I had by now established an online Christmas tradition of delving into my own past, to share my personal memories from Yuletides of yore. In '97 I'd pretty much reminisced generally, and thrown in everything from recipes to a history of Christmas Carols. The next year I opted for a quiet little tale of one Christmas in the Nolte family.

Now I returned to the potpourri-of-multiple-memories approach with a vengeance, in the process attempting to figure out just why there is so much magic to be found when one is of a certain age.

Not content with that, I wanted to do a bunch of top ten lists, similar to what I'd just done with Halloween.

And couldn't get past the novels.

Quite frankly, there aren't really that many "classic" novels about Christmas, per se. And indeed, the one that comes immediately to mind, "A Christmas Carol", is just short enough to be a candidate for inclusion as a rather longish short story.

Bingo. Four more favorite Christmas short stories sprang to mind - and nothing else. I elected to leave the List project at that, though I am bound and determined to return to complete the Christmas Lists one of these years.

Anyway, another fun column for me - we were now entering a two year period (2000 - 2001) that would produce some of my favorite columns to date.

And I still swear that, as I finished writing this one, I could indeed see myself as an Impossibly Young Joe, still surrounded in the magic of those Christmases of Long Ago, and Not So Far Away . . .

And No Folk Should Be Sad


Did I tell you about the time I met Mr. Ed?

For those of you who:
A. are blessed with being Ridiculously Young (i.e. under 30), or
B. missed Nick at Nite in the early '90's, I should point out that Mr. Ed was a talking horse, the subject of a (very) early '60's sitcom that actually started out in syndication, was quickly picked up by one of the Big Boys (CBS, I think), and ran for years. Its human star was one of the cats who co-starred in George Pal's immortal 1960 film "The Time Machine" (the one with the fake Scottish accent).

I'm guessing it was 1962, though it may have been '61. It was September, and I'd gone with my family (including at least my grandfather, [Dad's side] and who knows how many others) to the L.A. County Fair. It was my first time - I was five or six., and fascinated to actually ride a monorail outside Disneyland! Amazing, a time of wide eyed innocent wonder . . .

And at some point we're moseying down some horse stalls, and lo and behold - Mr. Ed.

I was, dear friends, young enough to believe the horse actually recited his own lines. I spent long minutes trying to get him to talk, only to be told that "A man has to make him talk".

At which point I indignantly responded, "Well, where is he? Where is the man who'll make him talk?" - assuming of course that a trainer would show up and get the horse to start talking.

I believe I was gently though firmly led away at that point.

What does this have to do with the Holiday Season so soon returned to us? What, indeed, does this have to do with anything?

I guess as much as anything I told that story to tell you some others. Mainly, I wanted to exactly Date myself. The uncanny thing about childhood is that one grows so quickly - in the space of a few scant years one moves from absolute all-believing innocence to a sort of jaded early wisdom - for me, that would be approximately 1960 to 1967. Before then, I have but a few blurred memories - and though I entered '67 very much the boy I'd been for the past couple of years, by that Christmas I was playing guitar, and devoting at least ninety percent of my waking musings to the twin glories of Music and the Fairer Sex - a condition that has happily remained relatively unchanged to this day.

Ah, there - I've finally mentioned Christmas. Is it not Christmas, more even than New Year's Day, that reminds us of the passing of time, and the changing of the years? The Yuletide celebrations seem tailor made for guaranteed memories, and as we look back, marking the passing of certain Christmases, we can most easily conjure up some clear cut memory from each one, and marvel at how everything has changed - and look around us in wonder that so many co-celebrants from years past are with us still. It is a time to look back with fond regret that Time has taken so many from us, and yet a time as well to celebrate new births, new friends, brand new traditions born of necessity, and ancient ones kept alive through the will of heart and memory.

As previous Christmas columns will have alerted you, it is certainly the time when this author, at least, tends to get ridiculously nostalgic - which he does with no apologies, since after all what better time than these Saturnalian Misrule days to be Ridiculous?

I was remarking on the terrible magic of Childhood - how so very very few years work such changes on one. (One can almost see one's parents, somewhat wistfully sad at how quickly one is growing, yet secretly delighted that they're now a year closer to getting said young ruffian out of the house!)

