Horrible in some respects – Trump, Australia’s treatment of refugees and North Korea sending off missiles I’m looking at you – but also delightful, wonderful, warm, funny and good for the heart, soul and spirit.
Much of that joy has come from watching, reading, listening to and reviewing all kinds of pop culture, immersing myself in worlds far from my own, spending time with characters I would never normally meet in real life and going on musical journeys to the deepest recesses of the human soul and the furthest expanses of life.
Yes pop culture can take you to many wonderful places and I hope that it takes you this year to a wonderfully festive Christmas and a brilliantly hopefully 2018.
Thank you for coming on my myriad pop culture journeys this year and I look forward to lots more exploring with you all next year.
But for now, this Christmas, I’m wishing that …
You will have the best Christmas possible …
With the best Christmas traditions that mean something special to you …
And you don’t have to spend Christmas in a sewer … or with a difficult relative …
Where no one builds a freeway over the mountain lodge where you’re celebrating Christmas …
Or drops any weird surprises …
Where you are the recipient of warmth, joy, love and inclusion and do not encounter a single Scrooge-like figure – not even a Daffy Duck-shaped one …
And you get to travel back in time and decorate your Christmas tree with Rita Hayworth …
Or hang with Santa Danny Kaye and Santa Nat King Cole …
That gives you a chance for a good cosy snooze (with or without a roaring fireplace)…
That never forgets those Christmas Rules!
Where you can sing Jingle Bells with good friends …
To send you happily off to visions of sugar plum fairies dancing in your head, the silence of no creatures stirring (yep, not even the mice; can you believe it?) and the eve of the most wonderful day of the year (well, besides my birthday), here are sweet hatchlings from The Angry Birds Movie to wish you Season’s Greetings in song (kind of) …
And that you will enjoy the best night before Christmas Eve and Christmas Day possible…
Need some extra motivation to get festive? Here’s the fun-filled opening sequence for this year’s The Simpsons episode …
Finally put your feet up and enjoyed the whimsical festive sweetness of Lynx & Birds, a delightful short film by Blue-Zoo Animation which beautifully celebrates the true spirit of the season. (source: Laughing Squid)
Christmas is one of the most special times of the year.
Family comes together, friends celebrate and neighbours commune, collectively giving the laudable ideals of peace and love a tangible, soul-stirring workout.
But what if you don’t have that special someone, that companion who turns a bright and beautiful time of the year into something even more wonderful?
That’s the central dilemma for the protagonist in Tag by Dan Edgley, who is quite literally made out of, it has to be said, very expressive red and green-wrapped presents, and who comes across a tag lying in the snow and sets off, hopefully and excitedly, in search of its owner.
What follows is heartwarming, sweet and very Christmassy short film that speaks in the simplest and yet most touching way of the festive season’s endless capacity to transform a life for the better.
There are quite a few festive things that, right at home in the depth of a northern hemisphere winter, are almost comically out of place in a southern hemisphere summery Christmas.
Take chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Or walking in a winter wonderland perhaps? Or even dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh.
Or albums called Warmer in the Winter, the fourth album outing by US violinist Lindsey Stirling, quarter-finalist on America’s Got Talent 2010?
Well, maybe, but just as Aussies cling defiantly, contrary weather be damned, to a slew of festive traditions, there’s a very good chance we’ll embrace the wonder and fun of Warmer in the Winter.
For a start, and in the pantheon of much-loved Christmas albums this is almost obligatory, Stirling, who combines violin playing with dance and performance artistry to dazzling effect (check out her video clips sometime), manages to bottle that esoteric, damn near indefinable quality of “Christmasness”.
Essentially something that you know when you feel it, Christmasness is that gloriously good sense that everything is warm and rosy – again in an Aussie summer incongruous but still highly sought-after nonetheless – a contentedness that suggests that for all the Trumps, racists and climate change denialists in the world, that everything is going to be all right.
That, by some miracle, despite the rancid state of geopolitics or less-than-ideal personal circumstances, it really is the most wonderful time of the year.
Maybe it is a sweet, sweet, candy cane-augmented delusion but in the hands of someone like Lindsey Stirling, already highly-accomplished at summoning the most uplifting of emotions out of thin air with her music, you’re more than happy to go along with it.
Pretty much from the first track in fact.
Take the instrumental delights of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” which Stirling invests with her own particular branch of magical feyness while maintaining the robust verve of Tchaikovsky’s original “The Nutcracker” composition.
As seeing-the-scene album openers go, this is a winner, setting up exactly the right kind of mood for tree-decorating and tinsel-hanging – I tried it in person and can confirm it works a festive treat – and remarkably for the second track “You’re a Mean One, Mr Grinch” featuring the vocal delights of Sabrina Carpenter.
At first glance, the two opening numbers may not seem like amenable album mates but somehow Tchaikovksy’s mesmerisingly magical music and a number from the 1966 cartoon special, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, work together beautifully, summoning that all-important intangible quality of Christmasness with effortless, playful abandon.
