In Praise Of Rudolph

In the pantheon of annual must-see Christmas TV events, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is right up there with A Charlie Brown Christmas, It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.  (At the other end of the spectrum, of course, is the supremely annoying Frosty The Snowman.)

Of course, Rudolph combined great characters, like Yukon Cornelius and Hermey, the elf who desperately wanted to be a dentist, with great settings, like the Island of Misfit Toys, and great songs, like Holly Jolly Christmas.  But the crucial and underappreciated significance of Rudolph is that it provided many teachable moments for growing boys.  For example, it featured a female character who wore a pink bow — which obviously was how you knew instantly that she was a girl reindeer in the first place.  This was vitally important information for the young boy eager to grow into adulthood.

Of course, Rudolph did a lot more.  It not only put a lot of flesh on the bones of the song, by doing crucial things like explaining what the heck were the reindeer games, it also prepared young boys who were watching for the gentle attention of whistle-blowing coaches and taught them how to react in the unlikely event that a girl ever said you were cute — as shown in the classic scene shown above.

Sure, sure . . . I know that some people argue that the real message of Rudolph is that people should just accept themselves for who they are and not try to hide their glaring red nose with some soot.  They’re wrong, of course.  The young boys who watched Rudolph knew that what it really told you was that if you felt sorry for yourself because you were different, disobeyed your parents, and ran away from home, you were likely to meet a flying lion and an intrepid gold prospector, fight and defeat the Abominable Snowman, and return home in the nick of time to get the girl and save the day.

It’s a great holiday message.

In Praise Of Vince Guaraldi

If you’ve watched A Charlie Brown Christmas, you’ve enjoyed the music of Vince Guaraldi.

Guaraldi’s jazz-flavored interpretations of holiday classics like O Tannenbaum, What Child Is This?, and Greensleeves, played by a trio with Guaraldi on piano, Jerry Granelli on drums, and Puzzy Firth on bass, were perfectly suited to Charles Schulz’s beautiful tale of Charlie Brown’s search for the meaning of Christmas.  I long ago bought the soundtrack CD at a bargain bin, and Guaraldi’s songs have been a key part of the holidays at the Webner household ever since.  I really can’t imagine what the holidays would be like without that music.

On a soundtrack album that is filled with gem after gem, my favorite track is the the instrumental version of Christmas Time Is Here — spare, shuffling, deeply melodic, with each note heartfelt and moving.  It’s the first song on my holiday mix iPod playlist and it inevitably puts me in the holiday mood.  It’s perfect music for a wintry day.

Although I will always associate Vince Guaraldi with A Charlie Brown Christmas, Guaraldi wasn’t a one-hit wonder.  With his trademark glasses and thick handlebar moustache, he was a staple of the jazz scene for two decades.  He recorded lots of excellent music, including the memorable Cast Your Fate to the Wind.  His career was cut short by his untimely death, of an apparent heart attack, in 1976, when he was only 47 years old.  You can learn a little bit more about Guaraldi and his music here.  It’s worth a few moments to know more about a man who helped to provide a soundtrack for our holidays.

Baking Day

Today I will be doing some Christmas baking.  It is a crisp, frosty day outside.  Kish is up in Vermilion visiting her Mom.  The Browns stink, so there will be no NFL-based distractions.

I’ve bought the ingredients and temporarily parked them on the kitchen island.  Nuts, flour, sugar, brown sugar, spices, coconut, eggs, butter, and milk, among others — just waiting to be chopped, sifted, beaten, and stirred into something good.  I’ve retrieved the familiar Christmas cookie implements from their storage places.  The oft-floured wooden rolling pin, seemingly straight from the hands of the angry wife in some 1950s sitcom.  The electric mixer, with its variable speeds and whirring efficiency and metal popouts.  The motley collection of mixing bowls, each a lone survivor from formerly matched sets.  The cookie cutouts that have been gradually accumulated over the years, some of which have been donated by our respective families.

My baking day procedure is time-honored and as comfortable as an old shoe.  I play familiar Christmas music, featuring liberal selections from A Charlie Brown Christmas, Bing Crosby, church choirs, and other classics, that puts me into a sentimental, holiday mood.  Recipes that require refrigeration are tackled first, so that they can chill while other baking goes forward.  As different concoctions are prepared and taken from the oven, the kitchen island fills up.  Icing is the last step in the process.   And then, after all of the baking is done, platters and gift boxes are prepared by walking around the island, selecting a finely calibrated assortment of baked goodies that are carefully placed on wax paper in colorful holiday boxes.

I always try to bake Christmas cookies early in December.  Baking cookies that I will give away to friends and family never fails to put me in a jolly holiday mood.

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes (Cont.)

It’s amazing how some Christmas cookie recipes, and other holiday treats, are so well-received that they become an integral part of the family traditions.  It gets to the point where you can’t really imagine Christmas without a plate of the particular cookies in the kitchen, ready to be gobbled down during A Charlie Brown Christmas and washed down with cold glass of milk.

When I was growing up, so it was with sugar cookies, cut out into holiday shapes and iced with the hard icing you get when you mix confectioner’s sugar and a few drops of milk and then brighten the mixture up with a few drops of food coloring.  Here is the recipe for that Webnerhouse classic.

Sugar Cookies

1 cup butter, softened; 1 cup granulated sugar; 1 large egg; 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla; 3 cups all-purpose flour; 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

Beat together butter and sugar until fluffy.  Add egg and vanilla, mix.  Add flour and baking powder gradually.   Continue to mix with mixer until combined, even if mix seems dry. Divide the dough into four parts, shape into four circles, wrap with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for an hour or until firm.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Lightly grease sheet pan with Crisco.  Roll out dough with rolling pin, lightly dusting with flour.  Cut out shapes with cookie cutters and place on baking pans.  Bake for 7 minutes or until edges of cookies are light brown.  Remove from oven, cool briefly, then put on plate.  Ice after completely cool.

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes (Cont.)

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes (Cont.)

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes

Christmas Music

I am a sucker for Christmas music of all kinds. I like traditional carols sung by choirs, ’60s holiday rock ‘n roll like Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree, oratorical masterpieces like the Messiah, and jazz and Big Band treatments of the Christmas standards. I’m always on the lookout for some new holiday music to add to the Ipod “holiday mix” playlist. The challenge is to find another “Christmas album” that compares to the all-time classics, like Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas or, more recently, Linda Ronstadt’s a Merry Little Christmas.

And so, I must give kudos to the Purple Raider, who long ago recommended An Oscar Peterson Christmas. I finally picked it up recently, and it has met my high expectations. It is an excellent, note-perfect jazz tribute to the holidays that has to rank up there with some of the best Christmas albums ever. Its combination of slow and fast treatments, piano and vibes, will allow for an even better mix of tunes for the days of holiday baking.

More on Christmas music later. In the meantime, as we ramp up to the holidays, An Oscar Peterson Christmas gets the Webnerhouse seal of approval.