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Posts Tagged ‘A Christmas Story’

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A five-member Salvation Army band playing in front of a green gazebo. Two sledders careening down a frozen waterfall. A poulterer, a pair of dead fowl hanging limply in each hand, standing behind a trio of Christmas carolers. Two horse-and-buggies charging at one another while traveling headlong down a one-lane cobblestone street– their collision inevitable and yet impossible.

Just a day in the life of the Dickens’ Village.

For those who have no idea what I’m taking about: the “Dickens’ Village” is a series of holiday collectibles– everything from buildings to figurines to various “olde towne” accessories– put out by the Department 56 company. Introduced in 1984, the series was originally based on the Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol,” but the company eventually expanded their scope by introducing new pieces—some inspired by other Dickens novels, others depicting life in Victorian London in general.

The Dickens’ Village pieces, especially the buildings, are beautifully ornate, shockingly expensive, and not particularly practical. Apart from a few with moving parts (skaters that glide around a frozen pond, for example, or dancers that waltz around in a living room window), most pieces don’t really do anything—nor are they supposed to. Really, all these pieces are meant to do is sit on a tabletop or under the Christmas tree and, in all their illuminated glory, usher in the holiday mood.

Of course, the Dickens’ series isn’t the only “holiday collectible” in town. (Uh… in village?)   There’s the New England edition, the “Christmas in the City” edition (complete with an 50s-style “American Diner” building), and even a Charlie Brown-themed edition.

And who can overlook the series based on the beloved film A Christmas Story?   Every classic scene is recreated with pieces such as “Triple Dog Dare” (depicting the scene where Flick gets his tongue stuck to the frozen pole) and “Isn’t It Beautiful?” (which shows the Old Man unveiling his prized leg-lamp).

But my favorite series of all has to be the Dickens’ Village, if only because it’s the one with which I have the most experience. No, we don’t own any pieces ourselves, but my mother-in-law has an extremely extensive collection.  How extensive?  Well… let me put it this way: a few years ago, my brother-in-law John actually conducted a census of the citizens.

I was first introduced to the Dickens’ Village phenomenon seventeen years ago, and I was immediately enchanted.  Over the years, my wife and I have taken on more ownership over the whole “Assembling the Dickens’ Village” project, to the point that we’re now the primary city-planners. (This has earned us a big round of applause from my mother-in-law’s knees.)

Each year, we try to add a different element to the village: this year, we inserted a Christmas tree farm, while in years past, we’ve included a hedge maze, a waterfall, and a town green complete with a stage.  (The theater company was actually putting on a scene from “A Christmas Carol,” which we thought was a nice “meta” touch.)

Over the past two years, my wife and I have recruited our twin sons to help assemble the town, and they also got the bug.  I guess you could say we’re all “Village People.”  (Can you tell I have been waiting this whole post to make that joke?)

Now what does any of this have to do with this blog?  Simple: the Dickens’ Village both requires and inspires storytelling.

Over the past seventeen years, I’ve come to appreciate the link between city-planning and story-telling.   Often, a story—or at least, a kernel of a story—can dictate the placement of the key pieces.  So, in the past, we’ve created a “rich side of town” vs. “poor side of town” dynamic.  Or right next to the theater we put the coffeehouse, where folks can hang out right after they watched the show.

The placement of Scrooge’s house tells a different story.  Do you place it in isolation, which he would undoubtedly prefer, or do you place it in the middle of everything, which would drive poor Ebenezer crazy?  (Sometimes, we even put some carolers right in front of his door.  Oh, he loves that!)

But then there are a multitude of other stories that can’t be mapped out, stories that happen organically, by the chance placement of, say, a paperboy by a constable in front of a bakery.   Maybe that’s the start of a new Christmas classic, waiting to be told.

Just recently, a student was telling me about J. R. R. Tolkein and how he created this fascinating world of Middle-Earth and then tried to figure out a story that he could tell in that world. The Dickens’ Village is the same sort of thing… only not so much Gollum.

The pieces in the Dickens’ Village, while beautiful and ornate, are essentially dead-as-doornails.  The stories bring the village to life.

And here are some pictures of the 2012 Dickens Village…

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Thanksgiving is over and the Christmas season has begun!  In keeping with the theme of our blog, here is a list of our favorite Christmas “stories” from movies and TV.  Full disclosure: Neither of us has ever seen It’s a Wonderful Life.  Mark vows to watch it this season, but I kind of want to see how long I can hold out.  If we haven’t lost all credibility after this confession, take a look at our top ten Christmas picks:

10. Love Actually (2003 film, Richard Curtis)
This movie beautifully depicts the ways in which sorrow and hope are often intermingled during the holiday season.  We also love the multi-threaded storytelling that brings characters together in unexpected ways.

9. A Muppet Family Christmas (1987 TV special, Jim Henson)
In this sweet and magical Christmas special, Fozzie Bear brings the entire Muppet gang to surprise his mother on Christmas Eve.  Also a cool crossover with characters from both Sesame and Fraggle Rock.

8. Die Hard (1988 film, John McTiernan, Steve de Souza, Jeb Stuart)
Not only does it take place on Christmas Eve, the emotional core of this awesome action movie has to do with John McClane’s love for his family—and his ultimate redemption.  What’s more Christmas-ey than that?  In many ways the terrorists’ attack on Nakatomi Plaza is a metaphor for the unrest in the McClane family. The fact that not only do John and Holly survive but rekindle their love for one another is truly a Christmas miracle!

7. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966 TV special, Chuck Jones)
Three reasons we love this one: 1) A faithful adaptation of the Dr. Seuss story, 2) the totally cool narration by Boris Karloff, and 3) Thurl Ravenscroft (the original voice of Tony the Tiger) singing the delightfully creepy “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”

6. Christmas Party: The Office, Season 2 (NBC, Greg Daniels)
During its second season, The Office became the highest-rated scripted series on NBC for their ability to blend deliciously cringeworthy comedy with surprising moments of heart.  This is most evident in the Christmas episode when Michael Scott—disappointed in his gift of a homemade oven mitt—hijacks the Secret Santa party and turns it into a Yankee swap.

5. A Christmas Story (1983 film directed by Bob Clark)
My brother-in-law will be disappointed that this movie only makes #5 on our list.  Indeed there are many moments of perfection in the film. Topping the list:  Ralphie’s relentless campaign for the Red Ryder BB Gun (“You’ll shoot your eye out!”); Flick’s tongue stuck to the frozen flagpole; and Ralphie’s dad’s “major award”—a leg lamp in a crate marked FRAGILE. (“Fra-JEE-lay! Must be Italian!”)

4. Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970 TV special, Rankin-Bass)
A fun and comprehensive origin story in which we learn how Santa got his name, why he’s sometimes called Kris Kringle, why he has a beard, why kids hang stockings on their chimneys, why Santa enters homes through those same chimneys, how reindeer got the ability to fly, and why Santa and Mrs. Claus now live at the North Pole.  Plus a very cool villain-turned-good-guy in the Winter Warlock.

3. The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974 TV special, Rankin-Bass)
This TV special starts out with the great feminist musical number: “I Could Be Santa Claus.”  Mrs. Claus was the Lilly Ledbetter of her time.  Plus: Heat Miser and Cold Miser.  Enough said.

2. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965 TV special, Charles Schulz, Bill Melendez)
For many of us, Christmas is about hope, peace, and the promise of a Savior.  This is brought home with stunning simplicity when Linus interrupts the pageant practice to recite a passage from Luke’s gospel (Luke 2:8-14).

1. Emmett Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1977 TV special, Jim Henson)
This somewhat obscure Christmas special will always top our list.  For over ten years we’ve been watching it with our twins on the original VHS tape.  Adapted from a children’s storybook by Russell Hoban, this Jim Henson TV special tells a Gift of the Magi story with a twist.  Emmett puts a hole in his mother’s washtub (laundry being their main source of income) in order to enter a talent contest.  If he wins, he’ll use the prize money to buy his mother a piano for Christmas.  Meanwhile, Ma Otter hocks Emmett’s tool chest (which he uses for odd jobs) in order to buy herself a costume for this same contest.  If she wins…she’ll buy her son a guitar.   Set to a delightful soundtrack of original songs by Paul Williams, Emmett and his Ma learn about the value of family, the gift of music, and the importance of making the most of what you have. (“Oh, Emmett…that’s about the nicest present anybody ever tried to give me.”)

We’d love to hear your thoughts on our list and some additions of your own!

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