The Historical Sources of Outdoor Toy Soldiers at Christmastime

Les Ballets de Noël

Though it may seem somewhat peculiar at first glance—if not downright counterintuitive—the association of outdoor toy soldiers with Christmas is now well established in western cultures. Proof of that fact can be found in the sudden appearance of giant toy soldier decorations on front lawns and in shopping malls nationwide when the Christmas season rolls around.

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Applause for Mrs. Claus!

Santa and Mrs. Claus figurines

For the countless adoring fans of legendary actress and singer Angela Lansbury, her recent passing no doubt evoked visions of her most memorable roles. For many, that would no doubt be the fictional writer and sleuth Jessica Fletcher in the American whodunit series Murder, She Wrote, which ran for twelve seasons. For others, the part they remember most fondly might be the one that earned Ms. Lansbury a Tony award for the cheerfully demented Mrs. Lovett in Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 operatic musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

And just to give you an insight into Ms. Lansbury’s dramatic range, consider that she also played Mrs. Lovett’s polar (get it, “polar”?) opposite, the equally cheerful role of Saint Nick’s spouse in the 1996 Hallmark Home Entertainment TV movie, Mrs. Santa Claus.

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The Aerodynamic Santa Sleigh Takes Flight!

Santa Sleight Merry Christmas

In view of the current worldwide pilot shortage, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects more than 18,000 job openings each year over the decade for pilots. Well, aren’t we fortunate that Santa is a seasoned pilot with his own non-polluting aircraft who need not endure arduous hours of initial training or mandatory recurrent training! Santa has no shortage of elf ramp agents either. And capricious fuel costs will never impact the viability of his carrot-fueled reindeer who propel the Santa sleigh at an astonishing 650 miles per second.

Beat that, Maverick, you Mach-mocking daredevil!

So how exactly does the Santa sleigh achieve this miraculous feat every Christmas? Let us investigate the aerodynamics (read “magic”) of the glowing Santa sleigh.

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How Outdoor Reindeer Come to Bring Christmas into Our Homes

Christmas wrapping paper with reindeer

We can understand how Saint Nicholas/Santa Claus came to represent the generous spirit of Christmas. He is a saint, after all. But the little town of Bethlehem isn’t particularly well known for its population of outdoor reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) grazing about. So why did Santa choose that particular hoofed beast to steer his sleigh on Christmas Day?

Could it be because this graceful animal, used as a beast of burden in the regions near the Arctic Circle, is the only deer species that can be domesticated? Or perhaps because Santa doesn’t want to share his Christmas cookies? After all, outdoor reindeer like to eat moss, herbs, ferns, grasses, shoots, and leaves. Their favorite food is lichen—a moss-like fungi. Better not bake lichen cookies for Christmas, or you’ll have reindeer thundering down your chimney instead!

Kidding aside, there are many fun facts you can learn about reindeer. Here are just a few:

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The Giant Snowman Comes to the Silver Screen

Giant snowman in parking lot

Winter brings to many localities chilling weather, a need for warm coats, and—if you’re lucky—snow. Children watch white flakes coat the yard and road, crossing their fingers that school will be closed for the day. (Parents, on the other hand, might be crossing their fingers that school stays open!) That lovely snowfall draws kids and adults alike outside to make snow angels and go sledding down nearby hills. And then there is the epitome of snow fun—building a giant snowman.

There is joy not only in rolling big snowballs for the body and the head, but also in deciding what should make the nose (possibly a carrot or shiny button?), mouth (pebbles, maybe?), and eyes (pieces of coal or perhaps more buttons?); and then finding sticks for arms and a jaunty hat to complete this frozen artwork.

You can make snowmen of all sizes, of course. But the most fun seems to be in building a giant snowman—the bigger, the better. Not only will he stand out, but he’ll last longer too! But what if the weather won’t cooperate, or you just don’t have the time? As it happens, anyone—whether they live in areas where there is lots of snow or no snow at all—can decorate their lawns and homes for winter or for the Christmas season with a festive, non-melting giant snowman!

