Saturday, December 13, 2014

Leavenworth Christmas Lighting Ceremony

Erin talked a bit about our trip to Leavenworth already. I'm picking up the story at about 4:15 pm.

We are on the east side of a very tall mountain, so it's getting dark.

Neither of us quite expected the slush to be as thick as it was, so my feet are wet, and our hands are cold. We've been standing or walking for most of the last five hours.

And we're making our way towards the crowds.

Yeah, if we'd wanted a good view, we would have had to stand in the cold a lot longer than either of us were in the mood for at that point in the day.

We staked out an okay spot, and waited.

And waited.

And tried to hear what was going on.

There was some singing, and some speeches, and finally Santa!

Yeah, I know, a little bit of an anticlimax.

Next, if I recall the series of events correctly, some people played alphorns, which was pretty cool, although I could barely hear them. Then it was time for, according to the description of this event in the flyer about the festivities: "the parade of stars & bells."

Sounds intriguing, right? Well, it boiled down to four people, two from each direction, making their way painfully slowly through the milling crowd, carrying big light-up stars and ringing bells.

I guess the stars were kind of neat close up?

When these people came close to the center, the Christmas tree came on.

The problem is, I'm not sure whether that's what was supposed to happen, because then there was a countdown and the rest of the lights came on, and then a second trigger for a secondary group of lights in the other trees. I couldn't tell if the tree first was intentional or a mistake.

I suppose it was pretty cool either way.

The town was pretty gorgeous all lit up, although we were quickly caught in the mass of humanity returning to cars, buses, bars and shops now that the event was over, so I didn't get as many pictures as I might have liked.

And with that we retreated to the warm bus and the trip back to the snow-free lowlands. I'm really glad we went, a lot of the shops were fun and the whole experience was fascinating, but if I were to go again, I might skip the ceremony and stay inside until the crowds died down and then go out and see the lights.


It was December 6, 2014. Saint Nicholas Day. 

We decided it would be a good day to go to Christmastown. Or at least the Western Washington Bavarian equivalent, also known as Leavenworth. The town sits just on the other side of Stevens Pass. To put it another way, this is a place that's pretty much guaranteed to get a white Christmas.

We probably could have survived the drive there and back in our Honda Fit, but we didn't feel like chancing it. Instead we bought bus tickets. This, of course, extended our trip length by an extra two hours or so, since it meant we first had to head to Seattle Center to catch the bus before the three and a half hour ride to Leavenworth.

All in all, this took us more than fifteen hours: not exactly a short excursion. Fortunately, it was pretty awesome. Even more importantly, it was Christmas.

When we reached the frost line, it felt like we were approaching the North Pole. Not the real North Pole, obviously; more like something out of a Rankin/Bass special brought to life. I snapped dozens of pictures through the bus window, but almost all were blurred beyond recognition. Most of the rest have reflections from inside the bus, but a few are still pretty nice.

When we finally arrived, the town didn't break the pattern. This was about as close as you can get to a stop-motion Christmastown in the real world. Leavenworth is essentially an old railroad town that would, in all likelihood, be a ghost town if they hadn't transformed it into a tourist destination in the 60's. Now, it's a facsimile of a Bavarian village, and it survives by luring visitors interested in various events. The big two seem to be Oktoberfest and the Christmas light ceremony. And this isn't Mainlining Oktoberfest.

Above is the scene when we arrived. I remember thinking it was crowded, which almost seems funny in hindsight. That's the town center, by the way, where the aforementioned lighting ceremony took place hours later.

It would be difficult to overstate how focused the town is on the holiday. Not too surprising, given the economic incentives, but every store was decorated and most were stocked with Christmas merchandise. A few of the shops were holiday themed as a default, though most seemed like they could transform with the seasons.

We did some shopping and ate some food. Bratwurst might not be Christmas themed, but damned if it wasn't fantastic. Also, so you know we didn't forget why we were there, we had molasses Christmas cookies, Gluhwein, and spiced cider. All great.

There was a simple parade soon after we arrived to mark the arrival of Santa Claus. Actually, it included Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, and Santa Claus, which is kind of odd. This was a relatively low-key affair. Here's a picture of Santa rolling in:

We spent some time at the Nutcracker museum. The museum itself isn't huge, but they've got a hell of a collection packed in there. We spent about thirty minutes inside and could have stuck around longer if we weren't pressed for time. At a mere $2.50 a person, it was certainly worth it.

All in all, it was a great day. It certainly didn't hurt that the weather was unseasonably warm (in the 40's, I believe), and the scenery was phenomenal.

 Plus, the bus we took played Elf on the ride back. Goddamn, I love that movie.

Of course, I haven't talked about the lighting ceremony... nor will I. That's going to be another article. Hey: we invested more than 15 hours into this trip: we're damned well getting a second post out of the deal.

Wilfred: Confrontation (2013)

There are the Christmas episodes you seek out, then there are the ones you trip over. I've been slowly making my way through the series, Wilfred, and I stumbled across a holiday episode in season 3.

First a few words about the series. More specifically, this is the American remake of an Australian show with the same name. It follows Ryan, played by Elijah Wood, a disturbed former lawyer who perceives his neighbor's dog as a grown man in a dog suit.

Just describing the bizarre premise doesn't do the series justice. This is far stranger and darker than it sounds. It regularly delves into existential questions, as Ryan attempts to determine whether his experiences are mystical in nature or if he's simply losing his mind. The series's tone oscillates between dark comedy and psychological horror.

This episode is surprisingly restrained, though it ventures into some dark territory. It's Christmas, and Ryan's family is reuniting for the first time in years. Wilfred, meanwhile, wants to be part of the family. A lot of the episode feels far closer to a conventional sitcom than the show normally is, though that's actually somewhat misleading.

The episode is structured as a sort of mystery, as Ryan (and the viewer) attempt to interpret meaning from the characters' actions. Ryan starts the episode with multiple narratives about each of his parents, and the scenes we see could ambiguously support any of these. His father's behavior could suggest a depressed and anxious man trying to put his family back together, or we could be watching the actions of master manipulator without a conscience. The writing is surprisingly balanced, particularly in comparison to most of what makes it onto TV.

Early on, Wilfred offers an explanation for his lifelong hatred of Santa Claus that's certainly logical for a dog's point of view. Other than that, the Christmas elements were more setting than plot, though they were a good catalyst for the story. In addition, the familiar "awkward family at the holidays" trope served them well here.

Overall, it was a good - but not necessarily great - episode of a very intriguing series. I'm a little hesitant to recommend this show to anyone, though: if you're not a fan of extremely dark comedy, you'll likely be more uncomfortable than entertained. If you're willing to explore some extremely dark ideas, however, it's a fascinating show.

Needless to say, though, start with the first episode.

Friday, December 12, 2014

This American Life Christmas Podcasts (1995 to 2013)

This American Life is one of the better radio shows/podcasts out there. I got hooked on the show last year. At times, the series can be whimsical, sad, funny, and dark. They've got almost two decades of episodes archived online.

I decided to go through and listen to all of the holiday episodes. While there hasn't been one every year, they've got quite a few of them kicking around: nine in all, unless I missed any. At an hour each, that's quite a lot of public radio Christmas. I started with the most recent then worked back to the beginning.

Act 1: Christmas

514: Thought That Counts (2013)
As is typical for the show, it's broken into a number of stories (or "acts," if you want to maintain Ira's terminology). This time it's three "acts" plus a prologue. Four stories in total.

The prologue is actually a little different this time: instead of a single short, it's several, and they're peppered throughout the episode. These are about teenagers trying to choose gifts for their parents. The stories contrast how children look at gifts they buy or make with how adults perceive the same presents.

After that, we get a piece of fiction by Jonathan Goldstein. The story is about Santa Claus starting to date once again after the death of his wife. In addition to Claus, it features a couple of witches from the Wizard of Oz. It's a cute concept, and there's some intriguing use of imagery. Still, it doesn't quite know whether it wants to be a joke or not. In addition, I felt like there were some lost opportunities. Overall, the characters had superficial connections at best to Baum's books, which I found disappointing, given L. Frank Baum's contributions to the Santa mythos. But solid writing and a  fascinating tone make it worthwhile despite these shortcomings.