The tale that began this column was told mainly to demonstrate that as late as September 1962 I was innocent enough to believe that the horse Mr. Ed actually talked. That Christmas brought us "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol" (which we delved rather heavily into in '97), the Christmas Special that remains my favorite of them all to this day.

A scant two years later, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" made its debut, and by then I was already sophisticated enough to be interested in watching mainly to catch the much vaunted stop motion animation it was to employ.

Similarly, when the "Charlie Brown Christmas" hit a year later, in '65, my main interest was in seeing how they would animate the Peanuts characters, and whether or not the voices would ring true. (I'd missed the brief Peanuts animations used to open Tennessee Ernie Ford's show in the spring of '61.)

It goes then without saying that, when the next Christmas gave us "How the Grinch Stole Christmas", my interests were again in how one animates Dr. Seuss - although I must admit Boris Karloff's involvement was an added plum.

Imagine, though, that wonderful era - all those now Classic specials appearing in that short space of time, one right after the other! For all my supposed Purely Technical interest in most of them, I was of course won over, moved to tears, and all the rest of that sentimental jibberish - I am in fact still moved to tears when they reemerge like clockwork at this Time of Year, though what percentage of precipitation is due to memories of that era itself, I cannot say.

"Rudolph", from 1964, was the first one I welcomed with less than complete instant acceptance. The song had, after all, been around since my birth, and years longer even. This was an attempt to deliberately create a new Instant Classic, and I was, even at that early age, skeptical, though of course subsequently won over, as I've said.

And yet it had been two short years since I believed that certain horses could talk!

When and how did this innocent naivety crumble? Again, I cannot say.

I do know that sometime in early '63 the area of Disneyland now occupied by "Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln" was occupied by what looked like a fairly non-descript sound stage - essentially an ordinary box of a building, nothing to look at, and yet . . .

The Mickey Mouse Club had been off the air for a few years, mainly due to Walt's disaffection with the ABC mindset (ironic now, isn't it?), but was airing daily in syndication. And this little building was the place where one could actually register and become an official Mickey Mouse Club member! I did, of course, and wish I'd kept the certificate - but what lay beyond that register desk was the real treasure.

They'd evidently needed to fill space temporarily, and had taken many of the large, over sized toy props from the "Babes in Toyland" film and housed them there. It was quite beautiful, to be able to wander through and actually touch these objects that had a year before been larger than life on silver screens everywhere! At that moment (Spring '63, I believe) I became surer than ever that Disney actually filmed all their movies right there in Disneyland. Heck, they had enough different backdrops between the various Lands, and of course the "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" exhibit, featuring the actual Squid and a good part of the submarine from the actual film (including the wonderful organ, now enshrined in the Haunted Mansion) was added proof.

So, a belief equally innocent and soon enough to be shattered, though more "practical" a notion than the talking horse belief of a year before. Clearly, one begins in absolute fancy, then perhaps de-evolves into skepticism by degrees. No matter, there is enough real magic in the world we inhabit to dwarf all fancies of youth.

Of course, the greatest Real Magic is frequently to be found in that same all too short span of years.

(We shall return to "Babes in Toyland" in a moment, via my by now patented ciruitous route.)

My family moved from Canoga Park to Palos Verdes in late 1960. I was four.

While I have many distinct memories from Canoga Park, I cannot effectively recall a single one of the Christmases. Indeed, the first Christmas I can honestly remember is Christmas, 1960.

Ah, 1960. I was the oldest, and thus the only child old enough to accompany my parents as they went house hunting that year. On one such occasion we began the day - a very gloomy, cloud-ridden day - with a stop at the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Possibly my first circus, I remember an overload of sensory activity, and I remember it pleasantly, but no specifics come to mind. Later that day we drove I know not where, for I spent a good deal of the time asleep in the car. I recall waking up, and it was raining as if it had always rained and always would, and on the radio they were informing us that the very spot where we'd been to see the circus that morning was currently under four feet of water!

Now, I was decidedly under four feet in height at the time, and I confess the concept disturbed me. I had visions of adults wading through a newborn sea, clutching the tiny hands of perishing children.

