I always watch the original Dawn Of The Dead around Thanksgiving for a few reasons, mainly because it was around that time that I first saw the movie, but also because it has a late-autumn feel to me. Plus, you can’t go wrong with a zombie movie on a day that celebrates overeating. Also, I had a friend in college who always purported that he would listen to “The End” by The Doors before going to bed after a drunken night. Do you have any CDs/films/books that are linked to anything for you personally, and that you try to experience as part of a tradition? —Nick N.
My family isn’t particularly sentimental about Christmas anymore—there used to be a lot of inter-family rituals involving friends and relatives, but once the kids went off to college and the adults retired, our schedules got harder to coordinate. At this point, Christmas ritual consists of some minimal, obligatory gift-opening and a big meal. But every Christmas when I go home to visit, the one constant is that we have to pull out and play John Denver And The Muppets: A Christmas Together a few dozen times, usually while wrapping those gifts and preparing that meal. We all associate the album with those warm Christmas-y feelings—the rare ones that have nothing to do with commercialism or religion—and my sister and I specifically associate it with childhood. It’s about the only piece of Christmas that still feels like it used to when we were 7 years old. A more modern and slightly less explicable Christmas ritual consists of me and my sister watching Deep Blue Sea on Christmas Eve. Years ago, we were sitting around talking and she came across it on TNT while channel-surfing. I’d never seen it before, but it was so terrible and hilarious that I was mesmerized, and she was amused. And when it ended, it immediately started up again, so we watched it again, this time from the beginning. The following year, we were sitting around talking and she said “Hey, your favorite movie ever is on!” and we watched it again. For some reason, it’s always on some cable channel or the other on Christmas Eve, and we always wind up watching it. Because what could possibly be more Christmas-y than watching Samuel L. Jackson getting eaten by a motherfucking smart-shark?
I probably have a million of these, but the one that comes immediately to mind—considering that I usually start doing it right about now—is my annual tradition of making mix-tapes of weird holiday music for my family and friends. I’ve been doing it for almost 15 years now, and while it gets easier every year (especially lately, with the proliferation of mp3 blogs and like-minded obsessives), it still involves me spending much of November combing the Internet and haunting thrift stores, and listening to about two dozen really terrible Christmas songs for every good, or at least extremely strange, one that ends up on the mix. Then there’s creating a cover, sending it out (I use these in place of Christmas cards), making sure that I haven’t duplicated anything from past years… It’s a joy and a chore, which are the two main components of a ritual. Around my house, it’s always a lo-fi Christmas.
I moved a lot in college and the years after, as one does, and I got in the habit of listening to The Smiths’ Strangeways, Here We Come as the first and last album I played in each place. Why? No particular reason, really other than I was really into that album around the time my freshman year began, and while I don’t have that many compulsive behaviors, I stick by them once a habit starts. I haven’t moved in years now, but it was still the first thing my wife and I listened to when we moved into our condo, and I think I know what the last thing played before we move out will be.
When I was a kid, my grandparents were the first line of daytime babysitter defense for my parents. I spent many a weekend afternoon sitting in their living room watching old VHS copies of Peanuts videos, because they were the only thing I liked watching that wasn’t horribly outdated. I loved them all, but had a special place in my heart for It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, I think largely due to the silly ghost costumes the characters wore. It just put a big smile on my face, and to this day, I always equate watching the video—which I now have on DVD—with autumn and my grandparents. (Their house always smelled kind of like fall, too, probably because of all the baking; my grandma makes the best chocolate cake known to all of mankind, and that is a cold, hard fact.) Every year when I get home from Thanksgiving dinner at that same grandparents’ house, I watch it—no, not A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, which I also own, but Great Pumpkin. The ritual almost got ruined, though: In college, there was this fraternity that made it a habit of having Great Pumpkin viewing parties every Halloween, and making it into a drinking game where you do a shot every time a character yells, “Great Pumpkin!” A lot of my friends went, but I just couldn’t bring myself to ruin those memories of lying on the heated floor and watching Charlie Brown almost kick the football.
Not to smash this answer over the head with obviousness, but I have gotten into the habit of watching It’s A Wonderful Life right around Christmas. It’s funny, because I don’t think I actually saw it until I was in my late teens, and even then, I resisted its socialist charms. But my wife has loved it since we were kids, and she’s always up for a viewing—she recently insisted that we keep her beat-up old VHS copy, even though we have a much more recent DVD issue. Another memory about it that makes me want to watch it every year: I have a tough-guy friend who makes sure to watch it every year, often at revival theaters, too. I accompanied him to the Times Cinema in Milwaukee a while back, which is the only time I’ve ever seen it in an actual movie house. “Merry Christmas, old building and loan!” (Here’s some bailout money!)