After another chunk of the "prologue," we move on to a segment about "time capsules" created by Andy Warhol. Cataloging the contents of these is a full time job for three archivists. It's an interesting piece, though it's connection to the episode's theme is a bit dubious.

The last act is another short story, this time about a teenager falling into a life of crime at the holidays. It's a dark, character-driven piece. The subject matter is fairly conventional, but it's a good story.

The episode closes with a final segment from the thread started in the prologue. All in all, a decent episode, but not an especially memorable one.

482: Lights, Camera, Christmas! (2012)

The prologue is a brief but intriguing story about a 9 year-old girl who receives a guinea pig for Christmas, only to discover she's horribly allergic to her new pet. It's the resolution and search for meaning in the piece that makes it affecting.

The next story is the centerpiece of the show. It concerns a family who's built up the Santa myth into something spectacular for their children, arranging for friends and relatives to play the part. On its own, this is far from unique - there are acting services you can use to arrange for a "visit from Saint Nick" - but they take it much further and construct a believable narrative and elaborate mythology. There's world-building, a large cast of characters, and pathos in the fantasy they create. The story takes a dark turn, however, when the parents refuse to back down from the story as their children age. While the entire episode is really good, this 20 minute segment is essential for anyone who's invested in the Santa debate.

After that, the show moves on to a story about two girls who adopt (or perhaps abduct) a baby reindeer. Funny, sweet, but ultimately tragic, it's worth listening to.

The last segment is a work of holiday fiction by Ron Carlson. It's good, but - as is usually the case with fiction on this show - feels a bit anticlimactic after the real-life stories.

This is presented as something of a break from the stress of the holidays: an episode devoted entirely to Christmas humor. It opens with a recording of kids trying to make up jokes about the holidays. Their results are a great reminder for how the minds of children function, but the segment gets a little tiring, even at less than 6 minutes. Following that, there are five acts. The first is the best: Wyatt Cenac has a great story about a church visit to a prison on Christmas. Next up are a pair of short stories by Edith Zimmerman. They're fun, but lack any real substance. Mike Birbiglia provides a great story about Catholicism, though it's a bit dark for the show's theme. Gabe Liedman and Jenny Slate then deliver a solid old-fashioned comedy act about the holidays, and Julian McCullough tells a story that goes to even darker places than Birbiglia's. The last act is just an original song played over the credits by Dave Hill. The song isn't bad, but I was a bit disappointed.

Actually, I found the entire show underwhelming. The topic apparently wasn't communicated to the comedians - or, if it was, they ignored it. As a result, we got a few too many dark, personal moments. Don't get me wrong: in moderation, these can be extremely effective in stand-up. But it's sort of like watching the endings to multiple dramedies in a row - the effect wears thin, the resonance is lost, and you wonder if you'd have been better off with lighter fare.

It's still good - in particular, I had a lot of fun with Cenac's routine - but it wasn't one of the better episodes.

As you'd expect, sometimes the theme of a show like "This American Life" winds up a bit forced. The concept behind this episode was to record a number of stories in a mall right before Christmas. Only, for some reason, they only wound up combining it with a story about a professional Santa organization that fell apart due to infighting. The Santa story takes up about half of the episode, so the episode definitely feels festive (in addition, they play Christmas music between the stories). I liked the Santa segment, though it didn't feel especially surprising or abnormal. I'm guessing people with less familiarity with documentaries and interviews with mall Santas will be less prepared to see them behaving like any other people when they're in an organization. The other stories are focused on mall life and business. The mall sections are good, but fairly low-key for the series (I did like the interview with the woman in security, though).

As a rule of thumb, I prefer the non-fiction segments on This American Life to their fictional content. You'd think that would bode poorly for an episode entirely consisting of Christmas stories, but that wasn't the case. Chock it up to a fantastic line-up of writers bringing their A-games: this was pretty great.

It opens with a brief intro, then moves onto a poem by David Rakoff. Set to the tempo of "A Night Before Christmas," it tells the story of woman who's become ostracized following an affair with her boss. It's not exactly a subtle piece, but it's certainly good.

Next, we cut to John Hodgeman, who offers a "history lesson" on the origins of the Christmas tree and some other traditions. As is almost always the case when Hodgeman is involved, the piece is absolutely hilarious. It's a stretch to call his segment a story, but who the hell cares?

The next piece is definitely a short story, though this time it's a stretch to connect it to Christmas. "My So-Called Jesus," by Heather O'Neill, updates the story of Jesus's life but omits the only part that's at all connected to Christmas. Fortunately, it's a top-notch story in its own right: I really liked this one. Along with Hodgeman's section, I'd call it the best of the episode.

I guess it's inevitable that any collection of new Christmas fiction would include something by David Sedaris. This short, about farm animals right before the holiday, is decent, but certainly nothing spectacular.

There's a song next, written by Sarah Vowell (who voices Violet in The Incredibles), about Christmas during the Revolutionary War. Again, good but not great.

The last piece is a second story about Jesus, or more specifically, his parents. It's a solid, but fairly straightforward, revision of the Christmas story. There's some good humor around being cuckolded by God, but nothing that feels like it's way outside the standard version.

A fairly conventional episode of This American Life, this offers three stories about trying to find the perfect gift. After a brief interview with some shoppers at Target who are comically convinced none of their gifts will be exchanged, the show opens with a long story about two brothers trying to find the perfect gift for their mother, who's a pretty horrible person. The story gets tedious, but - unless your mother is awful - you'll appreciate her a little more by the end. I don't think that was the intention of the piece, but I'd like to think it's a positive.

Next, there's a classic story from Truman Capote, narrated by the author himself. It's not bad, but - especially coming on the heels of the last segment - it's difficult to sit through. Two acts down, and tedium, more than gifts, seems like the dominant theme.

Fortunately, the third act changes pace, with a sad story from a Maine Christmas tree farm and a series of gifts. It's by far the best piece in the episode, though don't expect a happy ending.

This episode focuses on Santa Claus, my personal favorite aspect of the holidays. There's a brief talk with the author of The Battle for Christmas about the origins of Santa Claus at the beginning, followed by an 18 minute account of someone who became Santa. This is a neat story that goes in some fascinating directions. Next up is Sarah Vowell offering some thoughts on pop-music's obsession with Santa and sex. It's a funny piece, though it felt a little short. The next segment is about meeting a black Santa for the first time: it's short and simple, but it's a good portrait of how kids see both Santa and race.

After that, there's a brief four-minute Chickenman episode about the crime fighter tracking down counterfeit Santas. While I generally love superheroes and the rich history of the genre, I've yet to appreciate the appeal of Chickenman. I guess you had to be listening in the 1960's.

Lastly, there's a piece by David Sedaris. As I've already implied, I'm not really a fan of Sedaris's fiction, but the limited memoir work I've seen from him has been outstanding. Fortunately, that's what this is. It's really more about Easter than Christmas, focusing on an experience he had while trying to learn French in Paris when a Moroccan student asked what 'Easter' was. Christmas is certainly mentioned, but I'm surprised they didn't hold this for a few months. Regardless, it's pretty hilarious.

Apparently, back in 1997 This American Life devoted an entire episode to three stories by David Sedaris. All are fiction - no memoir here - and each has a different reader. The first, a mock-review of small-town school Christmas plays, is read by the author; the second, a story about a small-town homemaker's subsequent breakdown unveiled in a Christmas letter, is read by Julia Sweeney; and Matt Malloy takes the last story, a tale about a smarmy TV producer trying to blackmail a small town into convincing a grieving mother to cooperate with their movie-of-the-week.

I realize I just said that I dislike Sedaris's fiction, but that was before hearing these read aloud. I'd now like to amend that statement to say that I despise David Sedaris's fiction.