Next up is the first of three original numbers, “Christmas C’mon” (featuring Becky G) – the title track “Warmer in the Winter” (feat. Trombone Shorty) and “Time to Fall in Love” (feat. Alex Gaskarth) round out the list of beautifully-articulated non-classics – which is all danceable joyful exuberance, “watching the fire glow”, celebrating the fact that a hard year has given way to the companionship of festive bliss.
There’s an infectious invocation to get anyone listening to join in with Stirling’s upbeat playing adding the kind of vibe that will have you dancing around your tree with the kind of happiness that only stepping away from the harsh realities of life and embracing Christmasness can bring you (and yes, just go with it, even in the Aussie heat; that kind of giddy abandon is worth all the sweat, trust me).
For all their pop fabulousness though, it’s Stirling’s trademark instrumentals that really shine.
Shaking off the inertness of pretty much any other Christmas instrumental album you can care to name, and go on I dare you to name any, tracks like “Carol of the Bells”, “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “Let it Snow” possess majesty, emotional-resonance, vivacity and the kind spirit-lifting beauty that makes the season feel as wonderful as it often does.
These tracks add an exceptional loveliness to proceedings, irrefutably proving you can eschew the lyrics of most Christmas classics, integral though they may be, and still come up with Christmas music that sets the scene, ushers you in that rare and special place that is the most wonderful time of the year.
Lindsey Stirling has triumphed with Warmer in the Winter, winningly combining the kind of traditional festiveness she told a BBC interviewer she unashamedly embraces, with her trademark spark and fun, delivering up exactly the kind of Christmas album anyone could ask for, even in the midst of a sweltering Australian summer.
When you’re a Christmas tragic such as myself, one of the key ingredients to falling headfirst, and utterly, completely and absolutely so into the festive spirit – it begins sometime around the end of November, ending only on Boxing Day or in my case, considerably after that – is music, lots and lots of Christmas music.
That includes everything from The Nutcracker through to a slew of carols and modern classics, and even an album, an entire album of brand-new originals (thank you Sia!), all critically-important in getting you in just the right mood.
Whether its decorating the Christmas tree, placing the various fun knick-knacks that line the shelves or stringing the tinsel from light fitting to light fitting (don’t knock it until you’re tried it and no, it does not catch on fire, thank you), or simply kicking back with the one you love, music is as much a part of the season as eggnog, Three Wise Men or reruns of A Charlie Brown Christmas.
So in honour of the special place music occupies in this season of Frosty the Snowman and chestnuts roasting, I’ve selected 10 of my favourite Christmas songs, a by no means exhaustive list, and throw in five reinterpretations by indie artists, to give you some idea of what’s available out there but, more importantly, to get you rockin’ around the Christmas tree or simply tapping your foot and humming happily as you wrap presents, and maybe just maybe, fall in love with this music as much as I have since the days I used to play “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” on the piano every Christmas.
“Marshmallow World” (version by Seth MacFarlane)
If you only know Seth MarFarlane from Family Guy or Ted, you’ll be in for a treat when you first hear what is, by any estimation, a superlatively lush and lustrous voice. He sings absolutely beautifully and even better, has the ability to invest his singing with just the right amount of Christmasness. Sure it’s an intangible quality but my lord does MacFarlane have it and in spades, and it’s on resplendent show on Carl Sigman (lyrics) and Peter DeRose (music)’s 1949 song, “Marshmallow World” aka “It’s a Marshmallow World”, which has been covered by the likes of Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and Johnny Mathis.
“Winter Wonderland” (version by Sara McLachlan)
Granted no one in Australia will ever be able to live this out for real but with someone as gloriously talented as Canadian artist Sarah McLachlan adding joyfully upbeat lustre to 1934’s “Winter Wonderland” by Felix Bernard (music) and Richard B. Smith (lyricist), you probably don’t really need to. And for those of you lucky enough to get a white Christmas – the seasonal occurrence, not the song, although let’s be fair both are good, McLachlan’s damn near angelic voice invests the song with a sweet, aching hushed melancholy that quite magically never loses one iota of its festive hopefulness.
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (version by Amy Grant)
Debuting in 1944 in the film Meet Me in St. Louis, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is as melancholically poignant as they come, as Judy Garland character Esther tries, on Christmas Eve, to cheer up her despondent five year sister who, like the rest of the family, is dreading the family’s move to New York City. It has been covered by anyone who’s anyone really but it’s this version by Nashville-based Amy Grant that really tugs at my heartstrings, helped along by the fact that I’ve been following her career since the get-go and consequently have a sentimental soft spot for all three of her Christmas albums.
“Let it Snow” (version by Frank Sinatra)
Frank Sinatra was an amazing singer no matter what he tackled. But I have always loved his festive classics thanks largely to his ability to add a smooth sheen to songs that we know so well. Take “Let It Snow”, a jaunty song by any yardstick to which Sinatra adds gorgeously rich vocals, big band swing and a sense that no matter how bad the weather is, kicking back with the one/s you love is a thousand kinds of delightful. Let it snow indeed!
“All I Want For Christmas is You” (version by, of course, Mariah Carey)
Now this is a classic with a capital “C”, red and white neon and lettering the size of Texas. One of the few modern Christmas songs to attain classic status, and pretty much instantly too upon its release in November 1994, “All I Want For Christmas is You” is bouncy, longing-for-that-special-someone, extravagantly upbeat fabulousness that manages to keep its giddy optimism (thanks to a driving danceable beat that yields for no one) even with undercurrent of realism creeping in. It’s real but full of promise, alive and yet knowing and it’s taps into everything wonderful about the season, most especially the sense that anything, absolutely anything, is possible.
