Saturday, December 25, 2004

Yuletide Ends Too Soon

I have complained in this blog about merchants starting Christmas too soon. Now I am going to complain about it ending too soon. It seems to me that the American holiday season is a bit askew. It begins with Thanksgiving and, for all extents and purposes, now ends with Christmas Day. That does not seem right to me.

At least in much of Northern Europe and North America, the holiday season owes much to the pre-Christian, Germanic festival of Yule. Yule may well be one of the earliest Germanic holidays ever mentioned. Latin writer Procopius refers to a festival to celebrate the return of the sun held by the people of Thule (presumably Scandinava) on the first day of winter. Bede refers to the festival of Geol (modern English Yule) in his De Temporum Ratione. In Icelandic sources we are told that Yule lasted 12 days.

I don't know if Christianity followed the Germanic peoples' celebration of Yule in making the celebration of Christmas last twelve days, but properly it lasts twelve days nonetheless. Traditonally, Christmas began on the evening of December 24 (Chritmas Eve) and lasted until Twelfth Day (January 6). I am not quite sure when people stopped celebrating Christmas as a twelve day festival. I seem to remember references to Twelfth Night and the Twelve Days of Christmas in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. That means the Twelve Days of Christmas were still being celebrated as late as the mid-19th century, at least in England.

To a degree, I think remnants of the twelve day celebration persisted here in the United States. I know when I was growing up that we would not take down our Yule tree or our lights until January 1. The same held true for nearly everyone in Randolph County. Oh, one would not hear any Christmas carols after December 25, except in the odd commercial. And one would not see any holiday themed movies on television with a few rare exceptions. But the trappings of the Yuletide remained until New Year's Day.

In the few decades I have been alive, this seems to have changed. I have noticed that many people take down their lights and their trees the day after Christmas. This leads me to believe that many feel the holiays are over with December 26. Indeed, this may be well be the case nationwide. I just heard a commercial on television a while ago stating, "The holidays may be over..." Hello?! It's not even New Year's Day yet!

Granted I am biased, but I would like to see the Yuletide celebrated for twelve days throughout American society. Rather than being the end of the celebration, December 25 would be the beginning (or middle, depending on one's preferences). New Year's would simply be an extension of the holidays. Unfortunately, I doubt that this is going to come about any time soon.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Yuletide Songs

Today is Christmas Eve. Since I am not Christian, that doesn't really hold too much significance for me. But December 24 is a very significant date to me in another way, it is the birthday of a lovely young lady very dear to my heart. We usually get to chat on her birthday, but today being what it is, she has been tied up with family. I am hoping we will get talk later tonight, otherwise I am going to be pretty blue. We've never missed chatting on her birthday.

Anyhow, while I don't celebrate Christmas, I do have a keen appreciation for Yuletide songs. Obviously the more religious songs hold little meaning for me, although I can appreciate the artistry that went into the writing of "Silent Night" or "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." But I do love many of the more secular Yuletide carols. Like many people I have a warm spot in my heart for the standards. I have loved "White Christmas" ever since I was child, particularly the original Bing Crosby version. I remember that my mom would call me into the room any time it was playing. I also love "Silver Bells" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"--it is perhaps notable that all three songs come from movies. I don't think "The Christmas Song" was from a motion picture, but I love it all the same.

Of course, I also have a weakness for the more light hearted carols, those about the jolly old elf himself. "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," "Up on the Rooftop," "Here Comes Santa Claus," I love all of them. I also love "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers," I suppose because of the fancy of toys come to life.