I really can’t figure out how my answer fits into popular culture, but it is my holiday-entertainment mainstay: Thanksgiving isn’t complete to me without The National Dog Show. Thanksgiving morning, I wake up and put on the parade, but only to catch Santa and the Rockettes. Then my dad, brother, husband, and I deliver some dinners for our church and get home and try to walk the fine line between being available to help my mom out with dinner while at the same time staying the F out of her way. Meanwhile, while we take in the wonderful aromas and wait for the company to arrive, we watch John O’Hurley and David Frei talk about dogs. Since our family has had two Shetland sheepdogs back to back, we typically rooted for the herding group, but since we adopted a greyhound last year, the hound group is our new team. But of course all the dogs are winners. (Except the poodles—they’re like the Yankees of dog shows.) I also typically choke up during the tribute to service dogs. It’s just the perfect, pleasant, kind of ridiculous way to while away the time until the big meal. I’m a little bummed because this year I won’t be with my immediate family for Thanksgiving, but I’m hoping that my in-laws won’t be opposed to turning on the dog show, even though they are cat people.
I have a number of rituals that border on obsessive-compulsive. For a long, long time, before I sent an e-mail related to the manuscript I was trying to sell, I made a special point of listening to Too $hort’s “Gettin’ It” in its entirety. Being incredibly superstitious, I was convinced that it would be bad luck to deviate from the routine even a little bit. Then I realized that my good-luck ritual wasn’t bringing me any luck at all, and I abandoned it. I replaced it with a ritual where every time something really, really good happens to me, I listen to Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco’s “Touch The Sky” on repeat on my iPod. When I sold my book, when Roger Ebert blurbed my book, when I made the front page of The New York Times, I celebrated by strutting around Chicago listening to Kanye West. It became my own personal theme music, the soundtrack to some of the best moments of my life. It’s not a bad tradition. I think I’ll keep it.
In my lifetime, I’ve loved and lost a lot of ladies who didn’t always appreciate my particular charms or mad alliteration skills, and every single time I said goodbye to one of them, I enacted a ritual cleansing by putting the same song on repeat for about a week and a half: Country Teasers’ “Bitches’ Fuck-Off.” The lyrics (“I’m tired of bitches bitchin’ / I’m tired of slags slaggin’,” etc.) aren’t exactly enlightened, but they’re perfect for that initial post-breakup period where you’re all like, “Yeah, fuck women! All I need is me and my friends and a bottle of whiskey,” and you haven’t yet gotten to the point where you realize that all your friends are busy with their girlfriends, and meanwhile you’re lonely and constantly hungover, and all you want to do is sit in the dark and listen to Songs Of Leonard Cohen. Of course, I’m married now and totally in lurve, so I have no real need for “Bitches’ Fuck-Off” anymore. But it’s a tradition worth passing along to all you fellas out there for when things inevitably go wrong, like burning sage inside your heart.
At the risk of bringing everybody down, I find that I reflexively reach for Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited whenever I have to drive someplace where somebody has died or is dying. I did it when my uncle died in a car accident seven years ago and I had to drive two hours to my dad’s house, and I listened to it obsessively for weeks to and from the hospital where my grandfather passed away in 2004. Highway 61 Revisited isn’t a somber record in the slightest, and I think that’s why I’m drawn to it when I’m feeling shattered—I always hope that a little of Bob Dylan’s arrogantly indomitable sense of strength rubs off. Another personal pop-culture ritual started up around the time that The A.V. Club launched new websites in our distribution cities—including my city, Milwaukee—in 2008. I was feeling beaten-down and stressed out during pretty much every waking moment of the day at the time, and in order to push myself to keep going, I started watching the first 45 minutes of Full Metal Jacket every morning. And you know what? Listening to R. Lee Ermey scream poetically vulgar profanities really is inspirational, though I wonder if comparing my plight to that of Vincent D’Onofrio is what really made me feel better.
Steve beat me to It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, which I didn’t think was a likely occurrence. That special has been the source of angst for me the past few days, because I failed for a number of reasons to watch my DVD of it, as per custom, in the days leading up to Halloween, and now I just can’t tell what would happen—in space-time-continuum terms—if I were to watch it after the fact. It’d be like wearing Christmas socks in August. Or would it? In mind of it now, I can’t help but point to this piece I wrote about it a couple years ago, which stands as one of my favorite things I’ve ever written.
I like the idea of entertainment rituals, but I have hard time sticking to them. So far, the only one I’ve managed consistently is my annual Halloween horror-movie marathon. For seven or eight years now, I always take a day off at the end of October and spend it on the couch, watching scary flicks and eating candy. First movie I watch is always Bride Of Frankenstein, and the last couple years, I’ve ended with John Carpenter’s Halloween. In between, I try and watch things I’ve never seen before, and I also try and find at least a couple movies that will scare me, which gets more and more difficult the more things I see. This year, I had a friend along for the ride, so I didn’t much bother with serious scares. It was still a swell time, though, and one of the reasons that Halloween has supplanted Christmas as my favorite time of year. But maybe that’s a sign. This December, I’ll set aside a few hours to watch Batman Returns, Die Hard, and Gremlins, and maybe I can get started on ritual number two.