Saturday, December 22, 2012

30 Rock Christmas Episodes (2007-2010)

30 Rock: Ludachristmas (2007)

The first Christmas episode is in Season Two. The main plot, following Jack’s trouble with his elderly mother and Liz’s annoyingly perky family, was darn fun. There’s great family dynamics, and the resolution is nicely cynical. The B-plot about Tracy’s alcohol monitoring and the office Christmas party was also pretty funny.

30 Rock: Christmas Special (2008)

Season three brings us this episode, with promising plot hooks and decent execution. Elaine Stritch is fabulous again as Jack’s mother, whom he has (accidentally?) hit with his car. Liz’s plot, however, is about her desire to donate toys to some needy kids, and while the takeaway is kinda funny, it’s awkward and painful to watch.

30 Rock: Secret Santa (2009)

This one I had seen before, and it’s rather weak. The gags fall flatter and the tropes are tired. Blah.The joke about Jenna’s insecurity about her singing made me sort of angry. I know the character is shallow and crazy, but I just didn’t like it.

30 Rock: Christmas Attack Zone (2010)

The last Holiday episode was pretty good. Elaine Stritch is lovely matched against Alan Alda for snark and humor. While it blindly abandons continuity from the earlier Christmas episodes, watching Liz flounder against the machinations of Jack and his fiancee and family was fun. Plus, I really like the title.

The Adventures of Pete & Pete: O Christmas Pete (1995)

Man, I forgot how freaking weird this show is! It’s really, really weird. Watching this episode, about how one kid’s attempt to keep Christmas around a bit longer spirals into a battle for the ages between the Christmas Spirit and an evil Garbage Man with his own theme song is... well, there’s nothing else quite like it.

Overall I’m glad we saw this. It certainly wasn’t boring. It was an exceptionally surreal experience and it suffered from the abuse of sound effects, but at least it wasn’t boring.

If you’re looking to relive what you liked about Pete & Pete, you might want to start elsewhere. But if you want a very unique tale of holiday cheer, give this a shot. I found it on YouTube.

VeggieTales: St. Nicholas Nicholas: A Story of Joyful Giving

Ah, VeggieTales. At last we meet face to face.

VeggieTales is about a bunch of anthropomorphic vegetables who praise Jesus and tell really, really awful jokes. The vegetables don't have hands, but still manage to lift small objects in front of them, as if they did. I can only assume this is done with a limited form of telekinesis.

As premises go, I think I'd rank this dead last out of absolutely everything humanity has ever invented. And yet... somehow... this was so bad it failed to live up to its potential.

I'm going to gloss over the frame story about a broken truck and jump right into the real meat of this thing, which concerns the "real" Santa Claus. Of course, they're referring to Saint Nicholas, bishop of Myra. Ultimately, I'd describe the final result as being less historically accurate than Santa Claus is Coming to Town.

Sure, they turned Nicholas into a pepper, but that was far from the only alteration. The story started out acceptably (not counting the pepper thing, of course), with a loosely retold version of his family life and his parents' eventual death. For the record, I'm giving them a pass on several invented elements here, including Nicholas's parents' booming fishing business and their nemesis, a cruel competing fisherman angry at how many fish they gave away for free.

After Nicholas's parents die, Nicholas decides to travel the world in search of happiness. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, this isn't how it goes.

At any rate, he winds up learning to embrace God's love or something at a Christmas celebration, which almost certainly wouldn't have been going on (there's no evidence Christmas was celebrated prior to Christianity becoming the state religion of Rome and effectively taking over existing pagan celebrations... and that was later). So Nicholas decides to head back and give to the poor.

He returns to discover his parents' competitor is now mayor and has outlawed gift-giving. At this point, I wanted to cry. I'm going to give this the benefit of the doubt and assume this was intended as a sanitized version of the persecution and not a rip-off of Burgermeister Meisterburger's laws against toys, but it really feels more like the latter. Nicholas decides he'll have to deliver gifts in disguise, so he sets out to do just that.

His opportunity comes when he learns the father of three sisters can't afford their dowries, and is therefore planning to sell them into prostitution. I kid, of course: in this version, they're being fined a gold coin each for breaking the law against gift-giving. Unless they come up with the money, they'll be thrown in jail.

So Nicholas heads out with his butler dressed as Robin, and... you know what? I can't bring myself to go on. There's a shitload of dumb antics and a sleigh and... you get the point. Also, there's a song and dance number about giving donuts to a dog. And Amy Grant sings. Not about the dog: something else.

Yeah. This thing was boring and - surprise, surprise - excruciatingly painful to sit through. Not recommend for anyone, particularly the young, who need to learn to eat their damn vegetables, not go to them for spiritual guidance.

The Twilight Zone: Five Characters in Search of an Exit (1961)

We watched another Christmas-themed Twilight Zone episode last year, and thought it was pretty decent. This one was slightly less good, but still okay.

Actually, knowing that this is a Christmas episode has a decent shot at giving away the twist, but it’s not that awesome of a twist. The plot, such as it is, follows five amnesiac strangers who are trapped in a featureless room together. They know their occupations, they know a little about the world, but they don’t know who they are or how they got there. The Army Major is the most recent one to arrive, and he pushes the others to try various crazy escape plans. The rest of them seem rather content to just pass the time.

Some of the acting is pretty interesting, the clown and the dancer have some neat moments, but the major has too much over-the-top bluster. He’s a bit one-note, and he’s the main character. We did really enjoy the characters working through all the obvious and not-so-obvious theories about where they were.

It’s not a terrible episode, but it almost wears out its welcome by the end. The reveal (in case it isn’t obvious by now) comes as a relief, and doesn’t quite manage to be as creepy as it wants to be, although the final shots are well done.

Mythbusters: Holiday Special (2004)

Huh. I was not actually expecting that one to be so boring. Only it was, in fact, really boring.

Has Mythbusters always been boring, but I only watched it at times in my life when I wasn’t very picky? Although come to think of it, Mythbusters has always been something that I either heard about or would occasionally watch a clip from, not a show I ever sat down and watched.

In this episode, a great deal of screen time is dedicated to building a Rube Goldberg device centering on the Mentos-soda reaction and a few holiday knick-knacks. It has to be designed and built and talked about and then tried over and over. These segments are dull, un-whimsical, and annoying.

Meanwhile, the kids on the show “test” a bunch of other “myths”, although I think they might have been scraping the bottom of the internet for some of these.

Can you break your foot (or a small dog) by dropping a frozen turkey on it?
Well, considering the weight and density of a frozen turkey, I’d say, duh.

What crazy remedy keeps pine needles on Christmas trees longest?
Frankly, the experiment design was so pathetic here, not even counting the low sample size, that I just rolled my eyes.

Can you cook a turkey with the microwaves from a radar array?
Generally no. You morons.

Does a turkey blow up if you stick explosives in it?

Seriously, it was like the cast of Scooby Doo: just a bunch of kids getting high and trying stupid shit. A guy I lived with in college tried to fry stuff in Mountain Dew because brominated vegetable oil was listed as an ingredient, and that was really funny because it was the middle of the night and the kitchen smelled really weird for a while. Good story, but it’s not the kind of thing that makes scintillating television.

At the very end, the Rube Goldberg device finally works, for what that’s worth. Frankly, by that point I would have given the show higher marks if the device had failed.

Fiction: Wings in the Night

Welcome to day 22 of Mainlining Christmas's series titled, "25 Christmas Eves." We've got a very special Christmas Eve for you this time, boys and girls. A nice little religious piece called, "Wings in the Night." Hope you like it.

By: Erin L. Snyder

“Mr. Juliard?” the woman asked, extending a hand over his hospital bed. She was beautiful, or at the very least attractive. Exotic would be the best word: her ethnicity was difficult to pin down, even for Hugh, who’d always been good at that sort of thing. Part Spanish, part Indian, maybe?

Hugh didn’t ask, of course. He simply raised his hand. It was tiring, but mainly because the painkillers sapped his energy. “Hello. I didn’t catch your name,” he said.

“Burkwitz. Melody Burkwitz.” She smiled. “I’m not sure if you’ve heard of me.”

Hugh shrugged. “Sorry,” he said.

“I’m not offended,” she said. “I’ve done a few morning shows. My books tend to gather attention. It’s not always the sort I’d like, I’m afraid.” She cleared her throat and removed a notepad and pen from her purse. Hugh was surprised it wasn’t a tablet or at least a fancy notebook. “First of all, I’d like to thank you for agreeing to speak with me.”

Hugh looked uncomfortable. “They... they said there’d be money,” he said. It was more a confession than anything else.

“Of course. My publisher will take care of that.”