My parents quickly assured me that the authorities would have made sure that no one drowned. I was assuaged to some degree, but was haunted by wonderful, terrible visions of a place I'd actually been to suddenly engulfed in water higher than me . . .

Now, the particular street we moved to was one of those infuriating ones that starts, then stops again, effectively keeping our location secret from the world at large, and initially even from ourselves. I still remember riding to our new home for the first time, and not being able to find the street. In retrospect it could not have taken us very long, but my memories assure me that we spent long hours in the Dead of that 1960 November Night, driving around and around along the same streets, scarcely a light to be seen to guide us. A strange, mysterious, and altogether appropriate way to greet Palos Verdes.

For P.V. was magic, then. The one library was housed in an old mansion that had been donated to the city, and was a joy to walk through. Then there was - wait, I digress too far, the magic of those first few years of the '60's could fill a book, and perhaps will one day.

At any rate, we were barely settled in when Christmas came, and for some reason the one gift that stands out in memory was a very simple one. It was a fake store, made of cardboard, with little cardboard drawers one could open and close. It was given to all the kids, which might explain its remaining in my memory. I can recall all of us looking at each other and thinking, "I have to share? With them?" Ah, youth. We set it up downstairs in the garage, which was in itself a place of great mystery. The house was built into a hillside, and hence the back walls were not straight as walls ought to be, but stucco and concrete poured over the existing curvature of the earth. It seemed primitive and exciting, as it was.

The following Summer we discovered that a local Elementary School showed movies every Monday, just for kids. It was magical, to walk down tree lined streets, shepherded by the older kids, and enter the magical world of Film, which was still quite a novelty for me.

Imagine then my excitement that Fall when I realized that I would actually be attending Kindergarten at that very school! And yes, those who recall our 1997 column will also recall that this was the setting of the magical hail storm. Oh, what a Christmas! It was there and then that we were taught to make those little paper rings, one for each day leading up to Christmas - it was at that time I first remember getting an Advent Calendar, those things where each door has a date, and you open the doors one by one till at last -
Well, till at last it's Christmas!

And the ritual of having a Nativity scene, and bringing the little statues of the shepherds closer and closer as December unwound, with the Wise Men a bit behind them . . .

It was that Christmas, in 1961, that I first realized the magic of Counting Down the Days.

Mostly, however, I was counting the days until Disney's "Babes in Toyland" would be released! Now, as we all know, the Disney merchandising department goes for the kill whenever they can. Thus, I can attest, has it ever been. The campaign for the December 1961 release of "Babes in Toyland" had been going on at least since June of that year. I know this to be true, having been there, and especially having been "Babes in Toyland" crazy that Summer.

Specifically, I remember being taken by my grandmother (Dad's mom) to visit her mother - Grandma Walsh. This would have probably been May or June of '61. As on all such visits Grandma Walsh would bring out a basket full of strange little toys, presumably to occupy me while they conversed. I for one was far more fascinated by the very idea that my Grandma could have had a mother of her own! I would feign playing and attempt to eavesdrop during these visits, though sadly I recall little.

But on this occasion "Babes in Toyland" was in the air, and I waxed enthusiastically over its presumed virtues to Grandma Walsh, who calmly informed me that she had taken my very grandmother to see the original stage production when Grandma was my age!

What? Impossible! This Toyland thing was not brand new, not created solely by Disney?

And Grandma was my age once?

Quite a jolt for a young mind, let me tell you.

In retrospect, I now know of course that "Babes" had its Broadway debut in late 1903, and it is therefore completely likely that, a few years later, my born-in-1906 grandmother was taken as a wee thing to the local presentation of the Road version. (Things moved a tad slower then.)

Remarkable. And those are some of the last words Great-Grandma spoke to me - a month later she was gone. She died while drinking a toast in a Santa Monica restaurant.

We should all go in such a manner.

It was the first time I'd known anyone to lose a Parent, and I recall being very uncertain as to protocol, do we bother Grandma, do we leave her alone? Of course we were so very young, and by Christmas it seemed as if Grandma Walsh's passing had been decades ago.

