Every year, as the holidays approach, those of us afflicted with holiday spirit root around in our DVD racks, log in to our Netflix accounts and tune our televisions to ABC and settle in to watch our favorite holiday movies and specials.
Who cares if we've seen "Miracle on 34th Street," "A Christmas Carol" or "A Charlie Brown Christmas" more times than we could possibly count? There's something about these films and cartoons, some ineffable combination of nostalgia and familiarity, of jokes we've heard a thousand times and saccharine sentiments as pre-packaged as store-bought Christmas cookies, that keeps us returning year after year.
The characters in those treasured holiday stories are so deeply ingrained into our minds that they've become bona fide cultural archetypes. Don't like Christmas? You're a Scrooge or a Grinch. Kids who want things they shouldn't get -- which, let's face it, is pretty much every kid in America -- inevitably remind us of young Ralphie from "A Christmas Story." And that guy who strings a million gaudy, blinking lights on his house, much to the dismay of all his neighbors? Well, that would be Clark Griswold, the Christmas-addicted protagonist of "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation." And the list goes on.
Here's a theory about why so many of us, like moths drawn to a flame, never seem to tire of these endlessly repeated stories:
We are the stars.
All these characters, from the much-abused Charlie Brown and the naive and adorable Ralphie to the humbugged old Ebenezer Scrooge and scheming Grinch, remind us of people we know.
Sometimes the resemblance is undeniably spot-on, and sometimes it's more abstract. But however you look at it, it seems clear our affection for these classics comes out of a desire to watch larger-than-life, mythologized (and sometimes idealized) versions of ourselves.
In that spirit, we went out into Western New York and tracked down people in the community who remind us of the famous (and infamous) holiday characters many of us have come to know and love. We didn't have to look very far. Happy Holidays.
- Colin Dabkowski
>Cindy Lou, that's Who
When little Cindy Lou Who discovers the Grinchy Claus starting to shove her family's Christmas tree up the chimney in Dr. Seuss' "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," she asks, "Santy Claus, why, why are you taking our Christmas tree? WHY?"
And when little Madison Eleanor Jayson, age 2 like Cindy Lou, sees a visitor preparing to leave her Grand Island home, she looks at her with that same wide-eyed innocence and asks, "Where are you goinnng?"
Madison, who turns 3 in January, was first spotted at Susan Makai's Personal Best, where she will soon be taking a Mommy and Me modeling workshop. The conversation turned to Santa Claus, where it continues in more depth several days later in her own home.
Bedecked in her swingy red Christmas dress trimmed with white faux fur, Madison tells how she and her baby brother, John Robert, visited Santa at Kelly's Country Store.
Some feared that J.R., being just 3 1/2 months old, would cry when he was placed on Santa's lap. But he didn't.
"I'm magical," Santa told them.
Her parents, Jonathan and Jessica, say that Madison doesn't understand how Santa will ever get down the chimney Christmas Eve.
When asked how, then, will Santa come in, Madison looks at the front door.
And even if Dory and Safari, the family's two very big dogs, bark at him, Santa will not be afraid, Madison says.
"No bark," he'll tell them.
And they won't. Because Santa is magical.
-- Susan Martin
On the lecture circuit, Tom Flynn calls himself the Anti-Claus, attacking Christmas with a PowerPoint presentation complete with 300 slides. He has posed in a black stocking cap reading "Bah, Humbug!"
Flynn, the author of "The Trouble with Christmas," a book that argues against Christmas and the celebration of it, appears to be Buffalo's own personal unrepentant Scrooge.
Funny and likable, Flynn does not share Scrooge's nastiness. But he shares his philosophy. Flynn edits the journal Free Inquiry at the atheist Center for Inquiry in Amherst, and gets flak even from other atheists because he advocates shunning any seasonal festivities -- not only Christmas and Hanukkah but also Kwanzaa and even the winter solstice (which is associated with paganism, technically a religion).
