Even if it’s baby’s first Christmas or Hanukkah, you are likely already sick of the usual holiday trappings: It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, etc., etc. Sure, A Charlie Brown Christmas and How The Grinch Stole Christmas hold up after 50 years, but that’s only 40 minutes total without commercials. What about some off-the-beaten-path holiday favorites? Maybe some that don’t clunk you over the head with Santa every chance they get? Again, our team of A.V. Club parents is here to help with some atypical holiday music, books, and movies. Will White Christmas and Mickey’s Christmas Carol play for young kids? What are the best winter-themed picture books not centered around Santa? Was Arthur Christmas an actual movie that was released in 2011? Let’s find out!
For some reason, Arthur Christmas flies its Santa sled under the radar, even though it’s a charming holiday film. It’s produced by Aardman, the same geniuses who brought us the Wallace & Gromit canon, so it has that same dry sense of humor enjoyable for any age. Coming from a world similar to the Prep & Landing specials, in Arthur Christmas, the delivery of gifts is also a high-tech operation. Three generations of Clauses are behind it: a retired, doddering old Santa; the current beloved figurehead; Steve, the heir who runs the operation behind the scenes; and his brother Arthur, who reads the Christmas letters. Arthur seems like the most ineffectual one of the bunch until a single present fails to get delivered, and he and his grandpa have to go old school to make sure no child gets forgotten at Christmas. Their caper is thrilling and delightful, helped along by a furiously gift-wrapping elf and some eye-rolling reindeer. And the message that sometimes traditional is better than technological is a great one for your screen-addicted offspring. Whether you’ve heard of it or not, Arthur Christmas would make for a welcome addition to your family holiday canon. [Gwen Ihnat]
The Santa-prevalence this time of year is oppressive. Parents who don’t want to start their relationship with their children by lying to them may have a tough time finding anything that doesn’t feature the chubby guy in the red suit and white beard. Fortunately, the picture-book world is voluminous enough that there are a variety of materialism-free options. Ones that just focus on the season itself: the wonder of snow, the need to hibernate, surprisingly hearty woodland creatures.
The classic is Raymond Briggs’ magical The Snowman, which also has the advantage of being wordless, so even your toddler can “read” it. A snowman comes to life at midnight and takes the boy who built him on a wondrous journey through the English countryside. Yes, Santa shows up at the end, (sorry, “Father Christmas”; it’s English), but he’s an afterthought compared to the beauty of the rest of this piece. The Snowman was even made into an Academy Award-nominated short film in 1982, narrated by David Bowie, no less.
More recently, Amazon Prime just released The Snowy Day, a video version of Ezra Jack Keats’ 1962 Caldecott-winning book that traces a boy named Peter as he travels through his newly snowy neighborhood. Like The Snowman, the book is all about the journey, as Peter enjoys the snow just because it’s snow. The video expands from the minimalist book, as Peter runs into a Jewish baker, an Asian grocer, and an Arab hardware store owner and invites them all to his own holiday celebration, leading The Snowy Day to offer a wide look at other cultures. It’s a pretty perfect story in both book and video form.
But if you’d like to limit your stories to snow-only, start with Jan Brett’s The Mitten, in which a group of woodland animals become fascinated by a mitten left behind by a young Ukrainian boy. Also in the woodland animal theme, don’t miss Bear Snores On. This was Karma Wilson’s debut (she’s followed it with a number of Bear stories), but even in her very first book, she nailed a beautiful musical rhyme scheme. You’ll notice that even infants tend to respond more to rhyming books than non-rhyming ones (I may or may not have spent an inordinate amount of time reading to helpless twin babies strapped in bouncy seats to pass the time during maternity leave), and Bear Snores On is a cozy and wonderful kickoff to the series. Both of these are available in board-book format, which are a godsend for literary-minded toddlers. I could never check out anything from the library, because my kids put literally everything in the world into their mouths. They destroyed board books as well, but it did take a lot longer than regular books.
Lastly, I loved this book as a kid and was thrilled to find it at the Barnes & Noble: Snow, written by P.D. Eastman, the same guy who brought us the perennial classics Go, Dog. Go! and Are You My Mother? In simplistic language, two kids enjoy the first snowfall of the season with sleds, skis, and a snowman. It might become the first snow book your kid can actually read to themselves. Hard to think of a better holiday gift for you than that. [Gwen Ihnat]
Mickey’s Christmas Carol as a training-wheels movie
Technically speaking, I have not yet shown Mickey’s Christmas Carol to my daughter (though she has lingered on it when engaging in one of her favorite activities: pulling DVDs off of the shelf she can now reach and throwing them on the floor). But I imagine it will get a lot of play for many holiday seasons to come, and not just because my wife would watch it annually regardless. As we eventually ease our kid into the world of movies, which has meant so much to her parents, Mickey’s Christmas Carol strikes me as a good training-wheels movie. It’s more substantial than a typical cartoon short and even, at its full 26 minutes, a little longer than a current TV episode or special, with a fully developed, Dickens-adapted narrative to sustain its running time. But it also doesn’t require the patience or stamina of a feature film, compacting a lot of cinematic emotions (high-spirited slapstick comedy, sadness, and that scary-ass Ghost Of Christmas Future) into a manageable length.