“It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” (version by Michael Bublé)
Oh how I love Michael Bublé’s softly soulful, velvety-smooth voice. Teamed with Meredith Willson’s 1951 classic “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”, it’s in a league of its own, adding that festively cozy sense of being wrapped in everything good, wonderful and sublime that all the best Christmas songs deliver up in spades. This song is one of my go to decorating songs, adding a delicious sense of contentment to one of my favourite times of the year.
“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” (version by Annie Lennox)
“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, which dates from the 16th century or earlier, doesn’t quite have the popularity it once did but it remains one of my favourite Christmas songs period. It was the one song I’d relearn every Christmas – I was not a naturally gifted pianist so relearning was a given as was the insane amount of time it took me to get it right – and to this day makes Christmas feel like Christmas. So imagine my great delight – go on, I can wait – when Annie Lennox, an artist I adore for her luminously crystal clear, deeply emotive voice added it to the list for her A Christmas Cornucopia album (2010), immediately making the song a standout on a superlative collection of tracks.
“Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” (version by Cyndi Lauper)
Ever since she romped into our lives proclaiming with mischievous colour and brio that “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”, Cyndi Lauper has brought her unique talents to bear on all kinds of music from pop to electronica to country and way beyond. So why should Christmas music be any different? Her entire album is an absolute cheeky hoot with “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” a standout gem, packed full of her distinctive vocals, a bouncy, fun vibe and a fantastic reggae beat that adds a whole new dimension to this classic song of the season.
“The First Noel” (version by Allie Moss)
I’ll be honest – while “The First Noel” is a beautiful carol, it can also sound incredibly turgid in the wrong hands. Hands, which I can assure you, do not belong to New Jersey-born singer-songwriter Allie Moss, who invests this timeless song with a jaunty sense of fun that takes it from a touching but slow-moving song to something with unexpected verve, augmented by her beautiful breezy vocals. If you’re a shepherd sitting in the field with your flocks, this is your song (although the rest of you should listen too, of course).
“Little Drummer Boy” (version by by Mary J. Blige)
Mary J Blige is an impressive artist by just about any measure. Forthright, honest and committed to her artistry, she’s also brilliantly adept at infusing a classic song like “Little Drummer Boy” with her own artistry and style while still retaining everything that makes it so goosebump-inducingly beautiful. This is one of those songs that makes me feel most Christmassy and Mary J Blige just nails it, choir and all.
And now for some Indie festive fun (courtesy of enormously-funky music site We Are the Guard) …
“All I Want For Christmas is You” by Cappa
Now you may think that “All I Want For Christmas is You” is so closely identified with Mariah Carey, the artist who first sang it, and has turned into a multimedia empire now encompassing an animated special and a children’s book, that it’s well-nigh impossible to do anything startlingly original or fresh with it. Well Nashville-based pop artist Cappa is here to prove that not only can you so something right out of the ballpark with it but you can make the song absolutely and definitely your own. She invests the song with a looping, folksy, guitar-driven flavour that plays up the melancholy but not at the expense of its hopeful air, aided and abetted with an achingly-emotive voice and some trippy chorus elements that make this one version that will stick in your earworm, throughout Christmas and well beyond.
“The Christmas Song” by DENM
DENM has been one of my finds of the year and I have yet to find a song of his that I don’t want to obsessively listen to over and over and over and over … well, you get the idea. Proving he has more than that special something, he has delivered up yet another compulsively-listenable song in “The Christmas Song”, written in 1945 by Bob Wells and Mel Tormé and popularised and well-nigh impossible to separate from music great Nat King Cole. The California artist obviously isn’t daunted by tackling such an iconic song, and gives it a deliciously “Garage-Dance alt-pop cover” (We Are the Guard), courtesy of vocal samples and some inventive use of pan-flutes, that beautifully reimagines it while honouring everything we like about the song.
“Carol of the Bells” BY MXMS
Talk about really pushing the boundaries and succeeding way beyond expectations. LA/NYC-based Ariel Levitan and Jeremy Dawson, purveyors of icily melodic funeral pop known as as MXMS, have taken “Carol of the Bells”, written in 1914 by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych in 1914 with lyrics by Peter J. Wilhousky, which has always had a decidedly dark ethereal edge to it even in its more conventional iterations, and give it a spine-chillingly dark and glossy sheen. All of which gives it even more of an emotional impact than it already had, and making it one of the more evocative versions of this song. It’s quite simply a stunner.
“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” by alxxa
So you’re probably thinking – what is the giddily upbeat son “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”, which doesn’t a dark or despondent or remotely cynical bone in its body doing with an artist who places skulls atop Christmas trees (a cleverly rad idea by the way which I love). Why giving it a fantastically edge new feel that works like a charm – Delaware-based artist alxxa has gifted Edward Pola and George Wyle 1963’s classic “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” with a wholly new kind of upbeat vibe, one that relies on the indie electro pop that alxxa is so well known for, in the process, keeping it cheery and yet more melancholically thoughtful, entirely in keeping with the feel of the season.
