Life lessons from Christmas movies

Our family owns a lot of Christmas movies. We began collecting our favorites when the kids were little and have gradually replaced the good ones with their DVD or Blu-Ray versions over the years, and we’re faithful about hiding them away after the Christmas tree comes down so we don’t get sick of them.

We’re not keen on all Christmas movies; there are some stinkers out there, and just because it has “Christmas” in or near the title doesn’t mean I want to own it. You won’t get me to even pick up something that has the words “The Christmas Shoes” on it, because that song was touching the first time I heard it and never again after that. Never. I don’t like Christmas “sequels,” either, like Rudolph’s Shiny New Year or Frosty Returns. Ironically, we own Frosty Returns because it came bundled with a bunch of other Christmas classics (because nobody would have shelled out for it otherwise), but no one in our house has ever wanted to watch it.

We have what I consider classics, both old and newer, ranging from A Charlie Brown Christmas and The Year Without a Santa Claus to Jingle All the Way and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Toss in the über-classics like It’s a Wonderful Life and White Christmas and you’ve got a well-rounded collection to accompany the hot cocoa on a snowy night. I think we own somewhere around twenty-five Christmas movies (yes, we’re one of the families who considers Die Hard a Christmas-ish movie…on the fringes of the category, but still within the borderline), and we make it through most of them each December.

The other night, the whole family was home (a rare occasion these days), so we watched two movies back to back: The Santa Clause, followed by Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. As I watched Rudolph and the gang, the thought struck me that just about everyone in that movie is a jerk, including Santa. What kind of Santa tells a parent he should be ashamed of himself for producing a defective child? Indeed, what kind of parent forces a kid to hide whatever it is that makes that kid unique? The coach, well…no offense to nice coaches out there, but that guy reminded me of every gym teacher I ever had in school, belittling the non-conformists and encouraging others to do the same.

Hermey & Rudolph

I happened to have my laptop open at the time, so I posted a comment on Facebook about how the message of Rudolph’s tale seemed to be that it was OK to treat someone in an awful manner unless they could do something for you. I couldn’t believe how many of my friends felt the same way about this movie; more than one person admitted to never having liked Rudolph, and one person didn’t even like the singing snowman. Harsh. The sheer volume of comments and the varied viewpoints had me laughing out loud. Some of them are just too good not to share. I commented, “Even that dumb king on the Island of Misfit Toys is a jerk…Rudolph & Hermey say, ‘So can we stay here with you?’ and King Moonracer answers, ‘No. But when you go back, here’s what you can do for me…'” and this is what I got in return:

Moonracer was like a petty dictator of a failing nation. “Get off my land and come back with aid! You can’t use my country as a base but GIMME GIMME GIMME!” 

You can bet those misfit toys got nothin’ for air defense except a squirt gun that squirts jelly!

The entire “Island of Misfit Toys” is about what happens when people just sit around and bemoan their fate instead of striking out, as Rudolph did, to make something of himself. The toys were pathetic and just expected King Moonracer to feed them and shelter them until the Big Santa arrived with more handouts. 

I don’t believe the Misfit Toys ever asked to be placed on the island!! How were they to escape when the boat wouldn’t float??

Santa is like the Grand Wizard of the North Pole KKK. He was hating on everyone. I was waiting for him to berate minorities and the mentally disabled after tearing Rudolph and his dad a new one for having a red nose.

The abominable snowman still gives me nightmares.

As I was telling my husband about the responses, he began to imitate the whiny Charlie-in-the-Box, “‘Oh, boo hoo. My name isn’t Jack.’ Well, what the heck is stopping you from telling people a different name when they ask? Can’t your middle name be Jack, like C. Jack Box?”

I guess I’d never realized how many people don’t care for the Rudolph movie. I don’t think I’ll ever view it in the same way again. Maybe I’ll never even bother to watch it again, or will only put it on so I can make fun of it—sort of my own Christmas version of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Now that sounds like fun.

That holiday feeling

We’ve got that holiday feeling

That happy holiday feeling

Our favorite holiday of the year

When I was a kid, I used to love listening to my parents’ Christmas albums. My dad loved Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, and to this day, I still think Herb’s “Christmas Album” is one of the best ever.