Further appeal comes from its use of Mickey and Minnie Mouse (the film’s initial release in 1983 marked their first theatrical appearance in decades). I’m especially aware, as the parent of a very young child, how much exposure she gets to Mickey and Minnie as products—stuffed animals, cute onesies and jackets, and so on. Despite the possessive in the title, Mickey and Minnie aren’t the main characters in Mickey’s Christmas Carol (Scrooge McDuck is, laying the groundwork for a kid’s potential enjoyment of Carl Barks and DuckTales), and here they’re “playing” the Cratchit family, not themselves. But those characters have actual struggles, more so than the merchandised versions we’ve happily supplied our daughter so far. Mickey’s Christmas Carol isn’t literally about a child’s branded toys coming to life and participating in a dark parable against greed, but for a little kid, it could function that way. [Jesse Hessenger]
Something went wrong with our parenting at some point, because our older son doesn’t like chocolate. (Clearly, something skipped a generation). So while our younger, normal son happily opens his Cadbury advent calendar every December, we found a pretty terrific substitute for his brother: the Lego Star Wars Advent Calendar. Just say it out loud. It sounds like it comes from a magnetic poetry set made up of everything you loved as a kid. Lego Star Wars Advent Calendar! Sold everywhere you find Sand Castle Pizza Recess Pony Ride!
While most of Lego’s Star Wars output is complicated, expensive, and takes long enough to build that numerous pieces will be embedded in your heel before your kid is done putting them together, each day’s entry from the advent calendar contains a tiny bag of pieces numbering in the single digits that can be assembled in a minute or two. And yet, with six or seven pieces, you can build a surprisingly accurate Star Destroyer, Sandcrawler, or even AT-AT. Maybe a half dozen doors will reveal a mini-fig—often a character from the seasonally appropriate Battle Of Hoth. And the final entry is always a Christmas-themed Star Wars character: R2-D2 as a top-hat-bedecked snowman, C-3PO holding a sack of presents, even Darth Maul as Santa.
While my childhood Lego collection was about spaceships first and foremost, my son is less interested in building than using the characters as action figures. So with a few more advent-calendar characters added to his collection every year, even in spring and summer, his Star Wars battles end up involving a Christmas-tree-shaped droid helping the Jedi protect the galaxy from Vader Claus. [Mike Vago]
Last weekend, I reminded my sons of the most wonderful of holiday traditions: getting dragged to things you don’t want to do. Visiting stinky relatives, attending church for the one and only time of the year, trips to Anthropologie to get something for their mom to return: These are the glory of the season. With the avalanche of toys headed their way, I think a little dash of nuts on their fudge keeps them honest.
I thought White Christmas would make a lovely addition.
Don’t get me wrong. I love White Christmas. From the moment Bing Crosby croons Irving Berlin’s titular song to a crowd of homesick WWII troops, you can dip me in sap for the next two hours. Released in 1954 and starring Crosby, Danny (fucking) Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen, it portrays a world where you could aspire to be a song-and-dance act as a viable career. It’s also the quintessential example of “Let’s put on a show” as a solution to bankruptcy. The movie features some amazing romantic hijinks, the perfect Mary Wickes, and wonderful (and uncredited) Bob Fosse choreography.
One look at the VistaVision Paramount logo and my sons squawked as if they were being forced to attend midnight Mass in Latin. I told them Gwen Ihnat would be super mad if we didn’t watch it (untrue) and I’d probably get fired (also untrue). Son #2 watched while standing on his head as a form of protest.
Son #1 complained Bing Crosby’s VistaVision blue eyes made him look like an alien. We had a robust debate on the merits of the dancing in the movie versus Dancing With The Stars. He was not a fan of “old-timey tapping.” Son #2 simply muttered, “Too much songs.”
Around the time they started counting down the minutes left in the movie (“Yay! Only 24 until we’re free!”), I let them off the hook. On his way racing out of the room, Son #1 shouted over his shoulder, “If you’ve already seen this, how could you ever think we’d like it?”
