Tuesday, December 17, 2019

It's Run by a Big Eastern Syndicate, You Know.

NOTE: What follows is another full chapter from my unpublished book, Collector's Edition. As I plan to go back and radically rework the book from an overview of my lifelong pop culture obsessions to more of an ode to / requiem for hard media, a few chapters are being expunged, including this one, a deep dive on my love for the holiday season and its many personal and pop cultural traditions. I've slightly edited it for publication here, but I warn those with a short attention span, this will be a TL;DR situation for many of you. Those who stick with me till the end are no doubt a part of my band of holiday loving brothers and sisters. Cheers. 

Chapter 9
IT’S RUN BY A BIG EASTERN SYNDICATE, YOU KNOW.
(on my many, many cultural traditions of Christmas)

First, it should be noted: I am an atheist, and a fairly raging one at that. I was ostensibly raised Lutheran, but lost interest in organized religion at a pretty early age. Who knows, maybe the heretical origins of my foisted branch of Christianity planted a seed of subconscious dissent. Perhaps it was the hypocrisy of the hip young pastor who sang religious folk rock songs with the kids, but scolded me when I dared to address him in a familiar vernacular. Maybe I just thought too much. Regardless, by junior high, I was a card-carrying agnostic, filled with cynicism over the notion of an omnipotent, omniscient capital-B Being creating and watching over us all, taking time out to decide who’ll win the lottery, survive a tornado, and garner major sports victories.

I was still ambivalent enough about religion to go through the motions of a Catholic wedding in 1992 for the sake of my betrothed’s beliefs. Although since I wasn’t on the team, I couldn’t really play ball, so our ceremony fell short of the full Mass with all the trappings (no transmogrified body of Christ for me). By the time my marriage had fallen apart, two and a half years later, my agnosticism had blossomed into full-blown atheism, a philosophy that has only hardened over the years.

I’ve come to side with those who believe that our existence is simply a random mathematical probability in the vastness of the universe, and lacks any meaning other than that which we give it ourselves. “God” was created by fearful, primitive man as a means to answer seemingly unanswerable questions, to quell fear and supplant ignorance. Over the millennia, science should have eradicated such superstitious non-explanations, but instead, religion remains arguably the most powerful force in almost every culture. At the risk of losing many of you, I consider religion to be a harmful construct, at best a lousy reason to do good things (paraphrasing atheist author Sam Harris), at worst a justification for horrible behavior.

Now, let’s talk about how much I love Christmas.

Seriously. I fuckin’ love it.

It’s always been my absolute favorite time of the year. I embrace almost everything about the holiday: The traditions, the decorations, the food and drink, the weather, the movies and TV specials, the music (ah, the music!), and even that whole “Peace on Earth, good will towards men” bit.

Of course, I’m not the only non-believer who hauls out the holly every December, and in recent years, the secular origins of Christmas have become more a part of the public consciousness.

Many of the trappings of the holiday existed long before the baby Jesus was shoehorned into the celebration. Ancient Romans decorated their homes in the winter with evergreen branches and exchanged gifts to celebrate Saturnalia, a tribute to the god of agriculture. Tree decorating was a pagan tradition to honor the winter solstice. In many parts of Europe, winter brought a general revelry due in part to the inability to toil in the hardened fields.

It wasn’t until the fourth century (that would be AD) that the Roman Catholic Church decided to attach the story of Christ’s birthday to the bacchanalian celebration of the coldest season.

But even as late as the 1600s, Christmas, as celebrated in England, was a drunken festival of excess and avarice. Through the 1800s, the esthetic trappings of the holiday, the decorations and the tree (ironically popularized in America by wealthy Anglophiles copying Queen Victoria) and the feasts were more a part of Christmas than Christ.

And whether you believe in God or not, only the most pedantic Christians still accept the details in the Gospel of Luke as, well, gospel. Theological scholars—many of them devout believers—have almost uniformly agreed that the whole Virgin Mary in a manger with the three wise men and Rudolph on December 25th is merely a nice story for the kids. What’s that? Rudolph wasn’t there? Sorry, I get confused sometimes.

The point is, Christmas isn’t the exclusive provenance of Christians.

My affinity for the season is inherently augmented by fact that I was born on Christmas Eve, the year of our… oh, whatever, 1964. While this often-overshadowed day of birth often elicits sympathy, I never felt cheated. It’s not like I was born in June and then later on someone decided to move my birthday to take advantage of a wholly unrelated weather-centric celebration. For me, having my birthday on December 24th meant that Christmas lasted two days. Two full days of presents, parties, and fun (and I never had to go to school on my birthday).

My own holiday hearth is stoked with the ever-burning coals of nostalgia, fueled in no small part by the fact that I’ve spent every single Christmas Day since I was born in the same mid-century modern, three-bedroom ranch style home my father built in the mid-‘50s on a suburban cul-de-sac in Lancaster, PA. It is a house that feels like it was built for Christmas. 



Not that other times of the year weren’t fun, but my memories of childhood led me to feel that the entire year revolved around this particular holiday. Mom and Dad went all out to create an environment for my brother and me that was more than just festive; it was downright magical. 

