Richard Nisley

Christmas Treats
Pop Culture Released - Nov 30, 2014

The following are eight short Amazon reviews:

THE POLAR EXPRESS (DVD) -- Like love and marriage, Christmas and trains go together, or did so for my post-WWII generation. “The Polar Express” conjures up a number of familiar images to me: trains, snowy nights, and red-brick cities. The year I moved to Akron, Ohio, Chris Van Allsburg's book was published. It was Christmastime and red-brick Akron was blanketed in snow, and a rail-line ran through the center of the city. I half-expected to see a steam locomotive pull up at any moment. I didn't buy the book, but I did see the movie in the theater, and bought the DVD when it came out. While a bit short on story, what "The Polar Express" does well is capture a child's wonder of Christmas.

A CHILD’S CHRISTMAS IN WALES (CD) -- Feeling nostalgic for those Christmas days of yore, when you were a kid? Then "A Child's Christmas in Wales" is for you. It awakens the childhood memories, when life was simpler and the small joys brought mountains of happiness. Best of all the voice on the CD is that of the author, Dylan Thomas. While you may not have been brought up in Wales, you'll recognize the characters: the impish boy telling the story, his friends, their haunts, their adventures, and, oh yes, the cats. You'll enjoy his family too, and the Christmas dinner of turkey and blazing pudding; and afterwards the uncles, seated in overstuffed sofas in the small overheated parlor, loosening their buttons while groaning from over-eating, and nodding off. And later, gathering around the piano singing old holiday favorites. And the aunts: Auntie Bessie, whimpering at the sideboard while having some elderberry wine; and Auntie Hannah, slightly tipsy, standing in the middle of the snowbound backyard, "singing like a big-bosomed thrush." Timeless. Listening to "A Child's Christmas in Wales" will bring you comfort and joy.

THE OXFORD BOOK OF CHRISTMAS POEMS (book) -- Someone said this is a children's book. Nonsense. “The Oxford Book of Christmas Poems” is for grownups, with sophisticated themes that run the gamut, from hopelessness and despair to the simple joy of opening gifts on Christmas morning. The editors have arranged the poems into four sections: (1) "The sky turns dark, the year grows old . . ." -- about the coming of winter; (2) "This was the moment when Before Turned into After . . ." -- reflections on Christmas in its many forms and multitude of meanings; (3) "Glad Christmas comes, and every hearth Makes room to bid him welcome now . . ." -- a contemporary view of Christmas morning, when gifts are opened, meals prepared, and thanks are given; and (4) "Open you the East door / And let the New Year in" -- about the new year, from the bitter cold of January to the spring thaw. Poets include John Greenleaf Whittier, William Blake, Thomas Hardy, T. S. Eliot, Walter Scott, Rudyard Kipling, Clement Clark Moore, e.e. cummings, Dylan Thomas, and W.H. Auden. Their poems will make you smile, laugh, think, be filled with wonder, and perhaps shed a tear.

THE BISHOP’S WIFE (DVD) -- One of the all-time classic Christmas movies. What could be better than Cary Grant as the angel who wishes he were mortal? Or David Niven as the priggish bishop? Or lovely Loretta Young as the bishop's understanding wife? Or Elsa Lanchester as the befuddled house keeper? Or Monty Woolley as the care-worn professor unable to finish writing his history of Rome? Or James Gleason as the cab driver and skating partner. So many memorable characters. So many wonderful scenes. A snowball fight in the park. The Mitchell Boys' choir performing at St. Timothy's. Loretta Young buying the hat she's always wanted. Sharing a bottle of sherry at the professor's apartment. Alas, watching Cary Grant decorate the Christmas Tree is worth the price of the DVD. And I'm still waiting to hear a Christmas Eve sermon as poetic, meaningful, and brief as the one Niven delivers before the closing credits. The actors are stellar, the acting is pitch-perfect, and the script, poetic brilliance. My Christmas wish is to have lunch at Michel's, and to be able to skate as gracefully as Grant and Young on the pond in central park. "The Bishop's Wife" is movie magic; watching it is the perfect Christmas gift.