As much as I like many of the older songs, I particularly like the songs of the rock 'n' roll era. Everyone has heard ""Jingle Bell Rock" and "Rocking Around the Christmas Tree," but Yuletide rock goes much deeper than that. I don't know what the first holiday rock song was, but Chuck Berry's "Run, Run Rudolph" is one of the best. Performed in the usual Chuck Berry style, it is a straight rock song that just happens to be about Santa and his reindeer. I also love Tom Petty's "Christmas All Over Again"--it just seems to capture the season. Of course, to me there are two Yuletide songs that stand above the rest. The first is "Happy Christmas" (War is Over) by John Lennon. To me it is perhaps the only song that captures the idea of Yuletide as a time of reflection, which it is for many. It also captures the joy of the season in a way that many other songs don't. But as for the all time, greatest holiday song of them all, that would "Christmas" (Baby Please Come Home) by Darlene Love. It is basically a love song in which someone longs for her loved one to be with her on the holiday. The song is great because it turns the old Yuletide cliches on their head--the snow coming down and the bells ringing are not signs of joy, but reminders of what has been lost. I don't think any song can't quite match its originality or its power.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Yuletide Movies

I'm not Christian, although I do celebrate the Yuletide. And I have always enjoyed movies associated with the season. Tonight I watched The Santa Clause again. As far as recent movies with a Yuletide theme, it is one of my favourites. It has a very original premise, not to mention one of the most striking images of the North Pole on screen. Of course, The Santa Clause seems to be the exception to the rule. Most Yuletide movies released these days seem to fall far short of the mark. One need look no further than the wretched 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street to see how bad recent holiday movies can be.

Of holiday movies, I think it is safe to say that they don't make them like they used to. In fact, I would say that the Golden Age of Yuletide films took place in the mid to late Forties. It is amazing how many of the holiday classics were released in this era: Holiday Inn (1942), It's a Wonderful Life (1946), The Bishop's Wife (1947), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and Holiday Affair (1949). I suppose that with World War II, people needed more Yuletide cheer than they do now.

Of course, the holiday classic is It's a Wonderful Life. Contrary to popular belief, the movie was not a total flop at the box office, although it was far from a smash hit. It was even nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture of the Year. Regardless, it did not become the monolithic Yuletide classic until a clerical error allowed the film to fall into public domain. When that happened, television stations across the United States were able to show the movie as often as they liked during the holiday season. As a result a lot of people discovered just what a wonderful movie it is. As I see it, It's a Wonderful Life is essentially a film about spiritual death and rebirth. Businessman George Bailey loses his will to live, only to be shown how much impact he has really had on people's lives. As a result he regains his will to live again. It is one of the most inspiring films ever made and, no doubt, Frank Capra's best film.

Miracle on 34th Street is nearly tied with It's a Wonderful Life when it comes to holiday classics. The movie has a deceivingly simple premise--a man who may or may not be Kriss Kringle visits New York and winds up working as Santa Claus at Macys. It is through this premise that the film lampoons the commercialisation of the holidays, corporate greed, and pop psychology, while at the same time addressing the importance of belief, faith, and charity. It is also one of the most inspiring movies of all time and remains a classic to this day. It has been remade many times, but none of the remakes (especially the dreadful 1994 version) have ever matched it, let alone surpassed it.

Beyond these two movies, it is debateable as to what the third greatest holiday film of all time may be. After all, there are several worthy candidates. One is a contemporary of both It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street--The Bishop's Wife. The Bishop's Wife features David Niven as a bishop who has lost his way while seeking to build a new cathedral. Into his life comes an angel, played by Cary Grant, who not only saves Niven's marriage, but restores his faith. The Bishop's Wife is also an inspiring movie, although a bit more blatantly Christian in tone than either It's a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street. The performances by its three leads (David Niven, Cary Grant, and Loretta Young) are priceless.

Another great holiday movie is the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol, also known as Scrooge. Featuring Alastair Sim as Ebeneezer Scrooge, it is the quintesential version of Charles Dickens' novel. The film features an accurate recreation of Victorian London, stellar performances (Sim as Scrooge, Michael Dolan as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and so on), and a script that is largely faithful to Dicken's work.

Of course, another great film is the musical version of the tale, Scrooge from 1970. Albert Finney makes an excellent Scrooge, alternately cranky, pitiable, and tragic. The rest of the cast is great as well--the late Sir Alec Guiness as Marley's Ghost, Edith Evans as the Ghost of Christmas Past, Michael Medwin as Fred. The score by Leslie Bricusse is one of the best of any musical from the late Sixties or early Seventies, "Thank You Very Much" and "Happiness" are among the best songs.

