The Twelve Despicable Entertainments of Christmas, Part 1
More traumatizing events happen during the Yuletide season than during any other period. This time of year, you can't throw a brick without hitting a holiday well-wisher — and believe me, we've tried. The crushing rush of Christmas is so culturally pervasive that you can’t escape the traditional holiday entertainments that dragoon your children, force your attendance or attention, and exhaust all remaining reserves of comfort and joy — let alone glad tidings. The holiday season seemingly compels us to get dressed up and expose ourselves to culture, like an unwelcome form of radiation therapy. We go see the old chestnuts because Mom/Grandma/Aunt Martha insists that we do – and we just pray that there’s a cash bar.
And this is also the money time of the year for artists and entertainers. Whether they are scraping away at a cello down at the mall, doing a puppet show for institution-bound seniors, or cavorting in tights in the bright light of the concert hall, they work work work it, from mid-December through New Year’s, all while feeling the resentment steaming from the audience.
But it's not safe to stay home, either, because television is always bringing out the old chestnuts. Here, in ascending order of awfulness, are a dozen despicable entertainments you'll no doubt encounter this season. Bah humbug.
12) White Christmas
No, not the song. Love the song. We're talking about the stage adaptation of the 1954 film of the 1942 original. Holiday Inn is a great, fun movie starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, based on an idea by Irving Berlin to make a movie that would showcase a number of his holiday-themed songs. The conceit, a hotel that is only open on public holidays, works well, and the script is a hoot. (Unfortunately, the film is marred by a blackface number about Lincoln’s Birthday, “Abraham.” America’s institutionalized racism was on its way out, but still going strong at the time.)
The VistaVision color remake is a complete rewrite, and substitutes Danny Kaye for Astaire. It sucks, save for the catchy little “Sisters” song. The stage adaptation has only been around since 1994, so it hasn’t had time to burrow into the national consciousness....but just you wait.
11) Carolers and wassailing
You are a talented singer, in charge of a magnificent voice. Now take it outside in sub-zero temperatures and howl close-harmony doggerel while staggering through deep snowdrifts. What are you, Alferd Packer?
There's something Halloweenish about this whole affair. Shouldn’t the singers be asked inside? Can we have something warm to drink? A cookie? Can we just grab a memento from your mantelpiece? We also accept cash.
And what in the hell is wassail? Isn’t it a flaming bowl of something? Something English? Carolers ask for it in some convoluted, eighteenth-century way, as in: “Good husbandman, come bring/With tidings glad this/Hot steaming burn-ed drink/Hol-tol fiddle-rol tee dol downy-doo.” No thanks; we'll stick with Scotch.
10) The Messiah
No, not THE Messiah. We mean Handel’s Messiah. It's a lovely oratorio, including catchy numbers such as the state song of Wyoming – “All we like sheep”! However, it does go on. And on. And on. And actually, you know, it’s an Easter oratorio, so the second half is full of smiting and chastising and rods of i-ron...that sort of thing. Plus, we’re supposed to stand up during the Hallelujah Chorus! Like it’s the seventh-inning stretch! This is a tradition based on the mistaken belief that George II did it during the first performance, which is a big fat lie.
So, if you’re stuck listening to this, and everyone stands up suddenly, stay seated (unless the venue is on fire) and explain loudly about the vile calumny that forces people to their feet. You’ll be glad you did.
This disdain for the Messiah encompasses all modern, alternative variants, including the rock Messiah, the jazz Messiah, the blues Messiah, the R & B Messiah, the gospel Messiah, the rap Messiah, the punk Messiah, the ambient dub Messiah, the shoegaze Messiah, and other, "more accessible" corruptions thereof.
9) Amahl and the Night Visitors
The first opera written for television, this one-act piece of schmaltz went out over the airwaves from NBC studio 8H (where Saturday Night Live now reigns) on December 24, 1951. Although Gian Carlo Menotti was a darn good opera composer (try The Consul and The Medium sometime), this was not one of his best efforts.
Still, this tearjerker is a cash cow. Poor, crippled shepherd boy plus single mom plus baby Jesus equals boffo box office. And who can forget the great aria titled "This Is My Box"?
8) The Littlest Angel
This show is less an immediate danger to mass consciousness than a traumatizing flashback. Like Amahl, this was a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation that featured Johnny Whitaker (the curly-headed, freckle-faced kid from Family Affair) as an eight-year-old shepherd boy (sound familiar?) who ACCIDENTALLY RUNS OFF THE EDGE OF A CLIFF and dies . . . or rather, finds himself in Heaven.
In a plot development stolen from Our Town, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, A Guy Named Joe and other fantasy films, he wanders around, not really able to figure out that he’s dead, why he’s dead, and how to feel about it. With an all-star cast that includes Freed Gwynne, Cab Calloway, Tony Randall, George Rose, Connie Stevens and James Coco. And E.G. Marshall as — God. Yep.
And it’s a musical. It was broadcast on December 6, 1969, and it traumatized a generation for life. It makes Poltergeist look like an episode of Bob the Builder.
7) "The Gift of the Magi"
O. Henry (in reality, Sidney/William Sydney Porter) was a formerly celebrated, now largely ignored early twentieth-century American writer. You used to find his work on every home bookshelf in the country, alongside the excruciatingly sentimental poetry of Edgar A. Guest, Eugene Field and the like.
Among other activities during his life, Henry was an embezzler, a drunk and a jailbird. He was a master of the "twist" ironic ending, which he stole from Maugham, who stole it from de Maupassant. Keeping the tradition alive, Rod Serling stole it from Henry — and now it is known as the Twilight Zone twist.
"The Gift of the Magi" is his most irritating work. At Christmastime, an impoverished couple figures out ways to give each other presents. She sells her hair to buy her husband a platinum watch fob (n.b., a chain or ribbon that attaches a pocket watch to a waistcoat)... and he sells his watch to buy her some hair brushes. GAAAK! They hug, as somewhere a dark figure laughs hollowly.
We can't think of a contemporary version of this. She sells their baby to buy him some beer; he sells his kidney to buy her a bassinet? Och. It's the thought that counts.
Watch for part two: Hypothermia, weirdos in tights, and Santa on trial!
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