My Christmas Rituals

Head’s up: This is another Christmas-related post, hot on the heals of the one I wrote a few weeks ago. We’re well into December now, and it’s time for those “rituals” (for lack of a better word) that I at least try to repeat every year at this time. I think a lot of people have these little holiday traditions. Here are mine.

  • Cut down a Christmas tree. This is a family ritual going back 23 years — I cut one down the week after my oldest son was born, and we’ve been doing it ever since. Traditionally, we go the day after Thanksgiving, as we always wanted to have it up for his birthday, and that was one day when we could get around work schedules, basketball games, etc. This year, we went a day later; we had to work around a schedule conflict on our usual work-around day. The tree is a beauty and it’s been gracing the family room for a week now.
  • Music: Messiah by George Frideric Handel. When I was in high school, I sang in a chorus that performed parts of this at Christmas-time. I try to listen to at least some of it every year since. I also love the CD We Three Kings by The Roches, several of the old classics (Bing, Andy Williams, etc.). This year I’m listening a lot to On Thin Ice by Pandora Celtica. This is not a Christmas album in the strictest sense, in that I don’t think the lyrics mention Jesus once. It’s more of a Yule album, but the harmonies are breathtaking (par for the course for them), the versions are different than those you’ve heard before (imagine Deck the Halls sounding sad,) and the original song Santa Claus Got Eaten by the Kraken is wickedly funny.
  • Books: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (natch — I blogged about this last year). A relatively new ritual is to re-read the fine stories in Connie Willis’ collection Miracle and Other Christmas Stories. Thank you to Mur Lafferty for making me aware of this book. The stories have the holiday spirit without excess sentimentality.
  • Movies: Sure, I like It’s a Wonderful Life as much as the next guy, and I can quote several of the funniest lines from A Christmas Story. However, one of my favorites is a made-for-TV movies that most people don’t know about: The Gathering. This excellent 1977 film stars Ed Asner as a curmudgeonly successful businessman who, through diligent effort, has managed to alienate most of his adult children, not to mention his estranged wife, played to perfection by Maureen Stapleton. Shortly before Christmas, he learns that he is terminally ill and probably won’t see February. Reconciling with his kids suddenly becomes very important to him. When his ex-wife figures out what’s going on, she offers to invite all of the kids home for an old-fashioned family gathering. He agrees on the condition that his illness be kept secret. The story that follows warms my heart every time I watch it. One scene in particular, in which the man and his son (played by Lawrence Pressman) have a confrontation that’s been brewing for years, is very powerful. The film sends a wonderful holiday message without ever getting sappy. It used to get rerun on cable every year, but it seems to have been forgotten the last few years. For a long time, I was reduced to watching a recording I’d made on VHS on some long-gone cable channel back in the 90’s. However, when I finally found it on DVD online a couple of years ago, I had my credit card out before the screen refreshed. Now it’s a permanent part of my collection.
  • TV specials: Love me some Charlie Brown Christmas (“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown”) and I caught up with my old friend the Grinch last week. I have a soft spot for Rudolph, of course. Another of my favorites from childhood is Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town with the voices of Fred Astaire and Mickey Rooney. I don’t get to see that one every year, as I don’t think it gets repeated as prominently as some of the others, but I look for it in the listings.
  • Watch the Christmas Eve midnight Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. Our local NBC affiliate carries this every year (tape-delayed, of course; Rome is several hours ahead of us here in the eastern U.S.). Most years, I don’t watch the whole thing, but I try to catch at least some and hopefully most of it. There is something about the pageantry of midnight Mass, especially when celebrated by the pope, that I love. We’ll attend Mass ourselves on Christmas Day, but it’s obviously not quite the same.

That’s my list. I’d love to hear what yours are. Fill up the comments with ’em — maybe I’ll end up stealing adopting some of yours.

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