Okay, that's a little harsh. He does some interesting things with point-of-view and structure, and there were a handful of jokes that worked for me in each piece. But by and large, I found them mean-spirited, not particularly funny, and utterly lacking in subtlety.

47: Christmas and Commerce (1996)
I'm getting close to the beginning now. This was prefaced by a brief description of the program for listeners of radio stations picking up This American Life just for the episode. It featured an extended edition of David Sedaris's "Santaland Diaries," which is apparently one of the most popular segments in NPR history.

Incidentally, I have read this piece before, but it doesn't really get old. I've said it before, I'll say it again: I dislike the man's fiction, but his memoir writing is a hell of a lot of fun. Santaland Diaries shines a light on Macy's world-famous Christmas section from the point-of-view of an elf working the line. The piece manages to depict the environment as simultaneously disturbing yet still oddly magical.

At 34 minutes, it also takes up more than half the episode. It's followed by a 15 minute piece I liked even more from a man playing Sigmund Freud in a Christmas display. The actor takes ownership of the role to a surprising degree, and his description of the experience is fascinating.

These are bookended by a couple of short pieces: a Toys R Us visited at closing time on Christmas Eve and a recording of one family's Christmas in the 60's. Overall, a really good episode.

6: Christmas (1995)
This is one of the earliest episode of This American Life. It starts with a half-hour radio play written by - you guessed it - David Sedaris about what can only be described as the Christmas fiction industry. The whole thing comes off as a tad self-indulgent: it's about a writing class being taught to exploit the holidays for profit. Fortunately, it's also pretty damn hilarious. I guess I get to wrap up the Sedaris stuff on a high note. I really enjoyed it.

The rest of the show is divided between several short bits - a story about growing up in a rural community, a piece on a kid in the criminal justice system who's likely about to be tried as an adult, and a church in Chicago. These shorts are all well put-together, but not particularly memorable.

Act 2: Christmas/Not Christmas

We're not quite done yet. In addition to the episodes covered above, there have also been a few that weren't really Christmas episodes, but that aired close to December 25 and featured themes designed to correlate with the holidays. I could have skipped these. In fact, after listening to TEN holiday episodes, I probably should have. But I've got more commitment than common sense, so here goes:

346: Home Alone (2007)
The title is, of course, an allusion to the Home Alone series, though this is never brought up, nor are the stories holiday themed in nature.

The prologue is about a woman who's happy living on her own. The next segment isn't quite so up-beat: it follows a woman with the job of investigating people's homes after they've died to try and locate connections to friends and family who need to be contacted. It's a fascinating piece.

The second act recounts the story of a boy who lived alone for five months after his mother was hospitalized. It's a great story of an unlikely situation.

The third act is kind of a cheat: it's not about being "home alone" at all. Instead, it tells the story of a woman and her children who were held hostage for several days by a drug dealer. Fortunately, the mother's quick thinking and unflappable demeanor managed to turn a potential tragedy into a very different kind of story. By the time the drug dealer left, he was far more scared of her than she was of him. And her children never even knew they were in danger.

This episode is a good example of what This American Life does best: tell amazing, true stories about life in America.

202: Faith (2001)
This is exactly what it sounds like: an episode about stories relating to faith. It was scheduled to coincide with the holidays, but none of the stories are connected to Christmas.

The prologue is autobiographical in nature, focusing on a period of Ira Glass's life when he became convinced that aliens had visited the human race throughout history. When he finally accepted the myriad problems with this worldview, he likewise lost his faith in general. It's a neat, relatable tale.

The next segment is another short one about a Christian relief worker in Afghanistan who discovered some common ground with Muslims, including members of the Taliban.

After that, we get a piece about a massive cross that was constructed along a highway in Texas and what it's come to mean to people. It's a fascinating and in-depth look at a bizarre landmark, how it came to exist, and how it's perceived.

Next up, there's a story about a secular writer working at a magazine focusing on true stories about faith and miracles. Depending on how jaded you're feeling, it could either be seen as a profound meditation on the nature of faith or a justification for a disingenuous profession. Either way, it's quite intriguing.

The last act discusses a black church which has a white preacher who's far more socially liberal than his congregation. It's a neat exploration of culture and religion that explores both where they do and do not see eye-to-eye.

All in all, a good episode.

147: A Teenager's Guide to God (1999)
This episode follows a youth missionary group going to West Virginia. They still maintain the act format, but it's for show only: the entire episode focuses on the same group of kids. It's a interesting story, and - despite the fact it would have been easy to do so - it doesn't judge the program.

Act 3: Poultry Slams

The "Poultry Slam" episodes are intended to highlight birds - particularly turkeys and chickens - and are timed to coincide with the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas due to the large amount of fowl consumed during this period. Over the years, This American Life has made quite a few of these.

Do they really qualify as holiday themed? To be honest, I'm not entirely sure. But at this point I feel relatively committed to this project. Call it the sunk cost fallacy: I've poured a lot of hours into this post, and I'd rather pour a lot more than have someone with a different opinion accuse me of cutting corners.

3: Poultry Slam 1995
This is just the third episode of This American Life (in fact, the show had a different name at the time). The episode starts extremely strongly, with a story about "Duki", a stuffed duck which was given a personality by one of their two daughters. Instead of being forgotten, Duki has endured over the decades and grown into an honorary member of the family. It's difficult to convey the the level of commitment that family has to the character and fantasy, and the story is a hell of a lot of fun.

The rest of the episode is something of a hodgepodge of shorts. There's a story about 3000 turkeys dying on a farm during a storm, an interview with a cooking show, a poem, and a David Sedaris story about taxidermy. The episode's main selling point, however, is a new episode of Chickenman. Like I've said before: I'm not a fan.

Despite the Chickenman bit, the episode is solid. The Duki story is great, and the shorts offer a good variety.

44: Poultry Slam 1996
Almost the entire episode aired in 1996 was a repeat of the year before. Looking ahead, this looks like it's going to be a reoccurring strategy: for them to put together "clip shows" for the Poultry Slam, then add in a new story or two.

I'm not going to listen to the same stories over and over again, but I'll cover the new ones. This one is essentially a side story about South African witch doctors that spins off of Sedaris's nonfiction piece about buying a taxidermy chicken head connected to a chicken foot.

85: Poultry Slam 1997
This opens with some discussion of Franklin's lobbying to make the turkey the national bird. From there, we move onto a fifteen minute piece about an epic opera about Chicken Little that's in Italian and performed with clothespins. If that sentence left any doubt, the story is absolutely riveting.

Next up are two short stories about slaughtering chickens and (unsuccessfully) hunting ducks: both entertaining. Finally, there's an extended story about a chicken photographer. All in all, it's a fun episode, albeit one lacking in gravitas.

116: Poultry Slam 1998
This Poultry Slam tries to explore the line between pet and dinner, as it pertains to birds. The prologue features an interview with a young girl who lives on a farm and sees no problem with chickens transitioning from companions to meals. It's pretty adorable, actually.

The next section relates an antidote about a performance artist who adopts a chicken. After that, there's a strange story about a writer traveling to France to recreate Francois Mitterand's last meal, a small, bony bird. Both these stories are more bizarre than they sound. I didn't love them, but they were interesting.

The last two stories are the best. One is an interview with a woman who started a national letter writing campaign to try and shut down This American Life's Poultry Slams, on the grounds the episodes were maligning the birds. All things considered, I thought Ira was relatively balanced in how he conducted the interview and portrayed her. The final story is an account from David Rakoff of going to an Israeli farm as a teenager and coming to terms with his identity. It's a interesting, well told tale.

145: Poultry Slam 1999
Another "clip show" from prior years. This does add a fascinating piece about Colonel Sanders. Contrary to the "southern gentleman" motif, the show's interviews suggest a relatively progressive businessman who valued the business - and friendship - of minority customer and employees. It's a fun piece.

252: Poultry Slam 2003
This year was entirely made up of stories from prior years. I'm not listening through, so I can't say for sure whether they re-cut anything or not. Probably?

343: Poultry Slam 2007
Another year, another set of stories from the show's past. It probably sounds like I'm bitter, but the truth is, as much as I enjoy TAL, I'm grateful that I don't have to listen to yet another hour of poultry-themed stories.

369: Poultry Slam 2008
After a decade of recycling poultry bits, This American Life seems to have decided it was time for something new. This time, they chose a theme of chickens and God, and set out to explore the relationship between poultry and divinity.

I loved this episode.

After a brief intro, the episode goes to the mountains of Afghanistan, where an ex-smugger has purchased an expensive scroll supposedly imbued with mystical powers of protection. He needs this for a friend of his who's about to be put in an extremely dangerous situation, so the ex-smuggler wants to make sure it works. His method for testing it? He ties it to the head of a chicken and tries to shoot it. Things ultimately go poorly for the bird, so if you're bothered by stories about the killing of animals, you might want to sit this one out. If you can handle it, though, it's fantastic.

I feel a little bad saying this, given its significance to the family it's about, but the next segment was my least favorite of the episode. It's about a series of encounters a woman has with small birds corresponding with the suicide of her husband. Unsurprisingly, she sees a great deal of meaning in the encounters. It is sweet, but... I guess I'm just a skeptic at heart.

The third act chronicles a priest trying to serve as a mediator between an industrial farm and its employees. The chickens aren't actually important: it's really a story about workers' rights, factory conditions, and the intersection of faith and politics. But it's a good story.

Next up, there's a piece about the history of the study of chickens losing their feathers in tornadoes but surviving. It's about six minutes long: I could have happily listened to a full hour about this.

Lastly, there's a short story about a religious man dying, going to heaven, meeting God, and discovering he's a giant Chicken. Normally, I hate stories like these: they're usually one note jokes that get old after the punchline's been delivered. But this one stayed funny and - more importantly - went somewhere. I enjoyed it quite a bit.

452: Poultry Slam 2011
There's another new episode in 2011. It's not quite as good as the 2008 one, but that's a high bar: this is still a great hour of radio. It opens with a defense lawyer with a story about how she almost called a chicken onto the stand to play tic-tac-toe. It's a great story; even better than it sounds.

The next segment tells the "tragic" story of a turkey which attacked some people making a delivery and was subsequently killed by police. The story weaves into the turkey's past, and by the end feels like a fine detective story that's almost epic in scope. Impressive journalism, to say the least.

The third section is about foie gras, specifically about a version of the delicacy produced in a humane manner. Once again: this is an intriguing story.

This review was published on Mainlining Christmas. It was written by me, Erin Snyder, and proof-read by my wife, Lindsay, who, when I asked her whether she liked the post, said, "To be honest, I'm not entirely sure. But at this point I feel relatively committed to this project. Call it the sunk cost fallacy."

Book Review: The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries (Part Four)

This year, I am taking on The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, a 674 page tome containing 59 individual stories about the Christmas season. Conveniently, it’s broken up into blog-post sized sections. This is section five.

An Uncanny Little Christmas

  • The Haunted Crescent, Peter Lovesey - Okay, yeah, I like it. Nice unexpected twist.
  • A Christmas in Camp, Edmund Cox - Huh. Very odd. Problematic.
  • The Christmas Bogey, Pat Frank - I don't know why this is in this section, but it’s funny and cute.
  • The Killer Christian, Andrew Klavan - Not bad. Not a style I enjoy. But not bad.
  • The Ghost’s Touch, Fergus Hume - Also not bad, though a bit obvious.
  • A Wreath for Marley, Max Allan Collins - I expected a dark twist, instead I got a solid sweet period Christmas Carol.

This section focused on ghost stories. The two I liked least of these tales were "A Christmas in Camp" and "The Killer Christian". The first is from 1911, and has all of that awkwardness about British authors writing about their time in India. The story itself is very odd, too. It’s a little bit a morality tale and a little bit a ghost story and a lot patronizing. "The Killer Christian" has a lot of baggage caused by the circumstances of its writing: it was a gift for customers of the Mysterious Bookshop in NYC, so it shoehorns in a bunch of references. The story is about a religious hitman who tries to change his ways after an experience in which he sees a (fake) angel, and it’s okay, but not really to my taste.

"The Haunted Crescent" is a more traditional ghost story, about an investigation on Christmas Eve into a long-ago murder. It's very well done. "The Ghost’s Touch" is a decent example of a ghost story being used for attempted murder.

The best stories are the two I haven’t mentioned yet, and they are very different from each other. "The Christmas Bogey" doesn’t seem to have much to do with ‘uncanny’, so I don’t know why it’s in this section, but it follows an unidentified radar blip on Christmas Eve, and the series of events as each person who could or should deal with it reacts differently due to the holiday. It’s a tight piece: a puzzle box and a joke in short story form.

"A Wreath for Marley" is a retelling of A Christmas Carol set in America in the 40’s. Richard Stone, PI, is the main character, and his partner, Jake Marley, has been dead a year when the story opens. Stone has been getting crookeder and meaner since before Marley died, and he’s due a little ghostly intervention. He is, of course, visited by Marley himself, who wants Stone to solve his murder, and three ghosts to bring him through the past, the present and the future. The choices of where to parallel the original and where to stress the differences make for both an intellectually and emotionally engaging tale. It’s got great style and swagger, and a satisfying close.

Duck Dynasty: I'm Dreaming of a Redneck Christmas (2012)

The best thing I can say about this episode is that it isn't, strictly speaking, unwatchable, and even then the statement is made at what I consider my most generous of moods. But it is, of course, Christmas, and at Christmas we should be charitable and giving. So I will give the Robertsons this: their Christmas episode was not literally unwatchable. It was merely crappy. Idiotic. And stupid.

I should most likely add this represents my first real experience watching the Robertson clan, unless you count the Youtube video that got Phil Robertson suspended from A&E for a few weeks. The experience was not quite what I'd expected.

The only thing I really understood about the series Duck Dynasty was that it was a reality show staring a family of millionaires bearing an odd resemblance to ZZ Top who'd made their fortune producing duck calls. As it turned out, I was slightly off: this wasn't remotely a reality show.

It pretended to be a reality show, but the situations were contrived, the characters were exaggerated, and the events were blatantly plotted. Bad writing is not sufficient to convince anyone a scripted episode is anything else, and the fact that the Robertsons are horrible actors doesn't help matters.

Ultimately, it felt like more like a skit show masquerading as Reality TV. Aspects were reminiscent of Ace of Cakes, save that Ace of Cakes offered interesting characters and funny situations. Duck Dynasty, on the other hand, functioned as a sort of infomercial for the Robertsons' duck hunting paraphernalia company.

The fact it seems to have been overwhelmingly successful fills me with despair for the future of the human race.

As you'd expect, this episode revolves around the Robertson clan getting ready to celebrate Christmas. There are a series of improbable mishaps, starting with a not-so-subtly edited sequence about one of them climbing onto scaffolding to put a star on a warehouse Christmas tree. Do I even need to tell you it ends with the tree toppling over in traditional sitcom fashion?

This is something of a running theme. If lights are being hung, the bulbs are breaking. If there are ornaments, they're being dropped constantly. Sounds of them shattering are obviously added in post-production.

All of this is outright believable compared with the sequence where a character goes to distribute gifts to kids at a local church. He sends his uncle to pick up some stuff they can give away from the office, and he shows up with a trash bag full of office supplies. Peeling back the layers on the absurdity is a tricky proposition, but I'll do my best. Are we really supposed to believe the CEO trusted his idiot uncle to pick out gifts? Are we actually expected to buy that this guy's so far gone from reality he'd think a tape dispenser is a good gift for an eight-year-old? And, while we're on the subject, what was he supposed to bring from the office?

