Monthly Archives: December 2009

Holiday: Christmas Light Displays

The Christmas lights display in Silver Dollar City at Branson was chosen America's best by America's Best and Top Ten. Uploaded by

Today, we’re tipping the hat to America’s Best and Top 10, which has a ranking of America’s best Christmas light displays. We’re not talking about residential displays here, but commercial ones. Though pictures won’t quite do these justice, they’ll give you a pretty good idea. Here are the top six – if you’re close enough to visit, you probably already know them. (For those of you in the Winston-Salem area, the Tanglewood display in Clemmons, NC was selected as an Honorable Mention.)

1. SILVER DOLLAR CITY, Branson, Missouri

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2. OGLESBAY FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS, Wheeling, West Virginia

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3. FANTASY IN LIGHTS, Pine Mountain, Georgia

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4. SMOKY MOUNTAIN WINTERFEST, Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge/Sevierville, Tennessee

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5. TRAIL OF LIGHTS, Austin, Texas

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6. MAGICAL NIGHTS OF LIGHTS, Lake Lanier, Georgia

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Food: Chex Mix

This version adds bagel chips and Cheese Nips. Okay. Uploaded by

Wheat Chex made its debut in 1937. The Corn and Rice varieties followed shortly thereafter. But legend has it that they found their true raison d’etre when the wife of a Ralston Purina executive needed something different for a Christmas party. If she’d known what her creation would mean to hubby’s company, she might have called it cha-ching mix.

You can find the approved recipe on any of the cereals’ boxes. Or you can go to the Chex Web site and get the skinny on 15 different versions. Well, maybe “the skinny” isn’t quite the right phrase here. There are mixes that are microwavable, salty, sweet, and gluten free. Hot and spicy, Oriental, cinnamon apple, cookie pizza, snickerdoodle, and more. Those crazy product development people.

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But the original version is best. Reasonable people can have slight variations on what’s “original,” as long as they have peanuts (or preferably, mixed nuts), pretzel sticks, Worcestershire sauce, and butter. My wonderful wife likes to add Goldfish. And I look forward to having a big batch in another week or so.

If you want to know the ORIGINAL Original recipe, this is it. It’s taken from the cereal boxes in the 1950s:

Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 40 minutes

* 1/2 cup butter or margarine
* 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
* 1-1/4 teaspoons seasoned salt
* 1/4 teaspoon garlic salt
* 3 cups Wheat Chex square cereal
* 2 cups Rice Chex square cereal
* 1-1/2 cups peanuts
* 1-1/2 cups small pretzel rods

Preheat oven to 275 degrees F. Melt butter in a shallow pan. Stir in Worcestershire sauce, seasoned salt, and garlic salt (not garlic powder). Add Wheat Chex, Rice Chex, nuts (peanuts, pecans or cashews), and pretzel rods. Mix until all pieces are coated with the butter mixture.

Place on a shallow baking pan with sides. Bake for 40 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes. Cool…enjoy!

Movie: A Christmas Story

I want an Official Red Ryder carbine-action two-hundred-shot Range Model air rifle! Uploaded by

Wonder if this movie will be on TV this year? Oh, yeah. About a thousand times. (That’s called hyperbole.) And you know what? That’s okay, because this movie is as much a part of Christmas in America as red nose reindeer.

It’s the brainchild of writer Jean Shepherd, who I happened to hear speak once. At the time he wasn’t happy that this film had become so popular. No, he was bitter because he thought the creators of The Wonder Years had stolen his idea of an adult doing a voiceover remembering his childhood. Who knows. Maybe they did.

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Like all great productions, the casting of A Christmas Story was inspired. Darren McGavin was a decent character actor who made his way through a number of small TV series and movies, but he was perfect as Ralphie’s Dad. Melinda Dillon was a great mom. And how could any kid other than Peter Billingsley have played Ralphie? I submit that they could not!

Of course, when we remember this movie, we remember the vignettes. The Old Man cussing up a storm while doing battle with the furnace. Ralphie getting his Little Orphan Annie secret decoder pin, only to be told to drink more Ovaltine. The Old Man winning “a major award.” Ralph accidentally saying the “queen mother” of all swear words. And my favorite, when Flick gets his tongue stuck on the flagpole.

And this is such a quotable movie, here are some of the memorable lines:

RALPHIE, AS ADULT: (Talking about his father) “He worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium; a master.”

RALPHIE: “I want an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle!”
SANTA: “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.”

RALPHIE, AS ADULT: “Some men are Baptists, others Catholics; my father was an Oldsmobile man.”