Every year, beginning the first week of December, my mother decorated seemingly every inch of the house. Any window with a sill was fitted with a red-bulbed electric candle (the lightweight Bakelite bases of which had to be secured with masking tape). Sprigs of greens from the pine trees that lined the back yard were hung throughout the house. Handmade pine cone wreaths adorned the front and side doors as well as the fireplace. A crèche scene carved by my mother from balsa wood decorated a bookshelf in the living room. A Santa Claus diorama sat on the toilet tank. Miniature decorated artificial trees of various colors and sizes rested on tables and shelves in practically every room (including a white ceramic tree with red lights in my own bedroom). And in the living room, the seven-foot-plus tree sparkled with so many strings of lights (always multi-colored) and decorations that it took my mother darn near a week to finish the thing. 



Meanwhile, outside, my father was stringing the oversized ceramic lights on the four-foot tree he’d bought for the concrete planter by our rarely-used front door. Then he’d run four vertical rows of delicate antique lights inside the frosted, corrugated glass that was part of the Mondrian-inspired main entrance on the slated breezeway on the side of the house. His few decorating chores complete, the focus would switch to chopping and stacking firewood outside the back door, plowing the snow from the 50-foot driveway and eating any Christmas cookies that happened to be lying around (My father wasn't the kind of guy to dress up in a red suit and play jolly old Saint Nick (he was more like the head elf), but I don't feel as if our childhood Christmases suffered from this one missing piece of the traditional tableau).

When December 24th finally arrived, our schedule was jammed for the next two days, beginning with my birthday celebration in the afternoon. After that, Mom, Dad, Kenny, and I would drive to my paternal grandparents’ home in Conestoga, PA, where all nine of my dad’s siblings and their offspring crowded into the old farmhouse to sing Christmas carols (mostly very badly), exchange gifts, eat a giant spread of food, and hope that the whole place wouldn’t go up in flames due to either the real candles on the Tannenbaum or my Grandpa’s ubiquitous, stinky White Owl cigars. Then it was home and off to bed, after which Mom and Dad would pull the gifts out of hiding and pile them under the tree. 



Christmas morning, Kenny and I—like every other child celebrating the holiday—got up way earlier than our parents, and were allowed to go to the living room and gather our stockings, which we’d bring back to bed and empty the goodies: Toys, art supplies, and candy, all anchored by a giant navel orange at the bottom. Eventually, when everyone was up, Mom would slice up a loaf of my Aunt Pix’s nutbread while Dad got the fireplace going. Then we’d throw some Christmas records on the stereo and start opening gifts. Later in the afternoon, there would be a gathering of my mom’s side of the family (usually at our house), where more presents were exchanged—by age, youngest to oldest—after a casual buffet dinner eaten off paper plates in the living room around the Christmas tree. That revelry would continue until the old timers started to nod off, leaving the rest of us to play outside (if there was snow on the ground) or get to know our new toys and books. In later years, Christmas night became a gathering of my brother’s and my friends, still soaking up the festive ambience.

Most of the traditions that began when I was a child, to one extent or another, continue to this day (those involving long-dead grandparents have evolved into gatherings with aunts and uncles and cousins). Even though I wrote those past four paragraphs in the past tense, practically everything that my parents did for Christmas when my brother and I were kids continues to this day. With one huge difference: Since 2012, Mom’s been doing it on her own.

My father died on the morning of December 5, 2012, suddenly, in the house he built, my mother by his side. With that timing, you might think that Christmas would’ve been shelved that year, but almost immediately, our mother insisted that holiday traditions would be upheld. She needed the distraction of prepping for the season, and thought that cutting out so many rituals that our family holds so dear would have just made us all feel even worse. And she was right. Despite the wound of my father’s demise still gaping, Christmas helped us deal with the pain.

Part of the reason for the traditions remaining mostly unchanged is that both my brother and I are single and childless. This means that in the context of our nuclear family, we remain—though well into middle age—the children. And so we still get the toys. We still get the stockings. We still want that the same old tattered stuffed Santa Claus figures from the 1960s go up on the mantel. We still crave the Pillsbury chocolate chip cookies sliced from the pre-made, refrigerated tube of dough (even though my own, homemade from scratch cookies taste much better). We don’t care that our mother is no longer in her 30s, we remain the children and we want, we want!! 

Okay, I’m exaggerating how demanding we are on this admittedly self-serving attitude, but only a little. Our guilt over this is mitigated by the knowledge that these things still mean as much to Mom as they do to us. Every year, we tell her that she can pull back, that she doesn’t have to pull out all the stops anymore, but she persists. And she insists that she still loves it. Honest.

As for the season’s popular culture, it became integral to my Christmases at an early age. A Charlie Brown Christmas debuted in 1965, fifteen days before my first birthday, and while I probably didn’t see it on its first airing, I have, in the subsequent years, viewed it enough to be able to add it to the list of one-man shows I could perform. That animated tale of a blockhead’s quest for meaning amongst commercialism is, plainly stated, one of my favorite things in the world.


