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Archive for the ‘Christmas’ Category

Despite all the negative things that can be said about the holiday season, there is still a wonderful opportunity for encouragement, healing, and renewal whenever families gather together.  Sadly, this potential generally goes untapped in favor of opening old wounds, indulging our appetites, and maxing out our credit cards.  It reminds me of something C.S. Lewis observed, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.”

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If you ask a young person about their favorite Christmas memory, they will most likely tell you about the best present they ever got.  But if you ask an older person that same question, you’ll almost always hear about the people they were with.

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It’s funny what people consider to be “classic”.  I suppose a lot of it comes down to what you grew up with.  For instance, I grew up watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, so it has always been a part of my holiday tradition.  Some of the shows on this list are “favorites”, but don’t necessarily qualify as “classics”, while there are some classics that didn’t make the list of favorites.  An example of this would be “It’s a Wonderful Life”.  Because, while I love the message of that movie, and I think that Jimmy Stewart’s performance is outstanding, watching George Bailey’s life unravel on an annual basis is just too painful for me.  The productions included below are some of the shows that have become a part of our annual Christmas tradition. 

 

  1. Miracle on 34th Street (1947 movie, starring Edmund Gwenn): This heartwarming classic (featuring Maureen O’Hara and Natalie Wood) is ostensibly about whether to believe in Santa Claus; but it is the contrasts between the kind and generous Kris (Gwenn), and the cynical commercialism of a couple of large New York City department stores (Macy’s & Gimbels), and the oppressive pragmatism of Doris (O’Hara) and the spirited idealism of her neighbor Fred, that convey a more timeless, and transcendent, message.  Favorite scene: When Susan finds Kris’ cane at her dream house.

 

  1. White Christmas (1954 film, starring Bing Crosby): Though this big budgeted Hollywood musical is only loosely tied to Christmas, the opening scenes with soldiers on the battlefront taking a break for a little yuletide celebration, the closing scene with snow coming down around a picturesque Vermont Inn, and the inclusion of what is arguably the most successful Christmas song of all-time, make it an indelible part of the holiday season.  Favorite scenes: The surprise party for the General, and the eventual arrival of snow at the inn.

 

  1. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965 animated television special): Though the production value of this special is absolutely primitive by today’s standards, it retains a sweet innocence that is sadly missing from almost anything produced in the last 25 years.  Charlie is a type of every-man, who generally plays the role of underdog, but who aspires to do great things, and who searches for meaning within life’s mundane events.  The inclusion of a classic soundtrack, provided by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, has been a significant part of the show’s continued success.  Favorite scene: Linus’ speech on what Christmas is all about.

 

  1. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966 television special, featuring Boris Karloff): Based on a book by Dr. Seuss, this story touches on themes (e.g. repentance and redemption) similar to those found within the classic Dickens story, “A Christmas Carol”.  The narration by horror film star, Boris Karloff, and the memorable song, “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch” only add to the charm.  Favorite scene:  When the Grinch hears the Whos down in Whoville singing their joyous song.

 

  1. Scrooge (1970 musical, starring Albert Finney): Despite some very poor special effects (e.g. Scrooge flying over London), a bizarre performance by Sir Alec Guinness as Jacob Marley, and a forgettable scene where Scrooge descends into hell, this is still my favorite adaption of Charles Dicken’s classic tale.  Albert Finney is superb throughout, and the musical score manages to enhance the story.  Favorite scene – When Scrooge unwittingly comes upon his own funeral procession and thinks that the town is having a parade in his honor.

 

  1. The Homecoming (1971 movie, starring Patricia Neal): This movie became the de facto pilot for the long running television series, “The Waltons”.  It beautifully captures both the virtues and the struggles of the depression/war era it portrays.  It is both subtle and rich.  Favorite scenes – John Boy’s narration, as he recollects the events of his life on Walton’s mountain.

 

  1. Silent Night (2002 Hallmark TV movie, starring Linda Hamilton): This made for TV movie portrays a German woman (Hamilton) who takes her young son to a cabin in the woods to escape the advancing armies.  On the night of Christmas Eve, both American and German soldiers come to take refuge there, as they all wind up spending a tense night together.  Each of their stories unfolds throughout the evening, and in the light of Christmas day, they emerge from this experience changed.  Favorite scene – When the young German soldier (Peter) sings a Christmas carol for them, and they realize that he is only fourteen years old.