WAITERS IN CHINESE RESTAURANT: “Deck the harrs with boughs of horry, fa ra ra ra ra, ra ra ra ra.”

FLICK: “Are you kidding? Stick my tongue to that stupid pole? That’s dumb!”
SCHWARTZ: “Well I double dog dare you!”

Americana: National Christmas Tree

We've had a National Christmas Tree every year since 1923. Uploaded by

Okay, first let’s get this formality out of the way. It’s not a holiday tree. There are no trees associated with Hanukkah or Ramadan. And it’s not a religious symbol. It’s a part of the American cultural celebration, and it’s a Christmas tree.

We can’t think of much that Calvin Coolidge accomplished while in office, but he did start the tradition of the National Christmas Tree. He lit the first National Tree in 1923, and even chose the location it’s occupied for most of the intervening years, on the Ellipse in Washington, DC.

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Other interesting facts about the tradition include: The celebration was televised for the first time in 1946… For many years, it was called the National Christmas Community Tree… Although the President usually lights the tree, several Vice Presidents have had the honor over the years… In 1963, the tree wasn’t lit until December 22, after a 30-day mourning period for assassinated President John Kennedy… The ceremony surrounding the lighting is called the Pageant of Peace.

This year, the 40-foot Colorado blue spruce was lit on December 3 by President Obama along with the First Lady and their two daughters. Performers at the celebration included Sheryl Crow, Celtic Woman, and Jordin Sparks, and a special guy named Santa Claus showed up for the occasion.

History: The Arizona Memorial

More than 2,700 Americans died at Pearl Harbor. We're fortunate it wasn't a lot more. Uploaded by

Franklin Roosevelt said these memorable words: “Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

Just over 2,400 Americans were killed at Pearl Harbor; 1,177 of them were crewmen on the Battleship Arizona. The eight battleships in port were the primary target, and all were seriously damaged or sunk. All but the Arizona and the Oklahoma were eventually repaired and returned to service, however.

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In 1953, the Admiral in charge of the Pacific fleet ordered that a flagpole be erected above the sunken remains of the Arizona, and five years later President Eisenhower approved the creation of the Memorial. It was dedicated in 1962, and today hosts more than a million visitors each year.

Even today, a small amount of oil continues to rise from the wreckage to the surface of the water. Some call this “the tears of the Arizona.”

Song: “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)”

I've never known anyone who's roasted chestnuts on an open fire like this. But Jack Frost has nipped at my nose. Uploaded by

The most-performed Christmas song isn’t “White Christmas” or “Silent Night”, but “The Christmas Song”, written by Mel Tormé and Bob Wells in 1944.

According to Tormé, the song was written during the heat of summer. “I saw a spiral pad on his piano with four lines written in pencil,” Tormé recalled. “They started, ‘Chestnuts roasting … Jack Frost nipping … Yuletide carols … Folks dressed up like Eskimos.’ Bob didn’t think he was writing a song lyric. He said he thought if he could immerse himself in winter he could cool off. Forty minutes later that song was written.”

Songwriter Mel Torme. Uploaded by

When you hear it playing in your head, you hear Nat King Cole (Great American Things, November 2, 2009) singing the definitive version. Cole first recorded it in 1946 with his trio, recorded it again with Nelson Riddle in 1953, then recorded it a third time (in stereo) in 1961. It’s this last version that you hear in your head, in your car, in the mall, at the grocery store…

Maybe you know someone who’s roasted chestnuts on an open fire. I sure don’t. In fact, I think I’ve only had a chestnut once in my life, and it was pretty gross. But this picture of hearth and home, of kids waiting for Santa, evokes a nostalgia for what Christmas may once have been – and what we all want it to be again. All of us, from one to 92.

Person: Steve Jobs

He was young, good-looking, smart, rich, and well-coiffed. He's still smart and rich. Uploaded by

Steve Jobs is just one of the people whose innovative thinking led to our immersion in computers in every phase of our lives. He didn’t invent the personal computer, but he made it stylish, fresh, fun, and cool.

Of course, lots of people contribute to the creation of any product or company, but it’s not a stretch to assert that without Steve Jobs, there would be no user-friendly personal computer. (He developed the first, Apple Macintosh.) No miniature music player. (He created the iPod.) No online music store where virtually any song can be found and owned. (iTunes is his baby). No Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., or Cars. (He changed Pixar from a computer graphics company into a movie studio.) And no cell phone with a touch screen that could perform thousands of tasks. (The iPhone is revolutionizing the cell phone industry.)