I looked online for churches holding midnight Mass. [Rick Hamann]
For 11 months out of the year, my family gets absolutely no use out of the 51 channels our cable company has conceded to the “Music Choice” service. But from the day after Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve, whenever we’re not watching Christmas specials or holiday baking shows, our default “have on in the background” option is Music Choice’s “Sounds Of The Seasons.” I know some folks—especially those who consider themselves music snobs—can’t stand the sickly sweetness and excess orchestration of Christmas tunes. My wife and I, though, have been fascinated for much of our adult lives with the foundations and variations within the genre, and we’ve mostly succeeded in getting our son and daughter excited about holiday recordings from the a wide range of performers, such as Jack Jones, Jim Reeves, Lou Rawls, The Ventures, and Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings.
“Sounds Of the Seasons” splits pretty equally between contemporary covers of Christmas classics and songs directly from the ’50s and ’60s heyday of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Ferrante & Teicher, with a few of the more recent attempts by pop stars to write and record new standards sprinkled in. For the connoisseurs—for us parents, in other words—the fun of Music Choice comes from tracking the multiple ways that artists have performed “Silver Bells” or “The Little Drummer Boy” over the years, and noting how some aspects of the songs rarely change while others keep getting radically reinvented. Meanwhile, my snarky 11-year-old daughter enjoys making fun of the cornier old numbers, and my nerdy 15-year-old son likes to read aloud the “fun facts” that pop up on the TV screen. (“Charles Dickens’ first public reading of A Christmas Carol took three hours to finish!” “The first televised Catholic midnight Mass was in 1948!”)
I love that the percentage of our cable subscription that goes to Music Choice is, for a few weeks at least, well spent. We have boxes of decorations and Christmas DVDs that take up space in our attic until we need them, and we have this one channel that’s completely valueless until the day that we switch it on and leave it on. I’m sure my kids take for granted that these seasonal trappings I haul out every year are just magically going to appear for as long as they’re living with us. But we’ve reached a point where the years they have remaining here are fewer than the years they’ve already spent, so for as long as it lasts, I’m planning to squeeze every last drop of utility out of all of the silly, sappy Christmas traditions we’ve amassed throughout their lives. [Noel Murray]
Our household holiday watching rituals don’t go much deeper than A Charlie Brown Christmas. Ritual is born of tradition, and neither my wife nor I have carried over any emotionally charged viewing experiences from our youth. Even the experience of watching Charlie Brown is a little dimmed for me now that it’s no longer sponsored by Dolly Madison snack cakes. But that said, this is the second year in a row when I feel the urge to revisit Fantasia with my daughter the moment we get the tree up. Specifically, The Nutcracker Suite. When Disney chose to animate Tchaikovsky’s famous piece, the goal was to present a tableau completely divorced from the ballet’s original Christmas theme. No nutcrackers, ballerinas, or monarchial rodents feuding among the sugar plums. Instead, the segment is a lavishly animated changing of the seasons.
Fantasia’s animators understood that the piece’s association with the holiday is too strong to break, however. When it begins, a crowd of fairies lit up like Christmas bulbs descend on a field, alighting each plant they touch with beads of dew as though they were stringing garland. Even the warm months are depicted with a kind of nocturnal coolness that encourages viewing from underneath a warm blanket with a cup of cocoa in hand.
I’m obsessed with the details of such beautiful and technically deft animation. The way the touch of a wand turns a hanging vine gold, or how the winter fairies—cleverly designed with skeins of frost for wings—will skate over the water, freezing newly fallen leaves to the surface. My daughter, thoroughly jacked on sugar, likes to stand up and flail about in synch with the piece’s elaborately choreographed dance pieces performed by various anthropomorphized flowers.
Fantasia was originally released in 1940, so not everything has aged gracefully. While they’re virtually a study in nuance compared to much of classic Disney’s racial stereotyping, the Chinese mushrooms—with their mushroom-cap coolie hats and almond-shaped eyes—are the one unfortunate hiccup in an otherwise timeless piece. I haven’t discussed them with my daughter yet; they barely make a blip among all the other dances in the piece, but it’s certainly something I’ll be talking with her about as she gets older. As it is now, her biggest concern is if the main fish in the underwater scene is being “mean” to the other fish.
The Nutcracker Suite, as well as Fantasia as a whole, makes for a perfect mixture of accessibility and intense creative effort. I have yet to decide if I want to feature “Night On Bald Mountain” for viewing on Halloween, or if that segment’s inclusion of “Ave Maria” makes it suitable enough for continued Christmas enjoyment. [Nick Wanserski]