 

  1. The Polar Express (2004 animated movie, featuring Tom Hanks):  Like Miracle on 34th Street, this beautifully animated feature would seem to be about believing in Santa Claus; but when the kids in the film come face to face with the “Big Guy”, he reminds them that he is only a symbol of the true spirit of Christmas.  While the movie does take an occasional side trip to show off the special effects facilitated by the computer animation technology, it manages to keep the characters at the center of the story.  Along with some stunning visuals, the musical score by Alan Silvestri, and songs featuring the likes of Josh Groban, are top notch.  Favorite scene – The duet sung by the heroic young girl and the poor boy (Billy).

 

  1. Christmas in Canaan (2009 Hallmark TV movie, starring Billy Ray Cyrus): While this TV movie tackles broader themes (e.g. race relations, poverty, stereotypes, loyalty), it also maintains a strong enough connection to Christmas to be considered a holiday movie.  Favorite scene – When the impoverished family opens their presents, which are pictures from the catalog of what their father wanted to buy for them.   

 

  1. A Christmas Carol (2009 animated feature, starring Jim Carrey): There is a lot to like about this Robert Zemeckis film.  The computer animation is beautiful, and it solves the problems that most productions have with realistically portraying the supernatural elements of the story.  Carrey does an admirable job voicing Scrooge, and demonstrates his range by voicing several other characters as well.  Overall, the story sticks pretty close to Dickens original material.  Favorite scene – When an unseen Scrooge comes face to face (i.e. within inches) with a grieving Bob Cratchit.  As he stares deeply into his tear filled eyes, you can almost feel Scrooge’s heart break.  .

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One of the things I have appreciated about the Christmas season has been the opportunity to take a break from the relentless, cynical, rude, and sexualized rhetoric that seems to rule our everyday entertainment. Unfortunately, within the last couple of decades, those things have found their way into the seasons entertainment offerings. Many of which are listed below.

 

1. The Christmas Story (1983 movie, starring Peter Billingsley): Though Peter Billingsley is utterly charming throughout this movie, the rest of the cast, and the story, make it hard to watch.

 

2. Scrooged (1988 movie, starring Bill Murray): Little more than Bill Murray being obnoxious and trashing a classic story.

 

3. Die Hard (1988 movie, starring Bruce Willis): I actually enjoyed this movie, but the fact that the terrorists take over the building during the company Christmas party doesn’t really qualify it as a Christmas movie.

 

4. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989 movie, starring Chevy Chase): If you like National Lampoon, Chevy Chase, and/or the other “Vacation” movies, you probably consider this a classic. But for someone like me, it’s everything I dislike in a comedy, wrapped in Christmas lights.

 

5. Home Alone (1990 movie, starring Macaulay Culkin): Though I’m not a fan of slap stick comedy, my main contention with this film is that it isn’t a Christmas movie at all. Christmas is just a plot element, and not a substantive part of the story.

 

6. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993 animated feature from Tim Burton): Like all Tim Burton creations, this is a fascinating film to watch, but it’s eccentricities overwhelm any genuine sense of connection to Christmas.

 

7. Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000 movie, featuring Jim Carrey): Jim Carrey goes way over the top in this overly long adaption of a beloved story. It’s painful to watch.

 

8. Elf (2003 movie, starring Will Ferrell): This is as close as Will Ferrell ever came to playing a role I could watch, but in the end it was just too ridiculous to be heartwarming.

 

9. Bad Santa (2003 movie, starring Billy Bob Thornton): Bad Santa = Bad Movie. The end.

 

10. Fred Claus (2007 movie, starring Vince Vaughn): This movie aspires to be something that it never quite achieves. All the rude, slap stick, Vince Vaughn mugging, buries whatever mild sentiment they may have been shooting for.

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My new book, “A Season of Hope” is now available (book – $6.75, Kindle – $2.00) at Amazon.com

 

A Season of Hope (Book Cover) 1

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Didn’t have internet on Thanksgiving, so this is getting posted late.

