This week’s question is from associate editor Marah Eakin:
What are your family’s holiday movie, music, and TV traditions? Does your family always spend Thanksgiving day watching football, or do you go see whatever new blockbuster is in theaters after you open presents?
Without fail, my family will both watch parts of The Christmas Story over the holidays (usually as my grandma grouses about how we’ve seen it before in the background) and take a trip by the actual Christmas Story house and school in Cleveland. Somewhere, there’s a humiliating picture of me pretending to have my tongue stuck to that school’s flagpole, I’m sure.
The only holiday movie tradition in the Browning household is the discussion of which movie we should watch on Thanksgiving night. My parents do not really watch movies. A typical conversation goes something like this:
Mom: What Christmas movie should we watch tonight?
Me: Let’s watch Elf. It’s fun.
Mom: Absolutely not. Isn’t that one of those Waiting For Mr. Guffman movies? [Waiting For Mr. Guffman—not Waiting For Guffman—is how my mother refers to Christopher Guest movies, which she claims to hate.]
Me: No, no, no. It’s Will Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel.
Mom: You’re lying. It’s one of those Waiting For Mr. Guffman movies.
After much more of the same, we finally agree to watch Elf, my mom admits that it’s nothing like Waiting For Mr. Guffman, and my dad spends the next week listening only to Zooey Deschanel’s music. Similar conversations have recently been repeated with Die Hard and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Merry Christmas.
My wife is the baby of her family; her big sister is older than my parents. And because her dad—an old Chicago steelworker, with blotchy tattoos on his forearms from his time in Korea—is what you’d call elderly, and because he has Parkinson’s, her parents never come to visit us, so we drive down to visit them. They retired to southern Missouri, right at the bottom of the Ozarks, to one of those little senior towns where every driveway has a boat in it. That’s where we spend Christmastime. And once we’ve given the gag gifts and the real gifts and my father-in-law and I have done the thing where we put on a good John Wayne movie and he falls asleep after 20 minutes, there isn’t a whole lot to do. Except, of course, drive to Branson, which is maybe 20 minutes away. Branson, to those unfamiliar, is the Las Vegas of the Bible Belt. It’s the location of the Titanic Museum, which is shaped like the bow of the ship and which you enter through the iceberg. It’s the place to see 3 Redneck Tenors, The Texas Tenors, The Twelve Irish Tenors, and Dublin’s Irish Tenors, of which there are five. It’s the town where Shoji Tabuchi—a Japanese country fiddler with a bowl haircut and a predilection for custom-made sequined jackets—is king, and where a Barney Fife impersonator can have his own stage show. It’s where Yakov Smirnoff lives and where he performs in his own personal theater, which has a huge animatronic Yakov Smirnoff head out front. I know this, because I have gone to see Yakov Smirnoff at his theater in Branson and I have met Yakov Smirnoff in Branson and I have had a conversation in Russian with Yakov Smirnoff in Branson, in front of a picture of the World Trade Center that he painted himself. He spoke with an American accent, and tried to upsell me on his dinner show.
While in more recent years we’ve started going to the movies every Christmas—I discussed my misadventures seeing Django Unchained with my family in an earlier Q&A—throughout my childhood, the annual viewing of what was called simply “The Christmas Tape” was a sacred holiday tradition. (My parents were never big on purchasing commercial VHS tapes, and so our home-video library consisted largely of themed, handmade tapes lovingly compiled from various broadcast recordings over the years. Thus, we had The Christmas Tape, The Halloween Tape, The Muppets Tape, etc.) The Christmas Tape included, in order, How The Grinch Stole Christmas, A Garfield Christmas Special, A Claymation Christmas Celebration, Christmas Eve On Sesame Street, The Christmas Toy, ’Twas The Night Before Christmas, Rudolph, The Red Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Frosty The Snowman, and something that is referred to on the label as “Disney Gift—Some Of 1st Half.” I don’t remember what that one is, exactly, because I was usually asleep, content and full of Christmas cookies, by then.