When it comes to musicals, perhaps the holiday musical is Holiday Inn. The movie focuses on an inn of the same name that is open only on holidays. Because of this, the plot doesn't simply focus on the Yuletide, but virtually every holiday on the calendar. Its primary attraction is the Irving Berlin score, performed by Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Virginia Dale, and Marjorie Reynolds. The movie may well be best known for the great, classic, Yuletide song "White Christmas," although it includes other great songs as well--"Happy Holiday," "You're Easy to Dance With," and "Easter Parade."

Like most musicals of its era, Holiday Inn was a romance, but to me the romantic movie for the season is The Apartment. I have already discussed it here, so I won't discuss it further. But I will discuss another Yuletide romance, A Holiday Affair. The movie features the beautiful Janet Leigh as widow Connie Ennis, into whose life enters free spirit Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum). Naturally, Mason complicates Connie's life, not to mention brings up some uncomfortable feelings. The movie is remarkable in its even handed approach to the characters--neither of the rivals for Connie's hand, Mason and Carl Davis (Wendell Corey), are portrayed in a bad light. It is also very funny, with a hilarious scene with Harry Morgan (later of M*A*S*H) as a police captain. Although not as well known as many holiday classics, it is a must see.

Of course, when it comes to comedy, A Christmas Story is the Yuletide movie. Its premise is simple. Ralphie wants the Daisy Red Ryder 200-shot Carbine Action BB Gun for Christmas and tries to figure out how to convince his parents to get it. The film captures the flavour of childhood in the pre-World War II era quite nicely, with several hilarious setpieces (among them, the famous scene of Flick getting his tongue stuck to a pole and a somewhat frightening trip to see Santa). It flopped at the box office when first released, but throughout the years it has grown in popualarity until it nearly matches It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street in its status as a holiday classic.

These are only a few of the holiday films I consider truly great. There are many others, among them Meet Me in St. Louis (from which "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" came), The Lemon Drop Kid (in which "Silver Bells" made its debut), and The Lion in Winter (Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine fight it out through the holidays). Indeed, for me these movies are as much a part of the Yuletide as "Jingle Bells" or eggnog. It just wouldn't be Yule without them.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Queen with Paul Rodgers?

I read a few days ago that Queen is planning their first tour in 18 years. I also read that they have replaced the late Freddie Mercury with Paul Rodgers, the former front man of both Free and Bad Company. While I am happy to see Queen on tour again, I am not so sure about Paul Rodgers replacing Freddie Mercury.

As a fan of Queen since the mid-Seventies, I have three problems with the inclusion of Paul Rodgers. The first is that I don't think Rodgers has nearly the vocal range that Mercury did. It is inconcievable to me that he could sing "Bohemian Rhapsody" or any of Mercury's other songs with any sort of finesse. It is hard for me to see how Rodgers is going to manage to fill Mercury's shoes. I just can't see it.

The other problem I can see is that Rodgers and Queen would seem to me to be at different ends of the musical spectrum. Most of the groups to which Rodgers belonged, Free and Bad Company in particular, have been AOR bands. On the other hand, Queen was a group that defied classification. Their songs ranged from the hard rock of "Tie Your Mother Down" to the folk sound of "39" to the over the top "Bohemian Rhapsody." Rodgers becoming part of Queen then seems to me something akin to Robin Zander of Cheap Trick becomeing part of Pantera.

Finally, for me Queen is and always will be John Deacon, Brian May, Freddie Mercury, and Roger Taylor. They are one of those bands like The Beatles or Led Zeppelin in which the membership simply cannot vary. In my humble opinion, replace one of the members of Queen and, well, they cease to be Queen. I would be a lot more comfortable with the situation if they were touring under the name Deacon, May, Rodgers, and Taylor or something of the sort.

Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against Paul Rodgers. For his particular genre of music he is a fine singer. And I am a fan of Free, Bad Company, and The Firm (the band Rodgers formed with Jimmy Page). But I just cannot see him as a part of Queen and especially not as a replacement for Freddie Mercury. When it comes right down to it, it just doesn't seem right.