“It’s not for me,” Hugh said, apologetically. “I have a daughter. In college. No matter what happens, I want her to have it.”

“I’ll make sure they know,” Melody said.

“What... what day is it?” Hugh asked.

“December twenty-eight,” Melody replied. She glanced at her watch. “It’s a quarter past three.”

Hugh nodded. “Is there anyone else?”

“I’m sorry. There was one other survivor at first....” Melody paused to check her notepad. “A Mr. Friedland. But he passed away yesterday. Did you lose someone on the flight?”

“No. No one close to me. I was flying alone. It’s just... I hoped there’d be someone else.”

“I understand,” Melody said, but the look on Hugh’s face made it clear she didn’t. Melody inhaled slowly through her nose. Then she asked, “How much do you remember about Christmas Eve, Mr. Juliard? Do you remember the events leading up to the crash?”

“Yes,” he replied. “What are they saying caused it?”

“As I understand, there’s some trouble with the black box. But they’re attributing it to a lightning strike.”

Hugh snickered. “Lightning,” he said. “Is that why you wanted to talk to me?”

“To be honest, I’m not as interested in the cause of the accident as I am in what came after. I’m interested in how you survived the crash.”

“I don’t know,” Hugh said.

Melody nodded and made a note. “Do you remember being found?”

Hugh shook his head the smallest bit and grimaced. The drugs were helping, but they didn’t take care of everything.

“When they were removing you from the wreckage, you were half-awake, and you were talking. One of the paramedics overheard you say something about an angel.” Hugh went pale at the word, but Melody continued speaking. “Angels are my specialty, Mr. Juliard. But before we continue, I’d like to clarify a few points. I am neither here to confirm a religious point view nor to discredit one. I have a masters degree in theology from Harvard and a doctorate in sociology from Yale. I’m not trying to brag, I just want you to understand that I’m not here with an agenda. I want to understand what happened, and I can offer you anonymity if that’s what you’d like. In addition, your arrangement with my publisher will stand regardless of what tell me, so please don’t think you need to lie or alter your explanation to fit any kind of existing framework. If it was just a dream, I’ll wish you the best and your check will come regardless. But if you did see or experience something extraordinary, I would genuinely like to hear about it.”

“Do you believe in them?” Hugh asked.

Melody considered this for a moment. “That’s a very good question. To be honest, it’s not my place to believe or disbelieve. My research has given me powerful evidence angels may exist, but to date it is entirely circumstantial. I’m sorry I can’t be clearer.”

Hugh bit his lip. “I’ll tell you what I saw. But... you have to understand... I never believed in them before.”

Melody jotted down another quick note. “Did an angel save your life?”

Hugh started laughing. It was a worried, troubled laugh. “Saved my life,” he said. He shut his eyes and kept them closed for a long time. When he opened them, they were red. “Saved my life? An angel killed everyone else on that plane.

“We took off in Philadelphia a little before seven at night. Supposed to get to LA around ten-thirty. Time zones, right? We were over the midwest, damned if I know where, when we hit that storm. It was bad. Black clouds all around. I mean pitch black. Then rain started beating down. Hail, snow, sleet, pounding against the window. The pilot, he came over the radio: we’re experience turbulence. Please stay in your seat. Turbulence.

“There was a woman sitting across from me, sort of diagonally. I couldn’t see her that well. I was in a window seat, but I could hear her talking to her kid, saying they were lucky, because it was snowing for Christmas. I guess that’s the kind of thing you tell kids. I don’t know if I’d have thought to say something like that. I wasn’t the best father when I had the chance.

“There was lightning. Lightning all round. But I don’t think the plane got hit. Some guy a few rows back started saying we were going to die. I heard people trying to shut him up or comfort him. I just thought he was a nut. I mean, the storm was bad, but I travel a lot. And sometimes you see weather you can’t believe. But you always get through it, right? Those planes are made to take whatever nature throws at them. But this time... that guy was right. This time, we weren’t landing.

“When we broke through the clouds, people started to applaud. It was so sudden. One minute, we’re surrounded by rain and lightning, the next the sky’s clear and silent. Then we saw him. Those of us on the left side of the plane, anyway. We saw him, and we gasped. I felt the guy beside me pushing to try and get a look, too.”

Hugh paused for a moment. He inhaled slowly and shook as he breathed out.

“Was this the angel?” Melody asked.

“Yes,” he whispered.

“Could you describe him to me?”

“He... he was a big guy, but not huge. I’d say, six foot six, maybe. He was wearing white robes. They whipped around him in the wind. He had wings, too. They were golden. Not like the metal. More like... like a hawk, I guess. He didn’t have a halo like in picture books, but it was like there was light coming from him. I could see him like it was day.

“He flew at us and perched on the plane’s wing. His face was like stone, like it was carved out of something. I don’t mean it was colored like that: it was colored like... like skin. But it didn’t move like there were muscle or anything underneath.

“We sat there, just in awe. I heard people crying, praying, and this one old woman just started shouting, ‘Thank you.’ I guess we all thought he’d ended the storm, that he’d saved us.

It happened so quickly. He lifted a hand and suddenly there was a sword in it. It hadn’t been there a second before: it just... appeared out of thin air. Then he lifted his head and stared at us. Then he swung the sword.

“It was fast. It... the wing of the plane... it just fell apart, and the angel just spread his wings, and we just started to tumble. Luggage was falling everywhere. There was a stewardess who was tossed around the cabin. I think I heard her neck break. Something hit me, and I woke up here.”

Melody was busy making notes. When she finished, she looked up. “I’d like to ask you just a few more questions, Mr. Juliard. Why do you believe you were spared?”

“I don’t think I was. At least not on purpose. I mean, there were kids. That girl whose mother told her it was snowing for Christmas. If you were choosing someone to save, wouldn’t you save her? I think it’s an accident I’m alive. Just random.”

“And do you think the rest of it was random, too? The plane, I mean. Or do you think there was a reason the angel attacked?”

“I think he wanted to kill someone,” Hugh said. “I think there was someone on that plane he wanted to die so bad it was worth killing the others, too.”

“Do you really think an angel would think like that?”

“I don’t know. I never believed in them. But I know what I saw. And, if you think about it, what if he knows something? Something about the future, about what someone will do? What if it’s something that affects thousands, or millions of people?”

“Do you believe there was someone like that on the plane?”

“I... I don’t know. Maybe. I.... Since I arrived here, I’ve been drifting in and out. Sometimes I look out the window and... I think I’ve seen him out there.”

Melody’s tone shifted and she asked, “Mr. Juliard, what is it you do for a living?”

“Government work,” Hugh said. “Computer work for... I’m sorry. I’m not supposed to discuss it.”

Melody nodded. She make another note, but her hands seemed unsteady. “Thank you, Mr. Juliard. I can honestly say I have never heard an account quite like this one, though elements of your description are more common than you might think. If it’s alright, I’d like to follow-up with you at a later date.”

“I hope we can,” Hugh replied dryly. Melody stood to leave, but Hugh added, “Wait! Wait. One more thing. My daughter... you’ll see she gets the money? If anything... happens.”

“Your doctors expect you to make a full recovery. But, I will make certain my publisher understands.”

“Thank you,” Hugh said, while she left. He lay in bed, barely listening to the doctors and nurses who came in. His eyes stayed glued on the window. And he waited.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Suburgatory: Krampus (2012)

I was flipping through shows on Hulu (every year they compile a list of Christmas episodes and specials available), and I saw an episode of Suburgatory titled "Krampus." Calling something "Krampus" is a good way to pique my interest, so I hit play. Keep in mind I don't remember ever hearing of "Suburgatory" before, so I was going in blind.

It was certainly an odd thing to jump into. It seems to revolve around a teenage girl, Tessa, who's recently moved to "the suburbs" with her single father. The focus jumped around a lot, so a good portion of the episode was devoted to minor characters. Also, the show wasn't entirely episodic, so a lot the plot lines were continued from previous episodes (though, in Christmas tradition, it seemed to wrap most of them up).

There was a lot going on here, but three plots seemed to be the most significant:

  1. Tess went to spend Christmas with her (newly discovered) mother.
  2. Her neighbor discovered he was adopted, went crazy, and ran off on his own.
  3. A spoiled rich girl tried to win back her housekeeper.

Honestly, I'm probably forgetting a few.

By the numbers, this should have been bad. It was jumping between a large number of subplots for a half hour, it relied on farcical comedy, and almost all the characters were absurd characterizations.

But... you know something? This was actually pretty good.

The approach to comedy employed here is usually my least favorite, but they sold it with good writing and with actors and directors willing to commit to the concept, no matter how ridiculous. The show was mostly farce, with a few moments of drama imposed here and there, but it was clearly produced by someone who understands farce. I found it funny: even really funny at times.

