From our family to you and yours!
Over-idealizing the past definitely guarantees you a berth on what my witty brother-in-law calls the “bullet train to Geezerville.” Still, there’s no denying the natural human tendency for nostalgia, which, since it’s pretty selective, is always fun, especially at Christmas. The Hallmark Channel, as we all know, makes a mint on it.
Except for the reliable constants of church, tree, cards, and presents, the middle-of-the-middle class Christmases of my childhood were dramatically different from anything that kids today experience. All trees were real. Nattily dressed shoppers crammed the stores, which were open two nights a week. The big treat was a night-time trip to town to visit Santa and see the animated department store windows—different every year, and always enchanting. Mail arrived twice a day, and there were so many cards that we lined the entire bannister with them, straight up to the second floor. Kids asked Santa for one special gift, just like Ralphie. While the stockings may have been stuffed with candy or tiny books or trinkets, and other family members may have provided more useful but modest gifts, that one present from Santa was what most children were thrilled and grateful to find under the tree. Christmas carols* and the secular holidays songs were on all of the radio stations, almost all of the time.
But above all, in our big, noisy Italian-American family, Christmas was about being together. The celebration started with Midnight Mass, and, once Christmas dinner was over, the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day was spent visiting. We’d crowd around the table on one night at our house, on others at the homes of aunts, uncles, and cousins, where we were amply supplied with whatever leftovers were on hand and tray after tray of cookies. The grown-ups had a beer or two, or coffee and anisette, while we kids played with each other’s toys. We laughed and sang, disagreements were friendly and without repercussion, and no one felt left out. That’s one of our Christmas get-togethers in the photo above, at our house. That’s my mother, in the center, with the dark dress and pearls, and my father, on the right, in front of the china cabinet.
Our once-huge extended family has dwindled, and family members, with a few exceptions, aren’t close. Over the years, as children left the steel mill behind and began to make their way in the world, they lost interest in family celebrations, even disdaining them as quaint and unsophisticiated. The Christmas I knew as a child became little more than a hazy, idealized memory. Still, I am so glad to have it.
I confess to a trace of envy when I hear of a family large enough, energetic enough, and committed enough, to celebrate in the noisy, crowded, overstuffed old-fashioned way. My own family, whom I love dearly and appreciate every single minute of every single day, is small; our Christmases are quiet but precious nonetheless.
Whatever you make of Christmas, may your day be filled with joy and gratitude for the blessings around your table, and may you have good health and prosperity in the year to come!
*Hear this, Hallmark Channel, although you know I love you, please stop the dancing to “Silent Night.” It just isn’t done.
If you’re anything like me, you fairly gag at the monotonous “one script is all” banter that occurs on House Hunters and all of its variations:
“It’s a good size.”
“I love the granite counter tops.”
“It’s pretty small for a master.” (What would you expect in a house built in 1920, folks?)
“This would fit my furniture.” (One of the most offensive and awkward misconstructions I have ever heard. The furniture fits into the room, House Hunters, not vice versa.)
“I could see myself sitting here, having coffee.”
“This would be great for entertaining.”
“I wanted open concept.”
It’s the last that’s on my mind right now, as I sit here surrounded by a pre-holiday mess. “Open concept” is an invention of the last 30 years. There was virtually no “open concept” until roughly the last decade of the 20th Century. The point was to HIDE the mess in the kitchen. And for the cook to be able to concentrate while making the soufflé or Beef Wellington—or tuna noodle casserole, for that matter—without the distractions of a blaring television or bickering siblings.
Now, everyone on House Hunters, and, apparently, everywhere else, prefers not to be isolated from the rest of the household while working in the kitchen. That’s a nice idea in theory; it’s true that an open concept living area allows you to keep an eye on the kids, participate in family discussions, and enjoy your guests. But unless you are one of those people who thinks the only real dream kitchen is an unused one, an “open concept” living area also means a mess for all to see. And while the perfume of bread in the oven may be pleasant and comforting, it is not necessarily pleasant or comforting to get a whiff of the sausage and peppers—or worse, fish—that you made for dinner when you’ve settled down for the evening in the den. Trust me—you can’t open a window when it’s 20 degrees, and the fan on full force and the candles don’t always do the trick.