WHITE CHRISTMAS (CD) -- If the Grinch stole Christmas, then Bing Crosby invented it--the Christmas song, that is. The first Christmas song to light up the charts was Crosby’s “Silent Night.” The year was 1935. He followed it up with “White Christmas,” which topped the charts for three holiday seasons, and started a Christmas tradition. Every singer under contract recorded a Christmas song. Hits included “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” (Vaughn Monroe), “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (Judy Garland), “The Christmas Song” (Nat King Cole), and “Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer” (Gene Autry). That was in the 1940s. In the 1950s, with the advent of the LP, the Christmas record industry took off. But Bing Crosby was still the man--Mr. Christmas. He debuted four of the biggest selling Christmas songs of all time: “White Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” and “Do You Hear What I hear.” Three of these tunes (“Do You Hear What I Hear” was the exception), plus remakes of “Silent Night” and “White Christmas,” were recorded for Crosby’s first Christmas album in the early 1950s, entitled “Merry Christmas.” At first it was comprised of eight songs only, but more were added in subsequent years. Today, the album contains 12 songs and is re-titled “White Christmas.” It’s never been out of print. The single, meanwhile, has rung up a record $50-million in sales.

A CHRISTMAS TREASURY (book) -- Dreaming of a white Christmas? Feeling nostalgic for the holidays of your youth? Try this: start a log burning in the fireplace, pour yourself a steaming cup of cocoa, tea or cider (or something stronger), settle back in your upholstered arm chair, open “A Christmas Treasury” and pick a story. This is a book to awaken the ghosts of Christmas past. For openers, there's The Gospel of St. Luke ii. 1, that begins with "And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus . . ." and concludes with "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." This is followed by the story of the Three Wisemen, from St. Matthew ii. 1, with the giving of gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Among our favorite stories: "The Fir Tree" by Hans Christian Andersen; "A Christmas Memory" by Truman Capote; "The Holly Tree" by Charles Dickens; "Christmas Eve" by Washington Irving; "Joy in Freetown" by Edna Lewis; "A Visit from St. Nicholas" by Clement C. Moore; "Christmas at Claremont" from Queen Victoria's Journal; and "A Winter Walk" by Henry David Thoreau. And I'm only scratching the surface; there is so much more to savor. Other authors include: John Cheever, Dostoevsky, Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, O. Henry, James Joyce, George Plimpton, Beatrix Potter, Eleanor Roosevelt, Tennyson, and Dylan Thomas.

MANTOVANI’S CHRISTMAS FAVORITES (CD) -- When it comes to Christmas music, sometimes there is just no substitute for a 100-piece orchestra, especially if it's Mantovani's 100-piece orchestra, conducted by the man himself. He added even more violins to the string section to create a velvety sound that suits Christmas music perfectly. On top of the that, he worked with creative arrangers who did wondrous things with Christmas standards, rendering them fresh and new. Listen to "Once in Royal David's City," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," and "I Saw Three Ships." This is music with warmth and mystery that does not wear out its welcome. The only problem is Mantovani will spoil you. He's the best when it comes to orchestral Christmas music. Accept no substitute. And be wary of second and third generation Mantovani Christmas CDs. "The Mantovani Orchestra" is imitation Mantovani, conducted by others. "Mantovani's Christmas Favorites" CD listed here is the real deal, recorded between 1958 and 1963, in stereo, with the man himself at the controls, wielding the baton with angelic inspiration and creating Christmas magic. God rest ye merry, gentlemen (and ladies).

THE GREATEST CLASSIC FILMS COLLECTION: HOLIDAYS (DVD) - The reason to buy this collection is for "The Shop Around the Corner" and "Christmas in Connecticut." The other two movies--"A Christmas Carol" (with Reginald Owen as Scrooge") and "It happened on 5th Avenue" are ho-hum mediocre. As "Christmas Carols" go, the most-convincing Scrooges are Alistair Sims (British, 1951) and George C. Scott (1984). The transformation of Scrooge from mean-spirited miser to chastened benefactor is as much a part of the Christmas tradition as mistletoe and holly. "The Shop Around the Corner" (1940) is, to quote movie critic Leonard Maltin, the ultimate in sheer charm. And charm is the word for Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan. The chemistry between them is palpable and, rumor has it, continued off-screen. They play arguing co-workers in a Budapest notions shop who don't realize they're lonely-hearts pen pals. Frank Morgan is perfect as the shopkeeper who believes (mistakenly) that Stewart is having an affair with is wife. The movie was remade in 1998 as "You've Got Mail." Equally charming is Barbara Stanwyck in "Christmas in Connecticut" (1945). It lacks the crackle of "The Shop Around the Corner" but is fun to watch anyway. Stanwyck plays a magazine writer who's supposed to be a mother and an expert homemaker, who is forced to entertain a war veteran (Dennis Morgan) and her boss (Sydney Greenstreet) for the holiday, on a farm in snowy Connecticut. O what fun it is. Warm Christmas ambience, good supporting cast, and a tad long. If you want to jump-start that Christmas feeling, these two movies will do the job nicely.

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