"One of the points that I make in my presentation is that nonreligious Americans -- humanists, atheists -- gave up the babe a long time ago," he says. "Why do they cling so tenaciously to the bathwater?"
Like Scrooge, Flynn works on Christmas Day. Because of the nature of his business, his colleagues tend to do likewise, with no Bob Cratchit begging for the day off. They are entitled to a civil holiday, but they are taking it on Dec. 24.
The good news is Flynn bears no ill will against Mr. Dickens. "I think 'A Christmas Carol' is a fine story," he says. "I'm just depressed at the story's sad ending."
-- Mary Kunz Goldman
Kurt Schneiderman, the founder of a small troupe of players known as the Subversive Theatre Collective, is a good man whose genuine intentions are always butting up against harsh reality and bad luck.
There was the night, last season, when one of Kurt's actors walked offstage in the middle of a scene, never to return. Earlier this season, he had to cancel his production of "Marat/Sade" because of last-minute casting issues. And before that, a former collaborator took Schneiderman's idea for a show and produced it himself at another theater across town.
You easily could forgive the guy for throwing in the towel. But like Charlie Brown charging for that football he knows will probably be yanked away the precise moment he tries to kick it, Schneiderman charges ahead.
Where is he right now? Chances are he's up in the ramshackle lighting booth of his pint-sized Manny Fried Playhouse, directing a production of Clifford Hours' original play "A Totalitarian Christmas."
You can almost hear him repeating Charlie Brown's mantra, uttered upon finding the scrawny little Christmas tree that serves as the focal point of "A Charlie Brown Christmas": "I never thought Subversive was such a bad little company. It's not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love."
As a self-proclaimed Jewish atheist militantly opposed to consumerism, you wouldn't necessarily peg Schneiderman for a Christmas-lover. But he says he's a big fan of the Christmas season. And like Charlie Brown, he's struggling to find his own meaning in the yearly occasion -- one that has nothing to do with money, nor religion, but with a spirited determination to do good work against daunting odds.
>Hundreds of lights
Christmas is a big deal for George Osborne.
How big a deal? Let's put it this way: He has 18 Christmas trees inside his house. Plus the towering tree rigged up with hundreds of white lights on the deck of his Lewiston home.
And while Osborne perhaps does not have the doofy personality or thoroughly tacky taste of Clark Griswold, the Christmas-crazed protagonist of "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," that same deep-seated mania for holiday decorations is clearly present. If Osborne, who serves as the president of Artpark, had his druthers, even the enormous tree outside would be propped up in his living room. But even Christmas fanatics sometimes have to make compromises.
"When I lived in Youngstown I got a tree that would reach all the way to the ceiling. At my new house, I can get the tree in my living room, but there wouldn't be room for anything else," Osborne said, a faint tinge of disappointment in his voice.
Osborne caught the Christmas bug as a child from his family, which always turned Christmas into a larger-than-life affair.
"It's a big family day -- you get up and open your presents at the crack of dawn. I've been doing it from as early as I can remember, which is probably a long time," said Osborne, who is 72. "We have two twin boys that are 26 years old and they come over on Christmas morning and we still have stockings for them. I don't know if they're as big into it as we are."
You get the sense that Osborne's wife, Nancy, is happily playing along with her husband -- and probably breathing a sigh of relief that her living room has not been converted into an Alpine forest. Asked if George sometimes goes just a teensy bit overboard with the Christmas decorations, Nancy responded with cautious diplomacy.
"I would say yes," she said. "But I wouldn't tell him that."
-- Colin Dabkowski
>There is a Santa Claus
Ashley Arnold's deep brown eyes shine as she talks about Santa. Unlike 8-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon of New York City, who wrote to the editor of the New York Sun in 1897 because "some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus," the 6-year-old and her first-grade friends all believe in the jolly old elf.
Her brother, John, 10, says some of his fellow fourth-graders question Santa, perhaps, as The Sun's Francis P. Church wrote to Virginia in 1897, "affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age." But the children of Edward and Grazyna Arnold of East Amherst are firm in their knowledge that Santa exists, gleaned from happenings and hints, sounds and glimpses.
"My brother said some people in his class don't believe in Santa Claus," says Ashley, with surprise and a bit of shock in her light voice. "Most of them believe in him, but like three don't," says John, who says he and a buddy step up in St. Nick's defense. "We try to convince them that there is a Santa, tell them what proof we have of Santa, reindeer on the roof for example," says John.
"I have heard him," says John. "I heard reindeer hooves on the roof, but that was a long time ago."
The children explain that Santa descends the chimney at their home and places gifts under the sparkling tree in the family room. As Church wrote to Virginia 113 years ago, "You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus."
In the Arnold house, as two good children compose their modest Christmas lists, the spirit of Christmas lives on in the purest and most heartwarming way. As Church wrote of Santa, "Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood."
-- Anne Neville
>A Land of Sweets
In "The Nutcracker," Clara arrives in the realm of the Sugar Plum Fairy empty-handed.
So do the guests to Jackie Gurney's annual cookie party, which transformed her Middlesex Road home into a preposterous Land of Sweets earlier this month.
Gurney, a Family Court law clerk and mother of three, wants guests' hands free. That's so they can pick up one of the boxes she provides and fill it with her handiwork. She simplified this year, and did not adorn the boxes with her party's logo.
Pistachio fingers or peppermint bark? Mexican Wedding Cakes or pecan tassies? Lemon Cornmeal Shortbread or peanut butter fudge? Gurney's guests had a little easier time making their choices this year, because she only made 42 varieties of cookies.
Drained by the grueling process, more than 90 of Gurney's guests enjoyed restorative appetizers, like fig and prosciutto pizza, and smoked chicken in lettuce cups. Or sampled a red cocktail (pomegranate martini) and a green cocktail (grasshopper).
She does it by baking through November and filling the basement freezer with about 1,500 cookies, made in batches from her 100-strong recipe collection. "Once the freezer's full, I have to stop," Gurney said.
"My favorite things about Christmas are cookies, cocktails and the music. That's the genesis of it," Gurney said.
"The spirit of Christmas is supposed to be about giving, and this is my way of giving back to my girlfriends, who are good to me all year."
-- Andrew Z. Galarneau
>Hold the roast beast!
Morgan Dunbar, a 26-year-old philosophy major at Canisius College, doesn't hate Christmas. And neither her shoes nor her heart are two sizes too small. In fact, it's her large heart -- and her appreciation for what she has -- that makes her appreciate the role model of the post-enlightenment Grinch.
In Dr. Seuss' "How The Grinch Stole Christmas," the green creature descends on Whoville and loots all the Whos' gifts, decorations and food. He is baffled when they still celebrate. The shocked Grinch says of Christmas, "It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes or bags! ... Maybe Christmas ... doesn't come from a store! Maybe Christmas ... perhaps ... means a little bit more!"
Dunbar, the only child of a single working mom, says although as a young child she focused on the gifts, she began to realize when she was about 10 how hard her mom had to work to shower her with presents.
"I stopped asking for gifts probably younger than most kids," she says. "I started seeing how I could try to make the holidays more than just presents for me."
Dunbar gradually changed her holiday focus. "I started realizing that Christmas, and the holidays in general, are more about compassion and empathy for others, and I started looking at the way other people live, without things that I took for granted," she says. "I realized this is not a time for me to get more, but a time to slow down and take inventory of what's going on in other people's lives."
Dunbar does agree with one aspect of the thieving Grinch, who cleans out the "roast beast" from the Whos' refrigerators. A vegan, Dunbar asks people celebrating Christmas to consider whether they should extend their seasonal compassion to animals and feast on a nonmeat meal that day.
-- Anne Neville