I have a thing for the old Christmas songs. Once again, I’m going to reference a post by Elle Todd in which she talks about current artists butchering her Christmas favorites. (Honest—I do come up with my own ideas, but she sneaks into my brain and steals them somehow…I’ll look into it for a future post. But you’ll probably read about it on her blog first, of course. Rats.)

Back to the point—or points, really, since I have a few things I want to say about this whole Christmas thing.

The songs I like most are either old or sound old. It’s that old-style vocal quality that makes me fond of the sound of Harry Connick, Jr., or Michael Bublé (Mister Bubble, as we call him around our house, since nobody appreciates him but me). If I’m listening to “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” it needs to be Andy Williams. “Santa Baby” must be done by Eartha Kitt…and I have no idea why anyone would listen to the other truly awful versions available, although Mister Bubble’s version of “Santa Buddy” is a pretty good alternative. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is best done by Al Hirt and Ann Margret. The list goes on.

Because my dad was also a huge Barbra Streisand fan, we had every one of her albums, including her Christmas one. As a child, I loved to sing along with it, using the never-lit candlestick in our dining room as my microphone. Picture an eight year old who thinks she has Barbra’s pipes, belting Christmas songs at the top of her lungs when no one else is home. I laugh at the memory of it now, but was deadly serious about sounding like Babs at the time.

As an adult, though, I began to wonder why a Jewish person would have recorded a Christmas album. Isn’t Jesus, after all, the big stumbling block between Christians and Jews? Why would someone who doesn’t believe in Jesus as the Messiah sing songs like “Silent Night” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem”?

The only answer I could come up with involved money. Barbra knew enough—or had an agent who knew enough—to capitalize on the commercialization of Christmas, even back then.

I’m not sure if it’s because things are truly getting worse, or if it’s because I’m getting less tolerant of it, but I’ve noticed more of a frantic feel to the holidays over the past few years. Sales start earlier and earlier (as I mentioned in my Black Friday post), causing us to feel as if we’re already behind before we’ve even begun. Thoughtful gifts have been pushed aside by the idea that “thoughtful” is not enough: “big” is what’s required to impress people (if you don’t believe me, listen to the Valentine’s Day ads a couple months from now as they tell men their single heartfelt flower is pathetically cheap, and “only” a dozen roses is too cliché). Time for relaxation and reflection is trampled on by the constant stream of parties which, of course, can only be thrown in during this time of year when people are already pressed for time.

I want to enjoy my Christmas. I don’t want to be so burnt-out on the whole package that Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are just one more harried obligation. I remember an incident a few years ago when, upon arriving at my in-laws’ house for Christmas Eve, I placed our tray of homemade cookies and candies on the table. One of my sisters-in-law glanced at them and said, “They look delicious, but oh my gosh, I am so sick of cookies and junk after all the parties we’ve been to all month.”

Needless to say, I was pretty bummed to hear my efforts were wasted on at least one family member. I knew it wasn’t a personal insult to me (and my always-kind sister-in-law would probably have felt bad, had she known how her innocent comment had made me feel), but the whole experience made me sad that all the preliminaries of the Christmas “season” have worn us down so much that we can’t see the holiday for the fun day or two that it brings. I’m not advocating a boycott on parties and cookies until Christmas Eve morning or anything, but I suppose I’m just calling for a bit of discretion and restraint in what is deemed “necessary” for holiday cheer.

The “happy holiday feeling” Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme sang about so cheerfully (and cheesily, but I love it anyway) seems to have been replaced by…something else. For some, it’s depression; for others, it’s irritation (like me, fighting my way through holiday shoppers because I need groceries); still others feel anger at the political correctness and shout, “Don’t you DARE say ‘Happy Holidays’ to me, you heathen!” at befuddled cashiers. I’ll bet those same people just loved the Holiday Wintertainment Parade in “Jingle All the Way,” with dancing menorahs hand-in-hand with Santas and snow queens.