The only thing keeping me from giving this the "highly recommended" label is the ending. The last couple of minutes, which resolved the neighbor's plot, felt forced and - in my opinion - betrayed the episode. Now, keep in mind I haven't seen the season and a half before it, so it's possible I just don't know the characters well enough to appreciate it. But, given what I did see, it killed the momentum.

Still, if you find yourself with a few minutes to kill, this might be worth checking out.

Craft: Phoenix Angel Ornament

I'm getting more interpretive with the angel motif around here. Isn't she pretty?

Here's what she started out like:

I added Kneadatite over the word "Faith", and then I added some extra flames to her hair and wings:

A light sanding, then plenty of paint, and she's evoking a very different look.

I didn't manage to get in all the cracks as much as I'd like, but maybe I'll do a little touch-up when I have more time. I went over all the non-flesh colored parts with white first, then chose the best bright colors I could mix. The fire wings are many layers of oranges, reds and gold.

Here's a shot for scale:

I thought about going back in with a symbol or something, but I like that it's not completely obvious who she is. She came out pretty nice, and she's probably not going to eat your planet today. 

Phil of the Future: Christmas Break (2005)

This is probably the strangest installment on the "Disney Channel Holiday" DVD we found on clearance, and believe me: that's saying quite a bit. I'd assumed it was the pilot from the episode's subject matter, along with the fact it's technically included as a Bonus Feature on the disc, but it turns out this was from the second season. That was kind of a let down: the episode felt like it had some good ideas behind it but was unpolished. Turns out, this was what the show was like after it was polished - I can only imagine what it was like beforehand.

Don't interpret that to mean the episode was bad. Actually, I can't decide whether it was bad or good. Hell, I'm not even sure it wasn't brilliant or horrible.

Let's start with the show's premise. Apparently, Phil of the Future is about a family from a few hundred years in the future marooned in the present when their time-Winnebago broke down in the middle of their vacation. This episode takes place at Christmas. The characters are telling Phil's girlfriend the story of how they got there, which takes place during the previous Christmas.

The first thing I noticed during the opening credits was that the shots of them traveling through time were pretty clearly based on the time vortex of Doctor Who, which is generally a good sign. A lot of the future/past humor felt reminiscent of Futurama (though it was toned back for a younger audience).

The plot of this episode involved Phil traveling back in time multiple times to the same point to prevent something from going wrong. Not everything was perfect (extraneous elements occurred at different intervals), but the writers clearly understood the basic premises of time travel and had fun with them.

There was a lot wrong with this, too, though. A lot of the humor was over-the-top and wasn't particularly funny. But when it hit its mark, it did so quite well.

I'm kind of tempted to try and track down some other episodes, just to see how they measure up. The show itself is a neat SF artifact I'd never heard of, if nothing else.

Live Blogging the End of the World

As everyone knows by now, the prophesied end of days is scheduled for today. The way I see it, anything that occurs in mid-to-late December is, by definition, part of Christmas, so I wanted to offer some insight into our world's horrible demise as it happens.

Unfortunately, I've got some last-minute Christmas shopping to do, so I'm not going to be able to give the 2012 apocalypse as much attention as I was hoping to. Nevertheless, throughout the day I'll be updating this post, so you can follow along.

Note: all times are Pacific Standard.

9:04 AM: So far, things are pretty quiet out here. Sky's are kind of blood-red, but it's still just raining. It's a little cold, I guess.

9:06 AM: Checking the morning news. Most news sites are reporting the East Coast was swallowed by the ocean. Fox News is claiming liberal bias.

9:08 AM: Small, fiery rock crashed through window. Gonna have to board that up later. Kind of reminds me of the movie "Armageddon." God, I hate that movie.

9:11 AM: Most of the food spoiled overnight. That's weird. Guess I'll have to pick something up later.

9:19 AM: Had to kill 10' scorpion to get to my car then realized I'd forgotten keys. Ha! Heading out to do some shopping. Be back later!

2: 22 PM: Well that was awful. The traffic is hell out there, between the holiday rush and detours due to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Shopping's a nightmare, too. Saw two guys fighting over a Firby at Target, then an old woman knifed someone for a pack of batteries and some bottled water. Christmas always brings out the worst in people. Managed to finish most of my shopping, so that's a plus.

Also, the sky really cleared up here (rare for Seattle this time of year).  Bright and sunny for a solid half hour before fire started raining from the sky.

2:36 PM: Now the dead have risen to feast on the living. Glad I already did my shopping: I can't even imagine how crowded the mall's going to be now.

2:39 PM: Tearing apart furniture for lumber to barricade the apartment. This would be much more difficult if it wasn't all from IKEA.

2:50 PM: In wake of mass hysteria, boiling oceans, and zombie apocalypse, NRA calls for martial law.

3:55 PM: Huh. The sun just went supernova. It's really pretty, but I can't help thinking it could put a damper on the whole solstice thing.

7:04 PM: It's cold now. So very cold. About an hour ago there was a loud noise, and the ground shook. We found out later it was caused by the Earth splitting apart at its center, breaking into two halves which are drifting away from each other slowly. The people near the break died instantly; those of us left have only to wait until the air dissipates in the vacuum of space. It shouldn't be long now. A few hours at most. I'm going to log off, spend the remaining time with loved ones. If anyone out there can still read this, I suggest you do the same.

Goodbye. Goodbye forever.

Oh, and don't forget, we'll have new fiction appearing tonight at midnight, as well as more reviews and maybe a few surprises in the days ahead!

Musical Interlude, Part 8

As always, Amazon has a handful of free Christmas albums up on, so I decided to download and listen to them. After all, I obviously didn't have enough Christmas music already.

Album: Greenhill Christmas Music Sampler
Artist: Various

On average, this is a bad sampler, primarily containing elevator jazz and new age tracks. But since this is a free album, there's no law of averages at play: all that matters is whether there's anything worth keeping. And fortunately, the answer is yes.

There's not a lot, but there are a handful of good songs, along with (dare I say) one great one. Oddly enough, the great one is from a new age artist, David Arkenstone. It's an adaptation of Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy, albeit one that (at least to my ears) sounds like it belongs in a spy movie.

I looked up Arkenstone's Christmas album after hearing this and listened to the 30 second samples. They sounded good, but they're certainly nothing like this Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy.

This does bring up an important point: if anyone knows of any Christmas music with overtones of espionage or that sounds like it belongs on the soundtrack to an action movie, please let me know.

Album: Truly Tribal Christmas
Artist: The Hit Crew

To the album's credit, Christmas songs played on a steel drum sound different. Is different good? I don't know: aspects of these songs are neat, but I don't expect I'll be going out of my way to hear them again.

Album: Christmas at Home (Free Sampler)
Artist: 101 Strings Orchestra (?)

This is... bizarre. This seems to be mislabeled, as I don't think there's any way in hell this group of kids singing religious songs could actually be connected to something called the "101 Strings Orchestra." That said, I completely sympathize with whoever actually produced this: if I were them, I'd put someone else's name on it, too.

There's speculation on the review page that Amazon might have mixed this up with the next item on my list:

Album: Christmas at Home: Kid's Christmas Free Sampler
Artist: The Countdown Kids (?)

Once again: there's speculation that this might actually be the 101 Strings Orchestra and the above by the Countdown Kids. But I'm not sure that's right: I've actually got another Christmas album attributed to "The Countdown Kids," a corporate singing group, and it doesn't sound a damn thing like either album. That said, since it is corporate owned, the brand's masters could have done just about anything with it. So who knows?

I suppose this could be the 101 Strings Orchestra, since there's clearly an orchestra playing here, but - once again - I'm not sure. The focus seems to be on the singing (pretty straightforward carols), which seems unlikely for a orchestra.

Ultimately, it doesn't seem all that significant. The music's fine, but it's absurdly easy to find free choral music.

Album: Free Must-Have Christmas Masterpieces
Artist: Various

This free album contains four songs: three are classical pieces and one is Jingle Bells being performed by kids. Unlike the Christmas at Home sampler above, at least these kids are professional singers.

Book Review: The Gift of the Magi

The Gift of the Magi
O. Henry, 1906

Premise: You know. No, really, you've seen or read something based on this story. You know, anything with two people who buy each other gifts but give up something important to do it, making the gift exchange generally somewhat ironic? I told you you knew.

I’ve seen so many versions of this story as part of Mainlining Christmas, that it hadn’t occurred to me until yesterday that I’d never actually read the original story. And hey, it’s better than I expected.

The style is humorous and playful, with more than a few sly jokes. The story focuses on the wife, Della, and while she’s a bit childish at times, she's also forthright, determined and loving. The ending is much sweeter than I expected. I quite enjoyed reading this.

