Bread, Salt, and Wine

As the endless loop of Christmas-cookie-cut Hallmark movies beckons yet again this year, the tried-and-true season classics struggle for air time and our time.  If it weren’t for streaming you might not be able to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas anymore.  You’ll have an easier time finding Miracle on 34th Street (but maybe not the 1947 original).  On the other hand, you should find It’s A Wonderful Life right there in your online library or movie collection.  You do have a copy of the greatest Christmas movie of all time, don’t you?

CNN Entertainment recently posted a list of “Hollywood’s stars’ favorite Christmas movies”, which is wrong on so many levels.  I’m not saying an actor can’t be an authority on movies.  Some of those interviewed have been in Christmas movies themselves.  No, it’s more about the concept of ranking Christmas movies.  It’s a futile attempt to place one above another, when the truth is each of us already has a favorite.  I may be trying to sway you to my favorites today, but deep down I know you have yours and they’ll never change.  Until a better one comes along, that is.

CNN’s list – or anyone’s for that matter – includes movies I struggle to associate with Christmas.  Home AloneThe HolidayYou’ve Got Mail?  Sure, each of these takes place during the season but they’re not really Christmas movies.  Strike them from the list, please.

How about The Santa Clause, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (the 1964 stop-motion original), or How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Boris Karloff or Jim Carrey, you choose).  Okay, now we’re starting to get somewhere.  With each of these films you can at least claim a story about Christmas.  They even include pretty good messages about the spirit of Christmas.  Just not THE message.

A Charlie Brown Christmas still gets me at the end when the Peanuts gang sings, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”.  The Polar Express asks us to just “Believe”, which I would if I could get past its creepy animation technique.  And Love Actually is a collection of feel-good rom-com stories where viewers tend to choose just one as their favorite (again with the rankings).  But none of these films dig much below the surface of the reason for the season. 

[For the record, I’ve never been a fan of “A Christmas Story”.  I think it’s a cult classic with a bizarre sense of humor.  One or more of you will disagree, which means you’ll be happy to know about HBO Max’s follow-up film featuring Peter Billingsley (again) as very grown-up Ralphie.]

Okay, I’ve stalled long enough.  I could take on another dozen so-called classics and explain why they don’t belong on any “best list” of the season’s movies.  Instead, let’s cut to the chase and cover the three films whose stories illustrate the meaning of Christmas:

A Christmas Carol.  The Charles Dickens classic has been recreated on film more times than I can count (and most versions are pretty good) but it’s hard to top the 1938 original.  Maybe it’s because Dickens’ ghosts really scared me the first time I saw them (even in black-and-white).  More likely it’s because Reginald Owen so perfectly portrays the remarkable transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge from mean and miserly to giddy and grateful.

Miracle on 34th Street.  Again we have several versions here, but none better than Edmund Gwenn’s turn as Kris Kringle in the 1937 original (for which he won an Academy Award).  Also, I’ll watch any movie with the lovely Maureen O’Hara, and Natalie Wood is adorable as sweet, innocent Susan Walker.  But above all, “Miracle…” is about believing.  C’mon, you remember the scene… all those bags of letters to Santa being dragged into the courtroom…

It’s A Wonderful Life… is, simply put, in a Christmas class all by itself.  When critics describe this film as, “The holiday classic to define all holiday classics…”, you know you’ve got something special.  If you’ve never seen It’s A Wonderful Life, kindly put down your electronic device and spend the next two hours with George Bailey in his little town of Bedford Falls.  Talk about the meaning of Christmas.  I won’t give it away, but the final scene where Mary drags George down the stairs to see “the miracle” is the message of the entire movie.

Maybe you don’t agree with my top Christmas movies (comments, please!), but you should at least admit to an underlying concern.  All three of my choices were produced over fifty years ago.  Fifty years!  Am I suggesting there hasn’t been a more meaningful Christmas movie made in the last half-century?  YES, I AM!  Seriously, Hollywood, you can do a whole lot better than Elf.

