Best Foods, Movies, Gifts, Ideas… Best Everything!
Once again this year, I thought I would share with my friends and readers what I consider to be some of the best ideas for Christmas. I did this three years ago, and it seemed to be a big hit, so here is volume two. If you would like to see Best of Christmas – Vol. 1, go here.
Best Christmas Idea – Give This Christmas Away
This is an idea based on a song by Matthew West and Amy Grant that is featured on a Veggie Tales Christmas DVD, Saint Nicholas: A Story of Joyful Giving. Matthew West has followed this up with a gift book called Give This Christmas Away. It’s 101 simple and thoughtful ways to give Christmas away this year. Some of them are predictable, like being thankful and writing a letter to someone you should have written a long time ago. But others are things we might not think of, like giving your cell phone away or composing a top ten list. You can also “learn from vegetables,” as West puts it, by watching the new Veggie Tales DVD with your family.
One of the great things about Christmas is that there are so many ways to give and so many opportunities to share Christ. I think the people who end up feeling the most empty after Christmas are those who focus their entire holiday season on gift-giving: shopping, wrapping, exchanging presents, etc. Gift giving to those who will be giving gifts back to you is hollow. Why not make this Christmas different? Why not give this Christmas away by giving to those who cannot give back? They’re out there: people who need to see Christ’s love – the poor, children, soldiers, prisoners, shut-ins, orphans, widows, the unemployed, the sick, the homeless, people you’ve estranged or hurt, neighbors – the list is endless.
If you don’t know where to start, start with West’s book. Another place is at your local Salvation Army. Or your church. Or your local hospital. Or your local shelter for the homeless. Or your local soup kitchen. The places where you could help are almost on every street corner these days. So we have no excuses. We can make a difference. Let’s do it by giving Christmas away this year.
Best Christmas Charity – The Salvation Army
I love Salvation Army bell ringers. To me, they represent what the spirit of Christmas is all about -giving. It’s interesting that they’re not welcome at all stores: Target, for one. So, at Christmastime, I go out of my way to shop only at stores that they’re standing in front of. I know: I’ve said, time and time again, that if you want to strengthen the economy, buy locally from family-owned businesses because they’re the backbone of our economy. But the second best thing we can do is to shop at stores that are friendly to the Salvation Army – Wal-Mart, Hobby Lobby, Kroger – because those are the stores that share our values. http://salvationarmyusa.org/
Most Unique Christmas Gift – Edible Arrangements Christmas Reindeer Sleigh
When I look at this, I just want to eat it up. Of course, cover anything in chocolate, and I want to eat it up. Wrapping bacon around anything affects me the same way. But this arrangement is visually stunning as well. I love cookie-cutter reindeer. To me, they say “Christmas.” That was one of the things I loved about The Cookie Shop from three years ago. I just thought her gingerbread men and reindeer were not only good-enough-to-eat, but adorable as well. I know that Edible Arrangements are very pricey; but if you really want to do something different, and money is not an option, this will definitely make an impression. If you’re really ambitious, you could create your own, which would make even more of an impression. http://www.ediblearrangements.com/
Best Christmas Comedy – A Christmas Story (1997)
This one is almost a no-brainer, just like “What is the Best Christmas Movie?” Who wouldn’t answer It’s A Wonderful Life? But it get’s a little more competitive with Best Christmas Comedy. There are others out there that are almost as good, like Home Alone, Elf and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation; but I think most people still like nine-year-old Ralphie and his dysfunctional family from 1940s Indiana best.
It’s based on Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash and is about Ralphie’s obsession with getting a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. Everyone, including the department store Santa, try to discourage him by telling him he’ll put his eye out. But Ralphie is determined. He’s played by Peter Billingsley, who was really cute back then. It has a great cast all-around, including Melinda Dillon as Ralphie’s mother and Darren McGavin as his father. Director Bob Clark is also known for Porky’s.
A Christmas Story is loaded with every cliche from that era, including getting your mouth washed out with soap for saying dirty words, getting your tongue stuck on a frozen pole, facing the class bully after school, your dad’s battle with the furnace, your getting embarrassing gifts from relatives that you’re made to wear at least once, having a goofy younger sibling that your mother believes can do no wrong, etc. There isn’t a whole lot of Christmas meaning or Christmas magic in the film – it’s actually somewhat cynical – but it is a lot of nostalgic fun, especially if you grew up in such a family, or remember any part of that era.
Best Place to Buy a Christmas Tree – Mountain Top Fraser Fir, Newland, North Carolina
If you don’t know the story of Frosty and Mountain Top Fraser Fir, out of Newland, NC, you need to read this: “The Fight Over Frosty.” I wouldn’t buy my Christmas tree anywhere else. They’re a great family and they have great trees. Mountain Top Fraser Fir has retail sites in Lenoir and Hickory, NC, and they sell wholesale out of Newland.
Another thing I wouldn’t do is buy an artificial tree. An interesting development in the live Christmas tree vs. artificial Christmas tree controversy this year was an infographic that came out a couple weeks ago in which the author alleged that live Christmas trees bring all kinds of bugs into your home. That is an outright lie. I’ve dealt with live trees my whole life, and I’ve never brought one bug into my house on a Christmas tree. The artificial Christmas tree industry was behind that infographic and I find it reprehensible. I don’t know about other parts of the country, or if they were talking about trees you go out and cut yourself; but when you buy a Christmas tree in North Carolina from a reputable grower, they don’t have bugs on them.
Best Christmas Dessert – My Family’s Chocolate Peppermint Cake
My grandmother started making these cakes back in the days when women were still using wood stoves. They were her specialty. Every time someone asked her to bake a cake, for whatever reason, they requested her chocolate peppermint cake. No time is better for the combination of chocolate and peppermint than at Christmas. I have pretty much decided that those are my two favorite flavors together. If you want that flavor combination without baking a cake, try Edy’s Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream. Yum!
Okay, here’s the recipe:
Cake: Cream 1/4 lb. butter with 1 cup brown sugar. Add 2 eggs, one at a time. After melting 3 squares of unsweetened baking chocolate, add it and 1 teaspoonful of vanilla extract to mixture. You can mix the previous ingredients using an electric mixer; but the remaining ingredients need to be mixed by hand with a spoon or spatula. Sift 2 cups of plain flour and 1 teaspoonful of baking soda together. Beginning and ending with flour mixture, add alternately with 1 cup of buttermilk to creamed mixture. Pour into 2 greased layer pans and bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes. Then cool.
Icing: Soften 1/4 lb. butter and gradually add 1 1/2 boxes of powdered sugar with a dash of salt. Add 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1 teaspoon peppermint flavoring and milk as needed. Beat until smooth. Spread over layered cake.
Drizzle: Melt together 1 or 2 teaspoonful of butter and 2 squares of unsweetened baking chocolate. Drizzle over top of cake.
Best Christmas Meal Out – Cracker Barrel
For Thanksgiving, my mom and I decided to go to Cracker Barrel. We had heard they had a very good Thanksgiving dinner. When we got there, it was standing room only. The entire gift shop area was full of people waiting to be seated – you could hardly move around. The wait was one hour. Normally, we would have left; but a lady coming out said, “It’s worth the wait,” so we stayed. Well, it was worth the wait. The dressing was to die for. The dinner included both ham and turkey, dressing, sweet potato casserole, side vegetable, cornbread (also to die for), biscuits and pie. All for under $10. The staff was organized and courteous, the service was fast and the food was wonderful. I highly recommend it. http://www.crackerbarrel.com/
Best Family Christmas Movies – Hallmark and Hallmark Movie Channels
The Hallmark and Hallmark Movie Channels (two different channels) live Christmas. They started running Christmas movies immediately following Halloween. Many of them are hokey and have poor production values. But many others are wonderful. One of my favorites is Eloise At Christmastime (2003), which is based on the children’s book by Kay Thompson and illustrated by Hilary Knight. The cast is wonderful, including Julie Andrews and Sofia Vassilieva as Eloise, who reminds me of a female version of Macaulay Culkin from Home Alone. It’s directed by Kevin Lima and is like a non-musical version of Annie. Eloise reeks havock in the lives of the residents of the Plaza Hotel – it’s a follow-up to the original Eloise At The Plaza (both book and movie) – while also endearing herself to them. It is a delightful piece of fluff.
Other titles I like from the Hallmark lineup of Christmas movies are The Christmas Card (2006) starring Edward Asner, John Newton and Faith Spelman. A single woman (Spelman) sends a homemade Christmas card to a soldier in Afghanistan (Newton), which gives him hope and encouragement. When he’s on leave at Christmastime, he decides to visit the town the card came from. He meets the girl and her father (Asner), who invites him home for Christmas. The rest is a really good romantic story.
In Single Santa Seeks Mrs. Claus (2004), Steve Guttenberg makes the perfect Saint Nick, Jr., who is looking for a wife. He sets his sights on Crystal Bernard, but he has a tough time convincing her that he is who he says. Second Chances (2013) is about a fireman (Greg Vaughan) that hurts his leg and so must find a temporary first floor room. A 911 operator (Alison Sweeney) just happens to have one, along with two kids that immediately take to their new housemate. Even though fireman and operator are attracted to each other, Alison Sweeney’s character has trouble with commitment. Fallen Angel (2003), starring Gary Sinise and Joely Richardson, is also very good.
You can get great deals on these and other Hallmark movies on Amazon. But to buy directly from the Hallmark web site, go here.
Best Christmas Gift for Men – David Roper’s In Quietness & Confidence
This is one of the best men’s devotionals out there. David Roper is a real man’s man, and a fisherman who spends a lot of time standing in rivers thinking. Some of his insights are things that every man has experienced, but we appreciate his ability to put them into words. Others are incredibly fresh, even profound. I “go on vacation” with this book once a year, and look forward to the next time. I highly recommend it.
Best Christmas Music – Andy Williams – Any of his Christmas albums
I love traditional Christmas music, and there’s a good chance that when you hear traditional Christmas music today, whether from the soundtrack of a movie or in a store, it’s Andy Williams. He has come to define the Christmas song, the way Bing Crosby did in yesteryear with White Christmas. His voice was clear, he used great instrumentalists and backup singers, his arrangements were “hip,” and today they’re very “retro.” So whether you’re an old timer or a young hipster, he adds a friendly, familiar element to any holiday setting.
Best Christmas Decorations – Red-Blue-Chartreuse; Fresh, Bright, Simple
Everyone has their own taste in Christmas decorations, just as they do in music, food and everything else. I like to have a color theme, rather than an object theme, like snowmen or reindeer. My favorite palette is the same one I use the rest of the year: fire engine red, royal blue (Hanukkah blue) and chartreuse green. I also like to keep things fresh (no artificial greens), bright (no muted colors, like burgundies) and simple. Christmas should be fun, so the more fun my house or apartment looks at Christmastime, the better. But that’s me.
I also like going to other people’s houses and seeing a different approach. That’s one of the beauties of Christmas – the lack of uniformity. Everyone has their own, unique way of decorating and celebrating. Most families have their own Christmas traditions, but so do towns and parts of our nation. Even countries have their own traditions. I have a neighbor from Napal who’s a Buddhist, and he says he and his family enjoy Christmas. So Christmas is not just a Christian holiday, which makes all this “war on Christmas” stuff so insane. What person in their right mind wouldn’t like Christmas? Well, apparently, our public school system doesn’t; which should cause us to realize there is something terribly wrong with our school system.
Best Place to Visit at Christmas – Biltmore House, Asheville, NC
If you want a spectacular Christmas, the Biltmore House in Asheville, NC has it. As they put it, “56 Christmas trees (including the favorite 40-foot Fraser fir in the Banquet Hall), 1,000 poinsettias, miles of garland and lights, live music and inspirational holiday demonstrations.” Their candlelight evenings run through January 4.
The arrival of the Christmas tree for the Banquet Hall (shown above) is quite an event, and quite a task to errect and decorate. For photos showing how it’s done, go to http://www.romanticasheville.com/biltmore_christmas_tree_raising.htm
I love Biltmore, and Christmas just makes it even more special. It’s pricey; but if you’re going to do something special, that’s the place to do it. One of my nephews proposed to his wife there at Christmas.
