About Christmas TV History

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

New York City Christmas Pop Culture Destinations

In September, I spent a week in the archives at The Paley Center.

One month ago, I spent a week in New York City doing more research for the updated edition of the encyclopedia Tis the Season TV.  It's scheduled to be released in 2020. You know how I love to hunt down Christmas pop culture destinations when I travel--and this trip was no different. Now there are probably one million different places in NYC that I could have visited to experience a Christmas pop culture connection, but I only had time for a few. Where would you go in NYC to connect to a Christmas pop culture landmark?

My desktop in the Scholars Room at the Paley Center for Media.

Remember Lumiere in Disney's Beauty & the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas?

Everyday I was in the city, on my way to The Paley, I walked passed the intersection of 8th and 53rd where I saw a sign for Jerry Orbach Way, a segment of the street named in honor of the great NY actor. I'm a big fan--who isn't, right? He was a Broadway legend and played Det. Lenny Brisco on TV's Law & Order. Okay--there isn't a Christmas installment of Law & Order, but he was the original Chuck Baxter on Broadway in the musical Promises, Promises. Do you know this musical? It's the stage adaptation of the Billy Wilder movie The Apartment. (Orbach played the role Jack Lemmon played in the film). If you'll remember, The Apartment is set during the Christmas and New Year's holidays--and so is Promises, Promises, with the musical featuring a couple holiday songs. Yup. I have the original cast recording on vinyl. You can see the cover HERE. You should probably look for a copy for yourself too because the music and lyrics were written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Yeah, it's good stuff.

Orbach was also the voice of Lumiére (the candlestick) in Disney's 1997 short Beauty & the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas. If you haven't seen it, I recommend checking it out. The visual representations of music throughout the animated story are breathtaking. Much of the voice cast is carried over from the original 1991 Beauty & the Beast movie too so the quality remains high.

Turns out Orbach was interred at a cemetery close to where I was staying in the city. (I was staying in Hamilton Heights). So I made a quick visit to see the final resting place of Orbach. Before I went to New York City, a friend had told me that if I was looking for Christmas pop culture destinations, I had to visit Trinity Cemetery. I had every intention of going, however not until I was sitting on the bench in front of Jerry Orbach did I realize I was already in the exact cemetery my friend had recommended. It was just a short walk (not even 100 feet, if I remember correctly) to my next popular culture Christmas destination.

If you're a cemetery person, this is a gorgeous oasis in the middle of the city.

Clement C. Moore

This is the final resting place of Clement C. Moore, the author of the poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," more commonly known as "Twas the Night Before Christmas." The poem has been adapted into numerous animated TV specials, and referenced in countless more. Most of us can probably recite it from memory, or at least parts of it with a few prompts! My friend told me that a nearby church still holds a candle vigil each year just before Christmas at the gravesite, the participants read the poem, and then they celebrate the life of the writer. Isn't that nice?

Moore's Christmas legacy continues into the 21st century.
Public transportation is the way to go in NYC.

If you're curious, I did bump into one celebrity while I was there. In the subway, I was waiting for an uptown train alongside actor Matthew Broderick. You may remember that he played the narrator in last year's TV musical A Christmas Story Live, but he'll always be Ferris Bueller to me!

My recording of Dylan Thomas reciting his poem "A Child's Christmas in Wales." Click HERE to see more about my record collection again.

On the corner of 11th and Hudson, I believe.

Near the end of my week, I had one more Christmas pop culture experience. At The Paley, I watched a very rare 1961 Christmas TV special of actor Richard Burton recalling his friend and fellow Welsh man Dylan Thomas. Burton shares the story of the first time they met, in a bar in New York City called the White Horse Tavern. The rest of the TV special is shot inside the White Horse Tavern with Burton reading Thomas' much-beloved holiday story and drinking a couple of beers. They don't make 'em like this anymore, do they? Anyway, this 1961 TV special was so extraordinary--sitting in the Paley, I googled the White Horse Tavern and was surprised to see it is still open and operating! So I literally packed my stuff up right then and went down there.

1987's A Child's Christmas in Wales starring Denholm Elliott.

Once inside I could see that it is indeed the same place, open since the 1880s, and they take their literary history seriously. There's even a huge mural-sized photograph of Dylan Thomas in a back room. I was in the right place! In the 1961 TV special, Richard Burton seats himself at the wooden bar in the center of the tavern. When I walked in, that's exactly where I took my seat as well. You probably remember that I'm a huge fan of the 1987 TV special A Child's Christmas in Wales. Read my discussion of it again HERE. If you follow me on Instagram, you may remember many of these photos from last month. Now you know what I was doing in New York City.

When in Rome....

In case you've missed one, here are more links to Christmas pop culture destinations I've written about:

Little House on the Prairie destinations, in Walnut Grove, MN and DeSmet, SD
Hamner House/The Waltons in Schuyler, VA
John Denver statue/Mork & Mindy House in Colorado
Perry Como's statue in Canonsburg, PA
Dean Martin's hometown of Steubenville, OH
Rosemary Clooney's home in Augusta, KY
The Jimmy Stewart Museum in Indiana, PA
It's a Wonderful Life Museum in Seneca Falls, NY
Lucille Ball's birthday celebration in Jamestown, NY
A Christmas Story House & Museum in Cleveland, OH
and the Mary Tyler Moore House and statue in Minneapolis, MN

And earlier this year, I recorded a podcast with travel writer Lisa Iannucci for her series Reel Travels. Listen again HERE.

Joanna Wilson is a TV researcher and book author specializing in Christmas entertainment. More about the TV programs mentioned on this website can be found in her book "Tis the Season TV: the Encyclopedia of Christmas-themed Episodes, Specials, and Made-for-TV Movies." Her latest book "Triple Dog Dare: Watching--& Surviving--the 24-Hour Marathon of A Christmas Story" was released in 2016. Her books can be found at the publisher's website: 1701 press.com

*Support this website and its research by purchasing the books at 1701 press.com


Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Supernatural Christmas (2007)

Snow falling over opening titles? Very seasonal.

The month of October is always a fun time to look back on Halloween/Christmas cross-overs. The third season, 2007 Christmas episode of the TV series Supernatural is a must-see example of a horror/fantasy series with a decent Christmas story. The episode "A Very Supernatural Christmas" is  one that is rich enough that a discussion about it will reveal more of its charm and layers. Let's break this down.

If you're not a regular viewer of the series, Supernatural is currently airing on the CW in its fourteenth season. The show centers on the Winchester brothers--Sam and Dean--who investigate and hunt down supernatural creatures. There is a direct line between earlier shows, such as Kolchak: The Night Stalker, The X-Files, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the later fantasy/horror series Supernatural. As of this date, I believe Supernatural has only created this one Christmas episode for the entire run of the series. That's okay--this third season episode is a solid and satisfying one. Although it's a dark story, it also has quite a bit of humor in it, and seems less intense than others in the series.

The episode begins with a familiar animated segment--it's actually the Specials logo CBS used in the 1970s and 80s before they aired special programming, including Christmas TV specials. If you're old enough to have watched Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Frosty the Snowman on TV in the 1970 and 80s, then you probably saw them airing after this Specials animated segment. (All three of those classic animated TV specials aired on CBS in the 70s and 80s when this segment was popularized). Although Supernatural doesn't air on CBS, the series' use of the animated intro creates a familiar excitement and nostalgic tone for their own holiday episode.

A man dressed as Santa for his grandson leaves behind a bloodied boot.

Left to right: Sam Winchester (Jared Padalecki) and Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles).

In this story, the Winchester brothers are posing as the FBI to investigate the disappearance of several people. In these cases, it looks as though the victims have been abducted from their homes and the bodies removed through their chimneys. Yikes.

Recognize actor Jared Padalecki from other Christmas programs? Yes--he was in the disastrous movie Thomas Kinkade's The Christmas Cottage (2008) and he played Dean on Gilmore Girls which had a couple Christmas episodes. Jensen Ackles was also in the 1996 Christmas episode of the short-lived Mr. Rhodes. Yeah--I don't remember it either.

Could Krampus be behind these disappearances?

Looking into a possible supernatural explanation, Sam begins looking into an evil Santa or anti-Claus, which leads him to Krampus--a monstrous creature of Germanic folklore known as one who punishes the naughty. The brothers also discover that the two recent victims in Ypsilanti, Michigan had both recently visited the same Christmas tree lot. They decide to visit the lot to further the investigation.

Krampus was pursued by the Scooby gang in a 2012 episode of the animated series Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated.