If you’ve spent any time watching the Hallmark Channel this season (and… sigh… a ranking of those Christmas movies can be found here), you owe it to yourself to also watch at least one of the three movies I highlight above.  Hopefully you’re watching them again, not for the first time.  After all, as we learn in It’s A Wonderful Life, there’s much more to bread, salt, and wine than just the title of a blog post.

Some content sourced from the CNN Entertainment article, “Tom Hanks and more stars share their favorite Christmas movies”, and IMDb, the Internet Movie Database.

Triple Booked

The Oxford University Press, a publisher for more than 700 years, churns out 6,000 physical titles a year despite today’s electronic alternatives. Oxford focuses on educational materials, including dozens of dictionaries. At one time the Press had the exclusive right to print the King James Version of the Bible. I know Oxford for one other reason, however: their 21-volume illustrated collection of the works of Charles Dickens.

I’ll bet you have a collection of something yourself, where the number of items in the lot goes beyond pure necessity. We have more Christmas ornaments than any reasonably-sized tree can hold. We have more mugs than we’ll ever use for coffee or tea. My brother seems to collect cars (or maybe he really does drive them all). Whatever feeds our need to collect also fuels our stubbornness to ever let these items go.

Such is the case with my Dickens collection. When I was in my twenties I got a mailer from Oxford Press advertising “a Dickens book a month”.  Must’ve been inexpensive back then, and somehow the collection spoke to me even though I’d never read a lick of Dickens.  Maybe I envisioned my future dwelling with shelves of classic literature (never happened). Several decades after I purchased the last Dickens I still haven’t read a page, but the books sure look nice all standing in a row.  I’ll never get rid of them.

This talk of Dickens and collecting is just a preface to my real topic today.  I’d like you to meet PixxiBook.  Maybe you don’t collect books (outside of those you purchase on your e-reader) but ask yourself: what if you could have your blog posts pressed into books worthy of your coffee table?  That’s what PixxiBook does, and they do it well.

PixxiBook is one of those I-wish-I’d-thought-of-it businesses.  The husband and wife behind the scenes did what most startups do: create a business based on a personal need.  “Tim and Sabrina” wanted to convert their travel blog into a book but realized the process takes more time and effort than most people are willing to invest.  So they designed a computer program to do the work instead.  Then they partnered with a printing press, aligned with WordPress and a few other blogging hosts, and a business was born.

I’m not sure whether Tim or Sabrina gets the credit, but here’s the marketing genius of Pixxibook (and the point where you’ll stop reading this post).  You can create your PixxiBooks from your blog now… and instantly preview the finished product.  No charge.  Just go to Pixxibook’s website, enter your blog’s URL, and watch the computer program crunch through your posts to create your books.  If you like what you see, you can purchase the real thing.  When my wife ordered my PixxiBooks as a 60th birthday present, they were printed and shipped so quickly I’d only written two new posts by the time I got them.  Seven years of weekly posts published in three elegant volumes.  Life In A Word is now a “triple-booked” anthology.

I wrote this one three years ago.

Earlier I mentioned your coffee table, and how PixxiBook is worthy of its surface.  Not quite true.  Some of you – especially you non-bloggers – are thinking, “Nobody’s gonna leaf through old blog posts, Dave”.  Hey, I agree with you.  Blog posts are read and digested, and then we move on to other things.  So why pay for books?

Go back to my Dickens’ collection for the answer.  Those Oxford Press gems are mine.  Not my wife’s, not my dog’s, not someone’s who we invite over for a dinner party.  Mine.  I can admire them from across the room, leaf through one every now and then, or maybe finally start to read Oliver Twist.  Doesn’t really matter what I do with them.  Just like my PixxiBooks.  They’re a nice collectible and worthy of my shelf space.  I’m never getting rid of them.


Lego Grand Piano – Update #4

Today’s portion of the concert was legato or “smooth” (read about my hesitant warm-up in Let’s Make Music!), though I won’t go so far as to say “effortless”.  The only real drama with Bag #4 – of 21 bags of pieces – was the one little piece that skitted off my desk and tried to escape the room.  Caught the little bugger before he got too far.