I’ll even go one step further, and amend my emotional “favorite” descriptive with a resolute, declarative statement that it’s the single best animated Christmas special of all time. Every single thing about the show works: the story, the actors’ halting cadences (the result of lines being fed to children too young to read by director Melendez, sometimes one syllable at a time), the crude, yet effective animation (and beautifully evocative backgrounds), the still-funny jokes, Vince Guaraldi’s iconic music, and most of all, the heart. I’ll even forgive the decidedly non-secular centerpiece of the show: Linus’ reading of Luke 2:1-20 (the “Behold I give you tidings of great joy” bit). Some years back, when it was my turn to read said Bible passage at the Heitmueller family Xmas Eve gathering, I did so echoing the precise inflection and phrasing of Linus in the cartoon, much to the amusement of my brother (who was the only person in the room who got the joke).

NOTE: See here for a little bit of A Charlie Brown Christmas trivia you can use to impress your friends the next time you watch the special... 

Few would argue that the ‘60s were the golden age of children’s Christmas specials (after all, NBC’s not still airing The Smurfs Christmas Special every year, are they?). Chuck Jones’ masterful animated 1966 retelling of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas performed that rarest of feats by being even better than the book. I realize the idea of a TV cartoon besting the printed word is sacrilege to some, but, as with Charlie Brown, you have to consider the combination of a number of exemplary elements appealing to the eyes and the ears, the gorgeous animation, Boris Karloff’s pitch-perfect narration and those marvelous songs. Besides, unlike most video adaptations of literature, nothing was cut! The cartoon was as faithful as faithful can be, which means quite a lot to a Seuss fan like me (unlike Ron Howard's execrable 2000 film starring Jim Carrey, a movie that completely missed the whole "perhaps Christmas doesn't come from a store" theme, lacked any charm, and featured barely a rhyme in the whole damn thing).

If there’s a Holy Trinity of perennial television Christmas specials, the third entrant has to be Rankin / Bass’ Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which debuted the same year as myself. Granted, Rudolph hasn’t aged quite as well, its laudable message of acceptance (albeit contingent upon being useful in some context) somewhat mitigated by some pretty bad sexism (Clarice and Rudolph’s mom are told they can’t help search for the missing misfits because it’s “man’s work”). But it remains a delightful, tuneful story that still tugs at the heartstrings (and for the zillionth time, it's Hermey, not Herbie!!!).

One of my strongest—and earliest—holiday TV memories is tied to something a bit more obscure. I was only about five when I saw an Australian animated version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at my best friend Jimmy’s house next door. This faithful adaptation from 1969 pulled no punches in depicting the more frightening aspects of the tale (which I believe are necessary for the payoff to carry its full weight). Particularly, the ghost of Jacob Marley is one of the scariest spirits I’ve ever seen depicted in any medium. Gaunt and skeletal, with elongated fingers dancing in the air, his head an exaggerated skull topped with white flames, the ghost faded in and out of view, his echoing, demonic voice warning Scrooge to change his ways. The scratchy, low budget, limited animation only added to the Victorian atmosphere. This thing scared the living cranberries out of me. When the show ended, dusk was turning to dark, and the fifty-yard dash through the snow from Jimmy’s door to mine was one of the most frightening runs I’ve ever made. But Dickens’ tale had grabbed hold of my psyche forever. 



While lots of folks (at least those who used to be kids at one point or another) hold an affinity for those classic Christmas shows, it’s a bit harder to get people to agree on another cultural aspect of the season that I love just as much: the music (I can hear some of you groaning already).

Christmas was the one time of the year that the monolithic Magnavox hi-fi in the living room got a daily workout, primarily from spinning LP samplers of holiday fare by popular artists of the day, released by Columbia Special Products and RCA and Forrell & Thomas and sold through hardware and department stores, gas stations, and restaurant chains. Annual Roman-numeraled collections with titles like Great Songs of Christmas and Your Favorite Christmas Music have become synonymous with the season for lots of us late Boomer / Gen-Xers.

My best loved of the bunch was the first volume of A Very Merry Christmas, produced for the now-defunct Grants department store chain by Columbia Records in 1967. This jolly slice of vinyl features 14 songs by a diverse roster of artists representing pop, jazz, classical, rock, and country. Daytime talk show host Mike Douglas belts out a cheesy bit of sacred sanctimony called, “Touch Hands on Christmas Morning.” Jazz / Classical pianist André Previn offers a transcendent harpsichord version of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” Simon & Garfunkel harmonize a lovely version of “The Star Carol.” And The Mormon Tabernacle Choir close the whole thing with something called, “Handel: Hallelujah Chorus,” which I thought at the time was a really weird song.

But my favorite cut on the record was “Jingle Bells” as sung by country singer (and sausage impresario) Jimmy Dean. Towards the end of the song, Jimmy invites his five year-old son, Rob to sing a verse, which both fascinated and thrilled me to no end. As the song bounces to a close, the proud papa intones, “Ya did it.” I would beg my mother to repeat this song endlessly, which, in those days required a lot more effort than simply hitting a repeat button.