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Jobs has surely made over a billion dollars personally from these inventions. As you’d probably expect, anyone with such an obsession with excellence is a Type A personality, and it’s said Jobs isn’t the easiest person to work for. Someone once said, “He would have made an excellent king of France.” In recent years, however, he’s experienced health problems, having to undergo a liver transplant in early 2009. Perhaps a greater recognition of his mortality has helped to mellow this genius out.

He’s received a slew of honors, including being named most powerful person in business by Fortune Magazine in 2007. And in November, 2009 the magazine selected Jobs as CEO of the Decade. He summed up his business philosophy this way: “There’s an old Wayne Gretzky quote that I love. ‘I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.’ And we’ve always tried to do that at Apple. Since the very very beginning. And we always will.”

Sports: The Army-Navy Game

The game has been played in Philadelphia 81 times, but will be played in D.C. occasionally in the future. Uploaded to Flickr by jagwoodlex.

They started playing the game back in 1890, and Navy shut out the Army that year, 24-0. Last year they did it again, winning 34-0. They’ve now met 109 times, and the Navy holds a slight edge in the series, with 53 wins to the Army’s 49 (seven ties).

There was a time when this was not only a fierce rivalry, but one that actually mattered in college football. These schools, particularly the Army, were among the sport’s powers in the 1930s and 40s. In fact, in both the 1944 and 1945 seasons the national championship was at stake. The Army, blessed with two of the sport’s all-time greats in Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis, won both games.

Uploaded to Flickr by themurf.

Part of what makes this game so special is the pageantry involved, as both student bodies march into the stadium, and cheer on their on-field heroes. Part of is the pranks the service academies play on the other leading up to the game. And part is the respect all Americans have for our military, as demonstrated by all the Presidents who have attended – Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, Coolidge, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Ford, Clinton, and George W. Bush. Eisenhower actually played in the game as a halfback and linebacker for Army (they lost).

The Arts: Andrew Wyeth

Christina's World is Wyeth's most famous image. It depicts his neighbor in Maine who, due to an unknown illness, was unable to walk. Uploaded by

“The Painter of the People.” Some artists would recoil from that reputation, fearing it describes someone like Thomas Kincaid. For Andrew Wyeth, it simply meant that he painted recognizable scenes in a realist style they could appreciate. For Wyeth, it’s high praise indeed.

Those who paint in a realist style are often given short shrift by the high muckamucks of the art establishment. Seems to me, however, that we can appreciate both the brilliance of an innovative abstractionist and the discipline of a gifted realist. And that, Wyeth most certainly is.

He painted the people and landscapes around his home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania and his summer home in Cushing, Maine. He was influenced by the poetry of Frost (Great American Things, April 27, 2009) and Thoreau, particularly their representation of nature. Of course his father, N.C. Wyeth, gave him every advantage, as well as training from an early age.

And the finished paintings? Well, they speak for themselves.

“Snow Hill”

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“Late Harvest”

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“Master Bedroom”

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“The Meter Box”

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“Big Room”

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“Red Barn”

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“Wind from the Sea”

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Film: It’s a Wonderful Life

As Jimmy Stewart stood on the bridge in the machine-made snow, the temperature was 90 degrees. Uploaded to Flickr by Pikturz.

This movie is shown on TV at Christmas, but it’s not really a Christmas movie. It just happens that its climactic scenes take place during the season. It’s a film about – well, about the goodness of ordinary people. And second chances. And sacrifice.

It’s a Wonderful Life was originally planned as a vehicle for Cary Grant. But he was never pleased with the scripts developed, and decided to make another Christmas movie, The Bishop’s Wife, instead. Frank Capra then bought the rights, but still had a difficult time getting a script he liked. Though he may not have known it at the time, when he cast Jimmy Stewart (Great American Things, April 8, 2009) as George Bailey, he ensured that his film would be revered forever.

The box office wasn’t kind to the movie, however. It had the bad fortune to be released one week after The Best Years of Our Lives (Great American Things, May 25, 2009), which turned out to be the highest-grossing film of the decade, and which also took most of the Academy Awards for which It’s a Wonderful Life was nominated.

The American Film Institute named it number 11 in its 100 Years…100 Movies awards. And Jimmy Stewart’s performance was chosen as the eighth greatest performance of all time by Premiere magazine. Both Stewart and Capra said that It’s a Wonderful Life was their favorite film. “The film has a life of its own now,” Capra said in 1984, “and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud… but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”

Here’s a scene that’s a little uncomfortably relevant today: