It's funny - I've been thinking
back on Christmases past, getting ready for this column, and
I remember so many things . . . it seems inevitable and appropriate
that thoughts of the Holiday Season invariably take one back
to one's own childhood - brothers John and Mike and I were all
born in the mid to late fifties (please don't do the math!) so
our particularly strong Christmas memories revolve around the
early to mid sixties, an especially extraordinary time to be
I remember a record Mom (that's
Sheryl to you folks) bought in the early sixties - it was a version
of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," and it was beautifully
acted out, terrifying and joyful in turn as it spun its magical
tale. We'd sit in front of the hi fi for hours, listening to
the record over and over again until Mom got tired of resetting
the needle and threw us all outside. It was very much akin to
the experience of radio, which not many people under retirement
age are likely to recall. For us, this record came to define
the story, more than any of the many screen and television adaptations.
I remember December 1961. I
was in kindergarten, and it was the last day of school for the
year. More importantly, it was my first experience ever of the
special joy of a "last day of school." It had been
raining hard, and as it came time for us to be let out to walk
home (those were different times), it began to hail. Now, I had
never seen hail before, let alone anything like this - it may
be just a romanticized vision of the past, but I will swear I
have never seen a hailstorm to match it. Soon the playground
outside was bedecked in the stuff, and so I can truly say I came
as close as anyone to having a White Christmas in Southern California!
Back then, the closest department
stores to the South Bay were Downtown. The site where Del Amo
Mall now stands was a vacant lot - in fact, most of that stretch
of Hawthorne was either vacant or farmland. Thus, every December
we'd make the trek Downtown, since that's where the stores were,
where the toys were, and most importantly where Santa was. It
made it somehow that much more magical to visit Santa when you
had to drive a goodly distance to reach him.
The department stores were
truly magic in those days. First of all, elevators and escalators
were not nearly as prevalent as they are today - back then, those
contraptions were as much a part of the Holiday Magic as anything
else. Additionally, the stores had massive window displays then.
Each would try to outdo the other in creating miniature worlds
in their front windows, and families would come especially just
to tour the storefronts, to pass from window to window marvelling
at the animated, colorful scenes.
Imagine, then, the excitement
we felt anticipating each yearly trek to that magical fairyland
that was Downtown L.A. in the early sixties! The wonder of the
storefronts, the awe of coming face to face with so many toys
we'd seen only in brief commercials on a black and white television
set, the thrill of coming face to face with Santa himself! (In
later years, of course, with the proliferation of malls, he was
forced to send "helpers" to many of the locations,
but back then we knew we were talking to the real McCoy.) Certainly
not least among the joys of the trip was riding up and down magical
stairs that moved all by themselves, or stepping inside a mysterious
box on one floor, and mysteriously ending up on a completely
different floor! (It brings to mind one particular occasion,
though not Christmas, when Mom took me, Mike and John Downtown
to shop. We'd just entered an elevator when young Michael took
it upon himself to run back out into the store on a whim. Mom
dashed out to grab him . . . and the dreaded elevator doors began
to close! John and I began to scream in terror with one voice
- and I don't want to think about what further traumas we might
have suffered had not a passerby dashed over to grab the doors.
Heady stuff - Downtown had its terrors as well as its delights!)
So many memories - I've just
begun, and yet I must end the printed version here. The preceding
ramblings may not seem specifically folkloric, per se, but to
me they are as magical as any tale of ghosts or goblins. Please,
please, please, check out our website. I'll finish the tale there,
as well as including the usual set of cool Christmas Links, recipes,
etc. Again, we're at www.bookagain.com.
Oh - still here? Why, you must
be on the web site! Ho ho ho and jolly good! Let's continue,
I remember so many things from
that era . . . I remember Christmas 1962 - we'd just gotten through
the Cuban Missle Crisis, of which I was blissfully unaware except
for the inordinate amount of extra "Drop Drills" the
nuns had subjected us to of late. (For those who don't know,
a drop drill consists of the teacher looking suddenly past the
class out the window, and saying "drop." At that command,
all students were to immediately take cover under their desks,
covering their faces. This, they told us, would protect us in
the event of a nuclear attack. Trouble was, we never knew if
it was a drill or the real thing.)
That season was notable for
the premiere of "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol." Now,
I know a live action "Magoo" is about to hit the big
screen, and I know that the original UPA cartoon series, as well
as the short lived "Famous Adventures" prime time series,
don't necessarily conjure up the most treasured of recollections,
but this particular show was different.
It was, in essence a musical,
with songs written by Robert Merrill and the legendary Jules
Styne. The music was, and is, extraordinary. The show itself
(a simple hour long cartoon special) was billed as a play within
a play - it opens with Magoo attempting to get to the theatre
where he is to star (as Scrooge) in "A Christmas Carol,"
and ends with the cast bowing to the audience, after which Magoo
quite literally "brings down the house." Though no
longer broadcast commercially, it was on Disney Channel a few
years back, and was until recently available on Video and Laser
Disc. The video may still be available, and the Laser can probably
be purchased cheaply, if you can find it.
I digress. That Magoo changed
my life. It was my first introduction to the world of stage,
and I was absolutely fascinated. To compound things, the hot
toy of the year was something called "Show Boat," which
in essence was this plastic Mississippi steamship that turned
into a stage, with slots to insert background, midground and
foreground scene elements into. A child's introduction to 3-D
and special effects! It was the bomb - I needed one!
Truly, '62 was the "stage"
I remember Christmas 1963.
President Kennedy, the only president I'd really been conscious
of, had just been assassinated, and going to a Catholic school
you can imagine the mournful zeitgeist permeating the schoolyard
as we approached what should have been the happiest of times.
I was, without quite realizing what was going on, selected to
play "Tiny Tim" in a version of "A Christmas Carol"
that the school was putting on. My wishes had come true - I was
going into the Theatre.
We based my costume on the
cover of that wonderful record album I mentioned earlier. I guess
I did a fair job, as my parents overheard a couple ruminating
after the performance about how remarkable it was that the school
should have found a real cripple . . .
In my enthusiasm for the project
I volunteered to bring that precious record to school for the
edification and enlightenment of all and sundry.
The nuns lost the record.
It was a tragic blow, and the
loss has never quite left me. We loved that record, and it was
We had a choir of girls singing
various carols throughout the performance, and one of the final
tunes was "Let There Be Peace On Earth" - a particularly
poignant choice in the wake of the Kennedy tragedy. It was a
soul-stirring moment, each and every performance. We were a generation
in mourning, sensing a loss of innocence and a suspicion that
things were about to radically and irrevocably change.
A month later, every one of
those girls had lost all memory of anything not directly relating
to a certain four mop-tops from England . . .
I remember . . .
I remember my parents struggling
through the all-too-common quandary of how to keep us kids quiet
until it was time for present opening. According to Mom, I was
the principle culprit, and knowing my obsession with reading
they began a tradition of "Christmas Eve books." Each
Christmas Eve, upon retiring, each of us found a beautifully
wrapped book on our pillows. The idea was that it would distract
us sufficiently to keep the peace until they were ready for us.
Now, of course, they had problems
getting me to go see the presents - I'd be too wrapped up in
A series of books for "younger
readers" was being issued then, all edited by Alfred Hitchcock
(with the express help of the late lamented Robert Arthur). I
would more often than not find one of these upon my pillow on
Christmas Eve. I remember one of my favorites - it was December
24, 1964, and the book was "Alfred Hitchcock's Haunted Houseful."
Extraordinarily delightful book - even if I did have trouble
(Interestingly enough, I remember
nothing else about that Christmas - my grandfather (my Dad's
Dad) had just died, and it was less than pleasant to contemplate
future holidays without this very special part of the family.)
The book itself was long gone,
of course, as I entered adulthood, with its cares and woes.
I remember a lot.
I remember Mom's side of the
family - the Andersons. They had a ritual of singing "O
Tannenbaum" together every year - in the original German!
In classic folkloric fashion, none of them could speak a word
in the language - they'd all learned the song phonetically!
So I remember Christmas 1965.
The movie "Goldfinger" had been out for a year, "Thunderball"
had just come out, and the world was essentially Bond-crazy!
("Bond" - as in, James Bond.) (Shaken, not stirred.)
The hot new toy that season was the "James Bond Official
Attache Case." I don't know if I've ever lusted after anything
inanimate so hard. It was an obsession.
Unfortunately, I'd been warned
that certain Santas thought the toy a bit too "gimmicky"
and hence not worth the money. My fears were realized when Christmas
Day arrived and - no Attache Case.
Ah well, disappointment is
an inevitable side to the seasonal avarice, so I put on a brave
face and put the thing out of my mind.
Christmas Night was the time
for Mom's family to arrive in droves, more cousins than one could
count, Aunts and Uncles galore, and of course Nona and Grandpa.
Who just happened to have a
whole mess of packages for our generation shaped suspiciously
like Attache Cases.
Yes! They were! It was! The
next morning saw more carnage on our block, with more miniature
James Bonds than you have ever seen. Ah, it was delightful.
One or two of the uncles had
brought a movie projector and some old Fleischer cartoons for
us, so all in all it was quite a successful and magical evening.
I remember way too much for
this site! I remember growing up, turning from the recipient
of magic into the occasional purveyor of magic. (Even managed
to surprise Mom a couple of times.)
I remember my grandmother (Dad's
Mom). I remember taking brother Mike to her apartment, surprising
her and Aunt Pat (1986), and regaling them with harmonized Christmas
Carols on Christmas Eve.
I remember subsequently returning
to the party at my house, bidding farewell to Mike and the rest,
and crawling into bed - and finding something stuffed beneath
I reached for the object, unwrapped
it, and there before my unbelieving eyes was "Alfred Hitchcock's
Haunted Houseful" - the book I'd loved so much, the book
I'd lost so long ago.
And inscribed on an inside
page was this:
"Christmas Eve 1986 - This book brings back memories . .
. I know it does for you, as well. Merry Christmas, Joe! Your
If I live to be 200 I may not
be able to return the amount of joy he gave me at that moment.
So a bit of childhood magic
hit me unawares, hit me at the age of 30!
And that, my friends, is the
whole point of the bloody season . . .
Outside of early childhood
memories, when I think back on Christmases past I am at a loss
to recall what things were given to me. I remember most vividly,
however, the people, the family and friends, the sharing . .
. it's evidently not so much about what we give and receive -
all that is just an excuse to see each other. Friends and family
are gold, we don't realize it most of the time, but at this time
of year we would do well to be thankful for each and every blessed
one of them!
And so I end this over-long
time excursion . . .
Did I mention one of my Dad's
big Christmas morning traditions?
Or, as we called them, "Apple
A wonderful Danish treat, served
every Christmas Day for generations . . .
It's appropriate that it's
Danish, as so much of our Christmas lore comes from that region.
That's it - I've decided -
I'm not done with you yet!
I do now hereby end this column,
but shall be providing you with a few Christmas presents . .
. including, our family's secret Aebleskiver recipe, as well
as some extremely cool Christmas links . .
That's all, thanks for -
Sorry? What was that?
Oh, you want to know about
that recording of "A Christmas Carol," the one I lost
back in 1963?
Well, I searched for years,
and being a collector of such things, accumulated a great number
of records in the process. Never could find that one, though.
About a month ago, I was surfing
on the web, and stumbled onto the Ebay Auctionweb site, and -
You guessed it - someone had
that very record up for auction.
I got it, I'm waiting to play
it till mid-December, and on Christmas Day Mom is coming down
to visit (with brother Dan) and I think I'll make them listen
to the whole thing!
Nothing is ever truly lost.
There is definite magic to
And for those of you who wonder
how great this record is, don't despair. It is, in essence, a
recording of a radio show from the late 1930's, featuring Lionel
Barrymore as Ebenezer Scrooge. He was always considered the definitive
Scrooge, and was a shoo-in to play that role when they got around
to filming it. Unfortunately, he lost the use of his legs (you'll
notice he is wheelchair-bound in that other immortal Christmas
classic "It's A Wonderful Life", which features our
great-Uncle Bobby Anderson as the young Jimmy Stewart) and so
could not give us what surely would have been the quintessential
rendering of the character.
At any rate, this recording
is broadcast every year on public radio (I believe it's KUSC
locally but I could be wrong) shortly before Christmas. Check
your listings, or Email me personally and I'll hook you up if
And have the best, the merriest,
the most remarkable and magical of Christmases!