I like living on one floor. I really do. And I love my house. But do not expect to see kitchen counters cleared of clutter and punctuated with fascinating decorative items à la Joanna Gaines (of whom, incidentally, I’m a committed fan). That’s fine for people who don’t really cook in a big way. And since Christmas is an especially messy time of year, you will at any given time this week find, in our lovely little home, not only a floury mess in the kitchen, but also a tangle of gift wrapping in progress on the dining room table—wide open to all who cross the threshold. Some time between now and Christmas Eve, all will be put in order. But until then, let’s just say we have that “lived in” look, right out there in the open.
You’ve heard my prattle about Hallmark Christmas movies. Except for mentioning that The Christmas Train is head and shoulders above all the rest and my absolute favorite so far this season, I’ll leave you to chat about Hallmark movies amongst yourselves. This post, instead, is about their worthy ancestor of an entirely different ilk, our favorite black-and-white movies from the 1940s.
Most of us know and love It’s a Wonderful Life, and it’s certainly on our list. But there are some lesser known gems that you might really enjoy if you give them a chance. I’ve heard many folks say they can’t watch anything past the opening and closing scenes of The Wizard of Oz in black and white. That’s their loss, as far as I’m concerned. I will say, however, that to enjoy these movies, you must 1) stop wishing for color*; 2) understand and appreciate that most of these films have a point of view that is clearly traditional and religious, 3) accept that they reflect the social conventions, among them misconceptions and narrowness, of their time, and 4) of course, suspend your disbelief.
Just as an aside, note that many of the holiday flicks we consider “classic” today are funny, and centered largely on Santa Claus and family shenanigans. Don’t misconstrue—we love the lot: A Christmas Story, Elf, Tim Allen’s reluctant Santa Claus, Fred Claus and his highly dysfunctional family , and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, of course, as much as anyone. Belly laughs are good medicine for holiday frenzy. But the ones on our list, even the funny ones, are far more subtle. We watch them every year, sometimes more than once. (And just to squash any ideas to the contrary, most of these were released before I was born.)
It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey, Clarence, and the rest of the entourage do not need a plug from me. Director Frank Capra’s 1946 masterpiece about a man lifted out of despair by an unlikely angel.
The Bishop’s Wife. David Niven as a depressed bishop, Loretta Young as the wife who struggles to cheer him, and Cary Grant as the angel who fixes it all. Directed by Henry Koster and released in 1947.
The Shop Around the Corner, Director Ernst Lubitsch’s utterly charming Christmas-in-Budapest tale, released in 1940, that was Nora Ephron’s inspiration for You’ve Got Mail. Jimmy Stewart strikes gold again, this time with Margaret Sullivan. Fun hint: You’ll remember “Mr. Matuschek” from “behind the curtain” in another classic film.
The Man Who Came to Dinner. The token crazy farce on the list, featuring the pedantic, obnoxious Sheridan Whiteside and his band of nutcase friends, admirers, artifacts, and penguins. A fabulous cast including Monty Woolley, Betty Davis, Ann Sheridan, Billie Burke, Jimmy Durante., directed by William Keighley and released in 1942.
It Happened on Fifth Avenue. English majors may remember James M. Barrie’s play, The Admirable Crighton, in which the servants reverse roles with their masters after a shipwreck. This movie always reminds me of that play, except that it’s the homeless, and particularly homeless veterans returning from the war, who are taking over the estate. Released in 1947 and directed by Roy del Ruth.
Christmas in Connecticut. Barbara Stanwyck as a Martha Stewart type, except that… well, I won’t give it away. Enjoy. Directed by Peter Godfrey and released in 1945. (Just make sure you don’t get the 1990s remake by mistake, with Dyan Cannon and Kris Kristofferson, which surely falls into my “worst of all time” collection.)