As a wee youngster with no musical perspective, I didn’t realize that these records culled music from previously existing albums by the represented artists. I also had no idea that these performers had any kind of history beyond crooning carols. I thought that “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” was the only thing Steve Lawrence & Eydie Gormé ever recorded. I didn’t know that Aretha Franklin had a deeper legacy than “Kissin’ by the Mistletoe.” In the many years since I first listened to this record on the hi-fi, I’ve acquired a handful of the original albums from which these songs originated, but none of them will ever have the same meaning to me that the Grants compilation does.

There’s one particularly evocative memory that this record always triggers. I was about 10 years old, and A Very Merry Christmas was playing in the living room while my mother, aunt, and grandmother were baking sand tarts in the kitchen. It was snowing outside, and it was the so-called “golden hour,” that period right before dusk when the snow on the ground takes on an almost fluorescent blue hue. I had turned the large rocking chair in front of the picture window around so I could watch as the snow fell past the street light onto the suburban cul-de-sac and our large, mostly treeless front yard. As I rocked in the chair between the beautifully lit Christmas tree and the fire crackling in the fireplace, smelling the sweet aroma of the cookies, listening to the music, basking in the holiday glow, I thought to myself, “This is as good as life will ever get.” 

At that particular moment in time, I was a very prescient pre-teen.

Even my favorite branch of pop culture got all tinseled up for the season. Christmas infiltrated all genres of comic books, from superhero to humor and even horror. In 1974, both DC and Marvel decked the halls with two holiday themed, tabloid-sized reprint collections.

DC’s Christmas with the Super-Heroes (officially Limited Collectors' Edition #C-34, eighty 10 x 13" pages for a buck, not cheap at the time) came wrapped in a cover depicting Santa Claus posing with Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel (SHAZAM to most of you), and the Teen Titans in the center of a giant wreath, over a hot pink background. The stories inside ranged from the grim (“Silent Night, Deadly Night” opens the book with a page one splash of Batman swinging down to a dead Santa lying on a Gotham City sidewalk) to the lighthearted (Captain Marvel does his Christmas shopping).

Meanwhile, Marvel’s Giant Superhero Holiday Grab-Bag (aka Marvel Treasury Special Edition, 95 tabloid pages for $1.50) likewise utilized the heroes-in-a-wreath motif, but ditched Kris Kringle. Historically far less whimsical than DC, Marvel didn’t have as deep a well of Christmassy tales to reprint, so only one of the five stories inside (a Spider-Man / Human Torch team-up in which the heroes chase the Sandman as he tries to get a gift to his ailing mom on Xmas eve) has anything at all to do with the holiday. Of the remaining stories, the Black Widow tale takes place during a snowstorm, but that’s it. 

Still, these two oversized beauties began an annual tradition for the two dominant comics publishers of collecting old, and then later creating new tales for special holiday editions almost every year since. And even though the new stories cannot, by definition, evoke the kind of old-fashioned charm that comics had when Superman and Santa Claus could co-exist in the same tale without ruining its “believability” (yeesh), I still usually buy them.

But maybe my favorite collection of Christmas comics was Archie Comics Digest #3 (released in 1973), which more than lived up to the cover’s promise of “160 pages of Christmas fun for everyone.” That fun consisted mainly of holiday themed stories from the 1960s in which the kids from a wintry Riverdale do their best to made everything as holly jolly as possible, usually with catastrophic results. You know how some people read The Night Before Christmas every year at the holidays? I read this thing. Religiously (so to speak). 



As I got older, the traditions rooted deeper: The same cookies, the same television specials, the same records, the same decorations, the same pizza. 

Even though it doesn’t really have anything to do with pop culture, I have to tell you about the pizza. It started because I have never really been a huge fan of cake, meaning my birthdays were bereft of a celebratory culinary treat. Finally, on the eve of my 13th birthday, my mother suggested that we have pie—as in pizza pie. 

So on December 24, 1977, my birthday dinner was moved a few miles down the highway to the red roofed Pizza Hut. And unto us, a new holiday tradition was born. 

At the time, Pizza Hut was less of a family-oriented chain, featuring jukeboxes, video games, and beer to appeal to a younger crowd. I have much nostalgia for that vibe now, even though I took it for granted at the time to the extent that when my Uncle Tim wanted to buy me a beer on my 21st birthday, I hadn't bothered to bring my ID.

And when I talk about how steadfast these traditions become, I mean it: Every single December 24th since, we have had Pizza Hut for my birthday. And not just “pizza,” it must be Pizza Hut pizza. When the eat-in Hut closed a couple of decades ago, rather than choose an alternate venue, we started ordering Pizza Hut carryout to eat at my parents’ house. Sure, there’s other, arguably better pizza in town (although of all the opinions I hold, few are more controversial with my friends than my unabashed love of this sweet and chewy interpretation of pizza), but that’s beside the point. Tradition is tradition.


As I entered college and my non-pizza related horizons broadened a bit, I began to open myself up to the Christmas culture of the past. As a kid, I was predictably dismissive of most old movies that didn’t feature aliens or monsters (or alien monsters). When I turned into a contrary punk teen, I rejected the schmaltzy, old-fashioned sentimentality of things like Leave It to Beaver and Andy Hardy movies. As such, I held a prejudice against one of the greatest Christmas icons of all time. 

