Merry Movie Mayhem: North Pole (Round 1)

Today we finish the first round of Merry Movie Mayhem. If you need to go back and catch up on the results thus far just click on the links to see what went down in the Candy Cane, Eggnog, & Mistletoe Divisions. I’m pleased with the pace we’ve set so I think we’ll take a break for a few days before moving on to Round 2. If you didn’t see your favorite holiday film in the competition don’t hesitate to leave me a comment asking “What up with that, dawg??”…or something to that effect. There is probably a perfectly reasonable explanation for its exclusion. Or maybe I just completely overlooked it. Who knows??

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s A Wonderful Life                             

Released                                           12/20/46

Starring                                              James Stewart, Donna Reed                                

Director                                              Frank Capra (It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington)

Rotten Tomatoes                              94%

I feel like I’ve written just about everything there is to say about IAWL in the years since the inception of The Manofesto, but allow me to offer a brief refresher. The story was conceived by a Pennsylvania Civil War historian named Philip Van Doren Stern. The Greatest Gift was not accepted for publication for whatever reason, so Stern simply included it in his annual Christmas card mailings. Someone on his Christmas card list must have liked the short story, because it was subsequently published in 1944. A film producer saw the story and it eventually ended up in the hands of director Frank Capra. IAWL was nominated for multiple Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, & Best Director. A clerical error prevented the copyright from being renewed in 1974, so due to it being in the public domain the movie became a popular late night staple during the holidays on local TV stations throughout the 70’s & 80’s until 1993 when the copyright was restored to Republic Pictures, who then licensed it to NBC in 1996. For the past two decades NBC had shown it only a couple of times every December (early in the month & again on Christmas Eve), but starting in 2016 USA Network (which is owned by NBC/Universal) added a few additional airings. Of course with streaming & other home video options none of that really matters anymore.

 

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Love Actually

Released                                           11/14/03

Starring                                              Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth. Laura Linney, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Keira Knightley

Director                                              Richard Curtis (Four Weddings & a Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’ Diary)

Rotten Tomatoes                              63%

Personally I am more unconvinced of Love Actually’s claim to being a Christmas film than I am Die Hard, but I’m feeling generous. This is one of those movies…like New Year’s Eve, He’s Just Not That Into You, & Valentine’s Day…with a huge, very British, very talented ensemble cast involved in multiple stories that all seem to intersect by the end. There are those who love Love Actually, and maybe they are right. Perhaps I’m missing something or just being obtuse.

 

The Verdict:       It’s A Wonderful Life. Believe it or not there are people that hate IAWL. Some people say “How can a movie about suicide be a heartwarming Christmas classic??”. Others remember when it used to be on TV a bazillion times every December and still hold a grudge, even though a) that hasn’t been the case for over twenty years, & b) there are other movies these days that are shown just as much as or more than IAWL used to be and those same people love those other movies. I guess folks just like what they like, and I happen to adore IAWL. If it’s not your cup o’ tea we’ll just have to agree to disagree. Love Actually is a perfectly delightful film, but not only is it severely overmatched here, it’s also a movie that I just haven’t watched often at all & can take or leave.

 

 

 

 

The Polar Express                                

Released                                           11/10/04

Starring                                              Tom Hanks                                 

Director                                              Robert Zemeckis (Cast Away)

Rotten Tomatoes                              55%

Zemeckis is back!! Actually this was his first foray into motion capture technology…and perhaps one of the earliest feature films utilizing it. The story is based on an award winning 1985 children’s book about a group of kids who ride a magical train to the North Pole on Christmas Eve. Tom Hanks plays a half dozen different characters. I’m totally into motion capture and think it’s cool, but I understand that others find the animation disturbing for whatever reason. I am far beyond the age of believing in Santa Claus, but I’ll be darned if this movie doesn’t make me REALLY want to believe once again.