Christmas is a very important holiday for my wife’s family, and a much less important one for my own, so I’ve spent the last few yuletide seasons with her folks in Wisconsin. What that’s meant, beyond a gauntlet of gifts and delicious snacks and seasonal jingles, is that I now watch Love Actually once a year. That’s right: Taylor Swift’s favorite movie—a veritable Robert Altman ensemble of romantic-comedy clichés—is now an annual staple of my adult life. As one could probably guess, this isn’t a tradition I especially cherish, but the honest truth is that I’ve warmed to the movie a little. The stuff that bugs me about it—like the weird abundance of fat jokes, or that supposedly romantic scene where Rick from The Walking Dead uses signs to declare his love to his best friend’s wife—bugs me every time. But a few of the stories have worn down my defenses; all the stuff with Liam Neeson as a grieving family man, for example, is poignant—though maybe I’m letting sad details of the actor’s biography color how I watch those scenes now. In any case, my wife and I have found the perfect preemptive strike against the impending sappiness of Love Actually: A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas, which we now watch the night before leaving for Wisconsin every December. Now that’s a ritual I look forward to.
Since I was about 8 years old, my Dad and I would gather in the basement around 3:30 p.m., and watch Die Hard. Granted, we would do this before we went to Christmas Eve church (which I would perpetually dread). After church, we went to my Grandma’s for dinner and some early presents, all of which we had to plead to open before Christmas. The Die Hard tradition still holds a special place in my heart. As a young kid, John McClane was my hero. I even once asked for a white tank top that I covered with fake blood (I was a weird kid). But those precious few hours, with church looming, was our time. The guys’ time. Sometimes my Mom would come down before the movie was done if we were running late, see some terrorist-inflicted violence or a classic McClane obscenity and storm back upstairs. Last year, we watched it again, as always, so we’re on our 22nd anniversary. Technically it is a Christmas movie, and at the very least, it’s our Christmas movie.
I’m only very faintly Jewish—on my father’s father’s side, the side that doesn’t count at all, and even there no one’s so much as eaten a latke since the old country. I grew up with Christmas and Easter, but for a long stretch, my favorite holiday was Hanukkah. It’s not that I’m dazzled by eight consecutive days of presents, or am particularly good with a dreidel, it’s just that the holiday used to mean Yo La Tengo’s Hanukkah shows. For many years, the Hoboken indie rockers would play all eight nights at the band’s hometown (and now-defunct) venue Maxwell’s. Each night would be a different setlist, different openers, and a different special guest that would join the band for the encore. The first opener was always a band, and you didn’t know who you were getting until they got on stage—one year the opener I saw was a punk band made up of 14-year-old boys; the next year it was The National. The second opener was always a comedian, and you could reliably expect somebody good—over the years, I saw David Cross, Todd Barry, and Paul F. Tompkins (who did a poignant, hilarious set about his mother’s funeral). Yo La Tengo would open every set by lighting the menorah, and what followed was always a warm, celebratory show that felt like it was performed for an audience of close friends. And then came the encore—Alex Chilton fronting a clearly starstruck band; The Feelies joining them for an 18-minute version of “Sister Ray;” David Byrne leading them through old punk tunes. Even the end of the night was entertaining, as the venue is nowhere near the subway and fans and artists alike would vie for taxis—a friend inadvertently stole a cab that had been called for by Ray Davies, and I once witnessed a teenager try and convince Britt Daniel and Carrie Brownstein to give him a ride back to Brooklyn (after some debate, they did). Sadly, the tradition died along with Maxwell’s last year, so looks like I’m back to being stuck with Christmas. Presents? Good cheer? I’ll happily trade them to be huddled in a dark, crowded club, hoping they play “Tom Courtenay.”
I’m Jewish, so we do what any good Jews do on Christmas: We go to the movies and eat Chinese food (the Eichels also happen to do a Secret Santa, but c’mon, who doesn’t like presents?). There’s just one issue. We consistently see movies that we all have high hopes for, yet universally hate. Nine? No good. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button? Yawn. A nasty case of food poisoning hit me during Django Unchained, and the rest of the fam was not impressed. My dad and I spent so much time complaining about American Hustle afterward that I’m sure we soured everyone else on it. Our tradition has oddly obtained this warm and fuzzy glow around it where we sit around and reminisce about our terrible decision. At least we’re all in it together.