Miracle on 34th Street. Is he or isn’t he? This is a marvelous movie, even though I always end up hating the mother for being so hide-bound. Maureen O’Hara at her loveliest, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, and then child star Natalie Wood. Directed by George Seaton and released in 1947.
Note that these films were all made between 1940 and 1947, and imagine them in that context. Imagine yourself being given respite from keeping a “stiff upper lip” through the constant fear and worry of war on two fronts, or the life-altering changes the war brought to so many. I’m pretty sure that’s one of the reasons we love them so much.
*Don’t succumb to colorized versions if you download any of these movies or buy the DVDs. They are so much better in their original form.
Photo: Vieux Québec—the old city—during the carnaval d’hiver.
As I write this, I’m preparing psychologically to clean and straighten out my baking pantry before the Christmas endurance contest begins.
Baking Christmas cookies with my mother the first two weekends in December remains one of my favorite childhood memories. Mom gave cookies away in droves, never forgot a generous box for the rectory, and saved the rest for trays to serve when family came to visit between Christmas and New Year’s. She made the prerequisite Italian cookies but also became very adept at paper-thin German sand tarts, and every year she tried a new cookie from the current Pillsbury Bake-Off collection. Whether the new winning recipe became part of the permanent repertoire depended about equally on how much she enjoyed making the cookies and how much we enjoyed eating them. There were no Toll House or plain sugar cookies (like the ones mentioned in my last post) in her holiday mix—they were far too ordinary for Christmas.
My guess is that every daughter reaches a moment of truth when she realizes that she isn’t compelled to do everything exactly as her mother did. I enjoyed baking for the holidays, but I longed to develop my own Christmas cookie repertoire. One of my dear friends was the food editor of the local paper, and when her daughter was about three, she published a full-page spread on the joys of establishing a holiday baking tradition that children can carry forward. The article was irresistible, and I ended I “adopting” several of her recipes, which my daughter and I still rely on Christmas after Christmas. The clipping is yellow and tattered now. I always intend to replace it with neatly typewritten “receipts”; but truthfully, like Mom’s recipe cards, there’s something so precious about leaving that clipping just the way it is.
With time at a premium, I have tended in recent years not to make cookies, or at least not many, but instead to surprise friends and neighbors with apple pie or homemade bread. I’m not sure what I’ll do this year. Hubby’s mother, whom I was never lucky enough to know, made cinnamon buns for the neighbors. They were memorable enough to be mentioned by more than one of his classmates with great fondness at his recent high school reunion. I would rather like to try reviving that tradition.
We’ll see how things go. I am happy to ponder, day dream, and anticipate; but I’m wary of over-committing. We all know where that primrose path leads.
If you appreciate a bit of humor as you work through the pre-Christmas frenzy, please allow yourself the time to enjoy this story from a gone-but-not-forgotten CBC radio series called “The Vinyl Café” on the Canadian Living magazine website. After you’ve read it, drop me a line and let me know if you’ve picked your Christmas colour yet.
*I may have mentioned in a prior post that years ago, “wish book” was the popular name for the Sears Roebuck catalogue.
Just in case you didn’t hear the news, Hallmark Channel’s “Countdown to Christmas” is once again upon us. Be still, my heart! Thirty-three new Hallmark Christmas movies plus, no doubt, innumerable repeats, will begin October 28, three days before Halloween. In one of my first blog posts last January, I wrote without shame about my attachment to these bits of holiday fluff. Once I came out of the Hallmark Christmas movie closet, many others owned up, including some of my most “cultivated” acquaintances.
