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Book Review: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

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The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
Barbara Robinson, 1972

I have been seeing this book on lists of favorite Christmas books since we started the Mainlining project. But reading the back cover blurb made it sound entirely like a cheese-fest, overly religious, or otherwise sanctimonious, so I'd been putting it off.

I have to admit, though, for an eighty-page book written for young readers, this is impressively subversive. Although, it probably seemed less so in 1972.

The plot regards a group of unruly siblings who take over the Christmas pageant in a small town. In doing so, they force the townspeople to confront the reality behind the rote recitation of the myth. This may come as close as any religious-ish story ever has of evoking actual emotion in my cold, dead soul.

The most interesting thing is the narrator. The story is told in the first person, by a young girl. Her opinions and asides add color, humor and context.

The narrator is observant enough to report on all the things th…

The Little Drummer Boy Book II (1976)

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Somehow, in year six, there are still Rankin-Bass stop-motion Christmas specials that we hadn't seen. I don't know how this happened either.

This one is just as boring as its predecessor, but it does have nicer animation.

It picks up where the first left off, Baby Jesus suitably entertained by Aaron and his magic drum. Aaron wants to do something more (further undermining the message of the original song) and Melchior drags him off to town to help look for some bellmaker.

Melchior looks a bit more Middle-Ages-Europe king than first-century-Damascus king to my eye. Just saying.

The bellmaker, Simeon, has been telling people that Jesus is coming, and while they haven't believed him, he has cast a set of giant silver bells in preparation.

At this point, Erin can attest that I gave the screen some incredible side-eye at the idea that they would co-opt, even just by reference, one of my favorite holiday songs for this dreck, but it never went further than that reference.

Some…

Passion For Truth Ministries: Truth Or Tradition (2012)

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When right-wing pundits rant about "The War on Christmas," there's one group they always leave out, and that's Christians who boycott the holiday due to its pagan roots and lack of Biblical origins. These groups are incredibly inconvenient for both sides of the holiday debate: the right wants to paint a picture where atheists are attacking Christmas, and non-Christians certainly don't want them as allies (these groups tend to be even more hell-fire and brimstone than the ones they're battling). But Christians who don't celebrate Christmas are a significant group - about 5% of Protestants fall into this category.

I'm going to be considerate to these people and say that Jim Staley's reasons shouldn't be considered representative for the larger group.

Staley is the pastor for "Passion for Truth Ministries." He seems to be trying to recreate a more primal version of Christianity inline with what its founders believed. This 2-hour video,

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

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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 we…

Christmas with a Capital C (2010)

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I want a documentary about the making of this movie.

It would start with Brad Stine, a conservative Christian stand-up comedian doing a routine mocking people for saying "Happy Holidays." If you want to get the most out of this review, I recommend watching this before going on - it'll help offer some important context. If you can't make it through the whole thing, at least watch the first minute and a half:



Well, Stine's routine got the attention of a Christian rock band, Go Fish, who wrote a song about it. I'm embedding their music video.

And. Yes, you should really watch some of this, too. I know, I know... but this is important. This is going somewhere.



Ugh. Yeah, I'm pretty sure they were serious.

So, I guess that was popular in the Christian music scene, because a Christian production company decided to make a movie based on it. That song plays during the closing credits, and Stine has a supporting role where he delivers a rant based on his routine …

The Christmas Shoes: DVD Extras

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That's right: we're not done with this thing yet.

There are three extras on this DVD, and we just sat through all of them. One is the music video, which we'd already seen several times. I've got to say, having seen the movie and now having context for the clips interspersed between close ups of the creepy lead singer, the video is even more idiotic than before. Didn't think that'd be possible.

The other two are mini-documentaries; one about the writing of the song and book, and the other about the making of the movie. They're both equal parts hilarious and painful. Here are a few highlights:
The director actually compared "The Christmas Shoes" to "It's a Wonderful Life." He wasn't joking, either: he talked about how neither was afraid to explore the dark side of the subject matter, how the ending was earned. Upon hearing the 2-sentence premise of the song, the writer immediately thought it would make a great book. The song write…

The Christmas Shoes Part Two

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Erin and I are on the same page with this one, I mainly want to add two small observations to Erin’s excellent write up.

Patton Oswalt was right
If you’ve ever heard the horror that is the Christmas Shoes song, hopefully you’ve also seen Patton Oswalt’s hilarious take-down (NSFW!!). One thing that I noticed watching this extended version of the story is Patton Oswalt's complaint about the moral of the song is even more pronounced here. The poor woman’s death is there, primarily, to benefit the rich couple. If what’s-her-name hadn’t been sick, would Kate ever have found her true calling taking the poor woman’s place as the volunteer music teacher? Would she ever have been truly fulfilled? And of course the whole kid+shoes scene causes Robert (Rob Lowe) to reevaluate what’s important in life, and fix the incredibly minor made-for-TV-style problems with his marriage.

I mean, for their part, I guess the widower learns that he should let his son have a puppy.

Those are some ugly shoes.

The Christmas Shoes (2002)

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The Christmas Shoes: the legendary song by NewSong which has topped numerous lists for the all-time worst Christmas song ever recorded. As we all know, nothing this bad can go unadapted. Even before the song was finished being written, it was being turned into a book, which in turn became a televised movie in 2002.

And now, eleven years later, we sat down to watch it.

