5 favorite yuletide cultural monuments: a canonical list

A personal list, for sharing. You won't find the movies "It's a Wonderful Life" or "A Christmas Story," neither of which I've ever been able to sit through, on this short list. The first I find hopelessly saccharine. As for the second, though as a boy I was a fan of Jean Shepherd's monologues on WOR radio, this movie based on his work just doesn't sing for me.

Enough of the negativity. In reverse order:

No. 5: Irving Berlin, Michael Curtiz: "White Christmas." The music makes this 1954 movie, starring (left to right, below) Bing Crosby, Vera-Ellen, George Clooney's Aunt Rosemary and Danny Kaye. 

The score encompasses, by my count, 18 Irving Berlin songs. The title song was introduced 12 years earlier in another Crosby vehicle, "Holiday Inn." It's still Berlin's most popular song. 

Kaye filled in for Fred Astaire, who turned the movie down. Rosemary Clooney sings both parts in her duet "Sisters" with the dancer-not-singer Vera-Ellen. You have my permission to take the plot line, about a retired general struggling with a Vermont resort hotel during a winter without snow, as a prefigurement of global warming, if you wish. Under the directing hand of Hungarian expatriate Michael Curtiz, whose earlier hard-edged work included "Casablanca" and "Mildred Pierce," "White Christmas" is unapologetically sentimental. Go ahead and shed a tear at the big finish.

No. 4: The Kinks: "Father Christmas."

Journeying from one end to the other on the sweetness scale, this 1977 single by the great Ray Davies (above) might be the most unsentimental Christmas song of all time. It's an indispensable counterweight to the spun-sugar elevator music that fills the airwaves and all public spaces during the season. Watch a performance here.

Cheerily up-tempo, "Father Christmas" tells the story of a department store Santa, mugged at his post under the gray economic skies of '70s Britain. The unsparing chorus: 

Father Christmas, give us some money
We got no time for your silly toys
We'll beat you up if you don't hand it over
Give all the toys to the little rich boys...

No. 3: Johann Strauss II, "Die Fledermaus." One Christmas perennial you don't mind coming around every year.

A Vienna New Year's ball: From the overfilled overture to the Csardas, one timeless number after another. Lucia Popp pretty much sets the standard for any performance of the Csardas here.

No. 2: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, "The Hunters in the Snow."

Not strictly a Christmas scene, but no better portrayal of the dutiful, the workaday, and the playfulness of the season. Michael Frayn in his entertaining novel "Headlong" describes the painting's wealth of detail as follows:

"Three hunters with thirteen dogs to feed and nothing but a single fox to show for their labors. There's no great rejoicing at their return; the women making a fire outside the inn with the sign that's hanging half off its hooks don't give them a glance. ... What takes the eye is the landscape that opens away at the foot of the hill we are on: the village turned in upon itself by the cold, the tiny figures on the unfamiliar ice, the sky leaden above the white floodplain around the frozen river, a planing magpie black against the whiteness leading the eye on to the broken teeth of the mountains on the other side of the valley, and the distant town at the end of it beside the winter sea."

No. 1: Charles Dickens, "A Christmas Carol."


The archetypal ghost story; the archetypal Christmas story. "A Christmas Carol" is infinitely adaptable and essentially indestructible, whether as a vehicle for Alastair Sim, Bill Murray or the Muppets, and whether presented on stage, on television or in the movies, color or black and white, with music or without. 

Its characters and its story arc have long since permeated the culture. Bob Cratchit. Tiny Tim. The ghosts of Christmases past, present and yet to come. Scrooge. It begins with Marley "dead as a doornail" -- a spectral visitor to Scrooge, above, in John Leech's illustration for the original edition -- and ends with the words of Tiny Tim ("who did NOT die"): "God Bless Us, Every One."

What are you favorite Christmas entertainments? 

Reach me at @hiltzikm on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or by email. MORE FROM MICHAEL HILTZIK

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