Like most everyone, I have my favorite holiday sense-memories: creamy eggnog with a splash of dark rum -- joyous Christmas carols floating like silk in cavernous churches -- sweetly twinkling lights -- the rich fragrances of cinnamon, pine, clove, and wool -- the tender flame of vigilant candles -- sparkling mounds of new fallen snow -- the reassuring aroma of steaming tamales. These memories occur over time and in many places: Lincoln, Nebraska; New York City; San Diego; Austin, Texas. But there were the years when there was no Christmas. The years when Christmas was quietly expunged from our house. For a girl of 10 and my brother at age six, it was a baffling time, brought on by my mother's friendship with a woman who was a Jehovah's Witness. In retrospect, I think it was also a way to deal with a particularly hard -- and for my mother, a humiliating -- year of poverty. Like several hundred other women, she had lost her job at a Russell Stover candy factory following a failed attempt to unionize. Within months, the company closed its Lincoln plant. Since she was the sole means of support for our house, that meant cutting back on many, many things -- new boots, heat, and Christmas.
Those years without Christmas provided an opportunity to consider the true meaning of the holiday. This is not to suggest that my brother or I did this without tears or resentment. It was involuntary, to be sure, but in the long run, it was a valuable lesson.
Strangely, my mother didn't stop us from enjoying Christmas elsewhere, and the most available means was television. What follows is a list of my favorite holiday specials, which not only charmed and entertained, but helped me realize the spirit of the season. Some of these are set to air soon. Check local listings.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966): A sour-hearted Grinch steals Christmas from the happy Whos of Whoville, only to discover that the holiday is not found in its trappings but in how Christmas is kept alive in one's heart. This is a bright and funny charmer from the book by Dr. Seuss (aka Theodore Geisel). There are two chances to catch this classic: Wed., 12/8, on the Cartoon Network, and Christmas Eve on TBS. Other animated favorites include Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) and A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), both of which struck a chord with their stories of outsiders who search for and find the meaning of the holiday season in the most unexpected of places.
J.T. (1969): Why this Peabody Award-winning movie is not aired more often is beyond me. It stars former child actor Kevin Hooks as J.T. Gamble, an emotionally distant loner until he discovers a sick cat days before Christmas and secretly nurses it back to health. A tearjerker with a sweet ending reaffirming that all creatures, no matter how deeply wounded, are capable of love.
The Homecoming: A Christmas Story (1971): Here's another overlooked gem, based on the novel by Earl Hamner Jr. Yes, it's the precursor to The Waltons television series and all those gooey Walton specials, but this one is the first and the best. The Homecoming follows the mounting excitement of John-Boy Walton (Richard Thomas) and his siblings, who await the return of their father and the arrival of Santa Claus on a Depression-era Christmas Eve. Golden Globes went to Patricia Neal for her portrayal of Olivia Walton and to the movie for Best Made-for-TV Movie in 1972.
It's a Wonderful Life (1946): This classic starring Jimmy Stewart is corny and funny, sweet and simply wonderful. It airs twice on NBC this season -- 12/19 and 12/24. Check listings for times.
A Christmas Carol or Scrooge: There are as many renditions of the Charles Dickens tale as there are actors who have played the miserly old man with a heart of stone. My sentimental, childhood favorite is the 1970 musical version starring Albert Finney. Other critics proclaim that the 1951 Scrooge starring Alastair Sim is the definitive version, while others stand behind A Christmas Carol, a 1984 made-for-TV movie starring George C. Scott in the lead role. And then, of course, there are all those kiddie versions of the tale: Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol (1962), Scrooge McDuck and Money (1967), Bugs Bunny's Christmas Carol (1979), A Flintstones Christmas Carol (1994), and The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), to name a few.
New to the pack is the lusciously produced A Christmas Carol from TNT starring Patrick Stewart as Ebenezer Scrooge. While other versions of the Dickens tale tend to brighten it with bouncy musical numbers or well-scrubbed depictions of poverty, the TNT production offers a more thoughtful approach to the story. Instead of focusing on Scrooge's skinflinty attitude toward all creatures dead and living, this version, written by Peter Barnes, takes a more direct approach in explaining how and why Scrooge has mortared his heart, and how, when presented with the opportunity, he chooses to change the course of his life, and more importantly, make a difference in the lives of those around him.
Stewart makes a steely Scrooge, a steep turn from his Captain Picard role in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The fine cast includes Richard E. Grant as Bob Cratchit, Joel Grey as an ethereal Ghost of Christmas Past, Desmond Barrit as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and Bernard Lloyd as Jacob Marley. David Jones directed the TNT film, which debuts Sun., 12/5, 7pm. Encores are later that evening at 9pm and 11pm and continue throughout December: 12/9 at 9:30pm; 12/11 at 7pm; 12/12 at 2:30pm; 12/18 at 8pm; 12/19 at 3pm; and 12/25 at 7pm.
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