Until one late December night in 1984, when I was home for Christmas break from my one year at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Earlier that month, I cried my eyes out watching the TV movie version of A Christmas Carol starring George C. Scott as Scrooge, a wonderful adaptation that became my favorite filmed version of the Dickens tale (yes, even more than the scary cartoon). So maybe I was in a forgiving holiday movie mood. As I sat on the floor of my bedroom wrapping presents, flipping the dial on my small portable black and white TV, I came across the beginning of It’s a Wonderful Life and decided, what the heck, I’ll give this old thing a shot.

Now, how I had not seen this film prior to the age of 19, I'm not sure. When IAWL's copyright lapsed in the 1970s and '80s, it became practically ubiquitous on TV during the holiday season. The fact that I now wonder why my parents never tied me to a chair and made me watch this movie may speak more to the kind of father I would be than their own lack of pop culture proselytizing.

The late night showing of the film began, and within a half an hour, I was completely hooked. Mesmerized, even. The wrapping stopped as I just sat there and drank up this grand and glorious chunk of Christmas goo, bawling like a freaking baby at the end. Of course, my reaction was hardly unique; even though I have some issues with the religious aspect of the tale, and would probably rather live in the hedonistic Pottersville than Bedford Falls (you can bet Nick the bartender feels the same way), you have to be an extraordinarily cynical crank to be dismissive of the heart and soul of that story and its vividly realized characters. 

All these years later, the most amazing thing about It’s a Wonderful Life is how a two hour and ten minute movie made in 1946 remains completely fresh, relatable, and moving after dozens of viewings. Every Christmas Eve ends with popping a bottle of wine and screening the video into the wee hours, reciting dialogue along with the actors and crying at the end. Another tradition. Well, except for 2012.

As someone for whom pop culture is a powerful emotional trigger, I guess I can count myself lucky that there’s not a voluminous list of movies or TV shows that will inspire sadness now that Dad is gone. He was never a huge consumer of pop culture. I remember him liking Bonanza when I was a kid and he enjoyed some mid-century film epics like Ben Hur and Cleopatra, and  (like so many of his generation) became obsessed with The History Channel later in life, but for the most part, he wasn’t fixated on media the way the rest of the family is.

Still, my father loved to watch Christmas movies. His favorite was Bob Clark’s 1983 adaptation of Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story, even if, for some reason, he was never able to recall its rather straightforward title (His annual refrain was, “Put on ‘Shoot Your Eye Out!’”). While he enjoyed the movie from a comedic and nostalgic point of view, he got greater pleasure out of poring over the background details, identifying antique cars and toys, and reveling in spotting anachronisms.

He also loved It’s a Wonderful Life. Again, his favorite part of watching the movie was trying to name the car models and pick items that didn’t fit the time period. Of course, being made in 1946, the movie’s anachronisms are a bit harder to spot, and my brother and I would always argue with Dad that George Bailey’s 1919 Dodge wasn’t a mistake, it was an intentional prop to show how little money he had.

My father was a rather stoic man (the first of the mere handful of times I saw him cry was at his own father’s funeral in 1976, one quick sob that rattled my 11 year old psyche). Unlike my gushy brother and myself, he didn’t weep like a baby at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. But even if the story of a small but well-led life touching so many didn’t hold great resonance for him, Kenny and I couldn’t help but project it onto our recently-departed father, and so in 2012, we both decided to—for the first time in decades—forego the traditional Christmas Eve viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life. It would’ve just been too raw.

My love of Christmas came into play during my years in music retail, beginning with my job at Sam Goody in the ‘80s. Of the entire staff, my manager, Jean and I were the only ones who had any affinity for the oft-maligned Christmas music genre. As such, I was given two very important tasks at the store: The first was to keep the Christmas section stocked and organized. The second, more difficult job was to make sure that at least every third record played fell under the seasonal umbrella. It was the record store equivalent of being hall monitor, and it didn’t make me very popular with the grinchier worker bees. But I loved being able to hear Nat King Cole and Vince Guaraldi between the Prince and Cyndi Lauper albums.

When I moved from Sam Goody to running BBC Records in downtown Lancaster, logic dictated that I should probably leave the holiday music back at the mall. After all, BBC was an all-alternative record store, so how the heck could a Bing Crosby Christmas collection fit into that paradigm? 

It fit because I made it fit, dammit! I jammed that square yuletide peg into BBC’s round punk rock hole until the edges softened up like an eggnog-soaked cookie and it slid right in. Free to order whatever stock I wanted, I combed distributors’ catalogues looking for the oddest and coolest yuletide sides I could find. Copies of most of what I ordered for BBC’s small, but meaty Xmas section ended up in my collection at home as well. Those old Firestone, Grants, and Goodyear LPs were joined by reissues like Ella (Fitzgerald, naturally) Wishes You a Swinging Christmas, Jimmy Smith’s Christmas Cooking (originally released as Christmas '64) and Lou Rawls’ inappropriately sexy Merry Christmas! Ho! Ho! Ho!.