Exploring stories about Krampus has been very trendy over the last 10 years or so, in movies and on television. It's no surprise that Supernatural would attempt to go there. I've seen nine horror movies about the monster--from mainstream big budget films to bargain basement indies. (In case you're wondering, I liked 2015's A Christmas Horror Story, and 2015's Krampus starring Toni Collette). I've also seen Krampus included in numerous TV episodes, from Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated, The Aquabats! Super Show!, and American Dad! to NCIS, Murdoch Mysteries, and more. My best guess is that we will continue to see more holiday programs drawing upon this folklore creature.

Could this suspicious man be a murderous Santa Claus?

At the Christmas tree lot, the Winchester brothers spot a suspicious man playing Santa Claus for the kiddies. They continue their investigation by following him to his home later that evening, but it's a red herring. Following more clues, Dean and Sam eventually recognize that several victims had the same wreath in their homes. The wreaths are made from meadowsweet, a plant that was commonly used by pagans for human sacrifice. The brothers follow the trail of clues and visit the woman who makes the wreaths.

We see repeated flashbacks to Christmas 1991 for Sam and Dean.

Throughout this episode, we also see flashbacks to Christmas 1991. These flashbacks, or memories of an earlier Christmas, show Sam and Dean spending the holiday alone in a grungy motel, much like they do now. We see that young Sam likes Christmas but doesn't understand why his father doesn't spend much time with them (Sam clearly doesn't yet know that his father is hunter, like he's grown to become) and we see Dean working hard to make Christmas a special time for his younger brother. These scenes give more backstory to the characters and more emotion to the episode.

The flashbacks also contrast with Sam's reluctance to celebrate Christmas this year. He eventually explains that he's reluctant to allow himself to celebrate knowing that this is their last Christmas together (this refers to a season-long story arc about his brother Dean offering his life to a demon to save another's life). Whew! Lots of emotional threads in this story but the point made is that these brothers care for each other, they share an important family connection, and Christmas can be a painful and lonely time of year for them.

If you're quick, you can catch Sam watching a Rankin/Bass Animagic Christmas TV special on the hotel television in the flashback scenes. The scene is quite brief but I think it's The Year Without a Santa Claus. What do you think?

Is this the home of a murderer? Or another false lead.

The brothers visit the address of the woman they are told makes the meadowsweet wreaths. And, they are greeted at the door by the unexpected--a friendly, suburban, middle-aged couple who are happy to speak with them. Madge admits she loves making wreaths for the holidays. Sam and Dean decide to come back later.

The brothers meet Edward and Madge Carrigan, a charming midwestern couple that love to play bridge with their neighbors.

Later that evening, the brothers break into the home assuming the Carrigans are not home. They search the home looking for evidence that a demon or monster might live somewhere inside. In the basement they find body parts and bloody accessories used to abduct the victims. Before the Winchesters can hunt down their monster, they are both knocked unconscious from behind.

The brothers find themselves bound back to back, being prepared for the ritual.

It turns out that the Carrigans are centuries-old pagan gods that take human sacrifices once a year--just around Christmas. Over the years they have assimilated to fit in around humans but they still require what they have always needed. As Madge and Edward prepare the brothers for the ritual sacrifices, the four share a conversation filled with exposition about being a pagan god and quite abit of humor. For example, Madge insists on trying not to curse--she prefers the euphemism "Oh fudge!" when she's angered. Not only does this show how the pagan god has humorously assimilated among the humans but it's also a popular reference to everyone's favorite movie A Christmas Story in which young Ralphie Parker also uses the silly phrase "Oh fudge!" The tension is high in this scene as the Winchesters are prepped to be ritually sacrificed while the brothers are making wisecracks at these two mundane monsters.

A branch from the Carrigans' Christmas tree.

The Carrigans are eventually distracted and Sam and Dean take advantage of their chance to escape the bindings. The brothers barricade themselves in another room just long enough to tear apart the Carrigans' Christmas tree and fashion wooden stakes with the branches. You know where this is going, right? Nothing brings down an evil supernatural creature like a wooden stake from a Christmas tree! I even liked it when I saw the same weapon used in the 2005 holiday episode "Billy and Mandy save Christmas" from the Cartoon Network series The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy. In that offbeat animated series episode, young Billy and Mandy find themselves at the North Pole to meet Santa Claus when they discover that he's been bitten by a vampire! If this is your sort of thing, you really must hunt down that episode--it's worth it. The guest voice cast--Carol Kane, Gilbert Gottfried, and Malcolm McDowell--raise the holiday story to new heights as well.

Vampire Baron Von Ghoulish (Malcolm McDowell) and Grim from the 2005 Christmas episode of The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy.

In the end, the camera pulls outside of the hotel room to where it's softly snowing.

Returning to Supernatural, the episode ends on a sweet but sad note with Sam surprising his brother Dean with an openness to celebrating Christmas. Back in their hotel room, the brothers exchange gas station-purchased gifts and reflect on the moment. It's a hard-won, peaceful holiday moment that seems bittersweet as Rosemary Clooney's simplified version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" plays in the background. That song was originally introduced in the 1944 movie Meet Me in St. Louis by Judy Garland in a tender and sad scene shared between sisters Esther and Tootie. Here, the same melancholy tone is achieved as Sam agrees to reach beyond his own sadness to make his brother happy by celebrating what may be their last Christmas together. Fans of the series will see the original behind Dean's necklace he always wears--a gift from his brother at Christmas 1991.

I was recently invited by the team at Tis the Podcast to join them in a discussion of this holiday episode. It's available on iTunes. Give it a listen and let me know what you think.

Joanna Wilson is a TV researcher and book author specializing in Christmas entertainment. More about the TV programs mentioned on this website can be found in her book "Tis the Season TV: the Encyclopedia of Christmas-themed Episodes, Specials, and Made-for-TV Movies." Her latest book "Triple Dog Dare: Watching--& Surviving--the 24-Hour Marathon of A Christmas Story" was released in 2016. Her books can be found at the publisher's website: 1701 press.com

*Support this website and its research by purchasing the books at 1701 press.com

Monday, October 29, 2018

At Home with Amy Sedaris Christmas (2017)

This series originally aired on TruTV but is now available on other platforms as well.

When I saw this holiday episode last year, I immediately knew I needed to highlight it here on the website. The surreal comedy At Home with Amy Sedaris is a quirky send-up of crafting and cooking shows--think: a goofy, crappy Martha Stewart show. Comedian/book author/actress Amy Sedaris is hilarious and quirky. Don't underestimate her! This 2017 first season episode entitled "Holidays" is proof.

What could go wrong?

Amy demonstrates how to make a snutty.

The holiday episode begins with a musical number with Amy singing and dancing with a snowman. It is both a parody of classic TV variety sketches, and a recreation of such. The tone is set--Amy is all-in celebrating Christmas on her crafting and cooking show. Sitting by the fireplace, she show how to make a festive holiday treat she calls a snutty--roasting a chestnut on a stick, then placing the nut atop a chocolate bar between two graham crackers. (This is a more disgusting version of a s'more!)

Amy's nutcracker gift for special guest Neil Patrick Harris. She calls the nutcracker Colonel Nutley.

Next, she prepares to demonstrate how best to wrap a gift box by getting out her Secret Santa gift for guest star Neil Patrick Harris. She shows off a nutcracker she says she purchased from an old curiosity shop located over an Indian burial ground. You're in on the joke already, aren't you? You know what's coming, right? Yup. Amy turns her back on the nutcracker doll and he disappears. Then, she notices that her razor sharp, snipping shears are missing--where could they be?

The blood thirsty Zuni fetish doll in the third segment of Trilogy of Terror.

TV fans recognize that hideous nutcracker right away--it resembles the killer Zuni fetish doll made famous in the 1975 ABC Movie of the Week Trilogy of Terror, starring Karen Black. Sure enough, Amy is attacked by the lethal nutcracker with the sharp scissors. The quick moving doll lunges at her and they wrestle and struggle on the floor while destroying the set's Christmas decorations and tree.

The fighting is so ferocious, Amy is unable to keep her dress down.

She manages to save herself but the nutcracker runs off set and attacks Neil Patrick Harris (conveniently, we never see him on-screen). Amy's mood turn dark and bitter. How can she explain this to the family of her guest star?

An injured, cynical Amy explains that she never wanted to do a Christmas special in the first place!

Recurring character Chassie Tucker is played by Cole Escola.

Amy chases away her friend by efficiently crafting a glue and glitter expression of her feelings.

Her friend Chassie Tucker drops by Amy's house prepared to sing their duet but Amy is inconsolable and drinking heavily. This isn't what she wanted for her holiday special and now everything is ruined. Amy decides to take to her bed, proclaiming "humbug" as she throws the covers over herself.

