Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Top Ten Christmas Specials: Animated

Charlie Brown, Rudolph, the Grinch, Frosty and Santa all make my list of the top animated TV Christmas specials.

We wait for them every year. They've become as integral to our Christmas celebration as tinsel. They're animated Christmas specials. My Top 10 does not include special holiday episodes of regular series, so there is no Simpsons or Scooby Doo on this list.

The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)
One of the many Christmas specials by Rankin/Bass, The Year Without a Santa Claus is perhaps best remembered for its introduction of the characters Heat Miser and Snow Miser. The story goes that Santa is sick and on doctor's orders is canceling Christmas. Mrs. Claus sends two elves on a mission to find some Christmas cheer to help revive Santa. Shirley Booth provided the voice of Mrs. Claus and Mickey Rooney played Santa.

Santa Claus is Comin' to Town (1970)
Fred Astaire plays the postman who tells the story of Santa Claus, an orphan adopted by the Kringles. Santa, played by Mickey Rooney, must battle Burgermeister Meisterburger and an evil wizard named Winter. This special is another of the Rankin/Bass Christmas classics.

A Garfield Christmas Special (1987)
Garfield, John and Odie travel to John's family's farm for Christmas. While there Garfield starts to understand the true meaning of Christmas. Lorenzo Music plays the voice of Garfield.

Shrek the Halls (2007)
Shrek wants to provide the perfect Christmas for Fiona and the kids. When Donkey and friends show up all of Shrek's plans are ruined. Most of the stars from the Shrek movies reprise their voice roles, including Mike Meyers as Shrek and Eddie Murphy as Donkey.

A Claymation Christmas Celebration (1987)
Hosted by dinosaurs Rex and Herb, the Claymation special features a number of songs all performed by clay characters. Rex is looking for the meaning of "wassail" throughout the special. A highlight includes the California Raisins performing "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer".

Frosty the Snowman (1969)
Frosty, a snowman made by a group of children, comes to life when the kids put a magic silk hat on his head. Failed magician Professor Hinkle threw the hat away. When he sees that the hat is really magic he begins chasing Frosty to the North Pole to get it back. Jimmy Durante narrated and sang the theme song.

A Muppet Family Christmas (1987)
The cast of The Muppet Show drops in unexpectedly on Fozzie's mom for Christmas. The Sesame Street Muppets show up as carolers and Kermit finds a Fraggle Rock hole in the basement. A snowstorm strands everyone in the house for Christmas. This is the first production to feature Muppets from all of their major franchise shows. Jim Henson makes a rare cameo.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
Rudolph, the misfit reindeer, and his equally misfit elf friend, Hermey, leave the North Pole in search of a place where they'll be accepted. They return to the North Pole just in time to save Christmas. Burl Ives, a late addition to the cast brought on to add star power, plays Sam the Snowman who narrates and performs several songs. This was the first Rankin/Bass Christmas special. Rudolph is the longest running Christmas special on network TV.

How The Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)
Based on the Dr. Seuss children's book, the Grinch is the story of a grumpy hermit who attempts to steal Christmas from the village of Whoville. When Christmas comes anyway the Grinch undergoes a change of heart. Boris Karloff provided narration and the voice of the Grinch.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

It's Christmas time and Charlie Brown is depressed. He just can't seem to get into the Christmas spirit, and the overwhelming sense of commercialism isn't helping matters. According to IMDB, A Charlie Brown Christmas defied many of the conventions of animated holiday specials, it didn't use a laugh track, the producers used real children instead the voices of adults, and it used Biblical references.

The producer, Bill Melendez, actually tried to talk Charles Schulz out of using the Biblical reference in Linus'speech. Schulz reportedly responded, "If we don't do it, who will?" The speech remained in tact. This is the second longest running Christmas special on network TV, behind Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which premiered one year earlier.