My appetite whetted by Columbia’s 1988 collection, A Big Band Christmas, I snatched up every compilation of WWII-era holiday music I could find. Both Rhino Records’ Hipster’s Holiday (featuring some nigh-sacrilegious R&B and jazz nuggets) and The Best of Cool Yule (collecting rock and R&B holiday singles mostly from the 1950s and ‘60s) actually fit BBC’s vibe pretty well (although not as perfectly as some punk and new wave holiday comps like Sympathy for the Record Industry’s Happy Birthday, Baby Jesus or Rhino's New Wave Xmas: Just Can't Get Enough). 

The music wasn’t the only thing that was festive at BBC during the holidays. During my days at Goody, the biggest perk of the holiday season was getting to wear sneakers on Black Friday. At BBC, practically every day between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve was a holiday party, culminating in a giant blowout on the 24th. On that day, BBC and my boss Steve’s two sister stores on the block—Zap & Co., and the military surplus store, DMZ—started pouring champagne for ourselves and customers around noon.

Then, when business would die down sometime in the late afternoon, we’d close up and gather at Zap for our official employee holiday party, after which we’d stagger our ways to our respective Christmas Eve obligations (oboy, Pizza Hut!).

Even after I left BBC and Lancaster, returning to Zap (which eventually moved into BBC’s space when the record store closed a few years later) for a Christmas Eve toast with Steve remained a steadfast tradition until the business was destroyed by a tragic fire that also almost killed my boss as well in 2011. For years after, I would still make a pilgrimage to the site to pop open some champagne and make an illegal sidewalk toast to my friend and mentor, who sadly passed in 2019.



Drinking booze at work may have been the first non-childhood holiday custom, but it certainly wasn’t the last. For many years, I made my own Christmas cards (which were replaced in 2000 with something more substantial we’ll get to later). A box full of Christmas action figures of Rudolph and his pals, the Miser Brothers, the Peanuts gang, and Max and the Grinch are part of my own decorating ritual. Christmas beers fill the refrigerator, including 21st Amendment’s Fireside Chat, Shiner Cheer, and especially Anchor Brewery’s Our Special / Christmas Ale.

But perhaps the biggest non-childhood institution took root on December 18, 1988, when (following the opening of an art show I had at a local café) a group of friends gathered at the apartment I shared in downtown Lancaster with my college chum, Stacey. That was the night that CBS first aired the TV movie, A Very Brady Christmas, and as we all drunkenly absorbed that quintessential “so bad it’s good” nugget (with Bobby the race car driver and a surrogate Cindy), jokes and one-liners flew across the room until we were all in tears (of laughter, not emotion). 

The following year, as Stacey and I were planning our holiday party, I suggested we center the gathering on watching some more Christmas movies and TV shows. When that proved another success, I decided to make it an annual event, and thus The Christmas Video Party was born.

In 1990, I democratized the event by letting the revelers cast votes (on a paper ballot I made) for what videos we would watch. When A Charlie Brown Christmas won in a landslide, I realized that holy grail of Christmas specials should forever be the honorary winner, and it’s kicked off the party every year since, with never one complaint. 

Over the years, I added to the video coffers primarily by recording (and then burning to DVD) Christmas episodes of old TV shows via nostalgia-based cable channels like TV Land and Antenna TV, allowing us to revisit sitcom nuggets like Happy Days, The Jeffersons, Good Times, and The Munsters. I also bought DVDs compiling Christmas variety shows from the ‘60s and ‘70s, mind-bogglingly over-the-top extravaganzas starring Sonny & Cher, the Captain & Tennille, and (my personal favorite) Tom Jones.

Some selections quickly became perennials. Not surprisingly, The Grinch won more often than not. Rudolph got a lot of play, as did Pee-Wee Herman’s campy and fabulous 1988 Christmas special. We usually watched The Spirit of Christmas, the uncensored 1995 South Park predecessor in which Jesus and Santa fight each other over who truly represents the season. And then there’s a deleted scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian entitled, “Sheep,” in which three shepherds get into a fight with some others of that same profession who then refuse to tell them about the amazing thing they just saw. “Is it AD yet?,” one shepherd asks at the end of the scene, to which another looks to the stars and answers, “Quarter past.” 

But the all-time Video Party champ was a compilation of skits from two of SCTV’s Christmas shows. Those who are familiar with the legendary sketch comedy show’s holiday offerings almost always voted for it, and those who had never experienced the brilliant balance of satire and sincerity almost always became instant acolytes (especially when John Candy’s drunken lout, Johnny LaRue finally gets his much-desired crane shot from Santa, a moment you wouldn’t think would elicit tears, but always does). 



While I always chafe when Disney advertising refers to their latest offering as a seemingly oxymoronic “brand new classic,” that term accurately described Stephen Colbert’s 2008 Comedy Central special, A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All.  A simultaneous spoof of and ode to the cheesy holiday variety specials of the past, Colbert’s show—with terrific songs featuring Willie Nelson, Elvis Costello, and John Legend, among others—was both hilarious and heartfelt, and after it swept the votes that first year, A Colbert Christmas had to be added to the annual mandatory pre-election roster. Again, nobody argued. 

