We used to put electric candles in our windows to guide the Christ child, or that was how my mother told it. Why, exactly, a newborn infant needed guiding—or what he was doing in Durham, New Hampshire, in December, was never explained. It was a tradition.
We put fresh evergreen cuttings on the mantel, along with a variety of animals, a cradle and three magi. Why Bethlehem in 4 BC would have coniferous ground cover went without comment. It was a tradition.
We sang Christmas carols around the piano with my mother playing her favorites—“Adeste Fidelis,” “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night”—occasionally throwing in more upbeat fare—“Deck the Halls” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas”—for my sister and me. It was a tradition.
My favorite Christmas tradition, though, was spending hours in front of the TV watching Christmas shows. More than the birth of Christ, as a child the Advent season meant holiday media fare. From the Friday after Thanksgiving until December 24, almost every day would include some Christmas show, special or movie. In fact, I’ve never thought of that last Friday in November as Black Friday; it was the day “Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol” aired in the morning on a channel out of Maine. Like a baby bird imprinting on the first living creature it sees, I still believe Mr. Magoo was born to play Ebenezer Scrooge, and no other actor is capable of indwelling the sense of greed, loss and ultimate joy. I understand younger readers may have the same feelings about the Muppets ensemble presentation. They are wrong.
Weeknight evenings presented a variety of shows. I consumed “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” with its Herculean task of choosing the right tree, Charlie Brown’s nostalgia-laden sadness and the singing and dancing. Oh, the delight of watching those dancers snap their heads up and down in counterpoint to their arms! No “Nutcracker” troupe could match them. I suffered along with “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” as he struggled to discover his place at the North Pole, terrified of the evil power of the Abominable Snow Monster and cheering for the bravery of Yukon Cornelius. I picked at “Frosty the Snowman,” since even as a child I knew that story had everything to do with winter and nothing of Christmas. While Frosty might have relied on magic, it wasn’t the deep magic of Christmas.
Alas, I am too old to have spent my childhood with Ralphie and the other characters of “A Christmas Story.” This is one of my life’s tragedies—further proof my life is now pretty damn good. Had this classic been around, it would have been my favorite by far.
As a father, I viewed all these things with my girls, them watching the screen and me watching them, taking joy in their excitement. When they were young, their mother and I loved Christmas morning with them—until their unmarried uncle would show up with a pickup-truck load of toys to bury the gifts we had purchased. After Cindy and I divorced, the girls would be with me for the evening part of Christmas evening, then returned to Cindy so she could have them for the morning, then picked up mid-afternoon to be with me. In retrospect, Christmas for the girls involved a lot of time in seat belts.
Without wanting to lurch readers out of this idyll, for a period of my daughters’ lives I drunkenly drove my life off the road, and was living in a homeless center for veterans when the girls were 17, 14, and 12. Still, Cindy and I kept the same schedule for Christmas, and on Christmas night, 2008, I wanted to institute a new family watching tradition. I was an idiot. Even now, I can’t truly understand what I was thinking.
This movie I tried to introduce into the Christmas firmament does have laughter, romance and, ultimately, hope. Unfortunately, even that “ultimately” is soured by:
- A child torn away from his mother
- To join his father in a Nazi concentration camp
- Where the father tries to convince the boy it’s all part of a game, whee a prize will be awarded the boy if he “wins,”
- And his mother willingly goes to the death camp to be as physically near as possible to her husband and son.
- Oh, yes, in the penultimate scene the father is gunned down by guards.
- The hope that arrives “ultimately” is the boy is reunited with his mother and gets the prize-a ride in a tank away from the death camp holding his father’s corpse.
We watched Life is Beautiful, the late ’90s Roberto Benini film about Nazism in Mussolini’s Italy. Before the movie was 30 minutes in, with the introduction of anti-semitism toward a Jewish waiter, the girls were staring slack-jawed not at the screen but at me. This was no Christmas tradition, no celebration of the joys of consumerism, no wrap-up to the season of joy. This was a turd in the punchbowl.
Since then, I think I’ve watched Life is Beautiful with each of the girls, and I think they were enraptured by the power of the human spirit. Life is Beautiful is one of my 20 favorite movies of all time, and I’d recommend all of you watch it or re-watch it.
Just not on Christmas.