Why am I still talking about it? It’s a short story and it’s Free. Here, read it yourself!

Fiction: The Drive Home

For those of you keeping score with an advent calendar, this is day 21 of "25 Christmas Eves," my series of Christmas-Eve-inspired short stories designed to get you in the holiday spirit. And speaking of holiday spirits....

By: Erin L. Snyder

“You’re kidding, right? You know what time it is?” Mark was frantic, which wasn’t making his drive through the storm any easier. His cellphone was pinned between his ear and shoulder, while he clutched the steering wheel. On the other end of the line, his ex-wife was just as stressed.

“Yes, Mark. I know what time it is. And I’m sure I’m ruining your plans to spend Christmas Eve in a bar. But right now, I really need you to step up and be a father for Tom.”

“So now I’m Tom’s father again,” Mark said. He regretted it as soon as he said it, but it was too late. He cringed for the worst, but Patricia only sighed.

“Look. Jerry’s brother is back in the hospital, and... I just think it would be better if Tom wasn’t here in case things get worst. I know it’s a lot to ask on short notice, but this caught us all by surprise.”

“I’m... look. I... I mean, of course, I’ll take him. It’s just, I wasn’t expecting this. I don’t exactly have Christmas dinner ready or anything. Hell, I don’t even have a tree set up.”

“I’ll make sure Tom eats before I bring him over. Is an hour enough time?”

Mark glanced at the dashboard clock in his pickup. Six forty-five. “An hour’s good. I’ll pick up some cookies or something at the drugstore. I mean, you got to have cookies, right?”

“Don’t worry about it. We’ve can send some stuff with Tom. Sweets, his stocking, and all that. It’s not like we’re going to need it here. If you have a chance, maybe get a tree, though. He loves decorating.”

“Alright,” Mark replied. “Tell Jerry I hope his brother gets better and all that.”

“Okay. I’ll be by in about an hour.” She hung up abruptly, and Mark threw his cell phone into the empty passenger’s seat.

“Damn!” he yelled. His truck barrelled along. “The hell am I going to find a Christmas tree on Christmas Eve?” he asked himself. By way of answer, he turned down Route 242 and sped up towards the General Store. They’d had a handful for sale in front of the store all month.

Even while speeding, it took five minutes to reach the store. The lot was entirely empty. He pulled a U-turn in the middle of the road and started towards the next place he could think of. A farmer on 77 always ran a lot for the holidays. Mark didn’t know where he shipped them in from, but he figured the guy probably made more on the trees in one month than the various other crops he sold the rest of the year.

He pulled up and found the lot locked up. He could see a handful of trees in there, just out of reach. He looked over at the farmer’s house. All the lights were out.

Mark seriously considered scaling the fence before realizing he’d never be able to get a tree back over it. If he’d had a pair of bolt cutters, he’d have cut the chain and left a note. But he didn’t.

He did, however, have an ax.

The idea of cutting your own tree always seems better before you try finding one that could pass for one of the genetically modified, precision-groomed varieties manufactured for the holidays. Mark drove down one backroad after another, slowly rolling along and looking at trees alongside the road. None of the pines he saw looked remotely like anything his son would recognize as a Christmas tree, except a handful growing in people’s front lawns.

Mark was about ready to give up when he saw it. A solitary tree, standing in the midst of a small cemetery located at the side of an empty road. It was one of those old, small cemeteries predating the pavement leading up to it. Just a few dozen plots. The kind of graveyard where no one new’s been buried in decades - maybe even a hundred years - and the markers have almost worn down to smooth tablets.

There was no one around; no houses, either. Mark climbed out of his truck, taking his ax with him. He approached the tree to give it a look. It wasn’t as perfect as the kind you’d get from a lot, but damn if it wouldn’t do in a pinch. It was the right height, the branches were full all the way around, and it looked healthy enough.

Mark took another look to make sure there were no headlights up the street, but he couldn’t see any. Couldn’t hear any motors or snow grinding under tires, either. He looked back at the tree, and at the gravestones. “I’m going to hell for this,” he said with a shrug. He raised his ax.

But before he could strike, a gust of wind came at him. It was an icy wind, bitter and riddled with sleet, and it caught him in his face. He lowered the ax, coughed, and wiped the ice from the corners of his eyes. He lifted the ax again, and the same thing happened.

“Ahhh!” he grunted. Then he shook his arms to keep the blood flowing. “Jesus. Damn storm.” It didn’t feel right, but then what part of stealing a tree from a graveyard does? He considered giving this up and trying to find another lot, but a glance at his watch shut down that avenue of thought. It was seven twenty, and he was ten minutes from home. His window was almost gone: if he wanted his son to have a Christmas, this was the only option available.

He faced the wind and swung. The ax struck with a reverberating “thud.” It was loud enough to make Mark jump a bit. He glanced around to make sure there still wasn’t anyone else around to have heard it, but he was safe. So he took another swing. And a third.

Before long, the tree toppled over. Mark grabbed the bottom and dragged it to his truck as fast as he could. Then he hoisted it up into the bed. He tossed the ax in beside it, climbed into the front, and started the truck up. He didn’t even wait for the windshield to finish defrosting before he put it into drive and gave it some gas.

He was shaking from the cold and from the fear he might get caught. He wasn’t sure what the punishment would be for something like this, but it seemed like the kind of thing that might carry some ridiculously excessive penalty. A thousand bucks? Three months behind bars? In his limited experience, that was how the courts seemed to work.

Then he caught something out of the corner of his eye. The defroster had pushed away the fog, but where it had been, a word remained: “Thief.”

He slammed on the brakes, and the truck screeched to a stop. The word was unmistakable. The letters were white and frosted over. Mark stared at the word. Could someone have been there with him at the graveyard? Could they have done this while he was cutting the tree? He’d been so sure he was alone, but what if he was wrong? They could be calling the police right now, giving them Mark’s licence plate number.

No. That was stupid. No one had been there. No one. Maybe it was some sort of joke or something. Maybe someone had written on his windshield hours ago using their finger, and it hadn’t shown up until now. Part of him realized this was wrong, too: that neither explanation explained the word being frozen like that. But a bigger part just accepted it, because there was nothing else to be done.

He removed his foot from the brake and reapplied it to the gas. It was getting late, and he’d have to hurry if he wanted to get there before his ex-wife arrived. A lecture about being late and making them wait in the cold was the last thing he needed.

He glanced at his rearview mirror, suddenly feeling like there was someone behind him, but there was nothing there but the black of night. He kept going, then looked again. A pair of eyes, bright orange, stared back at him.

Mark screamed and hit the brake. He spun around and looked. Nothing there. Nothing at all. Nothing but the tree lying in the back of his pickup.

“Jesus. My eyes. Gotta be my eyes playing tricks,” Mark said aloud. He believed himself, because he had to. What else could he have done?

He started the truck but took it slowly. He glanced up in the rearview mirror regularly now, but nothing appeared. “Thief” had melted away from his windshield, too, so there was nothing left. No sign, no indication. He drove on, into the storm.

“Defiler,” the wind whistled as it blew past his window.

“No,” he said aloud. To hell with this. To hell with errant sounds and unexplained words and tricks of the eyes. To hell with it all.

Then, in his headlights, a form appeared in his headlights. It was a man cloaked in a long robe. It was directly in front him; only a few feet. Mark slammed on the brakes and jerked the wheel to the right. But it wasn’t fast enough.

The form dissolved into snow as Mark’s truck passed through it. But as it did, it screeched like a bird of prey. The sound wasn’t a trick of the wind, and the form wasn’t merely in Mark’s mind.

Mark screamed as his truck swerved off the road onto a muddy patch of a field. It dragged to a stop, and sat there, headlight pointing ahead. Mark stared into the white light, the falling snow. A form danced just beyond the headlights. A voice called out in the distance. “Trespasser. Thief. Defiler.” Then closer: “Trespasser! Thief! Defiler!”

Mark’s heart pounded. He was sweating, and he wiped a hand across his face. Then he reached over and opened the door.

“I get it!” he cried out, stepping into the field. “Alright. Okay? I screwed up!”

The voice boomed like thunder on the wind. “Thief!” But it wasn’t coming from the wind or the sky: it was coming from the tree. So Mark turned to address the tree.

“Yeah. I get it. I shouldn’t have cut you down. You’re... you’re possessed. Because you were--”

“I was the guardian of the tomb. And you will pay an awful price.”

“Okay. I’m sorry. Just tell me what you want. Do you want me to drive you back to that graveyard? Will that fix this?”

“What’s done cannot be undone. You shall know my wrath this night,” the voice called out.

Mark stared at the tree for a moment. “You know something? No.”

“I shall enact a terrible vengeance,” the tree said.

“Fine, but not tonight. Look. My kid’s coming over tonight. And it’s Christmas Eve.”

“His fate shall be yours.”

“That’s... that’s it! You mess with my kid, you so much as give him a bad dream, and I swear to GOD, tomorrow, I will go back to that goddamn cemetery and I will smash the hell out of every last tombstone. You hear me?” He was standing just a foot from the tree now, yelling and sticking his finger into its branches. “I’ll... I’ll smash those stones, and I will piss on the graves. Is that what you want?”

The wind picked up. Sleet fell, heavy and fast. It scraped against Mark’s face.

“That it? Is that your great and terrible vengeance?”

“You have not yet--”

“I don’t care! Alright? I don’t care about a little sleet or wind or whatever. I just want to give my kid a halfway decent Christmas!”

“You have desecrated a holy place,” the voice said, though it was softer now. Quieter. Almost scared. “You must be punished.”

“Fine. Then... then we’ll work something out, okay? But, tonight, just tonight, could you reign it in? I’ll put you wherever you want. Side of the road, some forest, back at the cemetery... wherever. But I need you to leave my kid alone.”

There was silence for a moment, save cracking ice and the sounds of wind in the branches of far-off trees.

“Well? We got a deal or not?” Mark asked.

“You may place me in your quarters,” the voice.

“You mean, like a Christmas tree?”

“As you intended.”

“And you won’t mess with my son?”

“I will keep our pact. But you must swear to never harm the graves that were in my care.”

“Yeah. Yeah, of course. I promise. We good now?”

There was nothing but the sounds of the storm and wood. Mark nodded and climbed back into his truck. He put it in reverse, pulled back onto the road, and began towards home.

The tree spirit kept its promise. After Christmas, when Mark’s son went home, the threats and curses started again. “Thief,” “Defiler,” “Trespasser,” “Desecrator,” and a host of other insults appeared on the windows of Mark’s home. Finally, about a week after Christmas, the voice called out: “Take me to the wood and bury me.”

Mark did as told, though it wasn’t easy breaking the frozen ground. He managed, and the disturbances stopped for a while. Then, with spring, they began again, softer than before. Mark went out to where he’d buried the tree and discovered a sapling poking through. It had been dry, so he came back and watered it.

“You will be punished,” the tree whispered, though it seemed somewhat uncertain.

“I know,” Mark replied. “Just... let me know if you need anything.”

He took some books on tending trees out from the library and followed the instructions as well he could. Eventually, the tree no longer needed his help, but he continued to visit to check on it. Sometimes the tree would threaten him; other times, it wouldn’t.

The next Christmas Eve, he returned and sat beside the tiny tree. “I was thinking,” Mark said. “I was wondering if you wanted me to move you to the cemetery.”

“My charge endures in my absence.” The tree sounded a little sad.

“Yeah. I don’t think there are that many people out there who’d mess with a cemetery. I mean, I think it’s safe now. But, if you ever want to go back, just tell me, and I’ll move you.

The tree didn’t reply, so Mark just sat there for a while, in case he wanted the company.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Frasier: Miracle on Third or Fourth Street (1993)

The episode opens with Frasier excited about spending Christmas with his family. There's a sequence at his office Christmas party introducing several elements: there's a drunk woman he's supposed to drive home, Ross got him a better gift than he got her, and one of his coworkers wants him to take his Christmas shift.

Only one of these actually extends beyond the opening sequence and influences the episode at all. The others, which feel like plot hooks, just evaporate. I'm not really complaining: the amorous drunken woman and a gift imbalance aren't exactly episode premises I needed to see developed, but I'm baffled as to why they were included then left unresolved.

Frasier gets home and receives some bad news: his son will be spending Christmas with his ex-wife instead of him. This leaves him depressed, which leads into a fight with his father. Rather than go to the family cabin, Frasier decides to work on Christmas (yeah, that required us to sit through the office party for set-up).

The next sequence showcases Frasier taking calls from depressed people on Christmas. Needless to say, this gets old pretty fast.

Frasier then goes out to eat at a restaurant. He discovers he forgot his wallet, which results in the other patrons mistaking him for a homeless man and paying his tab. This, of course, is the miracle the rekindles his Christmas spirit or something.

This wasn't awful, but it was overwhelmingly bland. It felt empty, vapid, dull. I used to occasionally watch Frasier back when I was in high school. I don't recall particularly liking or disliking it, but I didn't have cable growing up so I took what entertainment I could get.

Thank God those days are past.

Cheers: The Spy Who Came in for a Cold One (1982)

I have fond memories of Cheers, but, judging by this episode, the show doesn't hold up thirty years later.

The plot of this episode is kind of a jumble. A man comes into the bar right before Christmas acting mysterious. He "accidentally" lets it slip that he's a spy to Carla, who becomes fascinated with him. She informs the rest of the bar, who crowd around the guy and start asking questions.

The majority of the characters either accept his claims at face value or laugh them off, but Diane, being a know-it-all, needs to press. She catches him in his lies, which cause him to leave humiliated. The others berate Diane, because clearly she was wrong in calling someone out for lying to try and pick up a woman.

The character returns and the twists start coming. First he's convincing Diane that he's a poet, which humiliates her. Then he tries to convince Sam he's rich, and he offers to buy the bar for two million dollars. Of course, he actually is rich, but by the time Sam's figured that out, Diane's already torn up his early retirement, assuming its another joke. Fortunately, Sam didn't really want to sell the bar, so he's not mad.

The biggest thing jumping out at me was how much things have changed in the last thirty years. The moral of the episode seems to be that skepticism is bad, and following the plot requires the viewer to accept that it was wrong of Diane to try and stop a stranger from picking up her friend by lying. Throw in a B-plot with Norm not wanting to spend Christmas with his wife, and you've got some serious issues with misogyny. But I guess that was the era.

Overall, the delivery wasn't bad, but the jokes were more uncomfortable than they were funny. Sure, there were some solid actors in this, and the series's premise - setting a sitcom in a bar - was a good one, which is why it lasted as long as it did. But I don't think there's any reason to track this down.

Good Versions of Boring Songs

As part of the Mainlining Christmas project, I listen to a lot of Christmas music, far more than some people would consider reasonable. Some of my friends had shared their sympathies, and so I took an informal poll of least favorite holiday songs. My plan was to find versions of these songs that were great, without completely abandoning the song in question. That means no complete rewrites, no parody versions.

That was the plan, anyway. But what I discovered, as I listened through many versions of each song, was that, except for one unique case, I actually don’t have a problem with many of these songs. In fact, I really like most of them! Is Mainlining Christmas changing my brain? Am I going soft? Or is my love of music overcoming my distrust of the holiday?

In any case, wherever I can, I’m still providing you with what I think is a great or a unique spin on each song below, along with my rationale for liking it.

Santa Baby
I don’t understand my friends’ problems with a lot of these songs. Santa Baby was nominated by two different people, and I just don’t get it. Especially because if you think Santa Baby is creepy or awful, but don’t think the same about Baby, it’s Cold Outside... well, let’s agree to disagree, shall we? Wikipedia claims that Santa Baby is one of only two hit Christmas songs written by a woman (the other is next on this list). I find it such a delightfully snarky, sassy song. Eartha Kitt’s version is classic, although I like it with a little more bite. Miss Piggy does it up right on A Green and Red Christmas

Little Drummer Boy
We have quite a few fine versions of this, and a few pretty boring ones, too. The friend who suggested this one complained about its earworm properties, so the goal is to find a version different enough that it won't get stuck in one's head, or one good enough that you won't care. I propose the version by the Salsoul Orchestra.

It's got a fun bouncy back-beat and a chipper chorus, plus the pace is much better than most versions I've heard. Another option is Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth, as sung by Bing Crosby and David Bowie. The added counterpoint descant is far from perfect, but it does give you a more complex listening experience.

The First Noel
I sympathize with the dislike for this song. It's religious, but worse than that it's boring. There's no redeeming qualities to the melody or the lyrics. It's just straighforwardly dull. However, I have an instrumental version by The Night Heron Consort that adds a nice base rhythm and sort of embraces the simplicity of the tune, making it feel like a folk tune more than a carol. That one's pretty nice.

I can’t find a link for that, but this version with dulcimers is decent as well, though it goes on a bit long:

You guys, my Mom found the one I wanted. It was just posted. YAY!

Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree
Another where I'm not quite sure why this was nominated, I guess because it's corny and obviously built around a gimmick? That's what I like about it, though. Some really terrible versions of this exist but I kinda dig the unashamed grooviness of the original Brenda Lee. But, here's a another suggestion: we have an instrumental version by the Nashville Guitars that sounds almost Hawaiian in its twang.

Listen to a sample here: A Tennessee Christmas

White Christmas
I admit to really not understanding the dislike here, I guess a lot of versions are sort of chummy and slow? I have a version by the 2011 cast of Chicago that gives it a brassy showstopping quality which I quite like, but I don't think my friend would. White Christmas also lends itself to becoming a jazzy ballad, as done by Ella Fitzgerald.

Winter Wonderland
This is that same friend. Maybe he just doesn't like snow? I like the old-school charm of the Andrews Sisters for this one, or the broad harmony of a good choral group. Ms. Fitzgerald turns in another great version, or there's a good funky instrumental version on Christmas In Soulsville.

Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer
Okay, I generally hate this one too. Except, I don't think I'd listened to the whole thing in years. Now that I do, I actually realize that yeah, it's annoying and dumb, but it’s also kinda clever, and maybe the fault lies in listening more than once. It’s not a song that can stand repeats. Further, I think the gut level revulsion I felt about this song has a lot less to do with the song and a lot more to do with guilt over my acrimonious relationship with my late Grandmother. Funny, the traditions that spring up around the holidays, huh?

There’s really only one true version of this song, but this made me giggle:

Deck the Halls
Actually, I think Deck the Halls is a practically perfect Christmas Carol. Easy to sing along with, but with enough anachronistic or obscure terms to feel special, not too long or too short, with a good helping of good cheer, but not enough to turn cloying. Also, one of the essays in The Atheist's Guide to Christmas cites it as "the only carol that legally passes muster for a non-religious Christmas wedding". I have a version with Danny Kaye that gives a the kind of spritely pace the song needs, although the best version, as with most songs, is done by the Muppets.

I’m Gettin Nuttin’ for Christmas
Another song I hadn’t actually listened all the way through in what feels like forever. As someone who grew up with a little brother, I actually kind of approve of this song. It’s silly and kinda dumb, sure, but it’s also clever and sly. Just don’t play it more than once, unless you’ve got a good upbeat rock version.

Oh, here’s one:

The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)
Erin only hates this song because he hates The Chipmunks and this was their first big hit. But it’s cute. Come on.

Besides, this is the version I had as a kid, which does involve chipmunks, but different ones:

Christmas Shoes
You might have known this was coming. This is, officially, the worst Christmas song. And it is very, very bad.

However, even a terrible song can bring us joy. Erin and I are of the opinion that this song is frickin' hilarious. The idea that someone would write this, that someone would perform it, that someone made a hysterically awful looking TV movie about it; every step of it makes me laugh. Those are grown-ass people who are trying to sell the idea that this absolutely inane story of a kid trying to buy fancy shoes for his dying mom (because JESUS likes shiny shoes, just like the spider-goddess in Spiderman: Turn off the Dark) is somehow touching or moving, instead of just pathetic and/or laughable and/or horrible. Grown-ass people.

Watch the official music video. I dare you not to laugh at the faux-trucker look clashing with the “sensitive” voice the singer’s got going on. Or the serious-face on the backup guys (who are just standing around looking bored.) Or the idea that women, you know, what they really want is shoes to be buried in. Or the fact that the singer, after all, makes it about himself. It’s so bad, it’s funny. And then! horrible child chorus!

If you can’t bring yourself to watch it, I understand. I recommend this as a palate cleanser.

Although, I wouldn’t call the song itself safe for anyone without a healthy sense of irony.

Thanks to everyone who suggested songs!

That '70s Show Christmas Episodes

Remember That ‘70s Show? That freaking show ran FOREVER, but it was one of those things you always could turn on and it would usually be funny. There were a total of five Christmas episodes over the eight seasons, and they were all pretty enjoyable to watch.

That '70s Show: The Best Christmas Ever (1998)
It took us awhile to get into this episode from the first season. As the complications and subplots mounted, we were amused, but weren’t engaged. By the end, though, it started to come together. Among other threads, this followed Eric’s attempt to throw a Christmas party (with beer) in the basement, Red having to work Christmas Eve, and Hyde trying to impress Donna with a gift. Not a bad little Christmas episode.

That '70s Show: Hyde's Christmas Rager (2000)
By the time we were watching this one, we were back in the rhythm of the show (and we were watching a later episode, so the quality had picked up a little). I know I’ve seen this episode before: it's about the boys getting drunk unsupervised at Hyde’s father’s place, and Eric’s parents meddling, but in a productive way. There were some really funny sequences in this one, and some good feeling under the funny in the way this show sometimes did well.

That '70s Show: An Eric Forman Christmas (2001)
In this one, Eric gets conned into directing a Christmas pageant, so of course he gets everyone to be in it, and their ideas are... unique. A dream sequence in the middle is overplayed, but a faux-stop-motion sequence near the end was pretty great, and the pay-off on the running gags was actually awesome.

That ‘70s Show: Christmas (2003)
It’s really odd to be jumping around in this show, it reminds me of all the weird plot twists, both good and bad, that appeared over the course of the run. We started out being pretty skeptical of the plot hook: that when the guys attend a high school Christmas party with Jackie, all the high school girls think they’re awesome just because they’ve graduated. However, most of the jokes that spun out of the situation actually worked really well. Also, Red is a mall Santa to hilarious effect.

That ‘70s Show: Winter (2004)
This wasn’t as good as some of the earlier Christmas episodes. A lot of the jokes were really good, but the story to the episode was really lame. Kelso takes all the toys collected for the toy drive, and the guys play with them. Jackie and Hyde fight (whatever). Again, we laughed, but it ended with a bit of a whimper.

Fiction: The Carnival of Father Christmas

It's day of twenty of 25 Christmas Eves. Just five more stories to go after this one. Today, I thought I'd try my hand at steampunk. Hope it meets your expectations.

By: Erin L. Snyder

“Attention! Tonight’s Father Christmas March has been called off due to weather! Christmas Eve is cancelled! Once again, the March and carnival have been cancelled!” The man yelled his news through a bullhorn from the back of a steel carriage, which puttered slowly past what remained of the Tildrick Thread Factory, condemned after a fire six years prior. From the roof, a young girl ran along a path of board and boxes which marked areas unlikely to collapse. A patchwork of holes on either side demonstrated the importance of this precaution. The path ended at the largest hole, where a ladder had been propped up against the edge. She grabbed hold and started down.

There were a half dozen kids near the bottom, most about her age. She ignored them and darted towards the far wall, where she found her older sister.

“Casset,” she said, out of breath from sprinting. “Men outside... they said... it’s off. They said... no Christmas....”

Casset hugged her sister. “I heard, Gael. I heard, but you have to understand, they say that every year. I’m sorry. They just want us to lower our guard, make us easy pickings for the Krampmen.”

The joy on Gael’s face disappeared, and she clung to her sister. “Will we be safe here?”

“No,” Casset said. “No, I don’t think we will.” She’d hoped the factory’s frightening exterior would keep the Krampmen away another year, but she’d caught sight of young men with clipboards outside the building at odd hours. She’d been thinking it over and was now all but sure the building would be raided. “We need to move.”

“Should we tell the others?”

Casset didn’t hesitate. “No.” It was cold-hearted, but it was necessary. The other children would follow them, and they’d draw attention if they tried to move together. “Meet me in back in fifteen minutes. If anyone asks, you’re going for water.”

Gael nodded and wandered away. Casset went to gather her few possessions of value: a handful of coins she’d been collecting, a wrench, and a single earring - the last of her mother’s things she’d managed to keep after her parents’ death. She left behind bedding, pots, and other essentials. It felt awkward abandoning items they’d need, but these would be easy enough to replace if they couldn’t come back. There was about to be a surplus of such things all over the city.

Casset met her sister in the alley behind the abandoned factory. They started off without speaking and stayed close together. A man on the ground eyed both of them, but they hurried by. Once they were aways from the factory, Gael asked why they hadn’t warned the others. Casset tried to explain, but her sister didn’t seem to understand. In the end, she simply said, “It’s safer this way.”

It was mid-afternoon by the time they reached Westgate. Casset had hoped they’d be able to sneak by and find someplace to wait out the night in the countryside, but at a glance she could see the exit was too well guarded. She might have been able to get herself past, but she’d never manage with her sister: they’d be arrested and sent to the orphanage for sure.

Instead, they headed back into town, turning south towards the river docks, where Casset used to gather shellfish that fell off the carts while being wheeled off the ships. There were other kids around gathering what they could before running to whatever homes they had. Casset was desperate enough to ask a few if they had a place they could stay, but everyone dismissed her. After a while, she began asking another question instead: “Do you know Club?”

Club had been an orphan like Casset and Gael, but he was fourteen, old enough to not have to worry about Christmas Eve or the Krampmen. Casset had known him back when he was Winston Hadleigh. But the rule in the South End is you take a new name when you kill a man to throw off the law. Casset doubted Club had really killed anyone: more likely, he’d taken the name to impress people.

Most of the kids said they’d never heard of Club. Casset knew they were lying: everyone by the docks knew Club, regardless of what they thought of him, but she didn’t press anyone. Eventually, a boy directed them down an alley without an outlet. There was no one down there, but when they turned, they found Club blocking the way out.

He was an attractive boy, and like most, had an inflated opinion of himself. But to his credit, he’d avoided or outfought the police long enough that it was no longer a crime for him to live outside the orphanage.

“I hear you were looking for me,” Club said. He had a perpetual smirk on his face, which Casset had always found off-putting. “One question first: who sent you?”

Casset rolled her eyes. “No one sent us,” she said. “I need a favor.”

“On Christmas Eve? Good luck getting it,” Club said.

“Fine then. We need a place to last the night, and we’ll pay.”

“Well then. What have you got?”

“I’ve got some money,” Casset replied. “Do you have a safe spot?”

“How much?”

“Do you have a spot?” Casset said again, this time louder.

“Not one of my own,” Club said. “Might have some friends who can help you, though, long as the money’s good.”

“Who are these friends?”

“Oh, I’ve got lots of friends. Which ones I introduce you to depends on how much you got. Some of my friends have more expensive lodgings than others.”

“I have a little more than three pounds,” Casset said.

“That’s not so much,” Club said.

“Damn it! Can you put us somewhere safe or not? You know what tonight is!”

Club’s smirk widened. “Might just know a few lads who can help. Just let me hold the money.”

“You can have it when we’re safe. Whatever’s left over after you arrange it with our host.”

“You’re putting me in an awkward position here, Cass. Might be you don’t have what you’re saying. Might leave me looking bad in front of my friends.”

“I wouldn’t do that to you,” Casset said. “Besides, what would I gain? I’d just lose the time it takes, and you know damn well I can’t afford that.”

Club considered this and nodded. “Alright, Cass. I’ve got some friends who can look after you and your sister.” He led them through brick streets and past the railyard. They took a long bridge over the trains, which disgorged soot, smoke, and steam beneath them.

Gael coughed as they passed through the vapors, and Casset patted her shoulder. “It’s okay,” Casset said, “We’re close now.” She looked up at Club, who glanced back with a smile and a nod.

It was getting late, though: in a few hours, the Krampmen would appear and begin the annual roundup. The police would always arrest runaways and orphans whenever they could, but Christmas Eve was something else. They deputized thousands of young men and paid a stipend for each child caught. It was a dangerous night to be on the street.

They reached where they were going soon after. It was a small room in a worn down complex. Club pounded on the door, while Casset held back. After a moment, the door opened, and someone several years older than Club looked out.

“Berke said you guys could take in strays if they were friends of mine,” Club said, motioning to Casset and Gael. “I’ll vouch for them. They’ll mind their manners and not take anything. Just looking for a place to avoid the Krampmen; that’s all.”

The man in the door looked at the two girls and shrugged. “If you’re friends of Club’s come on in.”

They approached slowly. They’d almost reached the doorway when Casset froze: no one had asked for money, and that wasn’t how the world worked. She grabbed Gael and started to turn, but she was too slow. The man in the door grabbed them both and started pulling.

Casset kicked at him, but he held on. “Club!” she cried. But Club just stood there smiling.

A few seconds later, two more men appeared and helped the first. Soon after, they were all in the room, one of the men blocking the door. They told the girls to wait in the corner while they handed Club a couple notes. It wasn’t much, but it made Casset’s three pounds seem like a joke. “You see anymore, you bring ‘em here,” the older man said. “But be quick about it: they only come by once. After that, they’re useless to us.”

“What’s going on?” Gael asked softly.

Casset hugged her. “They’re going to sell us to the Krampmen,” she said. “Probably for ten times what they’re giving Club.”

Club shrugged, “The costs of running a business.”

Casset glared at him. “I’ll kill you for this.”

Club turned to look at her. “Say hi to Father Christmas for me,” he said with his usual smirk. Then he left the way they’d come in.

The men kept an eye on the girls, but mostly left them alone. There was nothing in the room they could use as a weapon - there was nothing much in the room, at all, beyond a couple of chairs the men sat in.

When the sun went down, the noise started. They could hear people outside yelling and hooting. Every now and then, something would break. One of the men looked out the only window in the room.

“I see them,” he said to the others. “Keep a watch on those two. I’ll be back.”

When he disappeared, Casset whispered instructions to her sister. Then she got up and approached the man who wasn’t guarding the door. He stood up to meet her. “What do you want?” he asked.

Casset screamed and leapt at him. She dug her fingernails into his cheek and began kicking him repeatedly in the shins. She spat on him and tried to bite him, but he stepped back, almost tripping on the chair.

He yelled and pushed her backward. Then he struck her, sending her flailing to the ground. “You little--”

The man guarding the door was laughing. “Got to watch them, Berke,” he said.

Casset ignored him and said, “I’ll tear out their eyes. You hear me? You hand me to a Krampus, and I’ll tear out his eyes.”

Berke shook his head and raised his hand, as if he was going to hit her again. But he didn’t approach. “Go ahead and try,” he said. “Krampmen aren’t as gentle as my brother and I.” He wiped his cheek and looked at the blood on his palm. Then he backed over to the door to wait.

After a few moments, there was a knock on the door. Before either of the men could turn to open it, Casset charged forward. Berke struck her again and grabbed her, turning her around so he was behind her. She elbowed and struggled until the door slid open. As soon as the Krampus stepped in, she froze.

He was a large man, but not an old one. Like all the others outside, he was dressed in old clothes and had painted his face red. He also wore a pair of false horns strapped to his head. In one hand, he carried rope and a number of small sacks; in the other, he had a club. An odor of alcohol permeated the room when he entered.

Still holding Casset, Berke said “You’ll want to knock this one out before taken her in. She’s a fighter.”

Casset went mostly limp and looked the Krampus in the eyes. “Please,” she whimpered, “My name is Susan Goldman, and I live at 641 Goldman Street. These men grabbed me and my sister and covered us in dirt. Please, our mother’s going to be so worried.”

The Krampus stared Berke in the eye. “What’s going on here?” he demanded. “Pinn said you had strays.”

“These are strays,” Berke said. “I mean, I think they are. We got them from Club. You know Club, right?”

“He’s lying,” Casset said. “He grabbed us this afternoon off the street himself. I don’t know any ‘Cub.’”

“Shut up!” Berke said, pushing her down.

Casset fell hard and crawled toward the Krampus. “Please. Can you help us?”

The Krampus wasn’t paying any attention to Casset. He approached Berke and jabbed a finger into his chest. “They don’t pay for strays if they aren’t strays,” he said. “In fact, a man can find trouble bringing in kids who have a home.”

“Back off,” Berke said, trying to act tough. It wasn’t easy: the Krampus towered over him. “Look, if they won’t take the girl, come back and I’ll return our cut.”

“I heard them say they were leaving tonight,” Casset shouted.

“Shut up!” One of the men by the door bent down to strike her.

Casset covered her face and cowered. “Please!” she cried. “Help!”

“So that’s it,” the Krampus said. “You were gonna take the money and run. Maybe we should all go down to the Christmas Celebration together.”

“You know we can’t go there. Police might recognize us.”

“Then maybe I’d better hold on to my money and the girls. Once I’ve got my reward, I’ll be back.”

“Thank you!” Casset said. “Thank you! They’ll give you a reward when they arrest them!”

Berke eyed Casset and squinted. He knew what she was doing. “No,” he said. “If you don’t want to do business, just go and we’ll find someone else.”

“Don’t think I can do that,” the Krampus said. “I think I’m owed something for my time.”

“The girl’s a stray! She’s lying! I wasn’t even the one who found her!”

“Why would she lie about who grabbed her?” The Krampus asked. “I think I’d better take the girls and go. Like I said, if they’re strays, I’ll be back with your money. If not, I’ll tell the police where I got them.”

Berke jumped him. “Get his money!” The others abandoned the door and attacked the Krampus, who freed his arm and started wailing on Berke with club.

Casset looked at her sister, who darted to her. They ran for the door together. If anyone saw them, they were too entwined to do anything. Just as they ran out, Casset said, “Come on! We’ve to meet up with Club!” When she’d told Club she would kill him, it had been a hollow threat, but now she wondered if she’d managed just that..

They ran away from the apartment, hurrying through a few small streets, and headed for an alley. Casset looked behind her: no one was coming after them. The girls stopped to catch their breath. They’d escaped, but were now outside on Christmas Eve. They could hear gangs of Krampmen running through nearby streets shouting and searching for stray children.