 

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Deck the Halls

Released                                           11/22/06

Starring                                              Danny DeVito, Matthew Broderick

Director                                              John Whitesell (Big Momma’s House 2)

Rotten Tomatoes                              6%

The Rotten Tomatoes score seems harsh, but I get it. With a title borrowed from the beloved Christmas carol you’d expect this movie to be a bit more uplifting, but it’s not. The story follows two neighbors who end up going to war during the holiday season when one of them decides to put up an elaborate light display that “can be seen from space”. I have to assume that the plot is inspired by those shows you see on The Travel Channel this time of year called Crazy Christmas Lights or something like that, and I think those shows & those types of gaudy displays may have been inspired by National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Personally I prefer elegant & tasteful Christmas lights and can do without the rock music accompaniment, but to each their own. Anyway, in my opinion this movie isn’t as bad as the critics might indicate, if only because of the talented cast.

 

The Verdict:       The Polar Express. I adore this movie. It is the very definition of holiday magic. Wouldn’t we all like to retain that childlike wonder that allowed us to believe in something as enchanting as Santa Claus?? Of course we would. Deck the Halls is better than a rotten 6% rating…but not much better.

 

 

 

 

 

Planes, Trains, & Automobiles 

Released                                           11/25/87

Starring                                              John Candy, Steve Martin            

Director                                              John Hughes           (Mr. Mom, Sixteen Candles, Uncle Buck)

Rotten Tomatoes                              92%

Here we go…back to Thanksgiving. However I think this is probably superior to any other Thanksgiving movie or show. It’s actually a road trip/buddy comedy that happens to be set at Thanksgiving. I’m a huge John Hughes fan. He wrote/produced/directed so many wonderful films. And the pairing of Candy & Martin?? Inspired. Brilliant. Comedy gold. I only wish they would have made more movies together. Thanksgiving is a unique holiday that is difficult to besmirch with commercialism. People don’t want gifts or candy or flowers. It’s not an excuse to party or blow things up. All that most folks want on Thanksgiving is to be at home with loved ones and enjoy a nice meal. This movie captures that desire in such a subtle & funny way that it kind of sneaks up on you.

 

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Arthur Christmas

Released                                           11/23/11

Starring                                              James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie

Director                                              Sarah Smith

Rotten Tomatoes                              92%

A lot of the movies & shows you’re reading about here have been around for awhile…25 years, 35 years, 50 years, 75 years. This is one of the new kids on the block. It hasn’t had time to really ingratiate itself into our pop culture consciousness. It may or may not ever achieve that goal, but does merit inclusion in this exercise. Arthur is Santa’s youngest son, and he’s kind of the black sheep of the family. The North Pole is depicted as a high tech command center, Santa’s sleigh is the sort of ultramodern vehicle that NASA dreams about, & the annual Christmas Eve flight around the world is an intricate operation that’d make the U.S. military envious. The mantle of Santa Claus is passed from father to son, with the current titleholder, Malcolm, on the verge of retirement and his eldest, Steve, preparing to take the reins soon. But this particular Christmas Eve something goes awry and it’s up to Arthur, inept but resolute, to save the day. Arthur Christmas takes familiar territory and adds a futuristic spin, but instead of being cynical itself it is more of a fun commentary on Christmas cynicism.

 

The Verdict:       Planes, Trains, & Automobiles. I like Arthur Christmas well enough. It’s fresh, creative, & entertaining. But the competition is just too much. It has become almost as much of a Thanksgiving tradition as turkey, football, & the Macy’s Parade.

 

 

 

 

 

Frosty the Snowman         

Released                                           12/7/69

Starring                                              Jimmy Durante, Jackie Vernon          

Director                                              Rankin/Bass

Rotten Tomatoes                              60%

“Singing Cowboy” Gene Autry recorded Frosty the Snowman in 1950, just one year after his Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer hit #1 on the charts. But it wasn’t until 1969 that CBS first broadcast the animated special based on the song. Nearly a half century later it is still a beloved annual tradition. While the song is a winter carol that has become tangentially associated with Christmas despite the holiday only being mentioned at the very end, saying “he waved goodbye saying ‘don’t you cry…I’ll be back on Christmas Day!’”, the special is set on Christmas Eve and features Santa Claus “resurrecting” Frosty after he’s been locked in a greenhouse by Professor Hinkle and melted.