“Do You Hear What I Hear?” by Jamie Lidell
English singer/soul musician, now based in Nashville and formerly of band Super Collider has taken “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, written in 1962 with lyrics by Noël Regney and music by Gloria Shayne Baker and given it a major, and I mean major tempo boost to absolute winning effect. It’s so brilliantly danceable in fact that it’s hard not to move your feet to Lidell’s inspired take on the song.
NOW THIS IS FESTIVE MUSIC EXTRA EXTRA!
Are you in the mood for a parody of “Little Drummer Boy”? Then you’re in luck! Courtesy of Jimmy Fallon and Martin Short, I give you The Little Trumper Boys (source: Decider)
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, published on 17 December 1843 to almost immediate popularity and acclaim, is one of those books that is so happily ubiquitous that you feel as you must have read it.
So intimately familiar with the story are we, thanks to countless reinterpretations on TV and on film – and yes I will happily admit my favourite iteration is A Muppet Christmas Carol – and so well-known are characters like Scrooge and Tiny Tim and phrases like “God bless us every one”, that you assume you have a pretty good handle on the Dickens’ ageless story.
The surprising thing is, and really it shouldn’t be since books and film/television are wholly different mediums and thus elements of the story get left out of any adaptation, how much more is in the book that you might be familiar with.
“External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, not wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have him. The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast the advantage over him in only one respect. They often ‘came down’ handsomely, and Scrooge never did.” (P. 3)
The essential story is pretty much as we all remember it, written in the luminously rich and fulsome style that Dickens is rightly celebrated for – Ebeneezer Scrooge is a miserly nasty rich man with no time for the welfare of others such as his employee Bob Cratchitt or his upbeat nephew who finds through the visit of the chained-up ghost of his old partner Marley and the Ghosts of Past, Present and Future that he has not only led a cruel, nasty and dehumanising life but that his actions are going to cost him dearly on an eternal scale after death, and those in his orbit a similarly punitive amount whilst on earth.
It’s a good old-fashioned Victorian morality tale that’s written with such fervour and passion, and such scorn for the prevailing social conventions of the day such as poor houses and debtors’ prisons, that you can help but be swept up in Dickens’ enthusiastic writing style.
This is most in evidence when Dickens describes each and every stage of Scrooge’s transformation through the visits of three very different Ghosts.
We are all familiar with the before and after moments, but what’s missing from the many TV and movie adaptations is how deep and profound these changes are, how seismically they seize Scrooge almost immediately who, when he is lifted from the myopic, self-interested morass his life has become, becomes painfully and tearfully aware, to an ever-escalating degree, how much he has failed to live a good life, one that benefits others and not just himself (and honestly, as Dickens makes all too painfully clear, not even him in many ways).
The pain and horror as he witness how his thoughtlessly cruel actions have affected people like his ex-fiancee, Bob Cratchit and his family, and countless others including the men who come collecting for charity, and then the ecstatic joy that seizes him when he realises he can make spectacular amends are an absolute delight to read.
Truly a delight.
Dickens uses such extravagantly rich language in A Christmas Carol that reading the book is like sitting down to a fine festive feast.
However, unlike many a Christmas lunch where excess is guaranteed and too much of a good thing a common cause of regret, Dickens judges his loquaciousness pitch perfectly, offering a story that is intensely rich and emotionally resonant without becoming overbearingly earnest or polemic.
Yes we come to understand how wicked and lost Scrooge is, and how much he has transgressed and thus how great his turnaround is, but it is never over the top, always erring to damning or celebratory depending on where you are in the book but never to the point where it all feels fantastically unreal.
It is, of course, exactly that in one sense with the Ghosts representing elements of time and humanity in ways that are anything but the same old repetitions of the everyday.
“He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.” (P. 125)
For all the otherworldliness of much of the story, you can’t help but come to appreciate when you read Dickens’ superlatively-poetic words, just how deeply-rooted in humanity the entire book is.
Even Marley, who arranges for the Ghosts to visit in what is surely a massively magnanimous gesture from beyond the grave, especially since he won’t benefit a jot from Scrooge’s turnaround, represents every person who puts themselves out for other.
Given Dickens upbringing, which included a stint in a shoe-blacking factory when he was a child to help pay off his father’s debts, a period which played a key role in informing the acutely socially-aware outlook of his adult life (what his biographer Michael Slater called “deep personal and social outrage”), the book’s focus on redemption and following Christ’s encouragement to look after “the least of these” entirely makes sense.
As does Dickens’ decision to put an enormously heartfelt – you can tell in every word that he is writing from massively impactful personal experience – message about using Christmas as a meaningful opportunity for giving.
He reasoned, and quite rightly too, that people are more inclined to heed such an important message in a rousingly immersive story than a stridently polemic article, a line of reasoning that bore fruit with a sustained and sizable uptick in giving to the poor following in the wake of the publication of A Christmas Carol.
Above all though the book, that became one of Dickens’ most popular works, is simply a beautifully-inspiring story well-told that is a joy to read, even in its darker, crueler earlier passages, full of rich detail and delightful turn of phrase that captures with exquisitely affecting truthfulness the real meaning of Christmas in a way that many others have struggled to match.