Nothing is explained: in the tradition of bad comedy, we're expected to swallow the premise without question and laugh at the zany characters. Perhaps this is all easier to accept after downing a six-pack. The possibility I may have been the first adult to voluntarily watch an episode of Duck Dynasty sober strikes me as a real possibility.

All of this is just a side note to what the real message of the episode is, which is that Christmas is about family. Or maybe Jesus. Or, I don't know, a comically over-complicated light display that only fully works when all the characters have gone inside.

Yeah, they'll steal from damn near anything.

For all my complaints, the utter surreality of a show pretending to be reality television without putting in the effort to conceal that pretense made the experience fascinating in an academic sense, which is why I'm not rating it harsher.

However, this is not for holiday amateurs. I'm not sure what this would do to someone who hasn't built up a resistance to awful holiday programming, so I'd advice most of you to stay away.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Semantics and Pagan Holidays

One of the fringe benefits of managing a seasonal holiday blog is the steady supply of free pet peeves. While it certainly doesn't top the list, I've recently been devoting an unhealthy amount of time fixating on the following phrase: "Co-opted pagan holiday." Normally, one should avoid unhealthy things, but since Christmas is a time for indulgence, perhaps you'll indulge me while I permit myself a short rant on the subject.

First, a disclaimer. I've probably been guilty of abusing the term once or twice myself on this blog. I don't recall using it (or the even harsher term, "stolen") in anything other than a joking context, but - if I have - it was an oversight, an error, or I was being an idiot. Because claiming that Christians co-opted or stole pagan holidays is misleading.

You'll note I didn't say it was wrong. From a factual standpoint, it's neither true or untrue. You could assemble a number of experts who agree on every relevant fact about the origins of Christmas and still not come anywhere near a consensus on whether anything was co-opted. From a specific point of view, it could even be described as accurate. But that point of view is fundamentally dumb.

Let's start with the facts. Many early trappings of Christmas were largely derived from Roman holidays. Depending on who you want to believe, the date was either directly based on various Roman festivals or assigned due to its proximity with the winter solstice (I'd argue for a mixture of the two).

Some sources will tell you the date's correlation with pagan holidays and the solstice are incidental or even a coincidence. Anyone who tells you that is full of reindeer shit... and that stuff levitates. People have been celebrating the solstices for more or less all of human history. The idea that the solar calendar and major local festivals wouldn't have been a factor is laughable.

So. What's wrong with the term "co-opted"? My primary issue is inference. It implies that these traditions belonged to one culture and were improperly appropriated by another, and that's misleading on multiple levels. First of all, there's no reason to consider them the "property" of pagan Rome any more than Christianity. Rome certainly didn't invent the practice of throwing a party on the shortest days of the year, nor were they the first to infer symbolic and spiritual significance to the time.

In other words, if Christians co-opted or stole these traditions, so did the Romans. Same goes for the Egyptians and the Greeks. And, while we're on the subject, neo-pagan groups trying to "take back Solstice" are borrowing it from Secular traditions, the Christian holiday, and numerous other sources.

In short, the people Christians inherited Christmas traditions from weren't being original, either.

I also object to the image of co-option as it pertains to the transfer. While the religious shift to Christianity was certainly not peaceful, I don't see anything criminal about the passing of traditions. When people discuss the "co-opting of pagan customs by Christians" they're often implying something akin to plagiarism at best. I think that's a needlessly antagonistic description.

Details of the transition of cultural elements are of course speculatory, but I find it more likely that people brought beliefs and customs with them as they converted, as opposed to some sort of coordinated attempt to rob others of their culture. There were certainly debates over the value of things like celebrating Christmas around the solstice, but I doubt those were really the driving forces behind the holiday's spread.

How should we interpret the origins of Christmas? I've stated before that I believe Christmas is best understood as a continuation of pre-Christian festivals. I stand by that: the name and elements of the narrative have evolved over time, but the holiday endured.

This is obviously not the only way to look at the holiday. If someone wants to insist on defining Christmas as the set of holidays celebrating the birth of Christ that were inspired by preexisting celebrations, it's difficult to prove them wrong. Though I would point out that variations in Christmas traditions over time have been larger than the difference between early Christmas celebrations and Saturnalia, and that the line between the two is arbitrary in nature.

Mixed Nuts (1994)

Mixed Nuts is a mid-90's comedy starring Steve Martin ostensibly about a non-profit suicide-prevention line on Christmas Eve. I say "ostensibly" because the premise isn't actually all that central to the movie. It's somewhat baffling, actually: they set up the idea of a suicide prevention line, use it to deliver a handful of jokes, then more or less abandon the concept halfway through. It's not "officially" dropped - there's no plot reason for it to be removed; it's more like they ran out of material.

Instead, we focus on a series of subplots revolving around the characters. First, there's Steve Martin's crumbling life. His girlfriend dumps him, he's in danger of losing the office location (and by extension, the non-profit), and he starts doubting his ability to help people. There's no drama here: it's mostly an excuse for him to do his usual shtick.

Next, there's Rita Wilson, playing a fairly boring love interest for Martin. There's a brief love triangle with her, Martin, and Adam Sandler. Which brings up the next problem with this movie: Adam Sandler is in it. He plays the same character he played in every movie he was in that decade: a loud, high pitched singing idiot. You know, himself.

Next, there's a couple having a baby, who are kind of the plot. They're having marital problems, mainly due to a lack of money. The latter half of the movie is preoccupied with them accidentally killing the building's super and enlisting the others' help in hiding/disposing of the body. When the baby is delivered unexpectedly at midnight on Christmas Eve, the situation naturally deteriorates into a nativity scene.

There's also a cruel middle-aged woman who works at the non-profit and gets stuck in the elevator, a transvestite played by Liev Schreiber who hits on Steve Martin, and a few other minor characters not worth mentioning. Oh, and Jon Stewart has a bit part as a rollerblading yuppie.

The movie has a decent number of humorous moments, but not enough to make it particularly memorable. Ultimately, this feels like a long episode of a decent sitcom. Sitting through it isn't awful, but it's certainly not something you should seek out.

One more thing - apparently, this is a remake of a French film from the 80's. We'll try and track that down eventually, but no promises: it seems to be difficult to find.

The Sylvester and Tweety Mysteries: It Happened One Night Before Christmas (1995)

I imagine that the people who own the Looney Tunes IP, or anything like it, are always over a certain barrel. You have these iconic characters that people love, or at least feel affectionate nostalgia for. But they’re tied to these very pat, repetitive plots. Smart character outwits dumb character, who gets blown up/dropped off a cliff/something heavy dropped on them. Prey character outwits or out-lucks predator character, who gets blown up/dropped off a cliff/attacked by bigger character/otherwise injured. Rinse. Repeat.

So if you’re looking to make something new with these characters, you have to wonder: do you stick with the tried-and-true formula, despite the fact that it’s not really enough to sustain a longer-than-three-minute runtime? Or to you step out of the box and give the characters more depth, more backstory and different, more complicated plots? Or, as is the case here, do you try to have your cake and eat it too?

This show has an extremely odd premise. The main characters are Granny, Sylvester, Tweety Bird and Hector (he’s the bulldog). They go about solving crimes. Except, not really. Granny solves crimes, or tries to. The animals sort of help, I guess? But Sylvester mostly just tries to eat Tweety and gets the stuffing beaten out of him by either Hector or the scenery. It’s jarring, actually, as though it were really two shows strangely intercut.

This episode in particular I imagine is strange (although I have no recollection of watching another). It’s a retelling of just the lost money sub-plot It’s A Wonderful Life. I actually like this choice quite a bit, because it works as an allusion while skipping the whole 'seeing what the world would be like if X' plot that's been done to death. The episode takes place in Bedspread Falls, and many of the backdrops and settings are taken from the film as well. Granny comes to town to help her brother Willie (the Uncle Billy stand-in), who has misplaced some money on the way to the bank.