 

There’s a syndicated radio show that features the fictional character, “Earl Pitts”; and he starts out each commentary with the line, “You know what makes me sick?  You know what makes me so mad I just want to…”  He then goes on a facetious rant about one thing or another.  Even though his subject matter can be pretty off the wall, I think that most people can relate to the idea of things that drive them crazy.  As a matter of fact, I believe that if you ask most people what “makes them sick” or “makes them mad”, they’d immediately be able to reel off a whole list of very specific issues.  But ask people what they are thankful for, and it may not come as quickly or specifically.  It seems to me that human nature bends rather easily toward looking past the blessings, and counting the costs.  So even though it may seem trite, I’d like to pass along a list of things I am thankful for.  You’ll probably notice that a lot of them aren’t particularly spectacular, but I’ve found that it is the everyday things that ultimately determine the quality of our lives.  I’ve also chosen to forgo the obvious items of God and my family.  If you’ve ever read anything that I have written, you know that those are the two most important things in my life, but I thought it better to speak of things that may go unnoticed.

 

I’m thankful for my neighbors.  People like Jeremy and Holly, who put up an awesome basketball hoop in their driveway, and let every kid in the neighborhood play there (at all hours of the day and night); or Barb, who invites the younger kids to her house during the summers for Bible lessons; or Sherie, who bakes for everyone, gives rides to everyone, and always has a half dozen extra kids at her house.  What a blessing that our children have gotten to grow up on this block, with so many extraordinary people.    I’m thankful for our local schools, and the dedicated teachers/ coaches/ administrators who have poured their energy and understanding into our young people.  It is often a thankless and nearly impossible task; yet repeatedly we’ve seen these educators rise up to meet the needs of one of these kids.  I’m thankful for the Pastor of my church.  A man that is gifted enough to make a name for himself, but who thinks that there is another name that is more important than his.  A guy you’ll find sitting with your sick relative in the wee hours of the morning (even though you didn’t call him), or who’ll show up after midnight at the emergency room (when he reads on Facebook that your kid is sick).  A guy who thinks that how he treats his wife and kids matters more than what he wears in the pulpit on a Sunday morning.  I’m thankful for a job that has supported my family for many years, and for bosses & co-workers who’ve made it more of a blessing than a chore.  I’m thankful for the police and firefighters in our community, who risk their lives to make it safe for the rest of us.  And for our military service members, and their families, who sacrifice so much for the greater good of our nation.  I’m thankful for Foster parents, who give hurting children a home.  I’m thankful for a warm house on a wintery night; I’m thankful for a cupboard full of food; I’m thankful for…

 

You get the idea.  If you stop and look around, you may find that you are incredibly blessed.  That’s what “Thanksgiving” was meant to be about.  If you give it a try, you may find that you want to do it more than once a year.

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I’m a huge fan of Charles Dickens novella, “A Christmas Carol”. Since its first publishing in 1843, it has never been out of print, and the story has been adapted many times for film, the stage, and even opera.  Its timeless theme of redemption has made it an indispensable part of our family’s Christmas tradition.  But with so many versions of the story available, it’s hard to know which way to turn.  After watching many of the popular adaptions, I have yet to find one that I would consider to be the definitive version.  Even so, several of them are very worthwhile.  As someone who values the original story, I offer the following insights.

 

“Mickey’s Christmas Carol” / “The Muppet Christmas Carol”

Though Dickens ode to Christmas ultimately ends on a hopeful note, much of the journey to get there can be dark, and may not be suitable for younger children. A couple of great ways to introduce this classic tale to the younger generation are Disney’s “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” (featuring Mickey Mouse as Bob Cratchit), or the Muppet’s version (featuring Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit).  Though the newer Disney version (2009 – featuring Jim Carrey) is animated, the darker elements of the story are retained, and in some cases even highlighted.

 

“Scrooge” (1935 – Featuring Seymour Hicks as Scrooge)

One of the biggest challenges that any production of this material faces is realistically portraying the supernatural elements of the story. The 1935 film version worked around this problem by simply allowing the audience to hear the spirits voices, without actually attempting to show their forms.  While this avoided the ultra-cheesy effects that hamper many adaptions, it also managed to detract from the overall story, and almost made it seem as though Scrooge might be slipping into dementia.