To plan a trip to Biltmore, go to http://www.biltmore.com/
To read some of my articles on Biltmore, go to http://www.waitsel.com/travel/
Repeat: Best Christmas Hors d’oeuvre – My Family’s Recipe for Shrimp Dip
This is a repeat from my Best of Christmas – Vol. 1; but it was such a hit, I thought I’d bring it back.
Every Christmas, when my family gets together for Christmas, we compete with each other for who can come up with the best variation on our family’s recipe for Shrimp Dip. Some of us like more onion, others like more catsup – I personally like more Worchestershire sauce. You can adjust it for your own taste. For years we enjoyed Shrimp Dip with Nabisco’s Bacon Thins crackers, but they’re next to impossible to find anymore; so now we have it with a variety of crackers and chips. I like Stoned Wheat Thins from Red Oval Farms. (Beware the non-sodium version, which have less flavor.)
So, without further ado, here’s our recipe for Shirmp Dip:
Drain one 4 oz. can of small (tiny) shrimp. Mash fine. Add 4 oz. cottage cheese (small curd), the juice of 1/2 lemon, 1-2 Tbsp. minced onion, 1-2 Tbsp. Worchestershire sauce, 2 Tbsp. tomato catsup, and 1/3 to 1/2 cup mayonnaise. Mix well. Keep refrigerated. Spread on vegetables or crackers. Enjoy!
Best Christmas Romance – Miracle On 34th Street (1947)
Now, this isn’t like the Christmas romances you’ll see on the Hallmark Channel. Miracle On 34th Street is a classic comedy about an old man (Edmund Gwenn) that claims to be Santa Claus, and is headed to the looney bin because of it; a young businesswoman (Maureen O’Hara) that unwittingly hires him to play Santa Claus in Macy’s; a young lawyer (John Payne) that is crazy enough to defend him in court; and a young girl (Natalie Wood) that wants to believe in him, but has been conditioned by her mother, the businesswoman, to be logical and realistic about everything. So, in the midst of trying to prove that Santa Claus is who he claims to be, John Payne’s lawyer falls in love with Maureen O’Hara’s businesswoman and, basically, corrupts the little girl into believing in Santa. And Santa – where does he end up? Well, if you haven’t seen it before, you’ll just have to watch it to find out!
For my entire list of Christmas movies, go here.
The Meaning of Christmas
I think you have to have been born in the South to understand this, but there is a real connection with Southerners between Christmas and snow. It’s almost as if snow validates the holiday. Maybe we’re just more romantic that people in other parts of the country, and we’ve really bought into the idea of a “white Christmas;” but every year, the entire South prays that it will snow on Christmas Eve. It’s not that we have horse-drawn sleighs anymore, as many Yankees would like to think; but we do like to remember them. Snow reminds us of how Christmas once was, a time of graciousness and charity. We wish we could get back to that, but we never do. And so the promise and joy of Christmas are always followed by a feeling of unfulfillment and melancholy. Snow softens that.
The other reason snow is so important to Christmas is because Christmas is a medieval, European holiday in origin, and therefore needs medieval, European symbols to support it. The birth of Jesus took place in an arid, Eastern country. It’s very difficult for Westerners to wrap their heads around the birth of a Savior in such a foreign place. So we wrap the story in things we understand, like snow and Christmas trees and candy canes. Snow is like a white security blanket that we hold next to our heads as we suck our thumbs and gaze at the Nativity. Snow represents the purity of Christ that He has so graciously clothed us with. When we twist that image together with one of the His righteousness – something else He’s clothed us in – we have the red and white of the candy cane, a beautiful medieval image that, like snow, helps to comfort and encourage us at Christmas time.
The great reformer Martin Luther introduced the Christmas tree into our tradition. But other than it, most of our holiday symbols are medieval and all point back to Christ and what He was born to bring:
“Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.” Isaiah 1:18
Christ’s sinless blood washed away our sins, which were as red as scarlet, and made them as clean and pure as His own. That is the gift of a tiny baby sent from Heaven and born into an evil world. The Wise Men’s gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh pale in comparison.
If you’d like more, go to my Best of Christmas – Vol. 1.
Waitsel Smith, December 10, 2013
For more on Christian Culture and Holidays, go to my Holidays website.
Text © 2013 Waitsel Smith. Photos © 2013 Waitsel Smith, plus additional sources. All Rights Reserved.