Catch Them This Christmas
Most, if not all, of these specials show up like clockwork every holiday season. And many are available on DVD. Check listings in your area, and don't neglect those cable TV networks you usually don't watch, many of them may be the homes of your favorite specials this year.

And I'd love to know if your favorite was on or off the list.  You can comment here, on my personal Face Book page or the Prevenings with Jerry and Shannon Face Book page.  Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Top Ten Christmas Carols

Christmas carols have been sung since the 12th Century. They are a beloved type of Christmas music and central to religious Christmas celebrations.

Christmas music is an important part of the Christmas season. Christmas carols are Christmas songs whose lyrics deal with the Nativity of Jesus. Musically they are often based on medieval chord patterns, which gives them their distinctive sound.

In this Top 10 I'll consider only those Christmas songs that fall solidly within the carol tradition of being religious in nature.

10. "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" Traditional
Some sources place the origins of this Christmas carol as early as the 6th century. It has ties to the ancient "Antiphons", one of which was sung in medieval churches each night of the week leading up to Christmas. English priest John Mason Neale translated a version of the original Latin hymn, "Veni, veni, Emmanuel" around 1850 as the song we know today.

9. "What Child Is This?" lyrics by William Chatterton Dix, music Traditional
The music for this Christmas carol dates back to at least 1580 when "Greensleeves" was registered to Richard Jones. Some sources place the tune even earlier, and many credit it to England's King Henry VIII. William Shakespeare used it in his "The Merry Wives Of Windsor" as the music that accompanied the hanging of traitors. In 1865 William Chatterton Dix wrote a poem, "The Manger Throne". Three stanzas of that poem were put to the tune of "Greensleeves" and published as "What Child Is This?"

8. "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" Traditional
Though the author or authors of this carol remain unknown, it is generally agreed that "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" dates back to 16th century England. Municipal employees called "waits" sang it in city streets. Like town criers, the waits were employed to perform certain civic duties, including singing seasonal songs publicly for the edification of the "proper people". Charles Dickens refers to this Christmas song in his "A Christmas Carol".

7. "Away In A Manger" Traditional
For years people believed Martin Luther to be the author of the lyrics to "Away In A Manger". This is because it was first published in 1887 in James R. Murray's "Dainty Songs for Lads and Lassies" under the title "Luther's Cradle Hymn". Murray also added his own initials to the work, leading many to believe he had written the tune. At least the first two verses of the lyrics were probably published in 1855 in a Lutheran Sunday school publication.

6. "The First Noel" Traditional
Most sources trace the origin of "The First Noel" to the Miracle Plays of 13th century Europe. "Noel" is French for Christmas, from the Latin "natalis", so that leads many to believe this Christmas song originated in France. William Sandys is credited with first publishing an English version in 1833 in his "Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern".

5. "Angels We Have Heard On High" Traditional
Sources give a variety of possible origins for this Christmas carol. Some place it as early as A.D. 129 when Telesphorus, Bishop of Rome, proclaimed the "Angels Hymn" be sung on Christmas Eve. Others trace it to the medieval French countryside where on Christmas Eve shepherds would call to each other with the Latin phrase "Gloria in excelsis Deo." And others cite the traditional French carol "Les Anges dans nos Campagnes" or "Angels in our Countryside" as the source. James Chadwick is most often credited with translating it to English in 1862.

4. "O Holy Night" lyrics by John Sullivan Dwight, music by Adolphe Charles Adam
Sources disagree on which came first, the words or the music, but all agree on the sources. French wine merchant, Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure wrote the original French text as a poem, "Cantique de Noel" in 1847. His friend, Adolphe Charles Adam set it to music. Adam is best remembered for his ballet "Giselle". In 1855 American clergyman and abolitionist John Sullivan Dwight translated the song into the English version we sing today.