They retrace his steps all over town, as he seems to have forgotten an increasingly unlikely series of objects at each stop. The normal animal crew are aided by Willie’s pet mice ( and interuppted by the mysterious comings and goings of a mynah bird ( It becomes clear to the audience that Willie obviously left his money in a newspaper that was taken by a mean, rich man, “Trotter”.

The animals break into Trotter’s office and steal the newspaper (but not the money), after stamping it with ‘From the Desk of Trotter’. This clue is enough to send Granny and Willie into Trotter’s office with the cops, and just when he’s denying everything, the mynah bird comes out of nowhere to reveal the truth and return the money.

Despite the deus ex machina, this is a pretty satisfying ending, because Trotter is wheeled off to jail, ranting like the broken psychopath he is. I mean, it’s not quite SNL’s version, but if you have kids who aren’t buying the original ending to It’s a Wonderful Life, you could show them this. They might even still think Sylvester and Tweety’s shtick is funny.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Lion in Winter (1968)

The Lion in Winter is a dark comedy about a dysfunctional family coming together for the holidays. There are a series of mishaps, comic interactions, and details laid out about the character's histories and relationships. The parents are separated but still have feelings for each other, the children have long since chosen sides, and someone's ex-boyfriend shows up and humiliates everyone. Without a doubt, it's firmly entrenched in the sub-genre of dysfunctional family Christmas dramedies.

The first element that makes it infinitely more watchable than almost every one of its competitors is that it's set in 1183, and the family in question are the British royalty. The more important factors are that it's brilliantly written and features a cast of legendary actors. Katherine Hepburn, Peter O'Toole, Anthony Hopkins, Timothy Dalton... it doesn't get much more impressive than that.

The script is adapted from a play of the same name which only predates the movie by a few years. Needless to say, it's an amazing script. The dialogue is fantastic, and the characters are intriguing.

The story revolves around the line of succession and King Henry II's attempts to gain control of the Aquitaine from his estranged (and imprisoned) wife, Eleanor. They have three sons, Richard, John, and Geoffrey, all of whom want the crown. There's some historical basis to the situation, but the script takes even more liberties than you'd expect.

The group meets up at Christmas, and Henry executes a plan to get Eleanor to give him the land he wants. It's a good plan overall, but he over-estimates John, under-estimates Geoffrey, and as a result it all falls apart. The story takes some dark turns, before ultimately resolving as happily as it reasonably can, given that history - and myth for that matter - clearly recorded that his sons never stopped fighting for the throne.

There are more Christmas references than you might expect, including some intentional anachronisms. The holiday elements are kept front and center in both the script and screen, and it felt extremely appropriate thematically. This is, after all, about a king at the end of his reign looking to renew his empire. Alternatively, it's about a petulant man having a tantrum over the possibility he won't get the gift he wants for the holidays.

The design and cinematography come off as somewhat dated, but none of that makes a difference: this is driven by the actors and the script. It's a phenomenal movie. Highly recommended.

Comic Review: Krampus! #1-5

2014, written by Brian Joines, Illustrated by Dean Kotz

You know Krampus by now, right? You probably do if you’ve been hanging out on Mainlining Christmas long. So you know that Krampus is a demon companion of Santa/St. Nicholas, who punishes bad children at Christmastime.

He’s also the star of this extremely fun comic series.

Think of every winter/christmas related character you can. Now expand your horizons a little and you’ll start to get an idea of the world of Krampus! The first issue opens at a dead run to establish the world and the plot premise. Someone has stolen the power source of the Secret Society of Santa Clauses, made up of Christmas gift-givers from across the world. Desperate, the Santas turn to their long-time enemy to help solve the mystery.

The snarky infighting among the Santas is plenty of fun, with the main focus being on Father Christmas from Britain, Sinterklaas from the Netherlands and Hoteiosho from Japan, with many of the others taking sides.

Krampus is a definite anti-hero: he’s more than rough around the edges, he simultaneously respects a certain amount of evil, and delights in punishing the wicked.

On my first read, it took me a bit to get used to the Krampus’s heavy-dialect accent but it grew on me quickly. The writing is light and punny, but generally tight enough that you don’t lose the thread of the surprisingly complex plot.

The art is mostly good; there are some outstanding panels with mostly solid work but there are a few with awkward angles or confusing details. I wouldn’t say that either the writing or the art is flawless, but it’s all pretty darn fun.

The story wraps up satisfactorily in five issues, although the final panel is a hook for a potential second story. If we want to see more zany holiday adventures, though, we need to show Krampus! some love. The graphic novel collection of these issues has been sadly delayed a few times, but you might be able to get one by Christmas, if you check a local comic shop or bookstore.

Read the preview here. 

Snoopy's Countdown to Christmas Ornament

I found this lingering on a Walgreens shelf marked 75% off and was too curious to leave it there. The back of the package is impressively direct: this is unapologetically marketed towards parents utterly sick of answering the question, "How long until Christmas?" I'm also kind of impressed with how direct they are on what this thing can (and can't) do. The back reads more like an FAQ than selling points, informing you before you buy that it's incapable of handling dates before October 1st (which is unfortunate - how cool would it be if it reset to 364 days at midnight on the 26th?).

This is ostensibly intended as an ornament, though I think it would look awful on a tree. You really want this pushed up against a wall to hide the fact it's only half the figure.

You can get a sense for how this is set up above. The batteries and controls are hidden beneath a panel that requires a screwdriver to remove. This probably counts as a feature if you have young kids, since it means they won't be able to accidentally (or maliciously) change the countdown. Unfortunately, that also means it's a pain for anyone else to set up. Guess it's just once a year. Or, you know, every time someone wants to see what happens when the countdown hits zero.

Visually, it looks cheap but not bad. I appreciate that they incorporated the ornament ring into Snoopy's collar, so it at least makes a degree of sense. This doesn't make any noise, but it does have one feature beyond the clock. Press the button below the screen and a surprisingly bright green light illuminates the screen.

Frankly, that's better than I expected.

If you were paying close attention to the pictures, you probably noticed I set the clock a few minutes before Christmas to see what happened. Here's the video:

I have no idea how long it scrolls the words "Merry Christmas" - possibly until you turn it off, reset the clock, or it runs out of batteries. It feels a little anticlimactic to me, but I'd probably have loved the hell out of this as a kid.

Regardless, I paid $3.73 for this, so I've got no right to whine. Now anyone who spent the full retail price of $14.95 is far more justified in being annoyed that it isn't more impressive.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Raggedy Ann and Andy in The Great Santa Claus Caper (1978)

Okay, I had no memory of ever having seen this, but it was very familiar by the end, which makes me think I must have seen it at some point. In the annals of Christmas TV Specials, there’s a reason this one doesn’t make the list of classics. However, there are bits that are clever, and it’s nice and short.

The special opens by introducing us to our villain, Alexander Graham Wolf, aka Big Bad. He’s got some sort of weird plan involving the North Pole and Santa, and it’s all very unclear. It’s clear enough, though, to reindeer Comet, who zips off for reinforcements to save Christmas. Since she can’t carry anything too heavy, Comet chooses two rag dolls and a rag doll dog for her helpers. Not the smartest member of the team, our Comet.

They get back to the North Pole to investigate. Santa and company have all gone to bed (at like six hours to Christmas! This was the most unbelievable part of this for me), so Wolfy has free run of the workshop. He sets up a giant expanding machine-

I think this is a good time to mention that the animation is Chuck Jones, and you can tell. The movement is so smooth, and the style is inventive and expressive in the best ways.

So, the (cleverly designed and animated) machine is for snatching toys and encasing them in unbreakable clear stuff called Gloopstick, that will protect them from breaking (or being played with) FOREVER. Plus Wolf-guy is excited that he’s going to make a mint selling the licensing on this product, already stuck to most of the Christmas toys.

After he fails to convince Ann and Andy of the brilliance of Gloopstick (Andy actually goes along with it when the example toy is a doll, only to change his tune once it’s a bike) the Wolf tries to capture them in his machine. After some chasing and cleverness, Andy gets the Wolf Gloopsticked and bedazzled. But, oh no! Arthur (Ann and Andy’s dog) is trapped as well.

But it’s all going to be okay, because Ann and Andy discover that something can dissolve the Gloopstick. It’s industrial solvent. They’ll have to work all night, but Christmas will still happen on time!

No, I’m kidding. It’s love.

So Raggedy Ann and Andy break the fourth wall and ask the kids at home to love all the toys and then even give love to the Wolf to get them all free of the Gloopstick. It’s kind of a nice little redemption story, where the Wolf mourns his folly and agrees to try to be a Big Good Wolf.

The End, more or less. It’s a truly weird piece, but one line stuck out as impressive to us. The newly reformed Wolf closes the special with this reflection:

“And you know what? I think I’m going to like goodness better than I liked badness, but you know, I don’t think anybody can say that, for sure, unless they’ve tried both.”

So, Merry Christmas, boys and girls. Make sure you make time for some badness before next holiday season comes around.

New CD's - 2014

And when I say "New CD's," I of course mean really old music.

It looks like we're adding an additional 245 songs this year through albums we mainly picked up at used book and consignment stores for between $1 and $3. We bought a handful at yard sales over the summer.

Let's see how much of this year's haul is something I'll ever intentionally put on again.

You Sleigh Me! (Various)
Not a bad start, all things considered. This mid-90's compilation from Atlantic features an assortment of their artists mostly playing classic or traditional songs, along with a couple of original pieces. As is always the case with new versions of old songs, it all comes down a simple question: did they bother to do a distinct version, or did they just copy an arrangement that's been done to death?

In this case, they put in the effort, and some of the results are phenomenal. Mary Karlzen's "Run Rudolph Run" puts a country-rock spin on the song. Likewise, while Collective Soul's version of "Blue Christmas" contains a touch of Elvis's version, they transform it into something new. I'm already familiar with Tori Amos's "Little Drummer Boy", but it's still an awesome version. I also love James Carter's instrumental version of "White Christmas".

A few songs start to feel a little monotonous in a 90's alt-pop sort of way, but there's enough variety and standout tunes to make this one a great find. Hell, even the 90's alt-pop songs are pretty good: I've just already got a tun of music like that.

Ultimate Christmas (Various)
Eighteen tracks of generic pop, R&B, and old holiday tunes is a lot to sit through to reach one Santana song you kind of like, but that's Christmas. Hell, that's a six percent good music ratio: I'm pretty sure that's at least par for holiday compilations.

The Santana song in question is "Posada (Pilgramage to Bethlehem)". The rest... Jesus. You've got Kenny G, Barry Manilow, Elvis, TLC, Britney Spears... you get the idea. I guess if you're only going to buy one Christmas album and you have really boring taste in music, this is a valid option. Bet you could still find something better, though.

A Tejano Country Christmas (Various)
This is a compilation of Tex-Mex versions of classical Christmas songs. Stylistically, the music is fairly diverse, which is always appreciated. There are quite a few genres represented on the album. On top of that, there's a mix of English and Spanish songs.

Unfortunately, not much of it really appeals to me. A few of the tracks are fun, but - for the most part - they're fairly typical holiday music with a slight Tex-Mex flavor. I was a little disappointed by how little it deviated from the versions I'm used to.

I think La Diferenzia's version of "Noche De Paz (Silent Night)" was my favorite on the album, and even that was pretty straightforward.

Starbucks Winterludes: Cool Holiday Notes (Various)
If I were to imagine a soundtrack that codified Christmas as it pertains to a corporate coffee chain, I'm pretty sure this would be it. I don't even mean that as an insult - in my opinion, Starbucks succeeded in producing precisely what they intended to. It's a mix of classics sung by the original artists, classics redone by (at the time) new artists, and a few newer tunes.

I've already got the majority of the classic pieces - stuff by Peggy Lee, Eartha Kitt, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, etc. But these are well chosen: they mostly stay clear of stuff that's particularly cloying, and even the exceptions (looking at you "Do You Hear What I Hear" by Bing Crosby) get a pass for being in tone. Oh, this also comes with the Crosby/Bowie track from the last Crosby Christmas special.

The strangest additions are the two Jewish-themed offerings: "Sunrise, Sunset/The Yiddish Folk Medley" and "If I Were a Rich Man". They're good tracks and all, but neither are what I'd consider Hanukkah themed.

The less common stuff includes some jazz pieces and some indie tracks. They're all decent; some are even unusual. But every track fits tonally with the album as a whole. That focus on tone is actually a big part of what makes this work. The songs are laid back and soft: perfect background music, one imagines, for sitting back at a corporate-owned coffee house and sipping an eight-dollar latte.

Now that we're long past the days when anyone cares about an album - particularly a compilation - as a piece to listened to start to finish, it's just a bunch of songs. Still, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself dropping a few of those songs into playlists to hear again.

Christmas With The Supremes and The Temptations (The Supremes/The Temptations)
This album features ten songs in all, starting with five from The Supremes, then switching over to five more from The Temptations. The back advertises that two of these tracks are "Bonus CD tracks". I'm assuming the arrangement was an artifact left over from the original release, which must have been either on cassette or vinyl.

The music is good, of course: both groups were certainly talented. The songs aren't quite as distinct as I'd like, but there's enough of the groups' styles to make them worthwhile additions. In particular, The Supremes' "My Favorite Things" and "Silver Bells" are great tracks, as are The Temptations versions of Rudolph and "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town".

Not a bad purchase at all.

Christmas on the Border (Various)
The cover advertises this as "A Spicy Holiday Recipe of Texas Blues, Hot Country, and Mexican Salsa." I suppose that's as good a description as any. It's a compilation of ten songs from five artists, though 40% of the album is from John-Kevin Mulkey, whoever that is.

It's a pretty cool album overall, though I wish there'd been less from the aforementioned John-Kevin Mulkey and more from others. I really like the instrumentals on most of his tracks, but I find his voice a little irritating. He's not bad; he's just got a sort of generic pop-sensibility that I'm not a fan of.

I love the two tracks from Gary Chapman and the one from Ardelio Gomez. Those three songs are the Texas Blues portion of the CD, and I'd have taken an entire album of that.

Christmas on the Bandstand (Various)
This is a collection of big-band Christmas music, the vast majority of which I appear to already have. It's actually a little difficult to identify which I own and which I don't, since the band names don't match up perfectly. It's a decent album containing tracks from Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and plenty of other jazz greats. But, like I've said, I already have quite a few of these tracks.

Banjo Christmas (The Clarke Family)
I'm seven albums in, and this is the first album that's not a compilation of various performers (okay, so the Temptations/Supremes album is debatable). That's just a coincidence - I didn't just get compilations this year.

Anyway, an album called "Banjo Christmas" is likely to be one of two things: a gimmicky gag album or Christmas songs played in a bluegrass style. Thankfully, this was the latter. It's good, too.

The songs are mostly pieces we're used to: "Joy to the World", "Jingle Bells", "Little Drummer Boy"... you get the idea. The tunes are mostly unchanged, but the style and instrumentation give them a unique sound. I like every track on here, but "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen", "What Child is This", and "Silent Night" are particularly exceptional. I'll definitely be listening to this one more.

...AND... Hold the phone. Turns out, this ISN'T new to me. All the tracks on this album were repackaged along with another album and released as "Christmas Pickins: A Banjo Christmas", which I bought and wrote about in 2012. Ah well: at least it was a good album. It's a lot worse when I discover I paid money for duplicates of crappy songs.

Acid X-Mas (Various)
This album is essentially a collection of electronic remixes and re-imagined Christmas songs. I don't really know the genre well enough to comment on whether these tracks are technically any good, but I'm always in need of Christmas music with some energy. The music is certainly fun, though it gets repetitive after a while. Fortunately, that's what set lists are for: this album might get old as is, but peppered along other tracks, it should add some appreciated variety.

I like most of these songs, though "Nutcracker Suite (Dance of the Funky DJ's)" is my favorite.

