Me hanging my stocking in 1987. Excited much?
Despite what the above photo may suggest, I'm not really one of those people. I'm not a Scrooge, and I do enjoy Christmas, but I'm not as much of a fiend as some people.
But I must say – I do love a good Christmas movie, when the time is right. I love sitting by the fire, slapping on a pair of wool socks, grabbing my favourite holiday snack and watching whatever classic is on TV at the moment. There's something about watching it on TV versus a DVD, too. You know other people outside your house are watching along with you, and others are enjoying the warmth of the season. It's more of an event.
You get to the week or two before the big day, and they're on TV all the time. ABC and NBC and CTV, they've all got their logos ornamented with multi-coloured Christmas lights and animated snow, and closer and closer to December 25, increasingly, there are more and more Christmas commercials on. When I was a kid, that was one of the ways I got excited about Christmas – by the number of holiday ads that came on in between parts of whatever was playing on the CBC Family Hour on Sunday nights. I would actually count how many of the commercials were Christmas ones. Weirdo. But whatever.
Speaking of the weirdness of kids, let's get right to one of, if not the greatest Christmas movies ever.
A Christmas Story (1983)
Set in 1939 or 1940 (trivia debates which year it was), this nostalgic tale of 9-year-old Ralphie (Peter Billingsley), who is just DYING to get a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas, has become a pop culture phenomenon.
When I first discovered this movie, it was 2003 and I'm pretty sure that back then you couldn't buy leg lamp ornaments at Hallmark, and there most certainly wasn't a Broadway musical based on the movie. I've never seen a Best Christmas Movies list without Bob Clark's A Christmas Storysomewhere near the top. It's super popular.
But, I'm going to claim that I have a special connection to it because Ralphie reminds me a LOT of myself as a child.
Although he is a quiet, reserved kid on the outside, there's a whole lot of scripting going on in that little blond head of his/mine.
Case in point: When Ralphie is sitting in his grade two classroom and lapses into an elaborate daydream about penning a short essay about what he wants for Christmas that is so dramatic, it moves his teacher to tears and inspires the rest of the class to shower him with roses and carry him around on their shoulders. He is blowing kisses to them as they all wipe tears from their eyes – so moved at his brilliance.
That is SO something I would have imagined during math class as a youngster.
This reminds me so vividly of so many of my own occurrences, including the time I retreated to my bedroom with my supper plate one evening, to work on my impression of Dorothy in the tornado scene of The Wizard of Oz. I hurled myself onto my bed in fake unconsciousness after being hit by a fictional pane of glass. But when I landed on the bed, there was that supper plate. BAM! Right on the noggin. That snapped me out of that drama pretty quickly.
When Ralphie snaps out of his daydream, the class is laughing at him and his teacher tells him his request from Santa is ridiculous. “You'll shoot your eye out,” is the frustrating response he gets from all the grown-ups, regarding his request for a Red Rider BB gun. The line is said several times throughout the movie, much to Ralphie's chagrin.
The sense of nostalgia in this 94-minute treat is so strong, you'll wish you could jump through a portal into your childhood for just one more time...back to that crazy buildup to the big day.
Jean Shepard and Bob Clark's writing is pitch-perfect - the voice of a man recalling his childhood with fondness and humour, while still strongly connected to the boy he once was. The writing is deeply connected to the thought processes of a nine-year-old, and articulates them in an intelligent adult's voice.
“Getting ready for school was like getting ready for extended deep-sea diving,” grown-up Ralphie recalls in voiceover, as he describes the gargantuan snow suits his mother would force him and his little brother, Randy (Ian Patrella), into.
Come on now - what child in St. John's, Newfoundland (or any snow-blessed part of the world, for that matter) can't relate to that? I used to HATE putting my snow suit on. It was so bulky and uncomfortable, and you could barely frigging move once your mother had stuffed you into it and pulled up that loud zipper that had most definitely nipped your chin and made you bawl at some point. You're in there and you're all sweaty and you can't move, and all that fresh snow that you couldn't wait to leap into? It's ruined. What the hell good is fresh snow if you can't move your arm down far enough to grab snow for a snowball? You were liable to plunk yourself down to make a snow angel and never get up! Therefore, the scene where Randy is crying as his mother stuffs him in there is very relatable – we all felt the same way, and you all know it.
“We plunged into the cornucopia, quivering with desire and the ecstasy of unbridled avarice.” - Ralphie
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989)
It's Chevy Chase at his ultimate. A true Comedy Stud of the 80s, his trademark Clark Griswold cheeriness that lights up all the National Lampoon's Vacation movies shines here as bright as the Griswold's obnoxiously lit house in Christmas Vacation.