3. "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" lyrics by Charles Wesley, music by Felix Mendelssohn
Neither Wesley nor Mendelssohn would have approved of the combination of their work, but the result is one of the most loved Christmas carols. Wesley wrote the lyrics in 1739 in his Hymns and Sacred Poems. The first line was originally "Hark! How all the welkin (Heaven) rings, Glory to the King of Kings." Wesley's colleague George Whitefield changed the opening line to what we sing today.

Mendelssohn wrote the music as part of a cantata honoring Johann Gutenberg and the invention of publishing. William Cummings adapted the tune and put it to Wesley's lyrics to finalize the song we sing today. Neither of the authors would have approved; Wesley had suggested a slow, solemn tune would best fit his lyrics, and Mendelssohn believed his tune to be unsuitable for sacred lyrics.

2. "Joy To The World" lyrics by Isaac Watts, music by Lowell Mason
Isaac Watts wrote the words for "Joy To The World" in 1719 in his book "Psalms of David", they're based on part of Psalm 98. In 1839 Lowell Mason set the words to music and added a note crediting the lyrics to George Frederick Handel, composer of "The Messiah". For over a century Handel was believed to be the lyricist, until music historians uncovered the true origin of the words.

1. "Silent Night" lyrics by Joseph Mohr, music by Franz Gruber
Tradition holds that Joseph Mohr, the parish priest at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria, wrote the words to "Silent Night" and had Franz Gruber, the church choir director, write the music for it and then performed it for the very first time all on Christmas Eve 1818. The song was written for and performed on the guitar because, as the story goes, the church organ was out of commission. Other accounts report that Mohr actually wrote the words in 1816. Some sources, including music historian Joel Whitburn in his "Pop Memories 1890 - 1954", claim that "Silent Night" is the most recorded song in history.

Christmas Music Makes The Season Memorable
All of the Christmas carols on my list are full of lyrics that inspire hope and goodwill. There are literally hundreds of other Christmas songs and carols that will add to your enjoyment of this special time of year. You can listen to recorded versions of them alone, participate in a religious service or join a group of carolers in spreading the joy of the season in a children's hospital or nursing home. Whatever your preference, Christmas carols will make your holiday celebrations more merry.

I'd love to get your opinions on this Top Ten.  You comment hear or on my Face Book page or the Prevenings with Jerry and Shannon Face Book page.  Merry Christmas

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Top Ten Theatrical Christmas Movies

Christmas is one of the richest seasons for storytellers and moviemakers. Hope, redemption, joy, regret, innocence and the loss thereof are all emotions and themes that have inspired these stories for centuries. Add to that the classic music of the season and some of these stories seem to write themselves.

Top 10 Criteria
Before I reveal my Top 10, let's set a few ground rules. First, this is a list of movies, not television specials or holiday themed episodes of TV series. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been disappointed by a so-called movie list that includes A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Second, to make this list the movie had to debut in a theater where people had to buy a ticket. No made-for-TV movies on this list.

And finally, these are films that have Christmas as a central theme or plot device. The fact that the story of a movie happens to take place on or around Christmas isn’t enough to get that title on my list. So you won’t see Die Hard here.

The Top 10

10. The Nativity Story (2006)
This is the only film to make our list that deals with the very first Christmas, a subject that curiously has not been explored very often in feature films. Starring Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary and Oscar Isaac as Joseph, The Nativity Story focuses on the discovery of Mary’s pregnancy and her journey with Joseph to Bethlehem where Jesus is born.

Castle-Hughes caused a minor scandal when she revealed during filming that she was pregnant with her boyfriend’s child. This is the first movie to premier at the Vatican. It opened in the U.S. on December 3, 2006.

9. Babes In Toyland or March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934)
Originally released in 1934 as Babes In Toyland, this Laurel and Hardy classic was reissued in 1950 as March of the Wooden Soldiers. While not one of the best films made by Laurel and Hardy, its holiday theme has made it a perennial favorite on TV between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Laurel and Hardy play Ollie Dee and Stanley Dum, employees in a toy factory who mistakenly take an order from Santa Claus for 100 wooden soldiers at six-feet high. The order was supposed to be 600 wooden soldiers at one-foot high. But the mistake saves the day as Silas Baranaby and his army of bogeymen attack Toyland. It opened in the U.S. on December 14, 1934.