And Christmas brought its magic hail storm, the first one I'd ever seen, and the next brought Magoo's "Christmas Carol" and Showboat, and by the next I was playing Tiny Tim, and then the triple whammy for the next three years of Rudolph, Charlie Brown, and the Grinch, and by then I was asking for Beatle records for Christmas and . . . and . . .

Ah, well, it was gone. The great mysteries of life that can only be seen through the unjaded eyes of innocence, all gone.

And yet, as I look back, I see it all, and realize that that most venerated Ghost of Christmas Past must indeed visit us all each December, and . . .

No, as I look back, I see myself still there, playing, wondering, watching . . .

No, my friends, we ourselves are Ghosts of Christmas Past, a cherished part of us still reenacting the rites of old, we can see ourselves if we close our eyes - impossibly young, taking for granted that which we will hold most dear in years to come.

And so I say to one and all:

Chrismas time is coming

And no folk should be sad.

Joe Nolte

Oh, wait a minute! I forgot one little thing - I was going to do a Top Ten Christmas thing, wasn't I? (Well, I was, whether I mentioned it or not.)

I began musing over possible candidates for a list of Top Ten Christmas Stories, when a strange thing happened.

Five came to mind immediately, without research, thumbing through old books, or anything.

Five came to mind, and were somewhat of a surprise in some cases, and I quickly realized that these five just had to be the most deserving. Here then is my own little list of the Five Best Christmas Stories. No Truman Capote or Dylan Thomas, though both are quite deserving - it's a little eclectic, and runs from a piece that barely fills two pages to a piece that is more properly considered a short novel. Here they are.

The Top Five Christmas Stories

A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens, December 1843

We begin with the one more properly considered a short novel. Dickens was a great lover of the Ghost Story, and some years after the publication of this little tale, which made his reputation, he was was editing various magazines on a regular basis, and was careful to ensure the inclusion of a couple of ghostly tales in every Christmas edition. It may thus be said that the late Victorian custom of ghost stories for Christmas Eve was tremendously furthered, if not fathered, by Charles Dickens

This one, of course, is the Christmas tale of all tales. It is to this day impossible to imagine the season without taking in some manifestation of the story. Scrooge is, after all, all of us, every time we curse the crowds, the traffic, every time indeed we fail to realize that love for one's fellow man is arguably our most important task in our fleeting lives, every time we descend to such baseness we would be well served by a Spirit or two of our own. It is extraordinary that the tale plays as well today as it did 156 years ago!


A Hint for Next Christmas - A. A. Milne, 1921

This one is extremely short, barely two pages. Nonetheless it is delightful, and quite funny. (And yes, this is the very same author of the Pooh books!)


Crisp New Bills for Mr. Teagle - Frank Sullivan, December 21, 1935

Another humor bit - this one originally from the New Yorker. It's a comic piece, with an original Twist to this season of Tipping and calculating. I once thought it would have made an uncommonly good Twilight Zone episode, and was thus happily surprised to learn that it had shown up in a recent issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.


An Iowa Christmas - Paul Engle, 1960

Oh, did I mention that when Great Grandma took Grandma to "Babes in Toyland", it was probably in Iowa? At any rate, this is a quiet little piece - nothing more than a memory of a simpler, home made time. As you know, there are thousands of such pieces, particularly when Christmas is involved. I first read this over thirty years ago, and have never been able to get it out of my mind. In short, as extraordinary an evocation of American Christmases of Old as you'll ever find.


Stubby Pringle's Christmas - Jack Schaefer, 1964

Schaefer wrote "Shane", among other things, so as you might expect this tale has a Western setting. "Christmas Carol" is, of course, well known to you, the next two selections are humorous pieces, designed to put the heyday of the season into perspective, and the immediately preceding "Iowa Christmas" is not fiction at all, but a simple memory, much as I've just subjected you to in this column.

I end, I think, very appropriately, with this little Christmas tale about a lone cowboy, the promise of a Barn Dance, and a lonely cabin out in the middle of nowhere. No carolers for miles, no Victorians, no holly or any of that, and yet if I were ever forced to pick one short story that embodied the essence of Christmas, I should choose this one.

All these tales have found their way into more than one Christmas collection. All these tales will do you good.

And so take good cheer, enjoy one another, and I'll see you in 2000!