 

 

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The Family Stone

Released                                           12/16/05

Starring                                              Diane Keaton, Craig T. Nelson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Luke Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Clare Danes

Director                                              Thomas Bezucha

Rotten Tomatoes                              52%

Dysfunctional family dramedy has become a common theme in holiday films. I really can’t relate because I’ve always gotten along with my family and look forward to visiting with them on holidays. At any rate, there are several subplots in The Family Stone, as everybody seems to have some kind of issue. They scream, they cry, they argue…but familial love wins in the end, as it should. The cast is phenomenal, from the sublime Diane Keaton & elegantly low-key Craig T. Nelson to the wittily charming Luke Wilson & radiant Rachel McAdams. The movie ends on a bit of a downer, which unfortunately impacts one’s lasting impression. The story stays with you for awhile, but not necessarily in a good way.

 

The Verdict:       Frosty. Come on…was there any doubt?? Look, I realize that Christmas can be very sad for many people, and Hollywood feels compelled to address that aspect. I get it…I really do. I will admit that…mostly because of the talented ensemble and nimble writing…The Family Stone has gotten its fair share of repeat views from me. However, at the end of the day I still choose for Christmas to be a joyous occasion despite the harsh realities of life. Maybe someday I’ll be the guy sitting alone in a dive bar on Christmas Eve nursing my whiskey and raging at the jolly masses while wondering why my life has gone so horribly wrong, but thankfully I’m not there yet. Frosty the Snowman is something I grew up with, and for a short time every December I get to bring my inner child out to play, which is awesome.

 

 

 

 

Holiday Inn                           

Released                                           8/4/42

Starring                                              Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire 

Director                                              Mark Sandrich (Top Hat, The Gay Divorcee)

Rotten Tomatoes                              100%

Did you know that the Holiday Inn chain of hotels got its name from this movie?? Well you do now!! Bing Crosby stars as a song & dance man who decides to escape the bright lights of New York and open a quaint Connecticut inn that will only be open on holidays. There is singing, dancing, romance, & hijinks, all centered around familiar celebrations on the calendar. Holiday Inn is mostly remembered for introducing the world to the song White Christmas, but there are memorable performances throughout. They don’t make movies like this anymore, which is a shame.

 

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All I Want For Christmas

Released                                           11/8/91

Starring                                              Ethan Embry, Kevin Nealon, Thora Birch

Director                                              Robert Lieberman (D3: The Mighty Ducks)

Rotten Tomatoes                              0%

1991 will be forever be remembered by the masses as the year that launched the fabled career of actor Ethan Embry. And while he went on to star in cinematic masterpieces like Vegas Vacation, That Thing You Do, and Can’t Hardly Wait, it is this little holiday gem that might outlast everything else. The basic gist of the story is that two kids whose parents are divorced hatch a scheme on Christmas Eve to get them back together (spoiler alert: it works). For such an overlooked film the cast is actually quite stellar, including Thora Birch (who would go on to more notorious roles in American Beauty and…well…American Beauty is pretty much it), Leslie Nielsen as Santa Claus, SNL funnyman Kevin Nealon, & the legendary Lauren Bacall. All I Want For Christmas was a box office bomb that the critics didn’t like, but found new life for awhile popping up on television, which is where I first discovered it. It’s not a great movie, but it is delightful enough.

 

The Verdict:       Holiday Inn. I am eternally indebted to my friend & brother The Owl for introducing me to this movie back in college. I pride myself on having good taste, and films like this display a level of class generally absent from the vast majority of modern entertainment. Would it even be possible to maintain a business that is open less than a dozen times per year?? I have no idea. But the concept sure does make a terrific foundation for this movie.

 

 

 

 

 

The Santa Clause

Released                                           11/11/94

Starring                                              Tim Allen                  

Director                                              John Pasquin (Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous)

Rotten Tomatoes                              75%

There was a brief moment in 1994 when Tim Allen starred in the top rated show on TV (Home Improvement), authored the best-selling book in the country (Don’t Stand Too Close to a Naked Man), & played Santa in the #1 film at the box office. The Santa Clause was the first of a (unplanned…I assume) trilogy, and is indisputably the best of the three movies. It is an origin story suggesting that Santa is a character inhabited by different men at different times. In this case Scott Calvin…a divorced toy executive who has consistently disillusioned his young son…inherits the job when the current Santa falls off his roof and I guess dies…a morbid fact that is mercifully glossed over. Scott & his boy Charlie deliver gifts around the world and spend a night at The North Pole, but the real fun begins the next day when the new Santa thinks it was all a dream…until he slowly begins to morph into The Jolly Old Elf over the next few months. I’m a fan of Santa Claus origin stories, and this is one of the best.