8. Scrooge (1970)
Albert Finney plays the title role in this musical version of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. Sir Alec Guinness plays the ghost of Jacob Marley. It made its U.S. debut on November 5, 1970.

7. White Christmas (1954)
Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney star in this musical set in a struggling inn in Vermont. Crosby and Kaye’s old army commander operates the inn. White Christmas debuted on October 14, 1954.

6. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Another musical version of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, this one stars Michael Caine as Scrooge. Kermit the Frog is his hapless employee, Bob Cratchit. The Great Gonzo, as Charles Dickens, tells the story. The Muppet Christmas Carol made its U.S. debut on December 11, 1992.

5. The Polar Express (2004)
The only animated film on our list, The Polar Express stars the voice and likeness of Tom Hanks in six roles, including Santa Claus. It’s the story of a young boy who is starting to question the existence of Santa Claus and the magical train ride he takes one Christmas Eve. The Polar Express had its general U.S. debut on November 10, 2004.

4. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Maureen O’Hara, Edmund Gwenn and a young Natalie Wood star in this classic. The movie opens on Thanksgiving at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Macy’s Santa turns up drunk, but luckily a bearded old man, Kris Kringle, with his own padding and Santa suit happens by to save the parade.

Things get complicated when Kris claims to be the real Santa Claus. He faces a sanity hearing that’s set to end on Christmas Eve, just in time for Kris to make his annual deliveries. One of only two Christmas movies to make the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Inspirational Movies of All Time (coming in at #9), Miracle on 34th Street debuted on May 4, 1947.

3. A Christmas Story (1983)
Starring Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon and Peter Billingsley as Ralphie, A Christmas Story has become a classic due in large part to its day-long exhibition every Christmas on cable TV. Based on the story by Jean Shepherd, who contributed on the screenplay, it’s the tale of a young boy’s quest to get an official Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas, despite the belief by every adult in his life that he’ll shoot his eye out. It debuted on November 18, 1983.

2. A Christmas Carol (1951)

Charles Dicken’s classic story of redemption and hope has been adapted for film since the 1920s. The 1951 version starring Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge is the best of them all. Released in the U.K. on Halloween 1951, A Christmas Carol made its U.S. debut on December 2, 1951.

The last scene from this movie (see the video above) contains a line by Scrooge that crystallizes how I often feel, especially at this time of year, when I consider the richness of the blessings God has so generously showered me with--"I don't deserve to be so happy...but I can't help it."

1. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

Not an instant classic, the copyright on was actually allowed to lapse and it fell into the Public Domain in 1974. That meant that TV stations could air the movie for free, and it become a staple of holiday television marathons until Republic Pictures restored its copyright in 1993.

Jimmy Stewart stars as George Bailey, described by his nemesis, Mr. Potter, as “a warped, frustrated, young man.” George comes to the end of his rope on Christmas Eve and is about to jump off a bridge so his family can collect on his $5,000 life insurance policy. Angel Second Class (A-S2) Clarence comes to the rescue and shows George how much poorer a place the world would have been if he had never been born.

It’s A Wonderful Life also stars Donna Reed with Lionel Barrymore as Potter. It was named #1 on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Inspirational Movies of All Time. It debuted in New York City on December 20, 1946.

What's On Your Top Ten?
I'd love to hear your comments on my Top 10 list.  You can leave a comment here, or on my Face Book page or the brand new Prevenings with Jerry & Shannon Face Book.  (There's a link to it to the right of this post).  Whatever your favorite Christmas movie is, I hope you get a chance to watch it this season with family and friends.  Merry Christmas.