Post-Christmas, I watched with amused interest as Hallmark aired first its winter-themed flicks, then Valentine’s Day, then spring, then June weddings, then summer, then autumn-in-wherever. I’ve seen my fair share of these non-Christmas movies and found most of them to be so bad, actually, that they’re good. Good enough to provide amusement that requires absolutely nothing of you. Good enough to iron by. And especially good if you join in one of my Hallmark games. Want to play? Try these:
The where-was-it-shot game. Many movies set in a particular place aren’t actually shot there, for reasons that are mostly economic. Betcha didn’t know that the interiors in Moonstruck—maybe my favorite movie of all time—were shot in Toronto. But while in first-rate productions such scenes would be undetectable, Hallmark substitutions are way too easy to spot. You might see a flyover opening shot that establishes a location (Seattle’s space needle or a Manhattan skyline, for example), but that’s where the authenticity ends. Point in fact: There are no mountains in Bucks County, and almost nothing in that dog show movie looks like New York, probably because it’s Vancouver. Vermont is not flat. That New Jersey bakery is really in Bucharest (which is probably why one customer’s feigned New Jersey accent was so dreadful).
The find-the-mistake game. Whoops! Snow on the ground and summer-fresh green leaves in the background! Please, Hallmark, don’t ask us to suspend our disbelief that much. No snow in December in Garland, Alaska? Or how about this—big-time marketing executive needs to come up with a holiday marketing plan for a corporate client, with only three weeks left before Christmas. I don’t think so.
The find-the-worst hair game. Hasn’t anyone at Hallmark figured out that HDTV reveals EVERYTHING? I know full well that wigs are used widely in movies because they save time and forestall bad hair days when the camera’s rolling. I get it. The Downton Abbey ladies we all came to love—and miss every single Sunday, by the way— wore wigs for historical authenticity as well as ease. I get that, too. But some of the Hallmark wigs are so so obvious, and frankly, so dreadful looking, that one wonders why they couldn’t spend a few bucks more to give the real hair. After all, Hallmark owns this high-ratings franchise. And don’t even get me started on the male leads’ hair, some of which is just ridiculous—and far from “manly,” in my estimation—even when it isn’t “supplemented.” Who looks like that???
The switch-the-script game. My BFF says the thing she likes best about these movies is that you can join any one of them at any point in the action and it won’t matter because you always know what happens next. Which, of course, is comforting in a quaint sort of way. You will find only a handful of plot lines in the entire universe of Hallmark movies, and they are “creatively reused” in each of the seasonal series. The heroine gets grounded in a snowstorm or returns to her home town or goes on a trip and meets up with her high school beau or struggling Christmas tree farmer or errant prince or stalwart widower. A rival of some sort—a conniving female or a really bad ex—gets in the way but is foiled in the end, when love conquers all. Point is–you could take the beginning, middle, or end of any of these movies and drop it into almost any other.
The find-the-familiar-face game. Hallmark seems to deliberately go after former TV stars whose luster has faded—either because they weren’t very good to begin with or because they’ve “aged out.” If you watch enough of these movies, you’ll find yourself muttering, “I know that face…” The late Alan Thicke showed up frequently, usually as a rigid dad with unfair expectations. I’ve spotted Patricia Richardson, the Home Improvement mom, who looked normal (which is to say, her face actually moved) and turned in an atypically great little performance. Most recently, Hallmark scored a coup reuniting Lee Majors and Lindsay Wagner, the bionic heroes of the 1970s, in widely promoted but, sadly, weakly written supporting roles.
The pick-the-worst-painting-in-the-art-show game. You may have noticed that Hallmark movies favor certain professions: struggling/frustrated/underrated/broke chefs, writers, and artists turn up frequently. The artists are always getting ready for a big show. Notice that at the gut-wrenching gallery opening, all of the once or about-to-be famous painter’s works on display will be utterly dreadful, and not one will be anything like another.
So, all that being said, have I sworn off these featherweight fantasies?
Not on your life.
Two Christmases ago, one Facebook friend advised another who was feeling glum to “go watch a Hallmark Christmas movie.” But several other FB pals joined the chorus, and I realized she was serious. I was stunned. That slurpy Hallmark Channel stuff? No way.