 

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Mickey’s Christmas Carol                   

Released                               12/16/83

Starring                                   Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck                 

Director                                   Burny Mattinson (The Great Mouse Detective)

Rotten Tomatoes                            90% (a)

It’s difficult to tell the story of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in a half hour, yet it’s been tried several times with varying degrees of success. Taken at face value the Mickey Mouse version is perfectly charming. Disney created the character of Scrooge McDuck in 1947 as a homage to Ebenezer Scrooge, and that tribute comes full circle in this show. Mickey Mouse as Bob Cratchit is perfect casting, and a few other cartoon favorites make an appearance (Jiminy Cricket, Daisy Dick, Goofy, The Three Little Pigs, Chip & Dale, Huey, Dewey, & Louie, Minnie Mouse). Television aficionados may be interested to know that Hal Smith (Otis Campbell from The Andy Griffith Show) and Alan Young (Wilbur from Mister Ed) provide the voices for Goofy/Jacob Marley and Scrooge McDuck / Ebenezer Scrooge, respectively.

 

The Verdict:       The Santa Clause. Mickey’s Christmas Carol is a great introduction to the story for small children, but at a running time of less than 30 minutes it only has time to hit the highlights, which is fine for short attention spans but not all that enticing to adults. There is also an issue with accessibility. I remember it being on TV when I was a kid, but I don’t think it has aired with any kind of regularity for a decade…maybe two. The Santa Clause instantly became a beloved classic twenty years ago. Sure it has some undertones emblematic of somber 90’s cynicism, but that is minimized in favor of Christmas magic. I love Santa origin stories, and though it has a modern spin at the beginning the outcome is decidedly vintage.

 

 

 

 

A Christmas Carol (1984)

Released                                           12/17/84

Starring                                              George C. Scott       

Director                                              Clive Donner            (The Thief of Baghdad)

Rotten Tomatoes                              74% (a)

I am a traditionalist in most aspects of life, and it has always been my belief that uniquely British characters from British novels should be portrayed by British actors in film adaptations. However, there are exceptions to most rules, and in this case I must admit that Virginia native George C. Scott is a worthy Ebenezer Scrooge. This version of Carol was a made-for-television production that aired on CBS here in America, but it was released in theaters in Britain and certainly has a big screen vibe. Like just about every other adaptation it takes certain liberties with the novel, adding & subtracting little things, but none are deal breakers. If you’re channel surfing and need your Scrooge fix you could definitely do worse.

 

 

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Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

Released                                           11/18/94

Starring                                              Richard Attenborough, Dylan McDermott, Elizabeth Perkins

Director                                              Les Mayfield (Encino Man, Flubber)

Rotten Tomatoes                              61%

There are no sacred cows in Hollywood. If they’ll remake Psycho, The Karate Kid, Footloose, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, and The Pink Panther then apparently all bets are off. This was clear way back in 1994 when a remake of the 1947 classic Miracle on 34th Street was released. The thing is…it’s not that bad. Macy’s didn’t want to be involved and Gimbel’s was already out of business, so two fictional department stores fill in, but other than that and a few other modern updates the essence of the story remains. Alas, while the underrated Elizabeth Perkins as the jaded mother is luminous, the film itself lacks the innocent magic of the original, replacing it with subtle 90’s era cynicism.

 

The Verdict:       A Christmas Carol. I don’t HATE the Miracle remake and I don’t LOVE this version of Carol, but I am used to there being a plethora of A Christmas Carol adaptations and accept that each of them tries to put their own unique spin on the story. This one brings a lot of good stuff to the table. 1994 wasn’t the first time Miracle on 34th Street was remade, but the others were TV movies made in the 50’s & 70’s that are easily ignored. The 1994 movie can’t be ignored and I’m not suggesting it should be, but it just doesn’t measure up.