It’s hard to fight the urge to have “enough” gifts bought, rather than thoughtful gifts which fit the recipient’s personality. I’d rather have one gift that let me know it was me the giver was thinking about while shopping than a pile of things that were “on sale, so I got one for everybody.” Yes, I’ve had that happen on multiple occasions.

I have a friend who calls herself a terrible gift-giver because she can never think of gifts on-demand when a birthday or holiday comes along. However, the reality is that she’s an incredible gift-giver because she doesn’t give according to what the calendar says. If she sees something she knows a friend will enjoy, she buys it and gives it. Right then. No waiting. She’s given me some terrific gifts over the years based on things I’ve mentioned in passing, like buying me a sewing machine when she knew mine was beginning to act unpredictably; or a bunch of really cool kitchen items she noticed me oohing and ahhing over in a Pampered Chef catalog; or a check, tucked into a passport wallet, to help cover my costs on a short-term missions trip. She’s not rich, but she pays attention to people around her and acts with generosity.

Another friend, an author I work with, recently sent me a coffee mug that was perfect for my editor’s sense of OCD correctness. That mug was me, through and through, and she knew it when she found it. I smile whenever I use it, and not just because it’s filled with coffee.

This year, once again, I’m going to cut back a little more on the buying and focus a little more on the giving. Christmas, for me, celebrates the birth of my Savior, so it’s obvious to me where my personal focus should lie. To others who don’t believe as I do, though, I still believe the “holiday feeling” should be about giving and helping, rather than spending and taking.

Try it. You never know: you might like it.

Thankfulness comes in all sizes

I read a post by Elle Todd the other day, Being Thankful, that brought to mind something we don’t often recognize: the things for which we can be most grateful are oftentimes not the obvious. In fact, they may have felt distinctly like not-so-great moments when they happened, and only in hindsight do we realize we are, after all is said and done, thankful they occurred.

I’ve written at great length—more than I ever thought I would—about the blessings that have come about as a direct result of how we handled ourselves during a time of great upheaval in our family. Most of those blessings have made themselves known only now, almost eleven years later. I won’t rehash the stuff I’ve already blogged about, but feel free to read my earlier posts (there aren’t that many to sift through, since this is a new blog) if you’re curious.

I had a huge post (big surprise there) in the works, based around all the “closed door/opened window” or “silver lining” things in my life, but deleted just about the entire thing when I realized it was so detailed as to be snore-inducing. (Elle, I really did want to steal your idea, but your post didn’t bore me and mine did, so you win this one.)

What it all boiled down to were two things: family and friends. Those two things were at the heart of my entire post. Everything I am thankful for somehow involves them. Finances, health, material possessions—they wax and wane, and we adapt, but the things that affect me most can always be traced back to friends or family.

It may sound trite to fall back on the ol’ friends & family thing, but I am sincere when I say I don’t take these things for granted. My dad died two years ago; he didn’t always have the best advice, he’d give our Christmas gifts back to us (“I don’t really need this; go ahead and just stick it in your car and take it home with you”) and he was kind of a Cliff Claven in many ways, but he loved us and loved his grandchildren. He had no tact, but you always knew where you stood with him, and he was generous with what he had. My mom is still around and doing well, even though we thought we were going to lose her within months of my dad dying. The cancer that seemed to be so prevalent throughout her bones two years ago is miraculously sparse right now with no chemo and no radiation. Big Thankful.

My in-laws rank right up there on my list of Big Thankfuls. Make all the mother-in-law jokes you want; you can all be jealous of me because my in-laws are terrific, from Pop & Gramma all the way down to the youngest cousin. I’m stuck by marriage with a family I would have chosen anyway.

This year has been a time of transition for me. Transitions are not always thankful moments, but this one is. I feel as if I’m settling in and beginning yet another season. This one involves my kids being older and a little more independent, which has allowed me, in turn, to be a little more independent. I’m not sure if that’s leading me to be more versatile or just lazier, since I don’t have to chase after them anymore. Still, I’m thankful for the next phase, because it’s different and new, which usually means exciting and interesting.