Fast forward to summer 2016. We are deep into the divisiveness of the nastiest presidential election in my increasingly long memory. One muggy afternoon, making my way through a pile of ironing, I turn on the TV and zap through the guide. “When what to my wandering eyes should appear…” but a Hallmark Christmas movie. With few other options, I figured it would be worth a good laugh.
The movie, Christmas Under Wraps, starred Candace Cameron Bure and David O’Donnell, with Brian Doyle-Murray as the “Santa figure”. Bure comes to a tiny Alaska town to run its equally tiny hospital after her residency application, her greatest “wish,” is rejected. That Doyle-Murray’s character is Santa is never stated outright; but he is rotund with a white beard, wears red flannel and suspenders, and has a reindeer named “Rudy” in his barn. His son is reluctant to be part of the family business, “Holiday Shipping,” about which everyone in town is pretty cagey. A romance evolves slowly and chastely, and when the doctor has a second crack at the Boston opportunity, she ultimately rejects it, perhaps to become the future Mrs. Claus. One can only suppose. No award-winner, for sure, but charming in its way, with a bonus of some stunning flyovers of Alaska-like terrain and a peak at the Northern Lights.
I didn’t admit it to a soul, but I was interested (or needy) enough to stick with these movies during Hallmark’s “Christmas in July ” marathon. At the least, it was a good backdrop for chores. When my husband wandered in to ask what I was watching, I’d replied, “Stupid romantic drivel.” He was smart enough to leave it at that. When the series ended, promising more to come at Thanksgiving, I told myself I was done with it.
Summer passed. The election and then the post-election invective heated up. Friends were calling each other names, mothers were worrying about fights around the Thanksgiving table, and millennials were foretelling Armageddon. Searching for any escape route, I realized I was not only noticing teasers for Hallmark’s 30-day Countdown to Christmas but also anticipating them with minor enthusiasm. Stripped across prime time at two-hour intervals, the nightly movies promised to keep you warm and cozy and Christmas-y through the entire holiday season. And to keep you company while you’re baking and wrapping and cleaning with daytime repeats.
These movies are shot in idyllic places in the US and Canada, with a deliberate sheen worthy of the channel’s Hallmark Cards roots. Watching a Hallmark Christmas movie is like being inside one of those little Golden Books you’ve stashed in the basement for your future grandchildren. You’re kind of sad when you get to the last page.
One night, when Penn State football was on hiatus till the bowl games and news channel pundits were screaming at each other, I invited Hubby into to my Hallmark world. He sat through the movie with me—I don’t remember which and, of course, it doesn’t matter—and lo and behold, afterward said he’d liked it. Turns out he was ready for a warm, cozy , Christmas-y place, too. So we made it a nightly ritual.
We accepted the movies “where they were”. As Oscar Wilde wrote (snidely, of course), “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.” If you’re a movie buff, you’ll see a hint of “old chestnut” in Hallmark’s line-up. Borrowing from The Bishop’s Wife, Santa sends a young girl elf to help people in the everyday world save the Christmas spirit and get their priorities straight. Borrowing from Roman Holiday, a young princess escapes her entourage to wander the streets of New York incognito and falls in love with a commoner. There are permutations on the Cinderella story, and a secret admirer theme, not unlike the anonymous love letters in The Shop Around the Corner (Nora Effron’s inspiration for You’ve Got Mail).
The acting is so-so in some, acceptable in others, and pretty good in a few. If you’re of a certain age, you won’t recognize most of the actors. To be fair, the Hallmark movie world is overwhelmingly white and middle class, although the newer movies appear to be becoming more diverse.
In spite of both the genre and ourselves, we had a fun time counting down to Christmas. Beyond their predictability and deliberate absence of real-world intensity, the Hallmark Christmas movies demand nothing in return for an “Aw, shucks” warmth that attracts and sustains world-weary viewers. Just as the Busby Berkeley movies (42nd Street, for one) and other bits of fluff got frightened, worn-out Americans through the Depression and World War II.
Photo: A street scene in Vieux Quebec during Carnaval.