 

 

 

 

The Lemon Drop Kid

Released                                           3/8/51

Starring                                              Bob Hope

Director                                              Sidney Lanfield (The Hound of the Baskervilles)

Rotten Tomatoes                              73% (a)

My generation remembers Bob Hope as an aging comedian who frequently hosted variety show specials on NBC, including an annual show at Christmastime when he would introduce college football’s All-American Team, and also for regularly heading overseas to entertain American servicemen in places like Korea, Vietnam, & The Middle East. Hope always ended his shows with his signature song Thanks for the Memory, and the Christmas special traditionally featured him singing Silver Bells. But from the 1930’s thru the 60’s he was also a movie star, and Silver Bells became famous in part due to being sung in this film in which Hope plays a fast-talking racetrack hustler known as The Lemon Drop Kid because of his fondness for lemon drop candies. When The Kid inadvertently crosses a well-known gangster in Florida he is given until Christmas Eve to come up with the money he owes or else he’ll face…unpleasant…consequences. The Kid flees to New York, but when his gig as a street corner bell-ringing Santa Claus doesn’t work out he hatches a new scheme to raise donations for a phony old folks’ home. That plan is going alright until another mobster interferes. Hilarity & chaos ensue, but all’s well that ends well in a fun Christmas Eve climax.

 

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Trading Places

Released                                           6/10/83

Starring                                              Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd

Director                                              John Landis (Animal House, The Blues Brothers)

Rotten Tomatoes                              86%

I wanted to avoid crossover with this project and 80’s Movie Mania, which necessitated a few difficult decisions. At the end of the day that means Trading Places & Die Hard were saved for this competition, while Lethal Weapon was a part of 80’s Movie Mania. At any rate, Murphy & Aykroyd are both SNL alums who went on to bigtime movie stardom in the 1980’s. Their stars have since faded significantly, although they still pop up now & again (Aykroyd has gracefully transitioned into supporting roles, while Murphy still labors under the delusion that he’s relevant). Hot off the success of 48 Hrs. and just before the box office triumph of Beverly Hills Cop, Murphy took this role as a smartass homeless bum who basically switches lives with an erudite stockbroker at Christmastime as part of a social experiment/wager between two wealthy old geezers. The key is that the two guys are set up and not in on the joke. It is essentially a modern take on Mark Twain’s 1881 novel The Prince & the Pauper, and the two leading men really deliver. It is a smart, funny, well-written movie with an immensely satisfying conclusion.

 

The Verdict:       The Lemon Drop Kid. This is a tough call. It’s a great example of what exactly defines a Christmas movie…or not. Both are set at Christmastime. Neither story is dependent on Christmas as a factor in the plot…they both could be set at any other time of the year with few changes needed. However, I think the Christmas timeline plays a slightly bigger role in The Lemon Drop Kid, and we cannot overlook the fact that the movie introduced the world to what has become a very popular Christmas carol. There is an accessibility issue. The Lemon Drop Kid is never shown on television…not even on AMC or TCM, and it’s not available on streaming services. The only way I know to watch it is on YouTube, which is a shame. Trading Places is a great movie…one of the best of its era. But it just doesn’t jump into my mind when pondering Christmas movies.

Top 25 Christmas Carols…The Top 10

Be sure to read Part 1 to get numbers 11-25 on this list. And now…from the home office in the beautiful, snow covered hills of northcentral West Virginia…The Manofesto’s Top 10 Christmas Carols:

 

 


10 Winter Wonderland / Jingle Bells

Ok, so The Top 10 is going to have slightly more than 10 songs. Hey, if the Big 10 conference can get away with having 11 football teams then why should I be forced to stay within arbitrary boundaries?? Anyway, as we move into the upper echelon you will find that the ubiquitous quotient increases exponentially. In other words, now we’re getting to the songs that you sing while caroling and hear on the radio several times per day this time of year. That kind of repetitiveness would serve to drive many of us nuts most of the time, but personally my love for Christmas carols is such that I not only can endure hearing the same song a half dozen times a day for a few weeks, but I actually embrace it.

Jingle Bells is yet another “winter carol”, meaning it’s not actually a Christmas song. Seriously…listen to the lyrics. It never references Jesus, Santa, trees, decorations, gifts, or anything else even remotely associated with Christmas. What it does do is make schlepping around outside in bitter cold and snow sound like fun, which I suppose it would be in a horse drawn sled as opposed to a two ton motor vehicle with hundreds of bad drivers surrounding you and endangering your life. All of us, from the smallest child to the greyest head have probably sung Jingle Bells thousands of times. It’s a happy, upbeat song and that’s a good thing.

Winter Wonderland was written in a sanitarium. I bet you didn’t know that. But it’s not as bad as it sounds. In the 1930’s, when the song was written, sanitariums weren’t places for mental patients…they were simply long term care hospitals, commonly used for folks with tuberculosis. Anyway, another example of a winter song that was not specifically written in reference to Christmas, Winter Wonderland also makes looking outside and realizing that it’s cold and there’s a ton of snow on the ground seem like a positive thing. It describes snow as “glistening” and “a beautiful sight”. The words conspire, frolic, and Eskimo are utilized as well, and that’s impressive and unique. FYI, because I am here not only to entertain but to educate, Parson Brown would have been a preacher. I kind of like that term. Maybe I’ll start calling my minister Parson Rod.

 

 

9 Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer / Frosty the Snowman

I realize I am in my late 30’s heading downhill toward 40. But darn it, I am fully in touch with my inner child and proud of it. Evidence that these two songs are the top two children’s’ Christmas songs can be found on your television, where two animated specials featuring Frosty and Rudolph have been annual traditions for over 40 years. Rudolph may be the second example in history where commerce and holiday wonder converged successfully not only on the balance sheet but in the hearts of the American public (leave me a comment on what you think was the first and we’ll see if we’re on the same wavelength). “The most famous reindeer of all” was created by an ad executive for Montgomery Ward department store in 1939. The character grew from that man’s story into the song written by Johnny Marks and recorded by Gene Autry in 1949 into the famous Rankin/Bass animated special first shown on television in 1964. Frosty was likely created in an effort to ride the wave of success brought on by Rudolph, but that’s okay. If one thinks of it as a sequel atleast it’s a good sequel and not something awful like Jaws: The Revenge or Staying Alive. It’s also another game effort to make cold, snowy weather seem pleasant. The Autry version of Rudolph is still the best, but a very close second is a swingin’ cover by Dean Martin, in which he refers to the titular character as Rudy the Red-Beaked Reindeer. How cool is that?? I personally still like the Jimmy Durante version of Frosty used for the television special better than any cover I’ve ever heard.

 

 

8 Deck the Halls

Deck the Halls continues the tradition of taking a tune (in this case a Welsh song written in the 16th century) and then creating appropriate lyrics for it a few hundred years later. A few random notes must be made about the song. “Gay apparel” meant a whole different thing when the words were written and has nothing to do with cross dressing or anything else in relation to sexual preferences. Jolly and merry are both used in the song, another example of painting a picture and telling us exactly how we, ideally, should feel during the Christmas season. And finally, as anyone who has watched the perennial holiday classic A Christmas Story can verify, Deck the Halls is the opening theme music as played by an unknown (atleast to me) but quite lovely brass ensemble. I love to hear this song sung by a choir or a group of carolers, and if it’s going to be played orchestrally it should be played in an old fashioned way, not too jazzed up with modern instruments and stylizations. One should be able to hear the trumpet, the trombone, and the saxophone.

 

 

7 Sleigh Ride

Sleigh Ride is the Christmas carol equivalent of Boise State or TCU…one doesn’t really expect to see it highly ranked but that lack of respect doesn’t make it any less worthy. Sleigh Ride is a winter carol not especially written for Christmas and has a lot of similarities both in structure and lyrical content with Jingle Bells and Winter Wonderland. The inaugural version was recorded by The Boston Pops in 1949, and they probably still do it best, though I am torn between their purely instrumental adaptation and those with words, such as Mel Torme and Harry Connick Jr. My best advice is to learn the words…which speak of friends, wintry fairy lands, a wonderland of snow, being nice & rosy and comfy cozy, a fireplace, watching chestnuts pop, coffee & pumpkin pie, and Currier & Ives…then sing along to the Boston Pops rendition.

 

 

6 Jingle Bell Rock / Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree

The connection here is obvious…rock. Rock n’ roll swept the nation into a frenzy in the 1950’s, and these carols came along during the latter part of that decade. Both tunes are more what we would today call rockabilly or southern rock, which is probably why I like them so much. I’m a huge fan of bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Stray Cats, and ZZ Top, all of whom fall into that genre to some degree. Even Elvis Presley was really a rockabilly artist. Anyway, both of these songs are just a swingin’ good time. As Dick Clark might say, “they have a good beat, and they’re easy to dance to…I give them both a 10”. The original Bobby Helms version of Jingle Bell Rock is still the best, although The Brian Setzer Orchestra did a nice cover. The song is the opening theme for the original Lethal Weapon (one of the best action and Christmas movies of all time) played just before a girl jumps off the top of a high rise apartment building into the roof of a parked car. Brenda Lee did the best and most well known version of Rockin’, and no other cover really stands out as particularly notable. When I hear it I always think of the scene in Home Alone when the bumbling crooks come by what they think is an empty house only to see a happenin’ party going down, a party that is really only MacCaulay Culkin’s Kevin manipulating a bunch of inanimate objects (including a cardboard Michael Jordan).

 

 

5 Silent Night

Earlier I made reference to sitting in a candlelit church at midnight on Christmas Eve singing softly. This is the second tune which fits that motif. Silent Night is a German carol written in the early 19th century by two Austrians. Supposedly the church organ was broken so the two men wrote the song specifically to be played on the guitar. That seems appropriate. Minimalism is the key when it comes to Silent Night. It doesn’t need to be loud, boisterous, or modern in any way. It needs to be simple, almost meditative. I find it perfectly acceptable to sing acapella, but also with just a single instrument, be it guitar, piano, saxophone, or trumpet. The words are quite possibly the most beautiful and eloquent description of the night Jesus was born ever written. I don’t think it is humanly possible for anyone with even an ounce of faith to not have something stir within them when they hear this song. Give me 24 hours with an atheist and an endless loop of Silent Night and I just might be able to accomplish something wonderful.

 

 

4 White Christmas

Here we go again with trying to make snow sound positive!! The question I have as a person who hates snow is…why do I get sucked in EVERY time?? Written in 1940 by famed composer Irving Berlin (who also wrote God Bless America, Steppin’ Out with My Baby, There’s No Business Like Show usiness and hundreds of other songs), White Christmas was made famous by Bing Crosby, who sang it in the movie Holiday Inn. The song itself inspired another movie (though not a sequel) starring Crosby…you can guess the title. The lyrics provide a perfect mix of wistful nostalgia and old fashioned romantic charm. It’s actually a pretty simple tune, with only two different stanzas that are just repeated. It is the most popular Christmas carol in the world and some say it is the most popular song in history, Christmas or otherwise. Because money grubbing bean counters didn’t really start tracking such things until a decade or so after the song was released no one really knows for sure, but it’s a nice thought. It is certainly influential. Ask yourself this…have you ever hoped, even slightly, for a white Christmas?? Yes, you have…everybody has. The question, again, is why?? Why are we so hell bent on trekking around to various relatives’ houses on Christmas Day in bitter cold and on icy roads?? It makes no logical sense. Christmas would be much easier and more convenient if it were 60 degrees and sunny. But…it just wouldn’t be…right. I blame this song on that kind of insanity being ingrained in to us…this wonderful, beautiful, powerfully expressive song. Because of its popularity dozens…probably hundreds…of artists have covered it. Almost any singer, band, orchestra, or other assorted musical performer who has ever produced a Christmas album puts White Christmas on the playlist. But really, there is only one rendition that is worthy, and that is Crosby’s. That man could sing. Christmas simply isn’t Christmas without White Christmas, and we’re all the better for it.

 

 

3 The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On an Open Fire)

Let me get this off my chest right off the bat: I don’t really care for chestnuts. But look over the list so far…how many songs do I love that glorify snowy , cold, wintry weather all while I detest such conditions?? So who cares if I’d rather have a big ol’ hunk of chocolate cake than a bag of toasty chestnuts?? I have to admit though, Nat King Cole makes those chestnuts sound tasty. Written in 1944 during a heat wave by Mel Torme, the song began as a simple effort to “think cool”. I dig irony, and I dig descriptive. Several songs mentioned in this list paint a wonderful, cozy, fun, or nostalgic picture of the Christmas season, but none do it with the elegance and class of The Christmas Song. It talks about “yuletide carols being sung by a choir”, turkey, mistletoe, “tiny tots with their eyes all aglow”, Santa with his sleigh full of toys, and reindeer. It’s not a religious song, and it’s not a fun kids’ song…it’s sentimental without being sappy, lighthearted without being frivolous. The aforementioned Cole did the definitive version, and I tend not to stray far from it, though I do like Torme’s rendition alot. And as much as I hate to admit it, Kenny G does an exquisite instrumental on his saxophone. A piano and/or sax is essential for The Christmas Song, it’s just that kind of tune.

 

 

2 Blue Christmas

While White Christmas seems to get all the good PR, I give the nod to another color…blue. Country artist Ernest Tubb originally recorded the song in 1948, but a few years later The King (this time I mean Elvis, not Jesus) came along and the rest is history. I suppose Freud-types would love analyzing a single guy’s bromance with a Christmas carol about unrequited love, and that’s okay with me. It’s completely logical that a man in my situation would appreciate the subject matter, although there’s really no one that I am currently pining away for. Musically it’s a simple song, accompanied best on guitar. Elvis, despite his rockin’ reputation, was an exquisite singer with a sublime voice. I suppose that’s why no other cover quite lives up to his. There is one other version that I really like and it’s a bit off the beaten path. Some years ago a person calling themselves Seymour Swine did Blue Christmas as sung by Porky Pig. Folks, do yourself a favor…if you have not heard Blue Christmas by Porky Pig/Seymour Swine stop whatever you are doing and Google it right now. It is one of the funniest things I have ever heard in my life. I have never been able to find out the story behind Seymour Swine and have never heard any other songs by that artist. I think Blue Christmas may have been recorded live in a radio station or something, as one of the funniest things about it is the guys laughing in the background…it makes the song that much funnier. I don’t know of another Christmas carol that evokes such opposite emotions depending upon who is doing the singing. It’s quite the odd dichotomy.

 

 

1 O Holy Night

As bumbling burglar Marv says to his partner Harry in Home Alone 2: Lost In New York…”I’ve reached the top!”. O Holy Night completes the triumvirate of songs best enjoyed in a candlelit church on Christmas Eve. Written in the mid-19th century in France, it is an emotional account of the night Jesus was born. It refers to the “thrill of hope” as “the weary world rejoices”, a “world in sin and error pining”. It uses words like glorious, divine, beaming, and gleaming to describe that hope, the hope we have in our Savior, Jesus Christ. The song tells us exactly what Jesus is all about, that “He knows our need, our weakness is no stranger”, that “He taught us to love one another, His law is love and His gospel is peace”, and that “chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease”. If you can’t get on fire for The Lord after reading those words there is something missing and you better get on your knees and search your soul! But…reading the words isn’t even a good substitute for hearing the song. When done right it is soft and tender before building into a powerful crescendo that fills the heart with emotion. Nat King Cole did a great cover in the 60’s, but he doesn’t have quite enough gas in the tank to pull off the climax as well as it should be done. For my money the best cover I’ve heard is probably Josh Groban’s from a few years ago. That dude has some pipes!! I am sure there are other good versions that I am not thinking of at the moment. At any rate, it’s a beautiful song that should be sung acapella or with very minimal instrumentation by a legitimately great singer, not someone who is good looking and can sing just enough to justify making a record (a description that unfortunately describes probably 75% of what you hear on the radio).

 

 

 

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night. And God bless us everyone.