Way back in 1988 when I first saw Die Hard, which is as much a love letter (albeit a violent one) as an action thriller – you may recall that John McClane (Bruce Willis) is in L.A. from New York where’s he’s a cop to see his estranged wife Holly and hopefully rekindle the fires of romance – it didn’t even remotely enter my mind that anyone would make a children’s picture book of the film that launched Bruce Willis’s career as a bona fide action hero.
But they have, and as you would expect given it’s drawing from iconically awesome source material, it’s a very impressive effort.
It hews faithfully to the film because after all how can you improve on cinematic perfection, and makes the point, quite rightly too, that Die Hard is a “holiday classic”.
“What, what?!” you say. “How can that be, what with all the terrorists and death and people falling in life-ending fashion from buildings [to be fair, is there any other way to fall? But I digress]?”
To which I would reply, sans quote marks, that the way McClane singlehandedly (with cheerleading provided by Sgt. Al Powell, played by Reginald VelJohnson) takes down Hans Gruber, played by the inestimably great and much-lamented Alan Rickman, saves all those lives, including most importantly Holly’s, and restores some peace on earth and good will to all men, when there has quite noticeably been none, is pretty damn festive, is it not?
After all, things could have gone quite differently had McClane not taken out Karl, and Tony – I mean, c’mon he scrawled Ho Ho Ho in bright red ink on Tony’s sweatshirt, with the terrorist even wearing a red Santa hat; Christmas PLUS my friends – Eddie, James and all the others, including most spectacularly Hans, and there would not have much deck the halling going on for anyone at Nakatomi Towers.
And John’s gift to himself of a rejuvenated marriage to Holly would not have happened, putting a dampener on his romantic plans for the future.
Die Hard then is the ultimate holiday movie.
That much is obvious from A Die Hard Christmas which has festooned its cover with holly sprigs and pretty yellow Christmas lights on its cover, which lovingly features McClane front and centre, Al standing faithfully next to him, and Hans and Karl looking suitably cool, calm and non-festively menacing.
Adding to the Christmas feel is writer Doug Horner decision to creatively channel the rhythmic flow and feel of Clement Clark Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, which begins with the immortal lines “‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house / Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse”, a rhyming scheme reflected in the first lines of A Die Hard Christmas:
“‘Twas the night before Christmas, and up in the tower, everyone was partying, except one wallflower.”
Doesn’t that make you think of eggnog, chestnuts roasting and presents under the tree?
No, okay, fair enough it’s actually a little bit of a downer.
But then Hans and his nefarious gang arrive in their truck and the murderous mayhem with only man left to stop them in their tracks – the “wallflower” himself John McClane who, glass-cut feet and all, goes into bat for Holly and her fellow employees (except for slimy Harry Ellis, played by Hart Bochner, who is traitorous sleazebag and rather fatally, and permanently ends up on the Naughty List) and saves them all.
Sure he loses heart at one point, only rallying when good old Al talks him around, but he comes good, and Christmas, and many lives are saved falalalala lalalala.
How can you not feel festive with that kind of story, especially with Doogie Horner’s fun rhyming poetry and JJ Harrison’s wonderfully cute artwork to speed you on your merry way.
Granted, it’s not the kind of book you’d show to kids unless you want to replace all those visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads with bloody, bullet-filled bodies – I am guessing not but hey I could be wrong – but it is indeed the picture book for the season, a delightful retelling of an ageless tale that we knows ends well, just like every Christmas should …
“Bearer bonds fluttered like fresh fallen snow as Holly embraced her blood-spattered beau.
So Merry Christmas to all, be kind to one another, And, most of all, yipee-ki-ay, motherfucker!”
As a recording artist, it makes sense that you’d be tempted to go Full Throttle Retro Festive when it comes to putting together a Christmas album.
After all, consumers of festive tunes know what they like, and what they generally like is for your album of Christmas songs to sound like Frank Sinatra meets Ella Fitzgerald meets Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life.
Of course, it’s expected that you’ll throw in an original track or two, infuse your personal sound into proceedings, and celebrate your love of the season.
But that is about as far as it goes, and so, in the grand scheme of tinsel-draped and eggnog-soaked things, you’re expected to knuckle down, throw in some be-bop and big band and sing your mid-twentieth century Christmas-music loving heart out.
Some artists buck this trend such as Annie Lennox or Sia (who has an album of all originals – the rebel! Yet even she sounds delightfully retro festive) but most duly comply such as Gwen Stefani who serves up in You Make It Feel Like Christmas exactly, and I mean exactly, what the yuletide doctor ordered.
That is not by any means a stinging criticism or damning with faint praise critique of the album.
In fact, by any estimation, Stefani neatly ticks all the boxes with her festive album, even going so far as to throw a whole lot of new love into the mix courtesy of her relatively-recent relationship with fellow The Voice judge, Blake Shelton.
After all as Mariah Carey, and countless others throughout the years have proven, love and Christmas go together perfectly, one feeding off the other with deliciously- happy reciprocity.