Being in-de-pen-dent (hearing it in my head as pronounced by Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) means I can pursue activities that interest me—I’m not limited to the things in which my children are involved. As enjoyable as those things are, I’m there for them, not for me. I don’t mind waiting my turn, as long as I get a turn once in awhile.

This year, it seems, is my turn. Yay, me! Through a quirky turn of events, I ended up with a freelance copy editing job and a handful of new acquaintances who have very quickly become friends. Some of them, I swear, are long-lost family, and there’s not a thing you can say to convince me otherwise. The Big Thankful in this instance is not only having a job I enjoy exceedingly, but also knowing there are more people out there just like me. That may be scary to some of you, but trust me, it’s a relief to me. [Side note: this post ended up delayed by an almost-two-hour Facebook chat with one of those crazy people, and I hurt myself laughing. But I’m still thankful. Painfully thankful. And I know she’s probably hurting, too, so we’re even.]

The thing for which I’m most thankful, though, is this: I don’t have to wait until Thanksgiving to find a list of Big Thankfuls, or even Little Thankfuls. They’re there every day. For instance, I wake up. Every single day, I wake up. And if you don’t think that’s something to be thankful about, then try not waking up.

It doesn’t have to be anything grand or complex. It can be serious or funny. As long-term as “I’m married to the man of my dreams.” As short-term as “That conversation was hilarious.”

The important thing is to recognize it for what it is: a blessing. A bonus. A woo hoo moment. A victory.

Life with family and friends. Two absolutely indispensable things, in my book.

Black Friday Anarchy and the Must-Buys

For the life of me, I can’t understand what would motivate anyone to take part in the mayhem retailers refer to as Black Friday.

Many of those who faithfully make the early-morning pilgrimage to their favorite stores talk about how much fun they have with a group of friends or family. They tout their incredible bargains and try to suck the rest of us in by saying things like, “It’s almost a festival atmosphere—everyone’s having such a great time.”

Carnival barkers in the making, the lot of them.

Although one could say I have all my days off as a stay-at-home-mama, I still enjoy a day with no outside obligations when it comes my way. Why on earth would I want to start my day off by getting up at an ungodly hour, jockeying for parking space at an overcrowded store or mall, and fighting strangers for the limited number of bargain items per store? In many cases, these people have been outside the store overnight to improve their chances of getting one of the three available doorbuster items before they’re gone. I’m not that aggressive. I don’t stand a chance against professionals like these.

I don’t even like fighting strangers for things I really want. Each summer, our local library system has a wonderful book sale when they purge everything that hasn’t been checked out in recent months. Believe it or not, they get rid of many classics—most likely due to the popularity of “fluff” fiction and paperback bodice-rippers—and those discarded classics belong in my house. I just know it. However, I’ve found myself avoiding the sale over the past two years. Why? Because when I’m in a situation that screams, “Every man for himself!” that’s when Mean Lynda begins to emerge. I might not say anything outwardly, but I begin to fume at the people who grab books out of my hands, glance at them, and then toss them all over the tables, willy-nilly (love that word), leaving them even more disorganized for the next person. I still won’t fight for it. I’ll just hate you if you’re one of “them.” Go ahead, block the aisle with the folding chair you brought along, so you can plant yourself in front of the books you won’t allow others to see until you’re finished browsing; park your rolling cart in the narrowest part of the walkway—because why wouldn’t someone wish to retrace their steps 25 feet to change aisles, rather than slip past you? Go ahead and encourage your children to run all over, picking up books and putting them down in random spots so no one else will find that excellent copy of Great Expectations buried under the self-help magazines. I’ll be at home, reading the books I already own, knowing that one-dollar bargain hardcover is not worth the gladiator techniques I’d need to learn to win it.

Where was I? Ah…back to the day after Thanksgiving. Black Friday shopping can be done online, if the urge to shop gets too strong. The downside: if I’m wrapped up in the computer, looking for bargains, I’m every bit as absent as those who go to the brick & mortar stores that day. The upside: it’s not as tiring, and I can walk away from it anytime I want and be “present” again immediately with my family.

Online shopping can still provide some decent bargains, most of them with no shipping fee. In fact, distance of my house from shopping areas + cost of gasoline = less than most shipping fees, anyway.  There are always coupon codes available somewhere to make it all worthwhile. As someone who hates to shop as a general rule, the online thing works very well for me: I’m at home; I can browse all over the world for unique items; shopping at midnight in my pjs is no big deal if that’s when I have the time.

Now retailers are upping the ante, because Black Friday crack-of-dawn sales are not enough: Thanksgiving Night pre-Friday has taken over, at first starting with “midnight madness” deals which have now progressed to 8 p.m. and 6 p.m. store openings. ON THANKSGIVING DAY. Old Navy is open on Thanksgiving until 4 p.m. and will reopen a scant three hours later at 7 p.m. Wow. Three whole hours spent with the family, all stuffing themselves as quickly as possible to accommodate the time crunch for the hapless family member who happens to be employed there. And Staples, opening  8 p.m. – midnight? How many people are going to get up from the Thanksgiving table to storm the doors of the office supply store to get those bargain pencils and manila folders?

What’s wrong with taking an entire day (an entire day!) to spend at home with family? Or even a day at home alone, relaxing? Don’t like your family and don’t want to be alone? How about serving others by helping at the local City Mission?

When I was growing up, Thanksgiving dinner was an hours-long event. We’d eat, of course, but the dinner itself was only a prequel to the enjoyable after-time with everyone. We’d often play cards or board games after dinner with my grandma, hoping to soon feel hungry enough to eat the variety of desserts. One of my favorite memories of my grandma is the Thanksgiving we taught her to play Risk. She started off enthusiastically enough, but when over an hour had passed, she began discreetly tossing her game pieces on the floor under the table so she could just lose and get the heck away from the table. She feigned ignorance, of course, when my uncle happened to notice the pile of game parts, saying, “Oh, is that where those went?” as if she hadn’t been systematically slipping them off the table’s edge every three or four minutes. I wouldn’t trade that experience for 50% off anything a store could provide.

When I was in high school, I witnessed the beginning of the must-have Christmas gifts: the Cabbage Patch doll. Our next-door neighbor tried for weeks to buy one for her daughter, going from store to store. Who decided these ugly, ugly dolls were necessary for a child’s happiness? They were seriously ugly. I can not stress that enough. And don’t tell me you had one and thought it was adorable, because I won’t believe you. You might have thought it was adorable, because the retailers told you that you loved it. But if you had looked at it, eye to glass eye—really looked—you would have seen it was no different than any other cheap doll, except it had a face only a mother could love.

As an adult, I never really paid attention to what was trendy; we shopped for things we knew our kids would enjoy. When a relative gave our then-two-year-old son a Tickle Me Elmo for his birthday (two months before Christmas), she made sure to tell us as he opened his gift that it was “the hot item” that year. He was not impressed; he was frightened of it. He hugged it, and Elmo began to giggle loudly while trembling and vibrating. Our son dropped it like a rock and ran away while Elmo continued his furry red seizure activity for almost 30 seconds. The most action that toy got was when our older son threw up on it. A month later, Christmas time, those crazy things were selling for hundreds of dollars. My husband and I briefly entertained the idea of putting an “only puked on once” ad in the newspaper but were almost afraid someone would take us up on it.

I can only hope retailers fall flat this year with their “I can open earlier than you can” plans. Families have a difficult enough time of it, trying to coordinate work schedules so they can get together at all. Webster’s defines “holiday” as “a day on which one is exempt from work; specifically a day marked by a general suspension of work in commemoration of an event.”  A holiday should be exactly that. For everyone, retailers included. Stop pushing the message that getting a bargain purchase is more important than all else.

I can’t help but think of the movie “Jingle All the Way,” in which Arnold Schwarzenegger spends the entire day of Christmas Eve in search of a Turbo Man doll—the hot item of the season—for his son. It’s the first Christmas movie we watch each year, on the day after Thanksgiving, and it’s hilarious because it’s true. I’ll leave you with a one-minute clip of a favorite part of the movie: