Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas

"I will honor Christmas in my heart
and try to keep it all the year."
- Charles Dickens

Friday, December 20, 2013

Quote of the Week

From all of us to all of you, 
     a very Merry Christmas
For on this bright and joyful night, 
     we're glad to have you with us
So gather 'round the lovely tree, 
     where all the lights are shining
You'll see how happy we will be 
     while all the bells are chiming
Ding-dong-dingle! What a merry sound!
Ding-dong-dingle! Kris Kringle is in town.
From all of us to all of you, 
     it's good to have you with us
Now here we go and here's our show 
     that says a Merry Christmas!
A very...
- Jiminy Cricket, singing the opening of one of my favorite Disney Christmas specials growing up. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Holidays Around the World - The Storytellers of EPCOT

Christmas time at EPCOT is full of magic and world traditions. Every year, EPCOT celebrates Holidays Around the World with Storytellers from each of the World Showcase Pavilions. Throughout the day, Storytellers arrive in their native pavilion to tell of a winter holiday tradition from their homeland. The stories are varied and fascinating. It's a great opportunity to learn about how Christmas and other holidays are celebrated outside the United States.

Feliz Navidad! We'll begin our tour in Mexico. The history of the Mexican Christmas tradition is told by Los Tres Reyes Magos, or Three Wise Men. They tell of their journey, or Posada, to find the Christ child and the gifts they brought to him. This tradition of giving gifts in honor of his birth is continued throughout Mexico today on January 6th, Three Kings Day.

God Jul! We're now in Norway, where Sigrid tells a story about a mischievous Christmas Gnome named Julenissen, who appears to help tell the story. Julenissen, who live in a family's barn, is the guardian of that family's welfare. Children leave porridge for him in thanks for his protection. On Second Christmas, December 26th, the children don costumes and go door to door asking for goodies.

Gung Hay Fat Choy, and welcome to China. The Storyteller in China is the Monkey King, who is very funny and happy. He tells a story of redemption and enlightenment, or how Monkey became King by defeating a monster and stealing a magic stick from the Dragon King. He was punished by Buddha for his pride, and eventually learned that the journey is more important than the destination.

Fröhliche Weihnachten! In Germany, there are two different Storytellers who appear: Saint Nicholas or Helga. Saint Nicholas tells of traditions such as the Tannenbaum, or Christmas Tree, the first Christmas, while Helga tells of the history of Advent Calendars and the Nutcracker, as well as how children celebrate Christmas in Germany. At the end of her story, a 7' tall Nutcracker appears and stays to take photos with Helga and the children in the audience.

Buone Feste Natalizie! Italy's Storyteller is La Befana, the Christmas witch, who tells how she came to bring gifts to all the children on January 5th, Epiphany. La Befana, who was once a simple woman who lived alone, when she met the Three Wise Men on their journey to Bethlehem. They asked her to join them and bring gifts to the Christ Child, but she was to busy. Later, she decided to make the journey after all, but didn't know where to look, so whenever she found a child, she gave them a gift instead, often leaving them in their shoes to find the next morning.

Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, and Happy Hanukkah! The American Adventure celebrates three different American traditions: Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. Children can meet both Santa and Mrs. Claus and tell them their Christmas wishes. Then listen to the story of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights that celebrates the miracle of the lamp that burned for 8 nights with only one night's oil. And the final presentation tells about the history of Kwanzaa, the African-American harvest celebration.

Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu and welcome to Japan, where a Storyteller tells about the O'Shogatsu, or New Years, customs and the legend of the Daruma doll. The Daruma doll is sold without the eyes being painted in. At the New Year, children make a wish and paint the left eye. If the wish comes true before the end of the year, the other eye is painted. Plum blossoms are used to decorate homes and to symbolize hope in the New Year.

Eid Mubarak! In Morocco, they celebrate Eid-al-fitr each winter by wearing their best clothes, and with feasting, dancing, and music. The Storyteller, Taarji, which means drummer, tells of the customs of Ramadan and Ashura. These celebrations are religious in origin and are celebrations of love and remembrance, with gifts to the poor playing an important role. Children often receive gifts of clothing, toys, and even drums at this time to celebrate the New Year.

Joyeux Noel! In France, Pere Noel, or Father Christmas, tells the story of a letter he received from a little girl named Babette. He tells of Christmas through her eyes and of many of the traditions she enjoyed. One of these traditions is a great feast, called le revellion, that is eaten after Midnight Mass. Another is the Buche de Noel, or Yule Log cake.

Happy Christmas! In the United Kingdom, Father Christmas arrives singing and ringing a bell. He is very jolly and tells how many modern traditions have their roots in the England. He encourages the audience to sing Deck the Halls with him, a good Welsh carol and invites a child to help him by ringing bells. He also tells of the Druids and their us of mistletoe, which he has carries on the end of his staff and uses to make a couple in the audience kiss.

Joyeux Noel and Happy Christmas! We have now arrived in Canada and reached the end of our tour through the world's traditions. Nowell, a lumberjack who bears a striking resemblance to Father Christmas, tells about Christmas celebrations in different parts of Canada. As he tells his story, he changes pieces of his clothing, until suddenly, he appears to be Papa Noel.

The stories told by these Storytellers are wonderful to listen to, but it can easily take an entire day, or even two to hear all of them. Each story lasts approximately 9-12 minutes. The presentations occur several times a day and a schedule of appearances can be found in the Times Guide that you pick up with your map. I would recommend that you pick three to four stories from pavilions that aren't located right next to each other and stop to see them as you move through the World Showcase.

Many of the Storytellers invite one or more children from the audience to help them tell the story. Bean was chosen to help La Befana by holding her broom. However, once she got up there, she decided to be shy and forgot what to say, but La Befana was great at working around it and putting her at ease.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Meeting Santa at Downtown Disney

One of the most magical Christmas surprises at Downtown Disney is meeting Santa Claus. Around Thanksgiving, Downtown Disney and the rest of Walt Disney World are transformed into a winter wonderland. A special chalet is set up next to World of Disney where you can meet Santa. The cottage is very charming with lots of Christmas decorations and twinkling red and green lights.

This year, Santa will be greeting children from November 15th until December 24th. Once Santa leaves to deliver presents, Santa Goofy will take his place from December 25-27.

During November and early December, the wait is usually brief, especially in the evening. Much like a character Meet and Greet, each family is given time to visit with Santa and then pose for photos. A Photopass Photographer is usually on hand to capture the moment, although you can take photos with your personal camera as well.

Santa's Chalet with reindeer and lights
The area where you meet Santa is straight out of a child's fantasy. A very jolly Santa sits on a giant Christmas throne and wears the most beautiful Santa suit. He spends a few minutes talking with each child and asking them about their Christmas wishlist. He is very engaging and Bean was instantly enchanted! The one time we met him, we found this Santa to be far superior to any mall Santa and just like you'd expect Santa to be. And who knows, perhaps he is the real Santa!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Christmas Movies for Adults

While these movies mostly don't contain obvious adult themes, most kids would find them boring. I love these Christmas movies and have watched all of them many, many times.

White Christmas - This has been my favorite Christmas movie for as long as I can remember. Starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera Ellen, this is a fantastic story about helping an old friend. Bing and Danny are a popular song and dance duo who agree to help Rosemary and Vera with their act. The girls are the sisters of an "old pal in the army." When they follow the sisters up to Vermont for the Christmas holidays, they run into their old general from their army days during WWII, who has fallen on hard times. In an effort to help him out, they decide to bring their show up to his inn to bring in guests. After many crazy mishaps, everything comes together just in time for Christmas. Featuring many wonderful songs, including "Sisters", "Count Your Blessings" and "White Christmas", this is one you shouldn't miss.

Miracle on 34th Street - Is he "the one and only Santa Claus" or "just a nice old man with whiskers like mother said"? Starring Maureen O'Hara, Natalie Wood, and Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle, this is a wonderful story that will make everyone believe again. Kris Kringle is hired to be Santa in the Macy's Thanksgiving day Parade. He is so wonderful, that they decide to keep him on as the official Santa of Macy's. With Kris's help, everyone begins to put the spirit back into Christmas. When he angers one of the employees, he is put on trial for insanity. Can his lawyer prove that he is Santa?

The Man Who Saved Christmas - This is the amazing story of A.C. "Gillie" Gilbert, inventor of Erector Sets. After years of making toys with the help of his beloved wife, Mary,  and brother, Frank, Gillie is presented with a problem. America has recently joined the fighting during WWI and his brother has been drafted. Gillie is asked to convert his factory to make munitions instead of toys. After a chance comment leads Congress to cancel Christmas, Gillie's son Al and his mother create some holiday magic to help Gillie recover his holiday spirit and save Christmas. Starring the incomparable Jason Alexander as Gillie, this movie, although sad at times, is wonderful proof that Christmas should always be celebrated.

Silent Night - Another in the tradition of Christmas during times of war films. Based on a true story and starring Linda Hamilton, this is the story of young Fritz and his mother, who are fleeing Germany on Christmas Eve 1944. Fritz and Elizabeth Vincken leave their home in the dark of night and head for their cabin near the front lines. Before they can settle in for Christmas, a knock at the door brings both American soldiers with their injured comrade, and German soldiers searching for the enemy. Frau Vincken, a very strong-willed woman, forces them to relinquish their weapons and spend Christmas together. By the end of the evening, they have begun to see each other as men and not as enemies.

The Holiday - For a twist on traditional Christmas movies, try The Holiday. When two women worlds apart each suffer heartbreak shortly before Christmas, they decide to swap houses for a change of scenery. Through a series of misadventures, each finds that love can be found again and Christmas may be the perfect time for something new. Starring Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, and Jack Black, this is a fun Christmas romance. And I love the way Kate Winslet's character helps her elderly neighbor to see that he is important and loved. It's wonderful!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Christmas Movies for Kids Part 2

And now onto movies for kids aged 6 and up. While some of these movies would be appropriate for a younger audience, I believe older children will get more out of them. Also, several of these films question the existence of Santa Claus, who, by the way, I firmly believe in. As such, I would recommend that you show these at what you consider to be an appropriate age.

Beauty and the Beast: Enchanted Christmas - This film was just recently released on Blu-ray and DVD. I love this story of how Beauty and the Beast came together at Christmas and learned what is truly important about the season, sharing love with others. Featuring the original cast of voices as well as introducing a few new characters, such as Maestro Forte, voiced by the inestimable Tim Curry. Full of songs and a beautiful message of hope and love, this is a great movies to share with children. It does have a few moments that may be scary to young viewers, so I would recommend you watch the film first so that you can gauge how appropriate this may be for your child.

 Yes, Virginia - Based on the true story of a letter written by young Virginia O'Hanlon in 1897 to the editor of the New York Sun, this story is perfect for those children who are beginning to question the existence of Santa Claus. Created by Macy's as part of their Believe campaign, the story of Virginia and her young friend Ollie and their search for the "truth" is a very sweet retelling of this heartwarming tale. Featuring the vocal talents of Neil Patrick Harris, Jennifer Love Hewitt, and Alfred Molina, this is one story every child should know.

The Santa Clause Trilogy - I love the Santa Clause movies. At first, I wasn't too sure about Tim Allen as Santa, but after the first film, I loved him as Santa. The first film tells about how an executive for a toy company became Santa, much to the delight of his son Charlie. The second tells the story of how Santa must seek a wife or he'll have to stop being Santa. The third tells about Santa and Mrs. Claus and their baby that will soon be born. Will Santa stay Santa or will he employ the "Escape Clause?" They are great films that support the existence of Santa Claus in an ever changing form.

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus - Based on a story by L. Frank Baum, author of the Wizard of Oz series, this movie offers a unique explanation for Santa's origins. According to Baum, Santa began life as an infant abandoned near an enchanted forest. Baby Nicholas was taken in by a wood nymph named Nyseal who raised him in a magical world. The Great Ak, leader of the forest teaches Nicholas about the sad and difficult world of humans, leading him to his lifelong gift-giving mission. This film features an amazing cast of voices, including Robby Benson, Dixie Carter, and Hal Holbrook.

Santa and Pete - This unique film has been one of my favorites since the first time I saw it. This is the story of the Dutch Santa (the amazing Hume Cronyn) and his helper, Black Peter. The story begins with master storyteller James Earl Jones as a Grandfather teaching his grandson about Santa and Pete. Full of wonderful references the historical Santa, this story tells about what happens when Santa and Pete arrive in the New World. Although Santa is rather set in his ways, their adventures in New Amsterdam force him to rethink his Christmas traditions.

The Polar Express - I still remember fondly the first time I heard the story of the Polar Express. The story, although brief, was wonderful, with beautiful pictures. The story soon became a phenomenon, with trains being transformed into the Polar Express for one night of Christmas fantasy for lucky boys and girls. To make the story long enough for a movie, they expanded on many of the scenes and added some new ones that fit within the feeling of the original. This is the tale of an incredible journey and the boy who isn't sure what to believe about Santa. Every child has a "critical year" where they question the existence of Santa. Can you imagine what would happen if every child could ride the Polar Express? Maybe everyone would believe. After watching this film for the first time, young Bean became obsessed with it. For Christmas that year, I gave her a golden ticket (a bookmark from Hallmark I think) and her own special bell. I wrapped the bell in candy cane striped paper and labeled it "Found this on the seat of my sleigh. Fix that hole in your pocket. Mr. C" just like in the book and movie. She still loves the bell, several years later, and always talks about how sad it is that some grown ups can't hear it ring, but she'll always be able to. This may be our favorite family Christmas movie.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Christmas Movies for Kids Part 1

I love Christmas movies! I'm afraid I'm rather addicted to them. I have so many favorites anymore, that I start watching them just after Halloween. Some are traditional movies that my family has watched for years. In fact, it's a family tradition to watch Miracle on 34th Street every year during the long Thanksgiving weekend. (And it has to be the old version with Edmund Gwenn and Maureen O'Hara, although we enjoy both the black and white and colorized versions.) In honor of this long standing tradition, I thought I would share some of our favorite holiday films with you. Today, we'll start with great holiday films for kids of any age.

Eloise at Christmastime - The first Christmas that this was on tv, we kept missing the beginning. By the time we finally were able to watch the entire movie, we'd seen parts of it 4-5 times. After seeing it so many times, my grandfather said, "Not that little girl again!" It's one of my favorite memories of him. Eloise is a precocious 6 year old who lives at the Plaza hotel. She's a bit of a trouble maker and match maker who somehow always manages to evade punishment for her adventures. We LOVE Eloise and Julie Andrews as Nanny, too!

Eloise: Little Miss Christmas - Eloise and her friends at the Plaza decide to put on a Christmas Spectacular, but with a review of the hotel coming the day before Christmas, Mr. Salamone may cancel the show. What will Eloise do? A fun, short, animated film, this story of the spunky 6 year old will quickly become a favorite with your kids as well. This movie feature the voice talents of Lynn Redgrave as Nanny and Tim Curry as Mr. Salamone.

Emmett Otter's Jugband Christmas - Every fan of the Muppets should own a copy of this movie. Featuring the fantastic talents of the original band of Muppeteers, this story is one that shouldn't be missed. Emmett and his Ma both want to give each other the best Christmas present ever, but with money in short supply, they each decide to enter the town talent contest. Will the risk pay off, or will they both lose it all? Watch this wonderful story to find out.

Mickey's Once Upon a Christmas - Featuring three Christmas stories full of love, magic and surprises, this film is sure to delight. In a story reminiscent of O. Henry's Gift of the Magi, Mickey and Minnie remember the year they gave up what they thought was most dear to give gifts to each other. Goofy and Max recall the year Max stopped believing in Santa and the adventure that eventually made him see why belief is important, although a visit from the real Santa always helps. Huey, Dewey, and Louie remember the year they wished for Christmas every day and what it took them to learn what the holiday is really about.

Mickey's Twice Upon a Christmas - Featuring four new stories of love and magic. Minnie and Daisy are both a part of the ice skating show. Can they put aside their competition and put on their ice spectacular? Uncle Scrooge warns Huey, Dewey, and Louie that their behavior will keep them off Santa's good list, so they travel to the North Pole to fix the problem. While there, they discover that Christmas is about sharing and caring. Max is bringing home a girl for Christmas, but can he count on Goofy not to embarrass him? Donald just wants to sit at home with his cocoa, but Daisy and his nephews have other ideas. Can Donald find his Christmas spirit before its too late? Finally, Mickey has created what he thinks is the perfect Christmas party, but when Pluto wrecks it and then runs away, he realizes that parties are nothing without your friends.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! - This classic animated tale tells the story of the grumpy old Grinch who lives on Mount Crumpet and his hatred of the Whos who live in Whoville below. As the story goes "Every WHO down in WHOVILLE liked Christmas a lot, but the Grinch, who lived just north of WHOVILLE did not!" Narrated by the incredible Boris Karloff with a song sung by Thurl Ravenscroft (who also voiced Tony the Tiger as well as one of the singing busts in Disney's Haunted Mansion attractions.")

Curious George: A Very Monkey Christmas - George and the Man with the Yellow Hat are preparing to celebrate Christmas. From Christmas trees with chairs in them to tomato snowman, everything is uniquely perfect for the happy pair. There's just one problem, the Man is having trouble understanding George's wishlist and George doesn't know what to get for the man who has everything. It all works out in typical George fashion and even has a few new songs, like "Are you ready?" and "Christmas Monkey".

Original Television Christmas Classics - There are several different versions of this set available. My favorites from them include: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, narrated by the wonderful Burl Ives, Frosty the Snowman narrated by Jimmy Durante, Santa Claus is Coming to Town featuring Fred Astaire & Mickey Rooney, The Cricket on the Hearth, and the Little Drummer Boy. All are wonderful old classics that are fun to watch at Christmas.
Although not generally included, another old classic is Frosty's Winter Wonderland narrated by Andy Griffith. Frosty makes a Missus and hilarity ensues.

The Happy Elf - This wacky story, narrated by Harry Connick, Jr., is the story of Eubie, one of Santa's elves, who is always deliriously happy, much to the annoyance of those around him. When Eubie learns that there is an entire town of children on Santa's naughty list, he sets out to help them find the spirit of Christmas and get back on the nice list. In the process, he helps himself and his friends to achieve their dream of being part of Santa's sleigh team.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

ABC Family's 25 Days of Christmas Sweepstakes

To celebrate Christmas and their Show Your Disney Side campaign, Disney and ABC Family are giving away an amazing trip to Disney World.  The Grand Prize winner will receive a five day/ for night vacation for 4, including a one night stay in the Cinderella Castle Suite. In addition, they will also receive a $1,000 Disney gift card and the services of a VIP Tour Guide for 8 hours each day of their tickets. That's quite the prize, so I will definitely be entering. There will also be 8 weekly winners who will receive either a $500 Disney gift card or a Vera Bradley duffle bag from the new Disney Collection. Good Luck!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens
One of my favorite holiday stories, either book or movie, is A Christmas Carol. I love the tale of the miserly curmudgeon, Ebeneezer Scrooge, and his unwanted search for redemption. The characters are fantastic, well written and believable and you really feel as if you know them. I read Dickens ultimate Christmas story every year and my Mom and I collect movie versions of the story as well. Bean has watched them pretty much since she was born. One Christmas, after watching the Patrick Stewart version for the millionth time, she ran around saying "I'm the ghost of Christmas NEVER, mwah ha ha ha!" The story of Scrooge has become a favorite Christmas tradition for our family and I look forward to it every year.

Patrick Stewart as Ebeneezer Scrooge
My favorite classic version is the one with Patrick Stewart as Scrooge. Stewart spent several years doing dramatic one-man retellings of the story in New York and Los Angeles. The one-man show is available as a cd and is fantastic. He really gets into the story and does multiple voices and sound effects. I wish I could have seen it live, but I'll settle for listening to it several times a year. The movie is also fantastic, and probably the closest version to Dickens. Another good version is the George C. Scott film, although it takes some liberties with the original. A very old version starring Alister Sim is also available on DVD.

Musical versions are also fantastic. My favorite is Scrooge with Albert Finney. Finney makes a very grumpy Scrooge, but he's a lot of fun to watch. The music is also fantastic and memorable. I especially love the song "Thank You Very Much" and how it changes once Scrooge has learned his lesson. Another great one is A Christmas Carol: The Musical with Kelsey Grammer. This version has a fantastic cast, including: Jane Krakowski, Jason Alexander, and Jennifer Love Hewitt. With music by Alan Menken of Beauty and the Beast fame, this Broadway-style show really shines with Christmas spirit. 

When it comes to children's versions, my favorite is still The Muppet Christmas Carol. I love the Muppets and Michael Caine as Scrooge is fantastic. The Muppet version has my favorite "Ghost of Christmas Present", a large, absent-minded spirit with fascinating hair. The new Disney version starring Jim Carrey in multiple animated roles is also very good. While they have added a bit of adventure to some otherwise simple scenes in the book, it is still a very good retelling of the story. For smaller children, I love Mickey's Christmas Carol. A short, simple story that introduced the miserly Scrooge McDuck, this is a great way to introduce children to the classic tale. Another cartoon version with voices by Simon Callow, Kate Winslet, Nicholas Cage, and Michael Gambon, takes a lot of liberties with the story, but has a poignant song sung by Kate Winslet. A cartoon version featuring Tim Curry, Michael York, Ed Asner, and Whoopie Goldberg as the "Ghost of Christmas Present".
This version is full of catchy, silly songs, and my favorite is the utterly ridiculous  "Santa's Sooty Suit" as sung by Scrooge's nephew Fred. A surprisingly fun children's version is Barbie in a Christmas Carol. With a few Barbie twists, the main character, Eden Starling, is shown how her selfishness hurts those around her. While obvious liberties have been taken with the story, the core lesson of overcoming selfishness and redeeming ones life are still present. For the truly silly, there's even a Scooby-Doo version that is good for a laugh and fun for Scooby lovers. Called "The Nutcracker Scoob", the gang, minus Velma, helps the children of a small orphanage to stop the "Ghost of Christmas Present".

In all, there are a lot of different versions of A Christmas Carol, and many of them are well worth watching. I personally watch at least 6 different ones every Christmas, and I'm always looking for new versions. This year, I plan to read the book to Bean for the very first time. It will take a few weeks as we only read a few pages each night, but it will be well worth it and I can't wait to share Dickens classic story with her as it was originally written.