Unlike most of my other traditions, the Christmas Video Party did fall by the wayside (or at least become seriously downsized) for a handful of years after my marriage ended. It wasn’t until after I had lived in Hoboken for a few years that I revived the party. Over the years, it grew well beyond the capacity of my old railroad apartment (one year, as people overflowed into the kitchen and alcove between the living room and my bedroom, straining to see the wee TV, my ex-roomie, Rob chastised me for “overselling the venue.”). 

When my then-girlfriend and I entered into cohabitation, one of our criteria for new digs was a space big enough for huge parties, allowing the annual event to grow even bigger.

In fact, the party got so big it lost focus. Or rather, the focus was drowned out. Aside from a handful of video party veterans, there were lots of other revelers who—despite filling out ballots—honestly didn’t have any interest in what was playing onscreen, preferring to yap with each other, drowning out whatever was playing. The nerve of those loudmouths! Being social at a party!

After a frustratingly cacophonous Christmas Video Party in 2010 (at which my friend John actually screamed at people to shut up so he could hear Linus read Luke), we decided to do a little soirée bisection. Starting in 2011, the Video Party was scaled back to just the diehards who actually enjoyed the concept. Then a second, bigger cocktail party followed the next week, which was open to everyone. Having two parties was far more expensive, but worth every single ha’penny (one year my ex and I even had both parties in one day).

At this point, while the Cocktail Party remains an annual rager, the Christmas Video Party is (sadly) a more sporadic event. But for a while, it was as much a part of some of my friends' holiday traditions as Grandma's homemade cookies (or whatever set-in-stone custom suits you).

There’s another, music-related tradition whose day, sadly, has come to an end. In 2000, I joined the fraternity of obsessive music collectors who put together their own Christmas compilations for public consumption. A Ginger Peachy Christmas (taking its title from a line in Jerry Lewis’ 1952 single, “I’ve Had a Very Merry Christmas”) featured 29 songs spanning multiple genres and eras. 

I made a valiant effort to choose songs objectively, fully aware it was a fool’s errand. I’ve long felt that, regardless of how much empirical knowledge a person has on any given art form, ultimately an expert’s opinion is no more valid than that of a complete neophyte. In the end, the old chestnut, “I don’t know art, but I know what I like” really is all that matters, and while you might disagree with someone’s opinion, you can’t say that it’s wrong. That’s why it’s called an opinion. 

Music may well be the most subjective art form of them all, with so much of our musical experiences being linked to specific times and people. And with so many sense memories attached to the holidays, its music may carry the most nostalgic weight of any genre. That is, if you actually heard it as a kid.

Not everyone did, and it’s hard to get those people to appreciate the pleasures of Johnny Mathis’ falsetto trilling yet another version of “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.” I know lots of people—open-minded people with diverse tastes in music—who unequivocally loathe Christmas music.

Obviously, I didn’t give those people a copy of A Ginger Peachy Christmas (in cases where I wasn’t sure, I had to ask to make sure I didn’t hand them a veritable slab of crap they’d hate no matter what). But even within the context of my friends who were amenable to holiday music, I had to do a lot of hard editing. Was I choosing songs that were enjoyable outside of their Christmassy context? In the case of selections by Jimmy Smith, James Brown, and Louis Armstrong, the answer was yes. If not, were they at least iconic and recognizable enough that most people would accept them? The affirmatives included Bing Crosby & the Andrews Sisters, the Whos in Whoville, and the Waitresses. And if the songs were cheesy and/or overly sentimental, were they at least fun? That allowed for The Three Suns, Russ Morgan, and Tennessee Ernie Ford. 

The CD went over well enough that I made a follow-up. 2002’s But He Did Get a Nice Tree spliced dialogue from A Charlie Brown Christmas among 25 more mostly vintage songs. But this time, I went out on a limb—a bough, if you will—and abandoned objectivity for a more personal approach, pulling tracks from those beloved old vinyl comps, forcing people to listen to the folk-lite New Christy Minstrels’ version of “We Need a Little Christmas,” which may well be the whitest song in the history of recorded music.

2003’s compilation, Baby, It’s Cold Outside! was designed to be more adult, shying away from the kiddie stuff in favor of snuggly, wintry songs (some having nothing to do with Christmas) best suited for cocktail parties and romantic fireplace interludes (and please don’t me started on the ludicrous controversy surrounding the title track).

Emboldened by more positive feedback, I added the Xmas compilations to my list of annual traditions. Every subsequent CD ran the wide musical gamut. And every year, it was a massive undertaking, as I painstakingly perused my hundreds of holiday CDs and scoured the Internet for new / old downloads, selecting songs that struck a balance of sacred and profane, popular and obscure, funny and serious. Once I had about 30 or so songs loaded into a playlist, I started whittling them down and sequencing them to fit an 80-minute CD, which I’d burn and live with for a few days, listening to it at home and in the car to make sure the flow and balance were good and that all of the songs held up. 