“Are you okay?” Gael asked.

Casset was bleeding from where the men had hit her. She felt sore, but she could move, which was all that was important. “I’m fine,” she said. “Out in the farming villages, this is all that happens on Christmas Eve. The Krampmen come and beat the children who are bad, then they leave them alone.”

“That’s all?” Gael said.

“That’s all. All the children have homes out there. If your parents die, someone else takes you in. It’s just how it is.” Casset leaned against a building. “Give me a second, and then we’ll press on.”

“Where are we going to go?”

“I don’t know,” Casset replied. “We’ll think of something.” In the distance, they heard dogs barking, and Casset stood up. “We need to go,” she said. They continued through the alley, not daring to return the way they’d come. By now, the fight would have ended and someone would be looking for them.

They were in the Rail District, though they weren’t particularly close to the trains. There were worse spots of the city to be, but Casset was mostly unfamiliar with the area. There were a lot of factories here, mostly assembling parts for the ever-expanding train system. Between the smoke pouring out of the factory towers and the concoction of steam and soot billowing in from the rail yard, the air was thick. You could feel a powder build in your lungs and in the back of your throat.

They stopped in the shadows at the end of an alley to wait for a gang of Krampmen to pass by with their prizes. The group was dressed like the man they’d escaped earlier: tattered rags, face paint, and horns. Some even had fake tails pinned to the back of their pants.

Half of the Krampmen walked; the others rode with their prisoners in a wagon partially powered by a coal engine that spewed out a black cloud. To supplement the coal, they’d hitched a pair of donkeys to the front. The larger prisoners were bound and wearing sacks over their heads. There were larger sacks beside them fully containing the smaller prisoners. As they passed, the Krampmen sang their Christmas songs, hollered, and drank from jugs of cheap wine, beer, and mead.

Once they were almost out of sight, Casset and Gael darted silently across the street into the next alley. They breathed a sigh of relief, then almost jumped when they realized they weren’t alone.

It was a homeless woman. They’d almost tripped over her, but saw her at the last second. Casset raised a finger to her mouth to plead for silence.

The old woman smiled. Then she called out, “Strays! There’s strays here! Come get them!”

Casset kicked her in the leg as hard as she and started running with her sister. Behind them, the woman who’d betrayed them cursed and called out for the Krampmen.

The two girls tore through the alley blindly. Behind them, they could hear people in pursuit. They heard a boy’s laughter. They heard another howl. And a third: “Come out, strays! Come out for Christmas!”

Casset kept one hand on Gael as she ran, and she steered her sister in the maze of small streets and alleys. As soon as they lost the group after them, another spotted them crossing a street, and the chase was on again.

Fortunately, the girls were fast. They were exhausted, but they’d spent their lives in conditions like these. Eventually, they lost the men after them, but they no longer knew where they were. They’s moved out of the Rail District into one of the central neighborhoods, but Cassset didn’t know which. They’d turned so many times, she didn’t even know which direction they’d gone in.

No sooner did they stop then they heard a glass bottle break far behind them. Casset grabbed her sister’s hand and pulled her on. They could hear Christmas songs behind them. The Krampmen weren’t on the hunt, but that would certainly change if they realized there were strays close by.

The girls hurried ahead, focusing on stealth as much as speed. Soon, they realized there was noise in front of them, too. It was loud, almost like a market, though it was far too late for that. Nevertheless, there was no going back and nowhere to hide, so Casset pushed on.

When she reached the end of the alley, her breathing froze. A cold sweat formed on her face, and she stopped, unable to move. “Not here,” she whispered.

They’d stumbled across the Christmas Carnival.

There must have been five hundred Krampmen in the square, along with several times that many shopkeepers, fishmongers, and clerks there in the hopes of repaying an old score. Then there were the spectators come to watch: men, women, and even entire families from all walks of life had come out to enjoy the festivities.

Entire families.

Casset grabbed her sister’s shoulders and knelt beside her. She spoke frantically. “Listen to me, Gael. Listen. Those boys are getting close, and if they catch us... that’s it. So we can’t go back, and there’s no place to hide. We got to go on. We have to go the Carnival.” As she spoke, she ran her fingers through her sisters hair and wiped the dirt from her face. “You need to listen to me. There’s so many people there, no one can tell what’s going on or who’s with who. Stay close to me, but you have to smile. No matter what, you need to look like you’re having the time of your life.”

She didn’t wait for her sister to answer: there was no time for that. So she grabbed her hand and pulled her into the light. She made for the busiest crowded spot of families she could see. She skipped, laughed, and pretended to be excited. She pointed at the center, at Father Christmas, sitting on the stage in front of the parade of orphans.

Father Christmas. As was tradition, it was the chief of police, dressed in flowing red robes. He was supposed to be wearing a fake beard, but he’d pulled that off, and it sat instead on his desk weighed down by a stone.

As the children passed in front, Father Christmas bellowed, “Tell us your name, child!” And the unfortunate boy or girl was forced to do so by one of the officers. Most of the children were bruised from their treatment by the Krampmen and all were terrified. Then Father Christmas would address the crowd, “Does anyone know this boy? Has anyone a grievance?”

As a general rule, no one spoke up for the younger ones. Even if the child had stolen from them, they let it go. It was considered bad form; besides, if anyone had spoken out, Father Christmas would have ignored them.

“I see you’ve been a good lad,” Father Christmas said in such cases, “and so I’ll send you to a good home.” Then he’d jot a note and order the officers to put the child with the others headed towards the orphanages. Casset had never understood how the orphanage could be mistaken for a “good home,” though it was better than the alternative. The children judged harshly were drafted into the military and sent to help in the colonies.

Either way, there was a loud cheer after each proclamation. Then another hood was pulled off another child, and they were sent onto the stage.

Casset felt her sister tugging her sleeve. She leaned over, and her sister whispered, “I know her.” Casset shushed her and reminded her to keep smiling, but when she looked up she discovered she knew the girl on stage, as well.

They’d known her as Eliny, though she was introduced as Elinore Roserie. A single shopkeeper claimed she’d stolen from him on multiple occasions, but Father Christmas glared at him and asked if he was certain. The man took the hint and said, on further reflection he might be mistaken, so Father Christmas announced the girl had been good and would receive her just reward. Apparently he’d decided the crowd would be happier with a happy ending for this child. The next few weren’t so lucky.

Casset pulled on Gael’s hand, leading her through the crowd. People were moving all around them. Without warning, they found themselves in the midst of a pack of Krampmen smelling of alcohol. Most looked like they’d been fighting, either with stray kids or with other Krampmen over their prey.

The nearest Krampus looked down at the girls and tilted his head. He squinted, as if thinking. Casset didn’t give him time to finish. “Sir,” she whispered. “My mother’s wearing a black hat with a pin of a flower in the middle. She was just here, but... but we can’t find her. Can you help us?”

The Krampus sneered. “Get lost, kid, before I sell you to Father Christmas and tell him you’re a stray!” Casset gasped, grabbed her sister, and hurried away, while the Krampmen laughed.

The girls reached the edge and Casset waited for an opportunity. When she saw a pair of families heading off together in the same direction, she pulled her sister along, keeping them directly between the two groups. At a glance, no one would be able to tell which they were supposed to be part of.

They hovered between the two families as they headed down the street, passing gangs of Krampmen towing found children behind them. When one of the families split off, it was time for them to do the same. Fortunately, they were a ways from the thick of the Carnival, and there were more options for hiding places. They went down the smallest, darkest alley they came across, and found hollowed out crevice in the corner of a crumbling brick building. A few hours ago, they’d never have had a chance here, but Casset figured the Krampmen wouldn’t waste their time searching this close to the Carnival: by now, they’d figure all the strays in the area had been captured.

The two girls huddled together for warmth. They heard gangs of Krampmen and police go by (after midnight, the Krampmen’s authority officially expired, and the police took an interest in their increasingly rowdy behavior). Even with the Krampmen no longer employed by the police, they were still dangerous; perhaps even more than before. There were almost always a few strays found dead the morning after, so the girls kept to their spot. At one point, a pair of Krampmen stumbled into the alley to throw up, but they were far too drunk and far too distracted to notice the girls.

Casset didn’t trust it was safe until the sun came up. The girls were sore, tired, hungry and dehydrated. They weren’t sure whether the things they’d left behind had been dragged into the street and burned. Even if not, they weren’t sure whether the kids who’d lasted would let them return: some might even suspect they’d sold them out to the Krampmen.

But all that could wait. Because the girls were still together, still a family. And, for what little it was worth, it was Christmas morning.