All he wants is the perfect family Christmas at home. The lights, the tree, the turkey, the roaring fire with the cup of egg nog in a reindeer mug – that's all he wants. Of course, that's not what happens, and what ensues is a parade of misunderstandings and disasters – from the obnoxious lights he has covered his house in not working, to the literal shit explosion in the front of his house, caused by his low-life, trailer park cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid in possibly the best role of his career).
I first heard of this movie circa 1991, when my friend Stephanie came home from visiting her cousins in Calgary, and told me about this hilarious movie they watched over and over again calledChristmas Vacation. Although this was in July and I thought they were all nuts for watching a Christmas movie repeatedly at this particular time of year, I had to check it out and have loved it ever since. It's the one movie I have to watch every year.
The writing, especially Clark's lines, is sharp and witty, and the script is full of great lines.
Great Quote: “Oh, the silent majesty of a winter's morn...the clean, cool chill of the holiday air...an asshole in his bathrobe, emptying a chemical toilet into my sewer...” - Clark Griswold
The Family Stone (2005)
This movie is totally underrated, in my humble opinion, and I haven't seen it on any Best Christmas Movie lists. Whuuuuut??
It has Diane Keaton, for God sakes. And Sarah Jessica Parker, and Rachel McAdams, and Dermot Mulroney, and Claire Danes. Oh! And Luke Wilson and Craig T. Nelson.
Everett (Mulroney) brings his new fiance, Meredith (SJP) home for Christmas to meet his family. They do NOT like her. She's stiff, snotty, anal. She's, like, totally uppity and doesn't fit in with their close-knit family at all. This becomes increasingly clear as the movie ticks on, and the nuances between each family member emerge.
There are five siblings – Everett (Mulroney), Ben (Wilson), Amy (McAdams), Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser), who is about to get a divorce and has a little girl, and Thad (Tyrone Giordano), the gay, deaf little brother who has brought his black fiance home for the festivities (Thad's boyfriend is a lot more popular than Meredith. A LOT).
The rest of the siblings are all convenienetly single, and love matches evolve with various people as the story unfolds. There are lots of scenes with them teasing and making fun of each other, cuddling on the couch, spending time together as a group and one-on-one. The movie is essentially a series of self-realizations about themselves and each other. There are a lot of onion skin layers being peeled in this flick.
It's funny, heartwarming, and heartbreaking all at once.
This is usually the movie I snot and bawl over in a room lit only with Christmas tree lights, by myself, while bulldozing segment after segment of a full Terry's Chocolate Orange into my mouth.
Bad Santa (2003)
Before Billy Bob Thornton became a hateful ass hole following his notorious2009 appearance on CBC Radio's Q with Jian Gomeshi, he was a much more likeable ass hole and appeared in movies like Bad Santa.
As an alcoholic conman who accepts a job as a mall Santa as a front to rob the department store on Christmas Eve, he's rude, crude, selfish - a blood-sucking human maggot, basically.
In true (well, somewhat) Miracle on 34th Street style, Willie/Santa (Thornton) meets The Kid (Brett Kelly), who wholeheartedly believes that Willie is the true Santa Claus. The same thing happens inMiracle on 34th Street, but in that movie, the child is a sweet and highly intelligent little girl. In this movie, it's a boy with the body of Sapphire's Precious, platinum blond geri-curls, and a wit that is dimmer than a dying Christmas light bulb.
The Kid is being raised by his demented grandma (an uncredited Cloris Leachman), as his absentee father has no time for him and his mother abandoned him. He's desperate for love in his life, and for whatever reason, he sees Willie as a Santa father-figure. He sets off on a mission to do whatever he can to take care of him – brings him home, fixes him many sandwiches, lets him drink all of his dad's booze and invite chicks home to bang them in the spare bedroom.
Willie is baffled - flabberghasted even - at the immense stupidity of this possibly mentally-challenged child. But The Kid goes from being a “Thornton” in Willie's side, to an endearing angel-on-earth who, miraculously, loves him unconditionally.
If you can handle extreme rudeness and even more extreme crudness, underneath it all is a gorgeous little unconventional tale of two unlikely friends who kind of fall in love.
[After The Kid has asked Willie/Santa for a purple stuffed elephant for Christmas, but has changed his mind]
Kid: I want a gorilla named Davy for beating up the skateboard kids who pull on my underwear. [Santa looks at the kid in confusion] Willie: Jesus, kid. When I was your age, I didn't need no fucking gorilla. And I wasn't half as big as one of your legs. Four kids beat me up one time and I went home crying to my daddy. You know what he did? Kid: He made it all better? Willie: No, he kicked my ass. You know why? Kid: Because you went to the bathroom on mommy's dishes? Willie: What the fuck? No! Kid: He tried to teach you not to cry and be a man? Willie: No. It's because he was a mean, drunk, son of a bitch. And when he wasn't busy busting my ass, he was putting cigarettes out on my neck. The world ain't fair. You've gotta take what you need when you can get it. You've gotta learn to stand up for yourself. You have to stop being a pussy and kick these kids in the balls or something.