All Bag #4 pieces assemble to a single structure: the light-colored “deck” you see here with the red pieces towards the top and the grey pieces to the right.  Those little yellow grabbers will eventually secure the piano strings.

The second photo is a good look at the piano “mechanics”.  This view would be as if you were sitting at the bench looking directly at the keys.

Running Build Time: 4.2 hours.  Musical accompaniment: Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Leftover pieces: 3

Conductor’s Notes: Mr. Instruction Manual included a couple extra pages today; pictures to show me how to “turn on” the piano by pushing a button on the battery pack.  Once I did, the battery pack started flashing.  Had to disconnect a cable to make it quit.  Wish I knew what that was all about.  Patience, maestro, patience.

Your True Love’s a Nut Job

Each Christmas season (which translates to every waking moment from Thanksgiving to the New Year), I’m fascinated we still sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. I feel like a character in the Dickens world of Scrooge and Tiny Tim as I labor through the verses (ditto “Here We Come A-wassailing”).  I should sing with an English accent.  More to the point, I question the TDoC lyrics.  What other context do we have for turtle doves and calling birds?  What’s with the gold rings?  Don’t we owe it to ourselves to understand more about a carol we’ve been singing for over two hundred years?

Depending on the source, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was either a) written as a children’s book – which eventually morphed into a song, or b) “code” for memorizing elements of Christian religion at a time when faith could not be openly practiced.  I prefer the latter.  For example, the two turtle doves represent the New and Old Testaments of the Bible, while the four calling birds represent the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  The six geese represent the days of creation (“and on the seventh day He rested”), while the eleven pipers represent the faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.  “My True Love” is Jesus himself.  Clever, no? (see here for the full “code”).

Wikipedia claims “the exact origin and meaning of the Twelve Days song are unknown…” so perhaps we should just leave it buried in the past.  But I can’t do that.  TDoC is so much more fun if you take the literal approach to the words.

The title is innocent enough.  “The Twelve Days of Christmas” equals Christmastide, a season of the liturgical calendar in most churches.  Christmastide begins on December 25th and lasts until January 5th (the day before the season of Epiphany).  Twelve days.  That’s even more celebrating than Hanukkah.  Fine with me – our family likes to drag out Christmas as long as possible.

Beyond the title however, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” descends into total chaos.  Consider the structure of the carol.  TDoC is a “cumulative” song, which means you add the previous verse to the one you’re singing – just like all those animals in “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”.  By the twelfth verse you’re singing about everything, and you’re totally exhausted.  Some people solve the length by having a different voice for each gift.  That’s great for the partridge in a pear tree singer, but kind of sucks for the drummers drumming singer (who only gets one chance to shine).  Make sure you have a solid voice for the partridge in a pear tree.

Speaking of the gifts, let’s do some analysis.  Other than the rings, your true love has an obsession with birds.  He or she is gifting you an aviary on six of the first seven days.  Doves, hens, swans, and more.  Not only that, you’re getting pear trees and God knows how many eggs from those a-laying geese. (Note: pears and eggs make great Christmas gifts).

The final five days, your true love gifts you a bunch of workers and merrymakers for the estate you apparently have.  You’ll gain a herd of cows (what else are those maids a-milking?) and you’ll have a some dancers and a band making quite the ruckus on your front lawn.  The neighbors may complain.  C’mon, you say: how much noise can eleven pipers make?  Eleven?  So you forgot about the aggregate of a “cumulative” song, did you?  Your true love actually gave you twenty-two pipers by the time January 5th arrives… and twelve drummers, thirty-six dancers and thirty guys who like to jump.  And don’t look now, but your twelve pear trees are swarming with 184 birds.  Maybe you don’t have any pears after all.

Sorry, but if this is your true love’s idea of Christmas giving, he or she is a nut job (or at least an animal hoarder).  Here’s my advice: run.  Take your forty gold rings and date one of those lords or ladies instead.