At some point in the compiling process, I’d write down ideas for the title of the disc and start digging though my files of Christmas art (both digital and not) to find images for the package. For the liner notes, I tried to give detailed attribution to every song, noting both the source that I used (often a compilation or reissue) and the original year it was released. Finally, every volume included an introduction, usually comments on the music mixed in with some mushy, hyper-indulgent thoughts on the season. The initial run was usually between 80 and 100 CDs (all burned on the iMac, the artwork printed on my Epson, Xacto-cut and scored, the discs all assembled by hand). 

And then, for the recipients who didn’t live nearby (and many who did), I packaged the discs in cardboard and kraft paper, slapped $2 worth of postage on them and mailed them out.

That’s a lotta work (and when you factor in all the supplies, it wasn’t cheap either). And while it was certainly a labor of love, by the end of the ‘00s, I had to admit that the returns were diminishing. 

I’m not talking about a decline in quality of the CDs. I’ve still got lots of ear candy in my proverbial stocking. Thanks to (semi-legal at best) file-sharing websites, I added tons of old out-of-print albums to my collection. Later Xmas comps included tracks by Dean Martin backup singers, the Golddiggers, 1960s double-entendre mistress, Kay Martin and Her Body Guards, and the hilariously inappropriate (if unintentional) suggestiveness of pre-teen gospel singer, Susan Kay, all artists who are highly unlikely to ever see CD reissues of their material.

Also, starting in 2009, the comps included songs recorded especially for the CD by my girlfriend, my brother, our friend Jeff, and myself (along with other guests) under the name, the Jingleberries. We recorded covers of  “A Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Cool Yule,” rewrote the lyrics of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” to make it an ode to the holiday from a bunch of atheists, and reworked rock songs into carols, turning Black Flag’s punk couch potato classic, “TV Party” into “Christmas Video Party” (commemorating my annual event), and The Pogues’ “Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah” into a jolly, “Ho! Ho! Ho! Ho! Ho!”

Vocal duties fell primarily into my lap, since I can’t play any instruments (aside from a passable shake of the sleigh bells). Then again, I’m not a good singer, either, as take after botched take proved. Eventually, I settled upon a whiskey-fueled (literally), gravelly beatnik delivery that sounded like a cross between Louis Armstrong and Margot Kidder’s recitation of “Can You Read My Mind” from Superman: the Movie. Thankfully, the other elements of the songs were good enough that my crappy rapping didn’t completely render them unlistenable.

So, the Jingleberries were not the cause of the diminishing returns, either.

No, I’m afraid that I’m going to have to blame technology (again). The sad fact is, most of the dozens of people to whom I bestowed these painstakingly assembled anthologies simply don’t play CDs any more. It’s a safe bet that towards the end, a decent percentage of my Christmas compilations went unheard (and maybe even straight into the trash). And while none of my friends went so far as to tell me to not bother giving them this anachronistic piece of hard data, I started to fear coming across as old man offering a bowl of unappealing, stuck-together hard candy.

But again, traditions die hard, and after a hiatus in 2012 (due to both moving in November and my father’s death in December), I again foisted a Christmas CD into my friends’ hands in 2013, with the liner notes acknowledging it might be the last one. After again skipping 2014, in 2015, I decided to make one final disc, aptly entitled, Thats a Wrap. 



There’s an oft-stated philosophy that “Christmas is for children.” I’d addend that to say “…and nostalgics.”  I’ve no doubt that many breeders amongst you are shaking your heads in pity—if not outright disdain—at all that I’m missing by not having any children with whom to share my love of the season and pass on all of these traditions. Maybe you’re right. But, in the same way that I’ve never felt cheated by not having a birthday in July, I have never once felt that I wasn’t getting stockingsful of joy out of any of my 50-plus Christmases.

…Okay, maybe not the first one, but gimme a break, I was one day old. 

One of the nice things about nostalgia is that—if you enjoy the feeling—it only grows with the passage of time. Seemingly inconsequential things from your childhood become meaningful sources of comfort and joy later in life. One of my favorite Christmas gifts of the past decade was a set of the same holiday drinking glasses—decorated with red, white, and green holly, ivy, Xmas trees, and bells—that my parents hauled out of the cabinet every December since the 1960s. My mom bought them at a garage sale over the summer, knowing that these inexpensive, used castoffs would be met with unbridled excitement by her overly sentimental Christmas baby. 

Few things elicit such strong emotions in western civilization as Christmas. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who is truly ambivalent about the season and its trimmings, and most tend to fall to one extreme or the other. 

I’m grateful I’ve lived a life that’s placed me firmly in the camp shared by Linus, the Snow Miser, and Tiny Tim. And, putting all the pop culture baggage under the tree for a moment, one of the things I love most about Christmas is that it forces me to take a break from the cynicism that drives me the other 11 months of the year. The idea of all things being calm and bright makes much more sense to me when I’m surrounded by twinkling lights, fragrant pine, mulled wine, friends, family, and beloved traditions.

I won’t go so far as to make any comparisons between myself and the post-epiphany version of the Grinch or Ebenezer Scrooge, because sadly, by the time New Year’s rolls around, PXMD (that’s post-Christmas depression) usually sets in, and I remember how much I can’t stand this, that, and the other thing. But for that brief, beautiful period every December, I do unabashedly revel in being as giddy as a drunken man, making a perfect Laocoön of myself.


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