A Muppet Family Christmas (1987)
The story kicks off as Fozzy Bear is driving Kermit, Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew - the wholeMuppet Show gang - to his mom Emily's farm house so they can all spend Christmas there together. But little does Fozzy know, his mom is on her way to Malibu and has told Doc and Sprocket (from Fraggle Rock) they can use her house while she's gone to spend a nice, quiet Christmas alone.
What a conundrum. “Oh well”, says Fozz, “But can me and my friends still hang out, right?”
Tactful bear, that one.
“Of course”, says his mom, and off she tromps, out to her taxi, flip-flops and beach ball tucked under her arm (who brings an inflated beach ball on the plane anyway?).
This made-for-television holiday special was revolutionary for me, because it not only featured the Muppets from The Muppet Show, but ALL of Jim Hensen's muppets.
Like, the gang from Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, AND Muppet Babies were all there at Emily's farm house, meeting for the first time and celebrating the holidays together! It seriously blew my mind. I had never before thought of the b'ys from Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock as muppets, but now that I did think of it, it should have been obvious to me all along.
It was like when you'd run into your teacher in the store and they were wearing normal, casual clothes and not teacher clothes. Awe-inspiring. You couldn't believe that teachers shopped for normal things like milk and toothpaste. Didn't they have someone to do that for them? I would stare at them in wonder, agape. You wouldn't know now but Punky Brewster had just walked into Sobey's to buy dog food for Brandon.
Same feeling. But when I came to accept it, I was beside myself with glee. This is bloody brilliant! I thought.
As the gangs from each individual tribe made their arrivals at the farm house, the excitement mounted like a roller coaster approaching the top of the drop.
It was done as a sort of reveal. You didn't realize at first that the tale involved ALL of the muppets being in the show! Why would you?! It was simply unchartered territory!
Finally, when the Sesame Street gang and the muppet babies (who, for the first time, appeared as puppets and not as cartoons – another mindblowing reveal) were revealed, almost the whole extended family was safe and cozy under one roof.
All except for one. Miss Piggy wasn't there yet. She was finishing up a gig and had to meet the rest of the crew at grandma's farm house.
And get this - there was a snow storm approaching (the same snow storm that prevents Emily Bear from getting to Malibu).
My terrified little face was mere inches from my grandparents' 22-inch Sony on Baltimore Street, where I clearly remember watching this special for the very first time. Kermit was so worried about her. What would happen if Miss Piggy got stranded in the snow storm? Buried alive, even? The love of Kermit's life – gone forever.
Everyone else tries to pretend everything was normal...the Swedish Chef chases Big Bird around trying to make a sumptuous holiday feast out of him. The Fraggles spy on the Sesame Street gang from within the walls, where the Doozers compulsively build their amazing architectural marvels only to have them destroyed as the Fraggles as they selfishly gorge on Doozer Sticks (the building material) and radishes. Man, The Fraggles was by far the most stoner of all the muppet shows. Who thinks of this stuff? Stoners, that's who.
The ending of the show is quite a wonder, when Miss Piggy arrives, looking beautiful, riding atop a sleigh with a fur coat and dreamy look on her face and waving her chubby, satin-gloved hoof at Kermit and all of the other muppets. She has calmed down and refrained from beating her slaves who have been pulling the sleigh, and joins the rest of her friends in the warm and cozy house to enjoy a merry tune by the name of, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
As if there hasn't already been enough magic in this television special, Jim Hensen himself is then shown, watching this sing-a-long from the kitchen while he and Sprocket wash dishes.
As the credits rolled, I left the room shaking my head in disbelief, my eyes wide. Nan made me some peanut butter toast and I couldn't even speak.
But here's the real tragedy:
Due to music rights only being secured for television, this special has been edited so much on DVD releases that it's not even worth watching. And I haven't seen it on TV for years. So if anyone has an illegally downloaded copy of this special, as it aired on the CBC Family Hour, please – PM me.
If not, this special will have to live on only in my mind, as I continue to revel at the genius idea to fuze muppets from all four franchises into one fuzzy Christmas special.
Doc says to The Count, as Kermit frets over Piggy: There's one worried frog. Count: Ah, that's ONE! One worried frog! Robin: No, he's not the only one. Count: That's TWO! Two worried frogs! Ha ha ha ha! ---
So there you have it. Whether your poison is a classic, contemporary, drama, or comedy – I hope you get lots of wooly sock-ed movie-watching in this holiday season. Xoxo, Wicks.