This movie is manipulative. It is not subtle about being manipulative, either: it's quite up-front about its intent. It wants you to empathize with its characters. It wants you to cry.

It probably did not want us to laugh our asses off for most of the movie. Oh, well: you can't get everything you want.

The Christmas Shoes starts out so bad it's good, then gets aggressively worse as the TV-movie goes on. I can't imagine watching this alone: you need someone with you, to help you retain your sanity. It's incredibly, amazingly - almost impressively - stupid. Written without a shred of nuance or actual d…

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

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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 cou…

Nestor: the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977)

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I'm not sure whether I'll be able to coherently describe what happened in the special, but I know I can explain how it came to be. There was a meeting, quite possibly in a studio boardroom, where someone said, "Hey. You know what we need? Another Rudolph." To which someone else added, "And we need something that's religious, really puts the Christ in Christmas." And fifteen minutes later the storyboard for Nestor: the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey was born.
I don't think I've ever seen this before, probably because it doesn't have the same exposure most of the other specials have. This is kind of a shame, because it's just about the most screwed-up thing I've ever seen, and I feel like more people should be familiar with it.

This is narrated by Nestor's descendant, whose name escapes me and I don't care enough to look up. I should probably add that Nestor's descendant works for Santa Claus at the North Pole. This isn't…

The First Christmas (1979)

This is a bizarre little animated special on a collection I found cheap on Amazon. This was the first special on the first disc, so here we are.

The special opens with caroling children singing, then immediately transitions to tanks firing, followed by a description of the Middle East now, then finally settling on the Ancient Roman Empire. The next five or ten minutes introduce a flurry of characters and locations.

From a narrative point of view, this offers very little in the form of a coherent story, but then again, neither did the New Testament. What this does surprising well is depict a complex social and political landscape, complete with intrigue and danger. When we follow a couple Roman soldiers through the streets of Bethlehem, it's genuinely fascinating, and the special's depiction of Herod - while certainly not even-handed - makes for an interesting foil.

Things start to drag when the story shifts to Mary and Joseph, who are obnoxiously two-dimensional (as usual). Th…

The Little Drummer Boy (1968)

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Ugh. I don't have a lot to say about this lame television special. It was boring, banal, and badly produced.

The animation is pretty sub-par, even by the Rankin-Bass standards. The voices are terribly chosen, just incredibly boring. Poorly written dialogue, weird lighting mistakes, completely forgettable musical numbers, and not much more to this.

Bleck.

Okay, I guess you can have a few more details. So, in this highly padded story, the Little Drummer Boy (Aaron) hates humans. We know this because the narration tells us approximately six hundred times, and Aaron says it a few more times for good measure.

Hates. Humans. All Humans. Hates them.

Why does he hate humans? Because his parents were killed, by HUMANS! Yeah, this kid's logic was a little shy of becoming Batman rather than a pint-size misanthrope. Pity - the special could have been a lot more interesting.

There are a lot of awkward phrases and lines in this thing. Like "Show Caravan". It's a traveling cir…

1950s Hymnalogues

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I've never heard of a hymnalogue before, but apparently back in the stupid ages, these were sing-a-long video recordings with words superimposed over them. I had an opportunity to subject myself to a pair of these, one for "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and the other for "O Come All Ye Faithful."

To call these uninspired feels like an understatement. These are black holes in which inspiration is sucked then never seen again. They're vapid, boring, and pointless videos. Hey, geniuses in the 50's: you know what the advantage is of video? That it allows things to MOVE. So, next time, why not recording something that isn't standing still. Just a thought.

The audio recordings weren't bad, but neither were they impressive. Just generic, uninteresting versions of the songs.

Don't believe me? Have a look for yourself. I can't find a video of Bethlehem, but here's O Come All Ye Faithful, for your viewing "enjoyment."

The Spirit of Christmas (1953)

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This goes beyond "so bad it's good" into the land of "so horrible it's great." This half-hour, made-for-TV special is brought to us by Bell Telephone, a fact that's reiterated by the Bell representative, who introduces the two segments while standing in front of a brigade of grinning phone operators.

The first half is described as telling the tale of how Twas the Night Before Christmas was written. Turns out, this guy had an idea on Christmas Eve and wrote a poem in his study using paper and ink.

This riveting tale is interrupted by the poem brought to life. When I say "brought to life," I'm lying outright, because there's no similarity whatsoever between the cold, dead marionettes on screen and anything alive. In fact, in spite of their bright paint, these resemble the walking dead, both in appearance and in movement. When Santa tilts his head to one side and looks through those cold, empty eyes, you can sense his hunger for the…

Santa and the Three Bears (1970)

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This is the second Christmas special I've seen from the 1970's that focuses on the idea of bears delaying hibernation in order to learn about Christmas, the first being 1973's "The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas."
This one is quite a bit less surreal.  While the bears can speak, they're significantly less anthropomorphic.  Living in a cave in Yellowstone Park, they're friends with the park ranger, one of only four characters to receive any real screen time.
Like a lot of specials, this is artistically impressive, while still being a complete and total failure.
The story would feel stretched at thirty minutes, making the special's hour-long running time superfluous and tedious.  A significant portion of the special is spent cycling through reused animation while music plays in the background.  In terms of actual content, this is one of the sparsest Christmas specials I've seen so far this year.
Apparently, I should consider myself luck…