By Robert St. John
Nothing quite matches the energy and excitement one experiences as a kid during the Christmas Eves of his or her youth. My family always ate a formal dinner the night before and my memories of those meals are so overwhelmingly positive. The food was great, sure. But my remembrances are partially slanted on the positive side of the scale because of the anticipation that hung thick in the air over what was to happen the next morning. It’s the one day in life where you wake up to magically delivered toys.
How can one not be excited— to the point of ecstatic— when a jolly old guy is expected to show up in your living room and leave a lot of toys, whether you were good that year or not. They always told me that I was only getting toys of I was good all year. But I can tell you now, as the childhood statute of limitations has definitely expired, I was bad a lot of years— sometimes very bad— and still received toys at Christmas.
My brother always had a hard time going to sleep the night before. We were never allowed to open a gift until the next morning. I had friends whose parents let them open one gift the night before. I had even heard of families that opened all their gifts the night before and slept past 6 a.m. the next day.
There’s no feeling like Christmas Eve and Christmas morning in adulthood. The toys get larger and more expensive, but the excitement isn’t there. My brother and I were always up before the sun rose. Our next-door neighbors, the Hemeters, were the only family whose lights were already on when we awoke. Though we weren’t allowed go into the living room to see what Santa brought us until our grandparents, aunts, and uncles all came to the house. “Just open your stockings and stay in the den,” our mom would say. That amped up the anticipation. It was pure torture.
I never thought about it back then, but our grandparents, aunts, and uncles must have experienced different emotions on getting up Christmas morning and having to drive across town at 5:30a.m. to watch kids shred paper and wildly tear open boxes of toys.
The other holiday anticipatory excitement I experienced as a kid had nothing to do with toys, formal meals, stockings, or bearded men breaking into our house to deliver toys. No. This time of year always brought Christmas movies that weren’t shown the rest of the year.
Waiting for the Christmas movie season to begin also involved anticipation and excitement. But that is a joy I still experience as a 61-year-old man. I love Christmas movies, not cheesy Hallmark stuff, but fun, happy Christmas movies.
Here’s a list of my Top Ten Christmas Movies of All Time:
Honorable Mention: A Nightmare Before Christmas— I feel like I would like this movie. I’m a fan of Tim Burton. I respect the opinions of my friends who like it, but for some reason I’ve never seen it.
10.) A Christmas Carol (1951 version)— there are so many versions of this Dickens classic. As a child I grew up with the Albert Finney Scrooge. I love Finney’s work, but Allister Sim nails the character better than anyone, in my opinion. The special effects are circa late 1940s Hollywood, but this is the classic of all classics.
9.) Love Actually— O.K. it’s a chick flick, but the scene where Emma Thompson opens her Christmas gift and makes a realization about her husband, Alan Rickman, while Joni Mitchell sings an updated version of “Both Sides Now,” is worth the price of admission.
8.) Scrooged— I’ve been a Bill Murray fan since his SNL days in the late 1970s. There’s not much he does that isn’t stellar. This has a very 1980s vibe, but it’s a great re-telling of a classic piece of literature, and Al Green and Annie Lennox do a great cover of “Put A Little Love in Your Heart,” to wind things up. I saw Al sing that song in his Memphis church— from the pulpit— around the time this movie was released.
7.) It’s A Wonderful Life— What a great message and a feel-good movie. Jimmy Stewart always reminded me of my grandfather. Excellent story, well written and well-acted. The classic of all classics.
6.) Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer— I never missed this stop-motion classic the first 13 years of my life. I had the album. I know the songs by heart, and the Abominable Snowman used to scare me more than the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz. Back in the era when there were only three channels, this was prime holiday viewing.
5.) Die Hard— Say what you want, but this is a Christmas movie. Granted, it’s an action flick, but make no mistake. It’s a Christmas movie. I have never been one who’s afraid to go back to the theatre to rewatch a movie during its first run. I’ve done it often. Though there are only a few that I have gone back to see one three times during its initial release. I scored a rare threepeat on this one.
This was the first in the new era of action movies. From around the 10-minute mark until the credits roll, the action is non-stop. That’s very common today, but this was the first movie I remember that got rolling right off the bat. Bruce Willis had done “Moonlighting” and a few other lightly successful movies, but this started a hot streak that lasted well into the early 2000s, in addition to birthing several sequels.
4.) How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Ron Howard’s version)— What perfect casting. I’m not a huge Jim Carrey fan, but this was the role he was born to play. I once read that Robin Williams and Eddie Murphey were in line to play the lead. They might have been good— and I prefer them in most any other movie over Carrey— but Ron Howard got it right when he gave the lead to Carrey. I love the animated version that I grew up with, too.
3.) Elf— There really should be a tie for the final three as they are all just as good as the others. I remember thinking, “All of the great Christmas movies have already been made, why is anyone trying to make another?” as I was walking into the theatre to see this for the first time. I walked out knowing that another Christmas classic had been made. My family quotes this movie throughout the year, and we never miss watching it sometime during the season.
2.) A Christmas Story— I am one of the only people I know who saw this in the theatre. I was living in Jackson at the time and had to go across town to see it. I was a fan of part-time disc jockey Jean Shepard and knew parts of his book on his childhood, “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash,” had been adapted into a movie. I loved it from day one. I love that era in America. Things seemed so innocent.
These days everyone is a little burned out on it because TNT runs it as a non-stop marathon on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. If this were back in the three channel days, I think we’d all appreciate it a little more.
1.) National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation— When I saw this during its first run at the theatre I didn’t laugh as hard as I do know after at least 50 viewings. I love everything about this movie. It’s far-fetched and silly, but we all know, it’s not too far off base. There are so many quotable lines, most can’t be repeated here.
Merry Christmas to all, and may all of your New Year’s Dreams come true.
1 cup Boiling water
1 cup Shortening (or 2 sticks of butter)
1 cup Sugar
1 1 /2 tsp Salt
2 Eggs (large)
2 Tbl Yeast (2 packages)
1 cup Warm water
6 cups Flour
1/2 cup melted butter
1 cup raisins
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 Tbl cinnamon
1 pound confectioner’s sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
2-4 Tbl milk
Preheat oven to 350.
Pour water over shortening, sugar and salt. Blend and let cool. Add eggs and beat well.
Let yeast stand in warm water with a dash of sugar until bubbly. When the yeast-water mixture has cooled completely add to shortening mixture, then beat in the flour. Cover and refrigerate three to four hours.
Using melted butter, grease six aluminum-foil lined nine-inch cake pans.
Roll out dough into a large rectangle (1 foot by 3 feet). Using a pastry brush, coat the entire surface of the dough with the melted butter. Distribute the raisins evenly over the buttered dough. Combine the brown sugar, sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle the surface of the dough with this mixture.
Roll up dough, jellyroll style, from the long side. Cut into 3 /4-inch thick segments and place into prepared cake pans. Let rise until doubled in size (about 1 hour).
Bake for 15 minutes.
Combine the confectioner’s sugar, cinnamon, and milk to make the icing. Ice rolls while they are hot.
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and cookbook author who lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.)
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