 

“A Christmas Carol” (1938 – Featuring Reginald Owen as Scrooge)

Not to be outdone by the 1935 British film, MGM commissioned an American production of the story just a few years later. This version is only noteworthy in that it was the first to include the spirits arriving at 1:00, 2:00 and 3:00 on the same night, while Dickens original story had them visiting on three successive nights.  This change was incorporated into most of the subsequent productions.

 

“A Christmas Carol” (1951 – Featuring Alastair Sim as Scrooge)

I’ve heard many critics refer to this as the definitive version, though I would certainly beg to differ. Something that does stand out about this film is that it includes numerous story elements that didn’t come from the original novel.  Some of these details are actually helpful (e.g. Ebenezer’s mother died giving birth to him, which is why his father doesn’t want him around, and his sister Fan died giving birth to Fred, which is why Ebenezer doesn’t want him around.), while others are simply a distraction (e.g. Ebenezer being wooed away from Fezziwig’s for more lucrative business ventures, which eventually include a company takeover, orchestrated by he and Marley.).  Fragments of this subplot involving Scrooge’s shrewd business dealings were later incorporated into other productions, most notably George C. Scott’s portrayal in the 1984, made for television version.

 

“Scrooge” (1970 Musical – Featuring Albert Finney as Scrooge)

In many ways this adaption represents the pinnacle of the available versions, though its flaws are also painfully obvious. Albert Finney’s award winning portrayal as both the young and old Scrooge is brilliant, and the overall production values of the film are light years beyond anything that preceded it.  The songs, and score, flow seamlessly with the story, and help to break up some of the drearier aspects of the tale.  On the other side of the coin, some of the special effects are embarrassingly bad.  The scenes featuring Sir Alec Guinness as Jacob Marley, and of Scrooge flying over the streets of London, are absolutely cringe-worthy; and Ebenezer’s side trip to hell is both bizarre and unnecessary.  Despite these shortcomings, Finney’s performance, and some impressive musical numbers, makes for a memorable retelling of the story.

 

“A Christmas Carol” (1984 – Featuring George C. Scott as Scrooge)

This version of the story seems to suffer from director Clive Donner’s involvement with the 1951 version of the film. Like that adaption, it incorporates elements that would indicate that Scrooge was a ruthless and shrewd business man, which fundamentally changes the character that Dickens portrayed in the original story.  In the novel, Ebenezer clings to his money like a security blanket, and uses it as a hedge against a world that largely terrifies him.  He lives like a pauper, unwilling to part with anything because of his fears of returning to a life of poverty.  Ultimately, he lords people’s indebtedness over them because it is the only sense of power he has.  Watching George C. Scott’s Scrooge swagger through the Royal Stock Exchange seems totally out of step with that characterization.  For me, Scott’s powerful stage presence actually works against him with this character, and manages to diffuse the sense of transformation at the end of the story.

 

“A Christmas Carol” (2009 – Featuring Jim Carrey as Scrooge)

There is a lot to like about this Robert Zemeckis film. The computer animation is beautiful, and it solves the problems that most productions have with realistically portraying the supernatural elements of the story.  Carrey does an admirable job voicing Scrooge, and demonstrates his range by voicing several other characters as well.  Overall, the story sticks pretty close to Dickens original material.  But at times the producers seem to get enamored of the technology, with extended sequences of dizzying effects.  These moments give the film a more cartoonish feel, and become tedious with repeated viewings.  Additionally, the gimmick of using Carrey’s likeness, and voice, in all its various incarnations, wears thin as the movie progresses.  Ultimately, the movie could have retained a more classic feel had filmmakers confined Carrey to the role of Scrooge, and let other talented voices inhabit the remaining roles.  One highlight of this film is a particularly poignant moment when an unseen Scrooge comes face to face (i.e. within inches) with a grieving Bob Cratchit.  As he stares deeply into his tear filled eyes, you can almost feel Scrooge’s heart break.  It is a surprisingly real moment, and better than I expected from an animated feature.

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