Maybe you didn't recognize the Trilogy of Terror reference but you picked up on the Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol stuff, right?

Jacob Marley is played by Darrell Hammond.

Of course, Amy is immediately awakened by the ghost of Jacob Marley rattling his chains and issuing a warning! Nothing seems to be going Amy's way. She angrily discovers Marley was looking to haunt another address and he moves on. Looking to calm down, she decides to soak in a warm bathtub.

Guardian angel Clarence is played by David Costabile.

Yes, Amy now experiences her own version of the 1946 movie It's a Wonderful Life.

Are you familiar with Sedaris' one-of-a-kind, outlandish sense of humor?

Before she can get in, her guardian angel Clarence is appears in the bathtub, splashing around, claiming he has saved her from drowning! Frustrated by this nonsense, Amy regrets agreeing to do the holiday special and she wishes she never had a hit TV show. Storming from the bathroom to get more to drink, Amy finds herself on a bare soundstage. Clarence follows her and explains that he has granted her wish to see what life would be like if she never had a TV show!

Amy can't imagine life without her kitchen and its many appliances!

Making matters worse, Marley returns and he and Clarence bicker, annoying Amy to no end.

Amy wants to talk over her situation with her friend Patty Hogg but finds that Patty doesn't know Amy--she never married into wealth, doesn't know Amy, and she is cold because she never received a free fleece coat from Amy with the TV show's logo on it. What a mess! Amy finds that she now understands the true spirit of the season and is ready to host her holiday special.

Amy's transformation comes in the scene in which she throws open the window and asks the boy on the street to buy the largest canned ham he can find at the local store.

As a last minute effort, Amy is eager to handmake Christmas decorations and prepare a holiday feast from the items found in her kitchen. She uses a broom and dust pan to create her Christmas tree, and dishwashing gloves for her stockings to hang by the fireplace.

Amy's homemade rubber glove Christmas stockings.

Krakowski also starred in the musical A Christmas Story Live in 2017.

Lucky for her party guests, Amy finds a pre-baked delicious turkey sitting in the cupboard.

She welcomes special guest Jane Krakowski to join her for Crafting Corner (a recurring segment on the series) in which the two sing a song about different types of glue, and Amy discusses making a toilet paper roll reindeer decoration for the home. At Amy's Christmas party, she welcomes her neighbor Patty Hogg who has brought a holiday punch to share. ("The punch is made from pineapple rainbow sherbet and ginger ale. There's no alcohol--except for the bourbon!").

Patty Hogg (played by Sedaris) attends Amy's party wearing her At Home with Amy Sedaris fleece jacket. Hogg is another memorable recurring character on the series.

Nutmeg also attends Amy's party--another crazy recurring character on the series (and another played by Sedaris herself).

Amy entertains at her holiday party by performing a marionette puppet show! The puppet show is hilarious and must be seen to be believed. Have you ever watched a character in a movie play the piano with grand, sweeping gestures and arm movements that don't really correspond to the notes in the music? That's Amy's marionette show perfectly. It's impossible not to laugh.

Amy entertains for her guests at the Christmas party.

Hits and misses from her show.

As usual, Amy closes her show writing in her journal about the hits and misses of the show. She summarizes her misses with the realization that her cookies were a bit dry, she didn't have enough tinsel for the handmade decorations on the tree, and oh yeah, a celebrity was murdered!

Who doesn't love toilet paper roll reindeer decorations?

Amy Sedaris' funny send-up of a crafting and cooking show is a unique way for her to demonstrate her silly handmade items as well as a platform for her to showcase her comedic characters. I loved Season 1 and I'm eagerly awaiting Season 2, coming early 2019. This holiday episode feels like a modern take on the 1945 movie Christmas in Connecticut -- taken in an absurd direction, with references to A Christmas Carol, It's a Wonderful Life, and Trilogy of Terror on top of it! Let me know what you thought after you've seen it too.

Joanna Wilson is a TV researcher and book author specializing in Christmas entertainment. More about the TV programs mentioned on this website can be found in her book "Tis the Season TV: the Encyclopedia of Christmas-themed Episodes, Specials, and Made-for-TV Movies." Her latest book "Triple Dog Dare: Watching--& Surviving--the 24-Hour Marathon of A Christmas Story" was released in 2016. Her books can be found at the publisher's website: 1701 press.com

*Support this website and its research by purchasing the books at 1701 press.com