25 December 2007

merry christmas!


17 December 2007

'tis the season: holiday books

We are a bookish family. Okay, well, to be precise, I am a very bookish person, and I'm doing my best to pass on a love of reading to my boys. One of my favorite things about being a parent is introducing my kids to things I loved as a child (and still love). I had so much fun reading Charlotte's Web to James, and I am waiting impatiently to start reading him the Little House books. But it's also a ton of fun to discover new books together with my children.

This year we've started a holiday book collection. We've always had holiday books, but this year we've collected them in one place and plan to make it a tradition to read our favorites every year. Below the fold, I've compiled a list of some of our favorite holiday and winter children's books, both classics and new favorites.

One of our favorite children's authors in general, ever since Greg's mom got us one of her books years ago, is Jan Brett. Her illustrations are intricate and beautifully drawn, and are wonderful accompaniments to fun stories. The Hat and The Mitten are two of our favorite winter stories, so I was excited to see that this year, she'd come out with a version of The Night Before Christmas. I've been wanting to buy a copy of this poem for the boys, and when I saw Brett's at the bookstore, I knew it was the one. The classic Clement Moore poem with Brett's illustrations is a beautiful combination.

Next on the list, a modern classic, How The Grinch Stole Christmas. This is one of the rare children's books that I can read over and over without tiring of it. Which I had to do when Evan went through a Grinch phase a few months ago, and and requested it every day at naptime, and sometimes bedtime, for god only knows how many days. But the magic of Dr. Seuss is that the rhyming and nonsense words are fun even for grown-ups to say, and until you really memorize it, you have to pay attention for the trickier phrases. And the story can't be beat -- a Scrooge-like cave-dwelling creature learns the true meaning of Christmas just in time to redeem himself. We also love the movie (the original movie, that is, not the horrible Jim Carrey remake), which is very faithful to the book.

Another new favorite, also introduced to us by Greg's mom, is Olive, the Other Reindeer. What could be cuter than a little dog who thinks she's a reindeer? She tries her hardest to help Santa on Christmas Eve -- and succeeds, too, in unexpected ways. This one is really a lot of fun to read, and popular with the kiddos, because that dog is just SO cute.

The last book I'm going to mention is another family favorite, The Polar Express. Haven't seen the movie (sources tell me it's not worth it) but the book is one of those magical Christmas stories that kids and adults love. The illustrations are beautiful, and to combine the Santa myth with a train? Genius, as far as kids are concerned.

And that's it for the holiday books we own, though I have to note two of my favorite Christmas stories, both of which I'm trying to find in children's versions with illustrations I like (tricky, because I'm kind of picky about things like that): The Nutcracker, and A Christmas Carol. Actually, I hope to eventually start a tradition someday of going to see each of those live (we nearly went to see A Christmas Carol at a local theater over the weekend, but it turns out that even with the family discount, we still couldn't afford it), but it won't hurt to have books as well. As I always say (and as Greg always disagrees with me), there's no such thing as "too many books".


14 December 2007

friday photos: christmas past edition

We're having an early Christmas with my mom tomorrow before leaving next week to celebrate the real Christmas Day with Greg's family, so before I leave my computer and all my photos behind (stupid desktop! Someday I'll have a laptop!) I thought I'd post some of my favorite old Christmas photos of the boys, and a bonus Christmas video that makes me laugh no matter how many times I watch it.

A classic photo from Evan's first Christmas -- still cracks me up:

If James had decided to exit the womb three days before his due date instead of being forced out 12 days late, he could have been born on Christmas, and maybe then he would not have repeatedly taken off the cute little Santa hat I bought for his first Christmas. Still, he managed to be pretty cute:

Last year Evan thought, when we brought out all of the Christmas ornaments, that we were giving him a bunch of new, tiny, fragile toys. Of course he had a ridiculous amount of fun:

And here it is, the cutest video of James ever taken, in which he demonstrates how to properly enjoy the season:

Have a good weekend, all!


13 December 2007

'tis the season: rampant consumerism

Okay, this is not strictly a holiday post per se, but I figured that Christmas is the perfect time to write a bit about consumer culture and marketing. Everyone, at this time of year, feels the pressure to buy. If you're a parent, you're feeling it even more, because in addition to the ordinary media pressure to spend a lot of money on your family and friends, you have small children begging you for every cool new thing they lay eyes on, because they know that presents are coming. Lots of parents can shift the responsibility to Santa, but since we don't do Santa, we're stuck looking like Scrooges when we don't come through with the cool gifts. And this is the first year where either of our children has really cared about particular presents. I guess I should be glad they waited this long.

Yesterday I read this piece by Barbara Ehrenreich in The Nation about the ubiquity of the Disney princesses. The popularity of Disney princesses for little girls is the flip side of Star Wars and superheroes for little boys, with a slight difference -- little boys' loyalties and affections are divided between Star Wars and Transformers and Superman and Spiderman, while for little girls, the Disney princesses are it. There aren't any competitors in the same league, at least not for a particular age group. Ehrenreich covers the problems inherent with having princesses as role models, but she doesn't get into why they are so popular, so desired by little girls everywhere. I can answer that, at least in part.

This topic is really interesting to me, especially in light of the book I'm currently reading, Buy, Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds, by Susan Gregory Thomas. Thomas writes about how consumer culture has evolved over the last few decades, and the ways in which toy companies market to children and prey on the fears and insecurities of parents in order to generate huge profits. It's been a really interesting read so far, in many ways. Where do the Disney princesses come into this? Thomas devotes a whole chapter to the Disney princess phenomenon and its financial success. It's a perfect example of a product being relentlessly marketed to young children (you can find Disney princesses on merchandise ranging from toothbrushes to bedroom decor to clothing to board games). It also falls into the category of appealing to parental nostalgia. Have you noticed the comeback of '80s characters like the Care Bears, Transformers, Strawberry Shortcake? It's not a coincidence that the children who grew up on these toys are now beginning to have kids of their own.

Thomas cites studies that show that the only measurable thing toddlers and babies learn from watching TV is character recognition. So it's not that little girls inherently want to be beautiful princesses, it's that from the time they are very small, they are saturated in a consumer culture where corporations deliberately target children as consumers. Children begin to form an emotional attachment, through repeated exposure, to a character. Children are incredibly succeptible to marketing, because until the age of 7 or 8, they are unable to understand the idea of persuasion, and at younger ages, can't tell the difference between fantasy and reality. They love Cinderella because they've watched her videos and they have her nightgowns and sleeping bags -- they think of her as a friend because of her presence in their lives -- and so naturally they will want the Cinderella tent and the Cinderella DVD player.

This is true not just of Disney princesses, of course, but all kinds of characters. For my own boys it's Pokemon and Star Wars. Star Wars Monopoly is superior to regular Monopoly because it has Star Wars characters and pictures. I have noticed that my kids are affected not only by media directed at them, but even by media that's not aimed at children. Greg and I were recently having a conversation about diamonds (and nothing positive, because I am not a fan of diamonds) and James, just overhearing the key word, pipes up, "Diamonds? Go to Zales. They're the diamond store," in his most helpful tone. (Also, as a side note: James heard me telling Greg a statistic from the book -- that over a quarter of kids under two have a television in their bedrooms, which I think is appalling -- and said incredulously, "A TV in their BEDROOM? Can I have one??")

I'm pretty anti-consumerism in general, but reading this book makes me want to sell my television and never set foot in a mall again. But it is really helpful to be reading it right now, at this time of year, because I'm able to realize that the overwhelming urge for holiday consumerism I'm feeling, and the ridiculous gift lists my son is composing, are products of the capitalist marketing machine. We are feeling this way because there are people out there whose job it is to make us feel this way, and they are good at what they do. They are getting rich because they are skilled at manipulating consumers. It's casting a new light on the Christmas season for me. I'm not even finished with the book but I'd recommend it to anyone, especially parents.


12 December 2007

'tis the season: holiday weirdness

Time to post about one of my favorite holiday traditions: making fun of other people's holiday traditions! Well, not traditions so much as bad taste. Christmas wouldn't be Christmas if no one displayed their bad taste for the world to see, or if retailers didn't come up with holiday kitsch to sell, and likewise, Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without a little mockery of those things.

First, to follow up on one of the videos I posted on Monday, I learned from Karen that apparently a lot of people synchronize their Christmas lights to songs by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Who knew that would be such a popular holiday pastime? This is not so much a mockery as an observation that there are evidently many people out there with a lot of time on their hands during the holiday season, as you can see from a YouTube search.

Now for the mockery.

Who doesn't love tacky Christmas lights? I found an entire site deovted to them: UglyChristmasLights.com. Some of the photos on that site aren't that bad, but others are totally hideous. I love it.

Next up, tacky ornaments! The strangest ornaments I've ever seen in real life are those made by elementary-school children (myself included, of course), but there are a wealth of bizarre ornaments out there. The best I've seen is this delightful Elvis Cow, which, sadly, is sold out. That means a little less kitschy glitter on my tree this year.

I also found a Flickr group devoted to strange ornaments, and there are some real treasures there. What says "Happy Birthday, Jesus!" like hanging a winged pear, a monkey head, or a portrait of Frida Kahlo painted on a bright pink star on your tree?

Okay, my next link isn't about mockery, because it's kind of sad -- but also very funny: a collection of photos of children frightened of Santa. What kind of parent makes their screaming, crying, struggling child sit on Santa's lap for the photo? I'm not sure, but there are at least 187 of these sadistic parents out there somewhere.

And now. I have saved the best for last: the Cavalcade of Bad Nativities! This year's is actually the second edition; be sure to check out the first cavalcade, from which I stole the photo of the owl nativity. Owls! I laugh every time I look at that photo, because who thought it was a good idea to represent Jesus & Co. as owls? Or even if they didn't think it was a good idea, who would think of such a thing in the first place?

I am incredibly grateful, though, that there are people out there who think of things like Elvis Cow ornaments and Owl Nativities, because sometimes when the Christmas season is getting to be too hurried and too busy and too much, you need to sit down and envision God sending his son to earth in the form of an owl. Oh, man, but I'm still laughing at that. If ever I were to have a nativity scene in my home, that would be the one. That would guarantee our Christmas season would be full of laughter.


10 December 2007

'tis the season: christmas music

I am a total, unabashed lover of Christmas music. Carols, popular songs, hymns, orchestral music, I love it all. Years of church-going, years of high-school choir in a small town where it's not taboo to sing religious songs in public school, years of band and orchestra, and years of being assaulted with Christmas music playing in every public place during the month of December have taught me pretty much every Christmas song in existence. And there is hardly a one I don't like. Oh, there are plenty of arrangements or versiosn I hate, but the songs themselves occupy a very special, perhaps larger than usual, place in my heart.

I've tried to narrow my list of favorites down (really!) but it's still pretty lengthy, so you'll find videos galore below the fold.

I'll kick off the list with my essential Christmas music: Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite. I can't wait until James is old enough to take to a live ballet performance (we're thinking maybe next year -- I was surprised to find out Greg has never seen the ballet, so I'll have to introduce them both!). But until then, this is one of the greatest videos I've ever seen:

I found a really nice performance of my second most essential Christmas music, but embedding has been disabled for this video, so you'll have to click to hear "Hallelujah" from Handel's Messiah. This makes me miss being in a choir so much.

Next up are a couple of lesser-known carols, old madrigal-style songs I learned and fell in love with in high school. First, "The Coventry Carol":

Next, "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming":

Next is a song my grandmother used to sing in church every year, but this rendition is not my grandma's baritone:

And to finish up, what's Christmas without songs about peace? I have two to share. This first one may be my favorite duet ever, Christmas or otherwise:

And finally, one of the best Christmas songs ever written. But beware, the video is sad and a little disturbing. I cried a bit.

What are your favorite Christmas songs?


09 December 2007

'tis the season: favorite holiday movies

Things are getting awfully Christmasy around here. I think I mentioned already that we have our Christmas tree. We have been watching all of our favorite Christmas movies, reading our favorite Christmas books, and listening to our favorite Christmas music. Yesterday we even braved the germ-ridden masses at the mall to go Christmas shopping (seriously, I hate the mall under normal circumstances, but in the middle of winter with all the season's illnesses beginning, and no parking for miles, and the terrible Christmas Muzak everyone plays... I actually feel really proud that we managed to buy three things on our list. You know, out of the twenty or so things we needed to buy). So far I've refrained from making Christmas cookies, but I'm not sure how much longer I can hold out -- I'm feeling so festive this year! This is the first year that both of our kids have been old enough to get into it, so it's really been a lot of fun.

I thought I'd do some posts on some of our favorite ways to get into the Christmas spirit. Today, movies. I'm a little ashamed to admit that I've never actually seen any grown-up Christmas movies all the way through. No It's a Wonderful Life, no Miracle on 34th Street... but I'm a pro on the kiddie flicks. Sure, everyone knows the Grinch and A Christmas Story and Rudolph and A Charlie Brown Christmas, all of which we love and watch every year, too, but my favorite kids' Christmas movies don't get that kind of attention. I can't decide if this list will illustrate to you my awesome taste, my '80s nostalgia, or my elitist preference for Jim Henson originals, or all three.

My favorite Christmas movie of all time is pictured on the right: A Muppet Family Christmas. Not to be confused with The Muppet Christmas Carol, this is a fabulous Henson muppet-fest from the '80s featuring a ton of holiday songs, and just about every muppet known to man, from the original Muppets to the Sesame Street characters to the Fraggles. I have an old VHS tape of this which is starting to wear out from watching it so many times. If there were a soundtrack from this movie, I think it would be the only Christmas music I'd listen to. I don't think it would be possible to overemphasise my love for this movie. If I were only allowed to watch one holiday movie for the rest of my life, it would be this one.

Jim Henson did a couple of other Christmas movies too, one of them being Emmet Otter's Jugband Christmas. The only official Muppet who makes an appearance in this one is Kermit, as the narrator. The story is about cute little Emmet Otter and his mother each trying to give the other a special Christmas in spite of the fact that they are poor and fatherless. The music is a bit countrified (there really is a Muppet jugband) but it is a sweet story, one I try to watch every year.

The third Henson Christmas movie I love is The Christmas Toy. Another tale narrated by Kermit, this one bears some similarities to Toy Story in the idea of toys coming to life when their owners leave the room, and also the idea of a toy's fear of being replaced as the favorite toy, though this one doesn't play out exactly the same as Toy Story (i.e., Toy Story did not rip off the plot of The Christmas Toy, only some key elements of the story). This stars a lovable (but kind of dumb) tiger named Rugby, who is a toy I would totally love to own one day.

I'll finish off my movies post with a clip from A Muppet Family Christmas. This is a scene that was in the original but didn't make it onto the DVD release for reasons of music copywriting. Enjoy! And feel free to share your own favorites in comments!


04 December 2007

christmas has come early!

Not only did we get our Christmas tree this weekend, but yesterday we received our Lego Star Destroyer.

The boys are already hard at work:


02 December 2007

a week of ham

Once a year, I buy a ham. I'm not really a big fan of ham, but once a year I buy a big ol' ham and go to town. I was beginning to think ham wouldn't go on sale this year in time for us to have one before we went away for Christmas, but yesterday I went to the store and found them super-cheap. The problem is, the smallest ham I could find was seven pounds. And that's a lot of ham for four people, one of whom doesn't love ham (me), and one of whom hardly eats anything anyway (Evan).

So I'm asking for suggestions. What creative uses do you all have for leftover ham? Tonight I'm serving all seven pounds with Jessica's fabulous cider glaze, and we're going to eat all the ham we can stand, but I'm anticipating days of leftovers. As far as real recipes from my collection go, I've got a ham-potato-cheddar soup planned, and ham tetrazzini, a pasta dish my mom used to make. We'll probably do a pizza, and possibly omelets, but those won't use much ham. I want to do as few ham sandwiches as possible. I'm mostly just looking for a way not to eat it straight up for days and days.

So what else can I do with several pounds of ham?