I love Christmas. I really do. But at some point in the holiday season (usually somewhere around December 1st) certain aspects start to grate. Take Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer–what kind of message is this song sending, telling us that popularity and happiness will only be achieved when others realize that your personal oddities are in fact useful and lucrative? Or Frosty the Snowman. I’ll flip past it approximately 800 times on various TV channels during the holiday season. First 400 times I think he’s kinda cute with the top hat and shoe-button eyes. Last 400 times I start fantasizing about running after him with a hair-dryer.
The trouble is, the Christmas season has become all sugar and no spice. For those of us who want a little bite to the holidays, here are some quick fixes. It’s Christmas Day and I’ve got eggnog to drink, but I can offer solutions to the top three holiday offenders: music, movies, and books.
Is “Winter Wonderland” giving you headaches? Are you on the brink of eating a shotgun if you have to sit through one more hack version of “Jingle Bells” piped over bad speakers at the Gap? Fear not; YouTube has two clips that will have you grinning. First on the list is a sidesplitting “Winter Wonderland” parody sung impeccably by a men’s choir. Let’s just quote the first verse: “Lacy things the wife is missin’/Didn’t ask her permission/I’m wearing her clothes, her silk pantyhose/Walkin’ round in women’s underwear.” Second on the list is men’s a capella group Straight No Chaser, singing a seemingly straightforward “12 Days of Christmas” in which they eventually lose count of which ____ing day it is, break confusedly into other carols such as “Here We Come A Wassailing” and the Dreidel Song, and somehow end up in a Christmas-ed version of Toto’s “Africa.” Bloody brilliant.
By now you’re probably tired of the Charlie Brown Special, Frosty the Snowman, and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Try “The Ref” instead, a hilarious Christmas comedy starring Kevin Spacey, Judy Davis, and Denis Leary. Leary plays a harassed cat burglar trying to escape on Christmas Eve with the score of a lifetime, and forced to hide out in suburban Connecticut by taking a quarreling couple hostage. Trouble is, the couple can’t stop fighting even when an armed man is pointing a gun at their heads, and soon the burglar is reffing the family disagreements and tearing his hair out. Priceless lines abound, but here’s one for anybody with a relative they would just as soon stayed home: the quarreling couple’s pathologically-bullying mother, finally held up at gunpoint by the burglar who hisses “Nobody move, or I shoot!” After which the beleagered daughter-in-law says with complete sincerity; “Go ahead, shoot her.”
Ah, that annual piece of Christmas torture known as Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. I am probably going to hell (or at least coming across as an incredible philistine) for saying that I hate Dickens with the fire of a thousand suns, but I make no bones about it: I can’t stand his cumbersome humor, his lengthy expositions, or his absurd character names. Worst of his offenses is A Christmas Carol, a piece of sanctimonious treacle that was forced down my throat in some institution of learning or other, and on which I have been gagging ever since. I keeping hoping that someday Scrooge will push Tiny Tim out a high window before we can get to “God bless us every one!” but in abeyance of that miracle, I’ll settle for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s On The Banks of Plum Creek. Wilder’s collection of autobiographical growing-up-on-the-frontier novels will thankfully outlast the dreadful Little House on the Prairie TV show they spawned, and Plum Creek has a particularly good Christmas segment where the heroine’s father heads to town for Christmas candy to stuff his daughters’ stockings, and is caught on his way back by a freak blizzard. He holes up in a snowbank for four days, surviving on the stash of candy and finally emerging alive but with no Christmas presents. The family celebrates minus presents but plus Dad: a far better Christmas message than the “Buy now, buy more!” mentality of “Let’s open Walmart at midnight on Black Friday so everybody can start buying as soon as possible.”
Having sufficiently salted your holiday, I’m off to enjoy mine. Not eggnog, come to think of it. Too sweet. Try dry champagne
Goodwill and happiness has descended upon us in the form of the holiday season, and I am in my usual cynical funk. Having absorbed all the canned Christmas music I can stand in the course of holiday shopping, I am now in no mood to praise anybody. So allow me to sharpen my claws and sink my teeth into a piece of holiday historical fiction which I loathe with the fire of a thousand suns: namely, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.
I admit, I am not a Dickens fan. I find his humor cumbersome, and overall he’d have benefited from one of those short-tempered old-fashioned editors who flip through the manuscript and bark, “Cut 50%!” Dickens’s other books are bad enough, but A Christmas Carol is a piece of sanctimonious treacle that was forced down my throat in some institution of learning or other, and on which I have been gagging ever since.
For one thing, (though this is not precisely Dickens’s fault) there is no reason why A Christmas Carol should ever have become family holiday reading in the first place. It is first and foremost a ghost story, and the triple incantation of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet To Come is likely to scare imaginative kids silly, especially if they have ever heard of the decidedly non-Christian legend of the Three Fates. Even for adult readers, the visions Scrooge sees can leave a bad taste: abandonment, betrayal, bitterness, and death. Did he really deserve all that? Why not visit the Three Christmases on a murderer or a wife-beater instead of a crusty old bachelor whose only crimes were a tight fist and a non-politically correct work environment?
This leads to my second point, which is that Scrooge’s change of heart is decidedly suspect. The sentimental might sigh about the power of Christmas having awakened a true desire for change in the old man’s wizened heart, but the cynical among us smell a rat. Scrooge’s transformation from crusty curmudgeon to human saint is less about altruism and more about self-interest. He has, after all, been shown a terrifying vision which convinces him that unless he mends his ways, he will spend eternity in hell clanking around in chains like his former business partner. So, with businesslike efficiency, he proceeds to mend his ways. Smells less like Christmas spirit to me, and more like he was covering his ass with both hands and a stocking.
My third grudge against the book is Tiny Tim. I can’t stand the little wretch, and I doubt Scrooge will be able to either, at least not for long. I always hope he’ll snap halfway through his Christmas chez Cratchit and push the little bugger out a tall window before I have to read the nauseatingly cute “God bless us, every one!”
My last grudge is probably not Charles Dickens’s fault either . . . but do we have A Christmas Carol to blame for what Christmas in America has turned into? Christmas didn’t always use to be a family-centered, child-oriented celebration of treacle. Christmas has its roots in the pagan Saturnalia, which involved all kinds of drunkenness and celebration but no sentimentality. The Puritans made sure to spoil all that pagan fun by making Christmas revolve around church services–any Bob Cratchit who had whined about Christmas dinner to them probably would have gotten a grim lecture on the evils of gluttony. But then the Victorian era came along, and so did the idea of a more family-centered holiday . . . and then came A Christmas Carol, which added all the secular trimmings of food, gifts, games, children, and family gatherings that give us so many headaches in the modern holiday season. Mr. Dickens, you have a lot to answer for.
I believe in Christmas. But crusty old misanthropes should be able to celebrate it too, with neither bad dreams nor overly cute children to ruin the occasion.