Prefer some downtime from all the holiday rush? Cosy up to some good reads, films and soothing music that will make an equally enjoyable Christmas.
WHAT TO WATCH
Few films define Christmas like Frank Capra’s 1946 fantasy drama It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, who, on the verge of committing suicide, is visited by an angel who shows him the true importance of his life. It’s a Wonderful Life is a masterpiece of storytelling, representing a generation of filmmaking that simply doesn’t exist anymore – which makes this black-and-white film all the more fascinating. It was nominated for five Oscars, including best picture and best actor, but the film was shut out at the Academy Awards. Its standing eventually fell so low, in fact, that in the 1970s, the film’s neglected copyright was allowed to lapse, and it fell into the public domain. This turned out to be a blessing—television station managers across the US had been given a Frank Capra movie that they could show for free during the holidays. It has been a tradition worth carrying on for generations, all over the world, because the message of heartfelt gratitude is truly one that transcends time.
There are a number of strong contenders for the best filmmaking prize this year-end season, but there is something innately comforting about the definite happy endings of Hallmark-esque Christmas-themed movies, and we can’t recommend them enough. Game of Thrones queen Emilia Clarke and Crazy Rich Asians’ Henry Golding star in this year’s Yuletide rom-com, Last Christmas, co-written by the great Emma Thompson, whose involvement alone makes this a must-see. This Paul Feig-directed romantic dramedy follows Kate, a young woman who sorely lacks direction after a traumatic illness, but starts to turn her life around after a chance meeting with Tom — a charming, if quirky, man who helps her get a new outlook on life. There’s a twist at the end, naturally, but one that will have you mopping up happy tears. After all, a bit of Christmas cry is never a bad thing, is it?
WHAT TO READ
Although Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol is an obvious choice, we’d like to direct your attention to something a little more unexpected – JRR Tolkien’s Letters from Father Christmas. This book is a collection of letters that the legendary author wrote his children every December, under the convenient pseudonym of Father Christmas. With strange, spidery handwriting and sketches, they had no reason to think the sender was anyone else. Written between 1920 and 1942 and published in 1976, Tolkien’s imaginative tales of the North Pole told of how all the reindeer got loose and scattered presents everywhere; how the accident-prone Polar Bear climbed the North Pole and fell through the roof of Father Christmas’s house into the dining-room; how he broke the Moon into four pieces and made the Man in it fall into the back garden; how there were wars with the troublesome horde of goblins who lived in the caves beneath the house! Sometimes the Polar Bear would scrawl a note, and sometimes Ilbereth the Elf would write in his elegant flowing script, adding yet more life and humour to the stories.
Contemporary: The Christmas Tree Thief
For something less cockle-warming and more hair-raising, Australian writer Philippa Nefri Clarke’s The Christmas Tree Thief is ideal. The first part of a series – hello, reading list for 2020 – the story revolves around former psychiatrist Charlotte Dean, who accepts work in a bookshop in a remote Australian town where no one knows about her past. She keeps to herself, even ignoring the unusual thievery of a Christmas tree, but when the bookshop becomes a target, she is forced to reconsider her hands-off policy — even if it means putting herself in danger. In the course of finding the culprit, Charlotte discovers what it really means to live in a small town and that the prospect of becoming a local may not be so bad after all. Set among Victoria’s beautiful Macedon Ranges and featuring a quirky cast of characters and a dash of danger, this is a small-town mystery with a unique Australian twist.
WHAT TO LISTEN
Classic: A Swinging Christmas
Almost all the songs on this album are familiar Yuletide tunes, but to hear them in American jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald’s voice is a completely unique experience. This incredibly well-produced album, recorded in the summer of 1960 with an orchestra conducted by Frank De Vol, finds America’s first lady of jazz enthusiastically romping through a variety of holiday standards, singing songs like Jingle Bells, Santa Claus is Coming to Town in her signature style –exquisite phrasing and subtlety and pure richness in tone. The album is also a wonderful tribute to American songwriters of the time, right from Irving Berlin’s classic White Christmas, Good Morning Blues by Count Basie, Eddie Durham and Jimmy Rushing as well as Frank Loesser’s What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve? Worth a listen well into the New Year, we’d say.
Contemporary: The Christmas Present
It comes as a surprise indeed that former Take That singer Robbie Williams’s most recent studio album is a Christmas-themed one. After all, this isn’t a man anyone would associate warm, fuzzy feelings with and, yet, since it’s late November release The Christmas Present has even managed to edge Coldplay’s new album off the British charts. The double album features two discs – Christmas Past and Christmas Future – both including a brilliant mixture of original songs and special festive covers with some star guest appearances by Rod Stewart, Jamie Cullum, Helene Fischer and Bryan Adams. The album is vintage Robbie Williams, as the 45-year-old does his full Rat Pack tribute act on several seasonal standards – no complaints here – and has included a few original pieces as well, which has raised a few eyebrows for its unconventional phrasing. Then again, Williams has never been the sort to toe the line, even the one St Nicholas has drawn, which makes this a brilliant pick for fans of his inimitable style.
This article first appeared on Dec 23, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.