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The Surprising Origin of Giant Nutcracker Christmas Decorations

Two Giant Nutcrackers guarding building entrance

When it’s time to seek out new decorations for the Christmas holiday, we might visit stores or browse online in search of those regal, festive figures, the nutcrackers. Often dressed in red, green, and gold, they stand ready to perform their duty, be it crack a bowl full of roasted chestnuts as part of a party snack or grace a holly-covered mantle near the sparkling Christmas tree. And not only are nutcrackers crafted in “snack” size, these days there are stately giant nutcrackers found in holiday displays all over, from North to South, East to West, heralding the season on snow-covered stretches or warm, sunny lawns.
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How the Giant Gingerbread Man Joined in the Joy of Christmas

Gingerbread man cookies for Christmas

How much fun is it to drive through neighborhoods during the Christmas season to check out decorations people have on exhibit in their yards? Look! There are red and green lights around the windows of this house and a bobbing, inflatable Santa near the garden. Every single tree beside the next house is adorned with large, colorful ornaments. And oh, the people who live in this house certainly know how to put on a show…they have a manger scene complete with the Holy Family and Wise Men, a row of light-up candy canes along the sidewalk, and a giant gingerbread man that smiles and holds his arms out to passersby. How cheerful! We should wave back!

And that got us to thinking: how in the world did something like gingerbread—and giant gingerbread men in particular—become associated with Christmas? They certainly aren’t mentioned in the New Testament recounting of the first Nativity!

Interesting story….

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Music of the Nativity

Medieval sheet music

Holy family Nativity setThis year, as you put the finishing touches on your home’s outdoor Nativity set display, take a mental survey: name five of your favorite Christmas songs. Chances are, the short list would include at least a few of these seasonal favorites:

  • “Jingle Bells”
  • “White Christmas”
  • “Winter Wonderland”
  • “The Christmas Song”
  • “Baby It’s Cold Outside”
  • “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”
  • “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer”
  • “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”

John Lennon’s “Happy Christmas (War Is Over)” (1971) might also make the list, vying with Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” (1979). On that list there might even be The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York,” which in various polls has been cited as the favorite Christmas song of all time in the U.K. and Ireland!

The funny thing is this—none of these aforementioned songs has much to do with Christmas per se. Yes, these non-liturgical songs may mention Santa Claus, winter weather, romance, and longing for one’s family during the holiday season, and they may all be enjoyable and appropriate for the season; but they barely allude, if at all, to the core narrative underlying all Christmas celebrations, namely, the birth of Jesus of Nazareth in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. In other words, the first Nativity.
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Giant Toy Soldiers and the World of Christmas

Toy soldiers

Hear them all cheering,
Now they are nearing,
There’s the captain stiff as starch.
Bayonets flashing,
Music is crashing,
As the wooden soldiers march;
Sabers a-clinking,
Soldiers a-winking,
At each pretty little maid…
Here they come! Here they come!
Here they come! Here they come!
Wooden soldiers on parade.

— English song lyrics by Ballard MacDonald
for “The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers”


People “of a certain age” (and by that we mean ones who are old) and with good memories can pinpoint the exact moment and surrounding circumstances signaling the official start of the holiday season that stretches from Thanksgiving to Christmas. These clues could be visual in nature, such as the sudden appearance of life-size Nativity scenes on church lawns, colorful Christmas lights adorning trees and lamp posts, or giant toy soldiers keeping guard in front of decorated homes. Or the clues could be olfactory: the smell of a turkey roasting in the oven, the aroma of eggnog, and the fragrance of cinnamon and gingerbread permeating the house. They could be auditory as well, with sleighbells ringing and carolers singing. All of these sensations elicit the sweet, nostalgic feelings most people experience at Christmastime.

But for some older grownups, the one sure sign in yesteryear that the holiday season had officially started would be the annual broadcast of the 1934 Laurel & Hardy feature film, Babes in Toyland. In the pre-cable era, this film became a popular holiday staple, broadcast repeatedly throughout the 1960s and 1970s on numerous TV stations across the United States during the Thanksgiving/Christmas holiday season. In the U.S., it was often shown under an alternate title: March of the Wooden Soldiers.

Many young fans of the comic duo always looked forward to this annual showing of Babes in Toyland—not only because it was fun to watch (the stop-action animated toy soldiers were a hoot, but Stan Laurel always stole the show), but because it had become a tradition that meant Christmas was just around the corner.

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Christmas Means Decorating

christmas

The Christmas season is upon us and, ho ho ho, it’s time for decorating.  The main event for many of us is a Christmas tree, which can be real, meaning it was once alive, or artificial.  There are a variety of options for real trees.  And within each class of tree, there are choices as well.  Fir trees, for example, include: Balsam, Fraser, Canaan and Douglas to name a few.   Some real tree enthusiasts remain steadfastly loyal to Spruce or Pine.  Because a tree purchased from a lot may shed its needles before the New Year, some people cut down their tree.  Today, many tree farms allow you to roam around the selection of trees in the Fall and label your tree for cutting in December.  This eliminates all those freezing ventures, stomping through deep snow, trying to select just the right one.  Most of us who’ve cut down our own tree have not experienced an adventure equal to that of the Griswald family.

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