trees were much taller than we remembered, even though we looked at them every time we walked the dog.  Second, it is impossible to overestimate the number of lights and extension cords one needs for this sort of project.  If I recall correctly we bought out Benny’s of extension cords and had to return to Job Lot at least once to buy another set of green lights, which are, naturally, the most difficult to find.

What our techniques lacked in finesse they more than made up for with creativity.  Strings of lights were balled up and thrown in the direction of the top of our perfectly-shaped incredibly tall spruces, only to unravel spectacularly on the way up or get hung up in the branches at the exact height so as to be unreachable from the ground.  I found myself inside a tree more often than out, and could have passed as a taxi cab air freshener by the end of the ordeal.  At one point John grimly wrapped a string of lights around the end of a broom handle and ascended a ladder while I directed from the ground with a vague suspicion I should be dialing “9” and “1” on my cell phone.

After an hour the yard was littered with cardboard boxes, little packets of extra bulbs, wire ties and safety tags from bundles of extension cords.  We were quilted in red welts and scratches from aptly-named needles.  Three of our trees, planted as saplings in our childhood and now wrapped in glittering strands of green and white, were quite beautiful.  We were so impressed with ourselves we never took them down, or attempted it ever again.  I understand why Adam and I counted over 35 houses in Whitehorse that were still strung with lights in July.

There must be easier ways to decorate, else every house would be dark the weekend after Thanksgiving.  In my travels I saw lights up and and lights in the process of getting there.  Just this morning I witnessed the Hope Valley Fire Department at work, shaking out handfuls of tangled bulbs.  There was a lot of standing around and frowning, and come to think of it, I’m not entirely sure they were lit when I drove by hours later after dark.

For this I appreciate the people who pour their heart and savings into their December electric bills.  Every year Chris, Will, Libby, Pete and I pile into a vehicle, go to Tim Horton’s (spill a little good coffee on the ground) for hot chocolate and cruise the towns, revisiting favorite yards and excitedly stopping at newly-transformed winter wonderlands.  One of our favorites is off Route 91 in Carolina.  The district fire chief borrows the field next to his tiny house and fills it with terrible bobbing inflatables and hundreds of colored lights.  He’s programmed them all to music that plays on a closed station.

I know, every Christmas the most spectacular houses get passed around on YouTube, and I like them as much as the next person.  But the display on 91 is charmingly homemade: Some of those fancy McMansions out west are just too polished, too perfect, the holiday greeting card or Christmas television special type of sterile good cheer.  The 91 house has homemade frames and mismatched spectacle pieces.  There’s little order and a lot of color, contrary to the red-white-green and stylized spiral wire trees of the other houses.  The 91 display is what Christmas actually is to most families, a little bit of chaos and a lot of love.

Several years ago many of the inflatables were stolen from the field.  Disappointed and outraged, neighbors raised money to purchase three new decorations, and the chief, undaunted, still put up the lights.   A few years later an off-season fire burned the storage shed that held all the lights.  And still, every year, they’re blinking away merrily, and every year I look forward to parking on the side of the road and tuning my radio to 107.1 to listen along.  It’s a warm feeling, knowing the Christmas House (as we call it) will be lit, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve gained a lot of tolerance for people’s holiday displays.  The lights might be too bright or oddly-spaced or there might be inflatables (I hate these things) – but they make somebody very, very happy.

And the more I can look at others’ lights, the less inclined I am to try again at home.

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Blogging Christmas

So last year was the year of “Oh Woe is Me, The Economy is Falling” and “Simply Having an Unemployed Christmastime” and “I’m Dreaming of Getting Out of Bed Eventually No Really I Swear” (everyone eventually runs out of clever parodies).  I didn’t paint the traditional Christmas card art.  I had to drag myself out of bed and force myself out of the house.  There were a lot of crying jags.  I didn’t decorate the tree (but in all honesty, when was the last time I did?).  A real “Blue Christmas” of my own making, lacking Elvis’s zazzy backup singers.

This year the job outlook is the same.  Money is awesomely terrifying right now – not ‘awesome’ in the sense of “Look at all that money! It’s cascading in a terrifying avalanche to smother us all in filthy riches!;” ‘awesome’ like “inspiring fear or dread.”  But I’m not going to let that bring me down this time.  I’m going to do what I occasionally do best, which is take whatever minor inconvenience is occurring in my life and attempt to spin it into a story worth telling for the amusement of others.  This year I’m going to blog Christmas, or as much of it as I can before I get bored or fed up or quote “lack of inspiration” as an excuse to drink an entire pot of Irish coffee and watch three hours of Metalocalypse instead of writing.

I’ve gotten up twice since opening this document to make more tea.  I’m well on my way.

Driving to my mother’s house yesterday I saw a white mini van with a red ball stuck to the front grill and fuzzy antlers protruding from the roof and thought, “Good grief, why?”  But I can’t begrudge tacky vehicle adornments – I bet that driver resisted the whole of November, eagerly ticking off the days until Thanksgiving, until it was time to deck the Caravan.  The driver is happy, and I get a laugh out of it.  And at the end of the month, after the shopping is done and the dishes finally put back in the cabinets and the calendar cleared of all social obligations, isn’t there something inherently funny about the frenzy and madness into which we allow ourselves to be whipped this time of year?  You’re probably thinking about murdering me: What’s funny about traffic and bills and the glut of entertaining and the panic of procuring presents?

I was there.  I’ll be there again.  I’m allowing myself to be a little smug this year; I did some Christmas shopping in Alaska and then ran out of money so presents aren’t bothering me one bit – everyone’s getting cupcakes.  My family is small and divided amicably enough that I don’t have to worry too much about dividing my time.  I’m conserving gas and staying off the roads, so traffic is less an issue for me than others.

But here’s my take on traffic, and on the season as a whole, this year:  We’re all in this together.  Every person trapped in their automobile in a stop-and-go pack of a blocked interstate is in exactly the same frustrating, time-consuming, unavoidable situation.  So why not relax, sit back, turn up the radio and turn down the blood pressure?  I don’t even have two working speakers in my car, so there’s something you have over me.  Doesn’t that feel a little better?

Here’s to breaking last year’s despair; to shaking one’s head at the first reindeer-car sighting, ruining the first batch of every new holiday recipe, and careening off the road covered in scalding seasonal peppermint hot chocolate while mashing buttons to exorcise Sir Paul’s “Simply Having” from the car speakers.  And here’s to the over-the-top delight that one guy in the neighborhood always distills into thousands of choreographed blinking lights and inflatable festive abominations on the front lawn; to tracking down that coveted holiday snack whether boughten or baked; and to the special satisfaction that comes from embedding a really, really terrible Christmas tune into the brain of an undeserving friend or neighbor.

I’ll leave you with my favorite image from last year.



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