The Siede family has three must-see movies every holiday season: White Christmas, The Muppet Christmas Carol, and It’s A Wonderful Life. Over the years we’ve updated our VHS copies to DVD versions, but the films have stayed consistent ever since I was a kid. We usually get White Christmas in early to kick off the holiday season, while it’s much better to save Muppet Christmas Carol for late December so the line “There’s only one more sleep ’til Christmas” really resonates. On Christmas Eve we host a big party for the 30-odd people in my extended family. And during a mid-party lull—somewhere between dinner and drunken carol singing—someone inevitably ends up throwing our copy of It’s A Wonderful Life into the DVD player. Various family members filter in and out of the room to catch their favorite scenes. And without fail we finish the movie just in time to catch the second half of NBC’s annual It’s A Wonderful Life broadcast. Naturally we stay in our seats and watch the second half of the film all over again. We’re not Grinches, after all.
It’s not surprising or particularly original that I go to the movies on Christmas Day almost every year (though it probably is blasphemous that during adulthood I gradually made the switch from Christmas mass to hitting the multiplex). My wife and I alternate Christmases between her mother’s house in Westchester and my grandma’s house in the suburbs of Rochester, never actually spending it in perpetually movie-flooded New York City, where we live. In our two ’chesters, the Christmas Day releases we’re most looking forward to (like this year’s Big Eyes, for example) may not be playing yet on the actual holiday. Recently we’ve gotten lucky with the likes of The Wolf Of Wall Street, Django Unchained, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and True Grit providing unconventional holiday fun with various family members generally cool with seeing violent and/or profane, sometimes R-rated fare on Jesus’ birthday. But before we got married, we’d go our separate ways to see our respective families on Christmas—which meant my sister and I, out in Rochester, would go see just about anything that made it to wide release. This means I’ve seen the likes of Cheaper By The Dozen, Fat Albert, The Spirit, and even Alvin And The Chipmunks, all in the name of getting out of the house (and, okay, a little bad-movie curiosity). Think of their microscopically increased box-office receipts as my deranged form of Christmas giving.
Like Jesse, I used to really like going to the movies on Christmas Day, but with a young son in the house I haven’t done that in a while. On the actual day of Jesus, I don’t think I end up turning on the TV at all anymore. It’s all hanging out, playing with toys, and the like. But sometime during the Christmas season, my wife and I will almost inevitably watch It’s A Wonderful Life, and I will inevitably cry at the end, at least a little bit. (You’d think I’d know what happens by now!) We used to watch it on the most worn-out, wrecked VHS passed down from my wife’s parents, but since we don’t have a working VCR, we’ve upgraded to a pristine DVD with a lot less character. Sorry, cinephiles, but I kinda want to go back to a cropped 4:3 version with a washed-out picture, the way Frank Capra intended it.
My family doesn’t typically have any set Holiday traditions. As a child, I recall always watching Rugrats’ Hanukkah episode (which still holds up, by the way), and one Thanksgiving a few years ago, we spent the entire day marathoning all of Coupling (my second favorite Thanksgiving experience). The only thing I can think of that we’ve done regularly around Christmas time—at least since 2005—is watch The Family Stone. For those unaware, The Family Stone is a fun Christmas romp starring Sarah Jessica Parker, Dermot Mulroney, Diane Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Claire Danes, and Luke Wilson. Well, it was marketed as a fun family romp starring those people; instead, it’s a dreary dramedy (light on the comedy, to be honest) about terrible people being terrible. Somehow, The Family Stone tells the tale of an awful family treating Sarah Jessica Parker’s character like garbage, all while making her somehow be the bad guy. And yet, every year, without fail, even when we’re on opposite sides of the country, I can call my mom around Christmas time and she’ll be watching it on TNT or whatever network is brave enough to air this movie. I will voluntarily watch this movie whenever it’s on this time of year, because that’s simply the Christmas tradition. No joy comes from these viewings, but it’s simply a thing we do now. Maybe it’s because it makes me feel better about my dysfunctional family. Maybe it’s because I need something to hatewatch that’s holiday appropriate. Whatever it is, it is now the tradition.