And yet for all the love in the air, and the glowing sense that life is so much better at this most wonderful time of the year because love is, as Love, Actually made beautifully clear, “all around you”, Stefani’s album sounds curiously inert.
Not bad, not horrible to listen to – quite the contrary it kind of fun in a wholly undemanding way – just not spectacularly its own creature or desperately remarkable and distinctive.
Songs like “Jingle Bells”, “Let It Snow” and “Silent Night” are giving either a rousing, foot-stomping festiveness, or hushed, snow-covered reverence, and in their own way a reasonably pleasurable to listen to.
Even her original songs, imbued with a giddy sense that life is only going to get better, such as “My Gift is You”, When I Was a Little Girl” and “Under the Christmas Lights”, all of which sound suitably earnest, sweet and loved up, fit the template perfectly, full of hope, contentment and a sense Christmas has been even better, considerably better, by the presence of that special someone.
Yet for all the ticking of boxes, and the pleasure of the listen, You Make It Feel Like Christmas lacks any real sense of personality and presence.
Perhaps, given the creative straitjacket that we as listeners place on artists when they’re making these albums, it’s wholly unfair to level this kind of critique upon them.
But plenty of other artists manage it and manage it with aplomb – artists like Annie Lennox, Sarah McLachlan and Michael Bublé, to name just a few, manage to retro the proverbial out of their festive offering while still offering up something wonderfully, warm-and-fuzzy inducing unique.
Granted they don’t massively reinvent the wheel with a few exceptions, but they don’t make you feel that for all their observances of convention, that there’s something wonderfully reflective of who they are in their Christmas music.
Oddly you never get that with Stefani, a strange dynamic given how utterly out there in all the best ways she has been with her solo music to date.
But You Make It Feel Like Christmas, while perfectly delightful and a lovely addition to your festive music collection, lacks that special something, that extra bit of something distinctively Stefani, that might have fulfilled her wish, told to EW, to ” hit on something that people want to hear every year. That would be the fantasy: to be Mariah Carey.”
If there’s one thing that is always totally and utterly welcome in any TV show’s Christmas episode, especially in a series already delightfully rife with cheesy, heartfelt moments, it’s a happy, cosy, all is well with the world neat ending, preferably one tied up with a pretty red glittery bow.
After all, while there are a lot of lovely, real things about Christmas such as decorating the tree, time with family and friends, presents, the birth of Jesus and fruit mince pies, a great deal of what we tell ourselves during the season are sweet little white lies.
We all buy into them, and honestly it wouldn’t be Christmas without them, but the truth is not everyone get peace, love and joy, or companionship or that wonderful sense that everything is going to be perfectly all right.
But in the season 2 (1971-72) episode of The Partridge Family, “Don’t Bring Your Guns to Town, Santa” – hate to break it to you but the red jolly man doesn’t make an appearance but why let that get in the way of a cracker of a title? – everyone, and I mean everyone, gets a happy ever after.
That includes the family themselves, who appear to put up their Christmas tree on the 25th itself, looking perfectly well-rested and beautifully dressed after presumably driving all night, the old man (Charlie the prospector, played by Dean Jagger who appeared as General Waverly in White Christmas) they meet in the ghost town where their gaily-coloured chequered tour bus breaks down on the way back from a concert in Las Vegas, and Christmas itself which emerges bright and shiny and complete courtesy of a tale the Charlie tells the family.
It’s a good old western fantasy that features the family in the main roles, a tale that harkens back to the town’s glory days when the saloon run by Shirley (Shirley Jones), serving milk, lemonade and cookies, was a hive of activity, the sheriff was a bumbling young man (David Cassidy who sadly recently died) with a guitar, Laurie (Susan Dey) was the school teacher and the hero of the piece, a cowboy dressed in white known as Little the Kid (Danny Bonaduce), and the villain all in trope-heavy black called Mean Sydney (Dave Madden who plays Reuben Kincaid, the band’s manager) and a silver bell to welcome Santa hung in the town’s tower.
Of course, being a gripping, not to mention morally-instructive, warm-and-fuzzy Christmas eve story, one meant to calm the nerves of the two youngest Partridges (Brian Forster and Suzanne Crough as Chris and Tracy respectively), there has to be some threat to the spirit of Christmas, which comes in the form of Mean Sydney who rather melodramatically steals the bell.
And then, naturally, walks into the saloon with it obviously wrapped in black claiming it’s his shaving gear.
Oh no! How will Santa know where the town is? How will everyone get their presents? It’s Chris’s big concern if they’re going to be trapped in the town over Christmas, far from home and presents, and the townsfolk’s too, who try everything from sweet talking to benign trickery to get the bell back.
It’s not until Little the Kid tries and fails to win the bell back with a card game, and everyone thinks all hope is lost, that the half-decorated Christmas tree is magically carpeted in light, tinsel and ornaments, presents appear in profuse wonder around it, and it becomes clear it wasn’t the tree that brought Santa but the town’s kind and generous festive spirit which transforms Mean Sydney to Giving Sydney.
The entire tale is fabulous, wonderfully over-acted and hammy as a Christmas dinner but it’s a delight to watch the Partridges have some fun, and to see them learn that Christmas is as much about those you encounter and how you treat them as your own family’s celebration.
Naturally enough, when Reuben and Keith fix the bus in no time flat and the family leaves the town, you know, you just know, that they wouldn’t just abandon good, kindly Charlie out on his own on Christmas tree, and ‘lo as the bell rings magically out of nowhere, the lonely prospector walks out his door to see the family (and a fully decked-out Christmas tree that appears from nowhere) there to spend Christmas eve in full regalia with him, singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (a heartwarming bookend to “Winter Wonderland” which opens the episode, pre-titles).
Sure, it’s preposterously perfect and neatly happy and way, way over the top, but gosh darn it, and get me some roasting chestnuts, isn’t that just what you want at Christmas? A sense that life is as lovely as you imagine it can be at this time of the year?
“”Don’t Bring Your Guns to Town, Santa” is a cheesy bundle of seasonal joy that even includes the family breaking through the fourth wall to wish the audience happy Christmas, and well worth your time, especially if you’re a fan of festive TV episodes that make the world seem like a perfectly wonderful place to be.
My thanks to Christmas TV History which celebrates this episode and more; want lots of festive TV? Go visit this blog!
If you are of a certain age, and I mostly am, and spent your childhood reading the books of British author Enid Blyton, you will be more than a little aware of her Famous Five books which feature siblings Julian, Dick and Anne, cousin George (Georgette) and of course, Timmy the Dog.
In book after seemingly endless book – there were 21 in the series in all, a far cry from the six to eight titles Blyton originally intended to write – the gang cheerfully set off for adventures in the countryside before encountering some relatively innocuous plot or something that they duly solve, over some hearty country food.
It’s all very sweet, nostalgic and heartwarming with the five romping around with no adult supervision in the most carefree and idyllic life imaginable.
A life so innocently twee that it is crying out, damn neat shouting really, which is what a bunch of British comedians – Peter Richardson as Julian, Adrian Edmondson as Dick, Dawn French as George and Jennifer Saunders as Anne, collectively known as The Comic Strip Presents … – did back in 1982 in Five Go Mad in Dorset.
Now, with the Five still very much ripe for some modern parody, Bruno Vincent, channelling his inner Enid Blyton, has delivered up Five at the Office Christmas Party, another in the Enid Blyton for Grown-Ups series which include such evocatively funny titles as Five Go Gluten Free, Five Lose Dad in the Garden Centre and Five Escape Brexit Island.
The idea behind the books, says Vincent in The Telegraph, is to make merry with the foibles of the modern world through the prism of the Famous Five and their memorable, quite distinct characters:
“These new books aren’t mocking Blyton’s prose style or her values – rather, they’re making fun of modern life and the trials of adulthood through the eyes of four wholesome, British middle-class characters. Hence titles such as Five Go On A Strategy Away Day, which should resonate with anyone who has sat through a bonding session at work.”
While there are no “lashings of ginger beer” – this was actually never uttered in the Famous Five books; rather this hilarious reference to the Five’s incessant love for food and lots of it was the product of the Dorset send-up – there’s plenty of booze, courtesy of a now very grow up Julian who seems to spend much of his life drunk and falsifying his CV.
Fired from his high-flying job when his boss queries whether he really played in the French Open and spent two years mapping the Marianas Trench, he goes to work at his cousin Rupert’s “Special Sales” company doing good old bog-basic data entry with his siblings and George, and even Timmy who for reasons unexplained, pops up everywhere including at the titular Christmas party.
Working in what can only be described as simultaneously an ordinary, dysfunctional office with the expected range of idiosyncratic personalities and an oddly oblique one in which the core business objectives are weirdly oblique, pompous Julian, laidback Dick, sensible George and sweetly idealistic Anne – this draws on Vincent’s own description of the characters in The Telegraph article – soon find themselves asked by Rupert to plan the Christmas party, a poison chalice if ever there was one.
Playing up Julian’s predilection for self-indulgent leadership, and the unwillingness of the others to challenge in any kind of substantial way, which seems his blow the party budget “researching” it, Five at the Office Christmas Party is an hilarious satire of modern office culture in general, and Christmas parties, with their minefield of professional and social pitfalls, in particular.
There’s even a quirky, very Famous Five ending which will delight anyone who has ever read the original books.
Five at the Office Christmas Party isn’t so much laugh-out-loud funny as it is slyly, wittily subversive, giving us the four characters as they very well may have become in adulthood. (In Blyton’s books, they are, as you’d expect, eternally young and out-and-about in the southern English countryside.)
Vincent doesn’t overstay his welcome, not there’s much risk of that given how beautifully and perfectly pitched the book is, with the Christmas party parody coming in at a festive-friendly 104 pages, which includes artwork that mimics that which appeared in 21 original titles.
As updates go, particularly ones with a keen eye on the cynical sensibilities of 21st century life, the book is a triumph with just enough narrative to sustain it, some deft characterisation that really does feel like the Famous Five all grown-up (lord knows how Timmy is still alive but I’m willing to let that slide since what’s the Famous Five without him?), mirth-inducing oneliners and pithy observations and the sense that if Blyton was still alive and looking to update her characters for an older audience, she might just go down Vincent’s road.
While it’s safe to say that the justly-celebrated British novelist Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) did not, in fact, invent Christmas – that honour belongs, I think we can safely say to one Jesus Christ – he was very much its saviour when it came to rescue the holiday from looming social oblivion.
At the time of the release of A Christmas Carol in 1843, which introduced us to the miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge, his much put-upon employee Bob Cratchit and a host of supernatural visitors, all of whom play a part in a Christmas miracle of sorts, Christmas was seen as a socially-irrelevant holiday.
While Queen Victoria had begun popularising some of the more Germanic aspects of the holiday such as the tannenbaum (Christmas tree) through her marriage to her beloved Prince Albert, Christmas was seen as nothing particularly remarkable, an attitude that Dickens encountered head-on when he pitched A Christmas Carol to his publishers in mid-October 1843.
Desperate for a hit after some flops including Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of Eighty and The Old Curiosity Shop following the immense success of Oliver Twist – which was a massive hit in the United States where Dickens toured extensively – Dickens persevered with his idea, publishing the novel at his own cost after his publishers expressed doubt that he could write the novel and get its published and into stores in just six weeks.
Drawing on some of the manic energy that the Bharat Nullari-directed The Man Who Invented Christmas uses to brilliant effect throughout the film, Dickens plunged into the writing of what became his most loved and popular work, uses myriad influences to shape the characters, plot and themes.
A social progressive whose own life had been blighted by misfortune – with his father and family in the poorhouse, 11-year-old Dickens was consigned to work in a dark, dank factory making black shoe polish under considerably less than ideal conditions – Dickens was reputedly inspired to write A Christmas Carol by a visit to the Field Lane Ragged School, an institution caring for London’s destitute and deprived street children.
In the interests of narrative efficiency, the film shrinks Dickens’ inspiration down to a few key moments, such as his encounter with a Scrooge-like figure (Christopher Plummer) in a back lane burial ground one night, a man so dark and unloved that he is the lone “mourner” at his business partner’s funeral.
Dickens also drew from the supernaturally-laced Irish folktales of his maid Tara (Anna Murphy) which talked about the way the barriers between the physical and spirituals became permeable on Christmas Eve, a potent source of material given the intense supernatural influences in the narrative of A Christmas Carol.
Quite how these influences and a host of others actually influenced Dickens is a matter of considerable academic musing and conjecture, but suffice to say that The Man Who Invented Christmas makes merry with these and a slew of other ideas such as the Marley-ness of Dickens’ lawyer and the author’s reported propensity to keep a notebook full of possible names.
It is in fact when Dickens, having reached a writing roadblock, is playing around with a possible name for Scrooge that the film introduces one of its most captivating and amusing narrative conceits – the maddening life of a writer in search of the next big idea, veering between creative elation and searing despondency.
As Dickens loudly and eccentrically walks back and forth in his large study, pressed by his significant debt and looming deadline to flesh out A Christmas Carol in record time, you witness him throwing all kinds of names back and forth, forth and back, in a bid to meet his character.
As soon as he settles on the name Scrooge during one of many fevered sessions, which his wife Kate (Morffyd Clark) and close friend John Forster (Justin Edwards) bear with mostly good grace (and some exasperation), the character springs to life, as do many others over the course of the novel’s creation, vividly and winningly bringing to life the way many writers interact with the people who populate their works.
Ask any writer and they will tell you that their characters become real people to them, coming alive and talking to them in ways so real and material that it’s like they are flesh and blood entities, who often take control of their own character’s trajectory and thus, quite often, the narrative itself.
This dynamic serves as a highly effective way of illustrating the writing process, accurate to the way it happens for many writers, but also an immensely visual way of demonstrating how Dickens possibly went about writing A Christmas Carol.
Let’s be honest, sitting there watching him scratch at some paper with quill and ink would not have been all that exciting, and so combining these characters sprung to life with Dickens’ volubly idiosyncratic writing life is a masterstroke, injecting The Man Who Invented Christmas, based on a book of the same name by Les Standiford, with a vivacity and witty life force it might otherwise have lacked.
Screenplay writer Susan Coyne also draws rich and highly instructive parallels between Dickens’ own life and that of his characters, with the idea that both his own unwillingness to forgive his father (Jonathan Pryce) and his eventual reconciliation with his upbringing played a pivotal role in both the before and after Scrooges.
Typical of many writers, Dickens would have drawn on his own life experiences to inform his works and so the idea that his father and people he knew were a fecund source of inspiration makes perfect sense, even if some poetic license has clearly been taken with the way the book came to be.
While the film is remarkably careful to stick to many known facts, such as Dickens’ key role in popularising many modern aspects of Christmas such as family gatherings, seasonal food and drink and generosity of spirit, it also bring a great deal of imaginative flair to proceedings such as situating Dickens great epiphany that A Christmas Carol should have a redemptive ending, in the blackened depths of his old work factory.
The Man Who Invented Christmas is richly-written, imaginatively directed and beautifully plotted film that brings the writing of A Christmas Carol gorgeously and wittily alive, taking care to pull back the curtain on both Dickens life and the writing process, giving us in the process a perfectly-articulated companion to the many, many immersive iterations of his timeless and uplifting tale.