The Sound of Christmas (The Trapp Family Singers)
Huh. So, you know that weird moment when you look up the generic-sounding singing group on Wikipedia to find out if there's anything special about them you might want to mention on the write-up for your blog post, then you suddenly realize that you're listening to a Christmas album sung by the family who inspired the Sound of Music?

There should really be a word for that.

If I had bothered to look closer at the disc, I'd have seen the same info advertised across the front. Regardless, this is THAT Trapp family, which is kind of neat from a historical point-of-view. Other than that, it's a pretty conventional mix of English and German Christmas carols. Not bad, but - aside from the historical footnote - there's nothing unique about the album.

Home for Christmas/The Irish Tenors
In the Venn diagram, there are overlapping circles for good albums and music I really don't give a rat's ass about. This one is firmly in the center of that section.

The singers, I assume, are as talented as they're supposed to be. They sound good, anyway. But there's nothing particularly special about what they're singing. I mean, sure, the point is that they're supposedly singing classical Christmas carols as well as close to perfect as possible. That's cool and all. But I've heard these done similarly too many times to care.

A Jazzy Christmas in Dixie (The Highway Jazzmen)
Like the name implies, these tracks are Dixieland versions of holiday classics - "Jingle Bells", "Silent Night", "O Christmas Tree"... you get the idea. I'm torn on this one. On one hand, it makes for pretty good background music. On the other hand, it's all a little too background. It almost sounds like music being performed in a hotel lobby: the band might be good, but they're dialing it in. In short, it's the kind of music you play quietly while you do something else. It's not something I'd actively seek out.

That Christmas Swing (The Dave Williamson Big Band and Singers)
This is a mix of different swing approaches to classic Christmas songs. While some are relatively straightforward, others go in unusual directions. There's a slow jazz version of "What Child is This" that feels like something on a soundtrack to a 70's detective movie - needless to say, that's probably my favorite song on the album. There aren't any bad tracks: even the more conventional versions are solid. All in all, a good album.

Downtown Christmas (Holiday Cheer Band)
As far as I can tell, this was intended to be played by shops and restaurants. The "Holiday Cheer Band" is made up of two members, who also produced and arranged the album. Judging by the 90's clipart quality of the artwork, I wouldn't be surprised if they did that, too.

The music isn't actually bad: it's just... well... background music. It exists to be inoffensive and remind everyone it's Christmas. I like a few of the tracks. The songs no one screws up, "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "We Three Kings", work well in this lounge-style jazz: I might keep those in circulation. I also like this version of "Silent Night" - it's just slow and depressing enough to be interesting. Most of the rest doesn't really stand out.

Garth Brooks & The Magic of Christmas (Garth Brooks)
I'm actually going to go ahead and give Brooks a pass on phoning in generic versions of classic Christmas songs instead of reworking them in his own style, because I rather loathe his music. This album contains a whopping total of two new songs: "Baby Jesus is Born" and "The Wise Men's Journey", one of which is an instrumental piece that's less than a minute and a half long. Everything else is a classic tune, most of which aren't even done in a country style (beyond Brooks' voice, of course).

In other words, this is intended for people who are so enamored by Garth Brooks, they'd pay to hear him sing "White Christmas". Even then, I can only assume most of them were a little irritated he didn't put a little more time into it.

As for me, the only track I have any interest in hearing again is that minute and a half instrumental piece. That was actually kind of pretty.

This Christmas (John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John)
Twelve of the thirteen songs on this album are Christmas classics sung exactly the way they've been sung for half a century. Of course, the selling point for this isn't originality: it's that they're being sung by the two leads of Grease.

Screw that noise: this was a waste of time.

The track list should be obvious to anyone who's ever listened to a single Christmas album. We open with "Baby It's Cold Outside," sung in a manner so aggressively sexless the fact they gender-flipped the roles feels utterly superfluous. After that, they move on to "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" with special guest Kenny G and "I'll be Home for Christmas" with Barbara Streisand.

It's like this thing was dreamt up by a random Christmas song generator.

I'm certainly not going to list the rest of the songs on this album: you get the point. I will mention the last track, a bizarre amalgamation of "Auld Lang Syne" and "Christmas Time is Here" that ignores the fact the tunes aren't even about the same holiday. Perhaps the random generator needs tweaking.

The one original song is called "I Think You Might Like It." I suspect I might feel a little more charitable towards this one if it was so blatantly pandering to the album's target audience. Imagine a song from a Grease Christmas Special set five years later with a bit of country thrown in, and you'll be far closer to truth than you expect.

Normally, this is where I throw in some kind of caveat about the music not being bad or something, but frankly Travolta kind of sucks at holiday music. Newton-John's a decent singer, but who the hell cares? This album is boring and derivative.

Season's Greetings from Nashville (Various)
I found this at a yard sale and bought it mainly out of curiosity. I wasn't sure if it would actually play: the disc is cut out in the shape of Santa wearing a cowboy hat, and I couldn't tell for sure if that was how it left the factory or if someone had somehow cut the image out as part of a bizarre art project. It turns out the shape was intentional, and the disc does, in fact, play.

The shape is certainly gimmicky, but there's no denying it's memorable. The price of carving up the CD comes in the form of lost space: there's only five tracks on this for less than fifteen minutes of music combined. For what it's worth, the tracks are pretty good.

It contains one song I already have: the Statler Brothers version of "Jingle Bells" (you can find my favorable reaction to their album here). The other tracks are from Faron Young, George Jones, Sammy Kershaw, and Lynn Anderson, and I like them all.

Christmas Time With the Judds (The Judds)
I think I've discussed this before on the blog, so you have my apologies if this is a recycled rant. I grew up in rural Maine. While it's a slight oversimplification to say the conservatives listened to country music and the liberals listened to rock, it was a pretty accurate rule of thumb. Regardless of how true it was, that was certainly the impression I picked up.

And I really hated conservatives.

As a result, I hated country music with a passion. But I haven't lived in Maine in a long, long time, and I've had some time to reflect on music and politics. Of course, I'm old enough to realize the folly in dismissing an art form because of its fans. One unexpected benefit I've gotten from this blog is an opportunity to re-evaluate country music.

I still really hate conservatives, though.

This album is quite good: the songs are all classics, but the Judds instill their own style. The music is soft and sad: really nice stuff. I particularly like their version of "Winter Wonderland," but the whole album is good.

Merry Christmas With Love (Clay Aiken)
This is the kind of music I despise with every ounce of my soul. Like damn near every one of the CD's I listen to, almost all of the tracks are classics. On top of that, there's a new song with the same title as the album: "Merry Christmas With Love."

Ugh. That's the one that really grated on me: the others are more or less just over-produced versions of songs I'm sick of. I'm used to sitting through that kind of stuff, but the original tune is painful. It's the sound the Platonic ideal of the color pink would make vomiting directly into the mouth of the Universal Unconscious.

It's the kind of song that will make you hate love.

One More Drifter in the Snow (Aimee Mann)
Well, this definitely wins the award for prettiest album name. Fortunately, that's not all this CD has going for it.

This is a decent album, but not a great one. The approach seems to be to take classic Christmas songs and tweak their sound slightly. The changes are of course appreciated, but I'd have liked something more drastic. I kept thinking that she sounded like someone who might have appeared on the WB back in the day, and... sure enough... Wikipedia mentions she was in a band which showed up on an episode of Buffy.

My favorite song here is "Christmastime", though her version of "Winter Wonderland" featuring a tropical feel is in the running. I've got more mixed feelings about her take on "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch": it's not bad, but it feels uninspired. There are plenty of other solid tracks on here - like I said before: a good album... just not great.

So that's 245 new songs. A reasonable amount of new music, but certainly nothing excessive. Ultimately, it's barely a drop in the bucket compared with the 3200+ we already had.

"But wait," you might be saying, "Isn't Christmas about excess?"

Indeed, it is. Because the above represents our new CD's, not the sum total of new music we're listening to. But that's a subject for another post....