Santa’s Super Sleigh and Other Christmas Novelty Classics

“Santa’s Super Sleigh” is the platonic ideal of Christmas novelty songs. It’s the platonic ideal because it doesn’t actually exist. It’s a fictitious song invented by Nick Hornby in his novel About a Boy, though in the book all the lyrics that Hornby provides are these:

So just leave out the mince pies, and a glass of sherry,
And Santa will visit you, and leave you feeling merry,
Oh, Santa’s super sleigh,
Santa’s super sleigh…

In the book and the movie based on it, the song exists in the same way that the shadows in Plato’s cave exist. They represent something that has a reality outside the cave of the story, but it never becomes part of the story itself, except as an explanation for why the main character, Will, never has to work for a living. His father wrote the song, left the rights to Will when he died, and now Will gets royalty checks every time somebody plays it. Which allows Will the twin luxuries of not having to work for a living and not really having to grow up. (There’s an actual boy in About a Boy, but the title refers to Will as well.)

In the movie version of About a Boy, where Hugh Grant plays Will, all we hear of the song’s melody is this extemporaneous version (with different lyrics from the ones in the book) that makes Will cringe in a way one suspects he has cringed many times before:

The fact that the song doesn’t exist beyond a few (somewhat contradictory) lyrics and the snatch of melody somebody devised for the film hasn’t stopped people from putting complete renditions of it on YouTube, some of them, like this, clearly professionally produced:

Where that version comes from is beyond the power of Spotify to tell me (and I’m not sufficiently motivated to do any detective work on Google, though readers of this post are welcome to do it for me), but it seems to me that it totally misses the point. Yes, it uses the lyrics from the film and a highly modified piece of the lyrics from the book, but “Santa’s Super Sleigh” isn’t supposed to be a lush Christmas ballad that could have been covered by Josh Groban. It’s supposed to be a Christmas novelty song.

What’s a Christmas novelty song? Amy thinks it’s a song that tells a story, usually about some newly invented Christmas character like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman who weren’t even in the Christmas canon until the songs about them became hits. That’s a pretty good definition, but I tend to define Christmas novelty songs a bit more loosely, the way some people define science fiction: A Christmas novelty song is what I’m pointing at when I say, “This is a Christmas novelty song.”

“Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” are unquestionably Christmas novelty songs and I’m convinced they’re what “Santa’s Super Sleigh” was intended to parody. (I’m tempted to see if Nick Hornby’s on Twitter and ask him, just to settle the matter.) But there are other songs that skirt around the edges of Amy’s definition yet still seem to me to fall quite clearly into Christmas novelty song territory.

For instance, is “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” a novelty song? It’s become so hyper-familiar over the eons that it could almost be part of some ancient codex with a hand-drawn picture of St. Nicholas on it, but when it was introduced in 1934 did people see lines like “He knows when you are sleeping/He knows when you’re awake/He knows if you’ve been bad or good/So be good for goodness sake” as a serious, if humorous, attempt to add a future classic to the Great American Popular Songbook (as it would later be called) or did they see it as, well, a novelty?

I suppose that question is rhetorical, given that novelty simply means “something new and unique,” which could describe almost any truly great song. But a novelty song is really a song that’s not so much intended to be good as it’s intended to be clever. “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” is so blatantly intended to be a novelty song that I’m almost tempted to exclude it from the category because it tries way too hard to be way too bad, but “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” is also clearly a novelty song and it’s good enough that I don’t mind having it occasionally pop up as an earworm.

I think a certain silliness of intent more clearly defines — for me, at least — what a song requires to be a novelty song and “I Saw Mommy…” unquestionably has that. (So does “Grandma Got, etc.,” but it’s a really deplorable kind of silly. It does tell a story, though.) “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” is also quite undeniably a Christmas novelty song and it doesn’t really tell a story at all, at least no more than other songs do, but it has silliness of intent in spades (though I’d probably hate to have it turn up as an earworm and would possibly commit suicide if it ever does).

What other Christmas novelty songs are there? “The Heat Miser Song,” from the 1974 Rankin-Bass animated TV special The Year Without a Santa Claus, has a distinct silliness when heard played separately from the original context. Really, within context it’s even sillier because, let’s face it, the whole cartoon is a novelty if a little bit of a sad one. In musical theater terms, “The Heat Miser Song” is an “I Am” song, where a character uses music as a medium for monologuing about himself. And Heat Miser is a pretty darned silly character.

And Eartha Kitt’s 1953 hit “Santa Baby” is a Christmas novelty song, because it deliberately misses the true spirit of Christmas and goes right to what we’ve suspected was the underlying reason for Christmas all along: sheer, naked greed. These days it may be better known from covers by singers ranging from Madonna to Ariana Grande to Taylor Swift.

Now come on. Doesn’t “Santa’s Super Sleigh” belong in this list? Sure it does, even if the most complete version extant can’t seem to understand that. Nick Hornby invented a prototypical Christmas novelty song as a way of putting Will in the perpetual adolescent state that About a Boy finally resolves and, if nothing else, its sheer lack of existence makes it a novelty. But I think it was intended as a novelty song all along.

Now where’s Nick Hornby’s Twitter address?

Postscript: Amy pointed out that I’d missed an important Christmas novelty song. (Actually, I probably missed several.) But Gayla Peevey’s “I Want a Hippotamus for Christmas” deserves a high place on the list because it’s about as novel as Christmas novelty songs get without degenerating to the level of  “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” It was a hit in 1953, but totally vanished from radio airplay until uber-quirky-DJ Dr. Demento, as much of an expert on novelty songs as the airwaves have ever had, revived it on a novelty song anthology in the 2000s. Now it’s become inescapable, almost relentlessly so, but its sheer cuteness makes it bearable, maybe even loveable.

And I’d like to add the somewhat lesser-known “Chrissy the Christmas Mouse,” recorded God-knows-when by Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor, that I didn’t start hearing on the radio until about 2003, which maybe coincidentally is the year Donald O’Connor died. It’s an attempt to create a new Rudolph the Reindeer-style story song about a previously unheralded Christmas character, an adorable mouse who “lives in the middle of Santa’s house,” that never got the traction (or tailwind) that Rudolph did. But it still gets played and like any good Christmas novelty song makes up in charm what it may lack in musical quality.

That about covers it, yes? Or are there other Christmas novelty songs lurking out there that actually get airplay (or streaming play) that I’ve missed? Suggestions are welcome.

I finally broke down and looked up “Santa’s Super Sleigh” on Google. The version for the film was written by composer Peter Brewis, but I’m pretty sure the full version on YouTube wasn’t anywhere in the movie. Maybe on the soundtrack album?

And now that I look back over Nick Hornby’s original lyrics, I’m convinced that, while he meant “Super Sleigh” as a novelty song, he meant it as a really bad novelty song. Is it possible that Nick “High Fidelity” Hornby hates Christmas music?

Maybe I won’t look him up on Twitter after all.

The Most Miserable Time of the Year: Sad Christmas Songs

Christmas is a happy time, right? Okay, I know there are people who immediately groaned when they read that. Some of my friends turn into Ebeneezer Scrooges immediately after Thanksgiving (though I won’t name any names). In general, though, Christmas is a time of joy and celebration, a time for televising the umpty-umpth rerun of every Rankin-Bass Christmas cartoon ever animated, for getting drunk on spiked eggnog and mulled wine, and for listening to Christmas music on the radio, your iPod or your favorite streaming music service. And Christmas music must be the happiest music ever written. Right?

Blue Christmas

Elvis may be smiling on this album cover, but it’s a sad smile.

Not necessarily. It took Amy, who being Jewish has a somewhat different perspective on Christmas music than I do, to point out what should have been obvious to me years ago: A lot of modern Christmas songs, maybe more Christmas songs than not, are real downers.

I’m not talking about religious Christmas music, which is mostly about how thrilled the singers are over the birth of their savior. And I’m not counting Greg Lake’s “I Believe in Father Christmas,” which isn’t really a Christmas song so much as it’s a “bitter-rejection-of-Christmas” song.

When you get into secular Christmas music, though, the landscape starts to change. Sure, songs like “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” and “Let It Snow” are so upbeat that they make you want to dance. “The Christmas Waltz” even tells you what dance you’re supposed to dance to it. But a surprising number of pop Christmas songs are about how depressing a time of year this can be, especially if you want to be someplace that you’re not or with somebody you can’t be with.

I don’t know if it was the first depressing Christmas song, but Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” at one time the most popular Christmas song in the Great American Songbook, is definitely a sad song. As the rarely used intro says, “It’s December the 24th and I’m longing to be up north.” It’s about a person (probably Irving Berlin himself, stuck in Los Angeles writing songs like “White Christmas” for the movies) having a somber Christmas because it’s not “like the ones [he] used to know.”

During World War II, there were thousands of GIs who wouldn’t be home for Christmas because they had a war to fight in Europe and Japan. The 1943 song “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” acknowledged this by painting a picture of a perfect Christmas homecoming — “We’ll have snow and mistletoe and presents under the tree” — then blowing it apart with what may be the most heartbreaking punchline of any song from that era: “I’ll be home for Christmas…if only in my dreams.”

By the 1960s, Elvis Presley was singing about having a “Blue Christmas” (a song actually written in the late 1940s), lamenting that the object of his affections would “be doing all right with [her] Christmas of white, but I’ll have a blue, blue, blue Christmas.” (Three “blues” in a row. Can’t get much bluer than that.) The song was a huge hit and still gets played, in versions by Elvis and dozens of others, every Christmas. And note how it neatly references the Irving Berlin song, not only in its title but in that line about “in your Christmas of white.”

It may have been Karen Carpenter, though, who really started the sad Christmas ball rolling with 1970’s “Merry Christmas, Darling,” a song written by her brother Richard in collaboration with Frank Pooler and not made any happier by the fact that Karen died a much-too-early death a little more than a decade later. It’s a sweet but heartbreaking song about a woman separated from her beloved for unspecified reasons and remains one of the greatest Christmas songs to come out of the 1970s.

The Karen and Richard Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts

The Karen and Richard Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts, made relevant only by the fact that we saw David Benoit and his trio perform a tribute to A Charlie Brown Christmas there a few nights ago

Dan Fogelberg must have been drinking from the same pain-spiked bowl of eggnog when he wrote and sang 1980’s admittedly rather sappy “Same Old Lang Syne,” a song that’s often played as a New Year’s song, but that takes place on Christmas Eve. In it, the singer meets an old girlfriend who apparently broke his heart long ago and who is now in a loveless marriage with an architect. (Honestly, Dan, I don’t know how you got through the song without gloating — unless the whole song is one big gloat.)

It’s hard to say if Mariah Carey’s 1995 Christmas hit “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” released again in 2011 as a duet with Justin Bieber, is a happy song or a sad song, given that she leaves us hanging in the end as to whether the person she loves leaves her standing, kissless, under the mistletoe. The uptempo arrangement suggests that this is really a happy Christmas song, but we don’t know for sure. Come on, Mariah. End the suspense and tell us if Mr. Right finally showed up! (Given that formfitting Santa suit you’re wearing on the album cover, I’m guessing he did.) And feel free to give me one of those presents under the tree that you seem so uninterested in. I’m guessing there’s some pretty expensive stuff in there.

Mariah Carey

Yeah, I’m sure the guy never showed up, maybe because her then-husband Tommy Mottola would have had his fingers broken.

When talking about sad Christmas songs, though, there’s one that leaves all the others in the dust (or snow) and you certainly wouldn’t guess it from the song’s name: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” As sung by Judy Garland in the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis, it’s about a family being torn apart from friends and relatives, not to mention having to miss the 1904 World’s Fair, because of their father’s job in New York. Garland sings the song to comfort her little sister, played by Margaret O’Brien, but that didn’t prevent lyricist Hugh Martin (who had written the song many years earlier) from having to change lyrics like “Have yourself a merry little Christmas./It may be your last./Next year we may all be living in the past” to their marginally more cheerful versions in the film. And when Frank Sinatra recorded the song, he asked Martin to “jolly up” the lyric “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” It became “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” Ironically, when Judy Garland sang the song to her daughters on television in the 1960s, she sang the Sinatra version rather than the one she had sung in the film.

The truth is, Christmas music is like all other types of pop music. There are sad songs, like the ones we’ve discussed. There are upbeat songs, like “Sleigh Ride.” And there are dance songs, like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” Christmas may be a happy occasion — although we’ve been told many times that suicides soar around the holidays, says that’s just an urban legend — but the truth is that we’d eventually get sick of hearing nothing but cheerful music.

I say bring on the heartbreak songs, if only because sometimes it brightens your day to learn that someone else’s life is going even worse than yours is.

UPDATE: After I posted the column above, Amy and I discussed some other downbeat Christmas songs. The most obvious was Wham’s 1984 “Last Christmas,” which earns its sadness rather cheaply: The singer apparently had a one-night stand last Christmas and expected it to outlast the holiday. It didn’t. Another Christmas song that could conceivably be seen as a downer is “My Grown-Up Christmas List,” a much-covered Amy Grant hit from 1990. Although the song is hopeful — it’s about an adult who asks Santa Claus to cure everything that’s wrong with the world — it requires the singer to list all of those things and that’s the downer part. “What,” the singer asks, “is this illusion called the innocence of youth? Maybe only in our blind belief can we ever find the truth.” Upper or downer? Your call.

My vote for most suicide-inducing Christmas song of all time, though, goes to “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” which has lyrics taken from an 1863 poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called “Christmas Bells.” Depressed by the death of his wife and the even more recent death of his son in the American Civil War, the poet wrote:

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep
The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

I suppose Longfellow was trying to find hope and meaning in the tragedies he had been through, but there’s a sense that he doesn’t believe a word of it. If “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is about a family falling apart, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is about a world falling apart. It makes “Merry Christmas, Darling,” where the missing lover is at least alive and presumably coming back some day soon, sound positively cheerful.

Have Yourself a Haunted Little Christmas

Disneyland loves holidays. They commemorate the major ones by, at the very least, sprinkling decorations along Main Street USA. Halloween gets pumpkins and skeletons. And for Christmas there are colored lights on almost everything, sometimes covering an attraction completely. (See Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, below.) A few attractions receive a full Christmas overlay, which is more than just colored lights on the outside. In my last post, I talked about the Christmas overlays for the Jingle (usually Jungle) Cruise, It’s a Small World, and the World of Color. But there’s one attraction where Disney installs an overlay in September that stays in place right through Christmas: the Haunted Mansion.

The Haunted Mansion

“Ho Ho Arrrggh!”

The Haunted Mansion gets an overlay based on the movie The Nightmare Before Christmas. Because the movie is about both Halloween and Christmas, so is the overlay, mixing scary (and somewhat silly) monsters with Christmas ornaments. All of this is on top of the Haunted Mansion’s usual array of blood-curdling screams, tricky elevators and holographic ghosts.

A haunted ballroom

A haunted ballroom decorated with Christmas ornaments

The best way to get into the Haunted Mansion is to get a FastPass. FastPasses can be purchased by sliding your Disney Passports into a small machine an hour or more before you plan to visit an attraction, in return for which you get these small tickets:

Haunted Mansion Fastpasses

FastPass tickets for the Haunted Mansion attraction

This tells us that our passes are for the Haunted Mansion and can be used between 2:05 and 3:05 p.m. (Your times may vary.) It used to be that Disney was relaxed about the length of the time window you had for using the passes. Alas, they claim to be cracking down. For instance, we couldn’t have used those Fastpasses later than 3:05, though there was a time when you could have. (It was never possible to use the passes earlier than the time stamped on them.) During the magic hour within which the pass is active, you can skip the often lengthy Mansion lines and leap ahead of most of the crowd, getting into the ride in five or ten minutes. If you’ve ever stood in the line for a popular Disneyland ride, you know what a time savings like that is worth.

Once inside the Haunted Mansion, you find yourself in a foyer that turns out to be an elevator, with pictures on the walls and roof that turn into more and more terrifying forms as the elevator goes down.

The Haunted Elevator

Beautiful Christmas images in the Mansion’s elevator entrance…

Monsters in the elevator

…transform into monsters as the elevator descends.

Once you get downstairs, you wind through hallways that lead to the moving cars that carry you through the mansion. And, on the wall, you see images relating to the movie:

Scenes from the Nightmare Before Christmas

Pictures of everything from an innocent snowman to Jack the Pumpkin King playing Santy Claws

Most of what’s fun about the Haunted Mansion are the animatronic horrors you see along your ride and the haunted ballroom filled with holographic ghosts that you can view from the rafters above. Here are some of the photos that Amy and I took on our last visit:

A tentacle with pumpkins?

Is that a tentacle covered with jack o’lanterns or a giant wizard’s hat?

Halloween at Christmas

The town of Halloween discovers Christmas.

Christmas list

Santy’s naughty-or-nice list

Jack as Santy

Jack the Pumpkin King disguised as Santy Claws

Angel skeletons

“Angel skeletons we have heard on high!”

After the ride, we dined at the Pizza Port restaurant in Tomorrowland, then went back to Main Street and watched the park’s imagineers light the Sleeping Beauty Castle, gateway to Fantasyland:

Sleeping Beauty's Castle

Sleeping Beauty’s Castle with Christmas lights turned on

We did some other things, like visit Crush the turtle (from Finding Nemo) and draw pictures of characters from Disney cartoons at the Animation Academy in California Adventure, but I’ll devote entire blog posts to those things later on in our second Year of Living Disney. By then, Christmas will probably be over, though Disneyland Resort will continue its holiday celebration right up through January 6, when we may go back to get one last glimpse of the Christmas overlays before they go away. We’ll see.

Another Year of Living Disney

How you feel about Disney — the corporation, their movies, their parks — is a litmus test for something, but damned if I know what. One thing it’s surely a litmus test for is how close you’re paying attention. The parks and the feature-length animations have gone through dramatic ups and downs over the years, under Walt Disney himself, during the Jeffrey Katzenberg renaissance, under later budget-cutting management and now under the creative auspices of Pixar founder John Lassetter, who has at least for the present stabilized the company’s heart and soul and put them in a very good place.

In the Lassetter era, Amy and I have come to love most things Disney. Three years ago, we had SoCal annual passes to Disneyland, which is about 40 minutes away from us in Anaheim. I wrote a blog about it when it was over and promised to write more, but I never got around to it. I want to keep that promise now and write about some of our most interesting experiences at the park as they happen, before they fade into the vasty nothingness of my memory and become all bibbledy. (That was a paraphrase from Kaylee in Serenity, in case you’re trying to remember where you’ve heard it before.) We activated the passes on December 5, 2014, which means they’ll be active through December 5, 2015 (they throw in the 366th day as a bonus), and will get to see two Christmas seasons at Disneyland. And if you can’t get into the Christmas spirit at Disneyland, you’re due to be visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve. Prepare accordingly.

Christmas in Disneyland

The most wonderful time of the year at the happiest place on earth

(My apologies to those who don’t celebrate Christmas. I’m an atheist and I’m already planning how to decorate the tree. I consider it an open season for happiness, love and lots of pretty lights. Then again, I don’t even mind when they start playing Christmas songs before Halloween.)

Our friends George and Greg were visiting from out of town, so we had a busy day planned. I expected to conk out somewhere during what became nearly a 12-hour visit, but at some point the Christmas spirit, the Disney spirit and sheer adrenaline kicked in. I haven’t had a better time in years.

To get an annual pass, you first have to register for one, then get it validated at the park. I’ve had the registration on my bulletin board for months:

Pass Voucher with Mr. Incredible

Mr. Incredible says: Give these guys their annual pass or…or I’ll do something incredible.

Disneyland is nothing if not efficient. After a short bus ride from the Toy Story parking lot (the easiest-to-use parking lot on Earth), you go to a booth and swap the voucher for a card:

Disneyland Annual Passcard

Donald, Mickey and Goofy in handy wallet size

What I’m calling Disneyland is technically Disneyland Resort, which consists of two parks (Disneyland and California Adventure), plus the Downtown Disney restaurant and shopping district, as well as several hotels. We headed for Disneyland first:

Train around Disneyland

The circumferential railroad over the entrance to Disneyland

where they waste no time in letting you know that this entrance is to Disneyland what the wardrobe was to Narnia:

Sign on Disneyland entrance

Abandon hope all ye…wait, that’s a different sign.

It being our first time back at Disneyland in a while, we took it easy on hitting the rides, just walking around looking at the sights. (It was also a Friday, when we usually don’t tend to go because of the line lengths.) We did, however, go on a few, the first of which was the Jingle Cruise, which is normally the Jungle Cruise but decorated with what the park calls a holiday overlay. It’s a far less elaborate holiday overlay than the ones for It’s a Small World and The Haunted Mansion:

Elephant decorated for Christmas

“Jingle tusks, jingle tusks!”

The overlay also meant that we got some new holiday jokes from the aspiring stand-up comics that Disney hires to serve as tour guides on the jungle, er, jingle boats. (To see what the Jungle Cruise looks like during the non-holiday season, check out my YouTube video from 2012. You’re welcome.)

I had plenty of time to make myself sick on the irresistible pastries sold in store after store on Main Street USA:

Mickey Mouse, Rice Krispies and M&M: Motion sickness waiting to happen

Mickey Mouse, Rice Krispies and M&Ms: Motion sickness waiting to happen

We also checked out several gift shops for potential Christmas presents. The gift shops, actually, are a wonder in themselves. There are dozens of them and every one seems to have a completely different line of t-shirts, plush animals and trinkets, obviously providing enough work for half the population of China, where most of them seem to be made. This includes the department-store-sized gift shop in Downtown Disney:

The World of Disney Gift Shop

The World of Disney gift shop in Downtown Disney

The World of Disney gift shop is vast and practically a park in itself:

Gift shop interior

Inside the gift shop park

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We met George and Greg at the Carthay Circle Restaurant in the relatively new Carthay Circle theater in California Adventure, a replica of the theater where Disney’s first feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, opened in 1937, thus launching an era of movie animation that continues till this day. The restaurant itself is an elegant and old-fashioned luxury establishment where we had our own private dining nook:

Carthay Circle Restaurant

Our friends George and Greg dining with us in the Carthay Circle restaurant

Afterwards we went back to Disneyland and took the Disneyland Railroad around to It’s a Small World, a much-derided attraction that becomes spectacular at Christmas:

It's a Small World becomes a dazzling array of Christmas lights this time of year

It’s a Small World becomes a dazzling array of Christmas lights for the holidays.

They occasionally turn off the lights to project images on the exterior.

They occasionally turn off the lights to project images on the exterior.

It's pretty spectacular on the inside too.

It’s pretty spectacular on the inside too.

Here’s my video of the 2011 Christmas overlay for It’s a Small World:

From It’s a Small World it was just a few feet to the viewing area for the Disneyland Christmas Fantasy Parade.

The Frozen float at the parade.

Frozen, Disney’s biggest cash reindeer in years, was well represented at the parade.

Woody in the Christmas Parade

Woody dashing through the snow

Santa in the Christmas Parade

Santa Claus is coming to town — and bringing the North Pole with him.

Here’s my video of the 2011 Christmas Fantasy Parade:

It’s had 145,000 hits so far, making it far and away my best-viewed video. Apologies for the blurriness at the beginning, but it goes away quickly.) Here are some shots of this year’s parade:

We had a break before our next big event — more about that in a minute — so we caught the Disneyland Railroad into the prehistoric past, where the dinosaurs from the 1964 New York World’s Fair still roam:

At the end of the line (and back in the 21st Century), we cut through Downtown Disney to the Grand Californian hotel, where George and Greg were staying. We collapsed for a while in the lobby and looked at the Christmas decor:

Christmas tree in the Grand Californian lobby

The Grand Californian lobby, complete with humongous Christmas tree

which included a giant gingerbread house, recipe included:

Giant gingerbread house, also in the Grand Californian lobby

Giant gingerbread house, also in the Grand Californian lobby

We weren’t the only ones who needed a break. Santa headed for the Grand Californian lobby too, but those darned kids kept bothering him:

Santa at the Grand Californian

Santa trying to take a break at the Grand Californian

Finally, we added the pièce de résistance (yes, that was a direct cut-and-paste from Wikipedia) to the evening by watching what I consider Disneyland’s single greatest attraction: the World of Color. Named for the Disney television show from the early 1960s, the World of Color is to other water shows what the Starship Enterprise is to a frisbee. Somehow the Disney imagineers make colored fountains of water dance in choreographed patterns as they project animated images onto them. Combined with sounds, projections on the roller coaster in the background and occasional gouts of fire, this results in one of those experiences that can only be fully appreciated in person, but I’ll do my best to convey it to you in words and images.

Since this was the holiday version of World of Color and Frozen has been such a monster hit for Disney, it was hosted by Olaf the Snowman, who I fully expect to replace Mickey Mouse as the iconic symbol for the entire corporation. (Maybe then they’ll stop fighting to get copyright extensions on old cartoons.) The character images have a kind of three-dimensional appearance when projected on water and they photograph rather blurrily, but here’s Olaf in all his fuzzy wet glory:

Olaf in World of Color

Olaf the snowman in World of Color

And here are his friends Anna and Elsa plotting to build him:

Anna and Elsa build Olaf

Do you wanna build a snowman?

One of the reasons it’s difficult to represent World of Color in pictures is that it’s hard to convey the sheer, soaring magnitude of it, but look at this photo:

The World of Color fountains

The World of Color fountains erupt over the crowd.

See that image of Mickey Mouse in the background? That’s on a ferris wheel — and it’s HUGE. Yet the World of Color fountains dwarf it. And this isn’t even as high as they go.

By the way, the World of Color holiday show doesn’t just honor Christians (and Christmas-loving atheists like me):

World of Color honors dreidels

“I have a little dreidel…” (They play Feliz Navidad too.)

All amazing things must end. World of Color plays the crowd out with bowing fountains and a holiday farewell:

Happy Holidays from World of Color

Happy Holidays from World of Color!

Here’s my video of the 2011 version:

The images were quite different then, though it’s not hard to find a video of the current World of Color on YouTube:

And that’s it. It was nearly 11 p.m. and the first day of our new annual pass had come to an end. We said goodbye to George and Greg, drove home listening to Christmas playlists on Spotify, greeted our two cats and collapsed.

But our second Year of Living Disney is just beginning. More to come.

The Year of Living Disney

Chris and Minnie and Amy

Chris & Minnie & Amy

When I first came to Los Angeles three years ago and moved in with Amy, we briefly discussed going to Disneyland. We didn’t do anything about it because Disneyland is a pricey venture, even then edging up to $100 a person for a day of trying to cram in as many rides as you could tolerate without damage to your musculoskeletal structure. I had been once before, when I was 16, and had found it slightly disappointing, in part because (I’m really giving away my age here) I had been to the New York World’s Fair the previous two years running and, as man-made high-tech spectacles went, it had blown away any amusement park on earth. (I had also seen several Disneyland attractions there, like the talking Abe Lincoln and the Carousel of Progress, before they even made it to Anaheim.) And long before I arrived at Amy’s house, Disneyland had been eclipsed by Disney World, the sprawling amusement park mega-complex in Orlando that Anaheim lacked the space to support.

But for all that, my dream of going to Disneyland and genuinely exploring it, as if it were a different continent and I was a tourist with a Eurorail pass, had been with me since childhood. One of my earliest memories is of watching the then-black-and-white television show Disneyland on ABC devote an entire episode to a virtual tour of (or half hour advertisement for) the newly opened park and I knew then, before I was old enough to read or write, that it was the main place on earth I wanted to be. Unfortunately, I wasn’t even on the same coast of North America at the time. More than being a different continent, it might as well have been on a different planet.

Last year, for her birthday, I gave Amy (and myself) annual passes to Disneyland Resort, the current name for the entertainment and hotel complex that includes Disneyland Park, Disney’s California Adventure and Downtown Disney. The annual passes, only available to Southern Californians, cost about as much as two visits to the resort without a pass. We activated the passes on August 25, 2011, and during the following year visited the park approximately 16 times, consciously trying to see every one of the attractions, scrambling madly to be present at special events like fireworks, parades and the uber-spectacles like Fantasmic and my favorite of all, The World of Color.

This is really part one of this post because I can’t describe our entire year in a single blog entry. Disneyland is compact compared to Disney World, but it still contains multitudes. It’s been packed so cleverly into its limited space that at first it seemed like we were exploring a fourth dimensional pretzel, which looped back on itself in a way that at first seems baffling but then becomes almost intuitively navigable. Over our Year of Living Disney we grew to know it so intimately that we could probably walk through it blindfolded. I’ll be back to write more about it later. Here are some of the things that I could devote entire posts to.

The Animation Academy, a tiny building where you can talk to Crush the surfer-dude Turtle (from Finding Nemo), watch a spinning Zoetrope machine that animates statues of the characters from Toy Story using a strobe light (I may link to video of this later), and learn to draw pictures of Disney characters like Pluto the dog:

Pluto as drawn by Amy

Pluto as drawn by Amy

Or you can simply sit in the Academy’s lobby and watch scenes and storyboards from Disney animated features projected on a 360-degree circuit of screens:

Scenes from Pinocchio in the Animation Academy lobby.

Scenes from Dumbo in Animation Academy lobby.

Scenes from Up in Animation Academy lobby

Disneyland at Christmas. I may have mentioned elsewhere that I’m a Christmas freak. Visiting Disneyland during the Christmas season is, for me, like having ice cream on top of cake on top of ice cream with fudge and peanut butter on top. It makes the child inside me (and the larger one on the outside) do virtual somersaults of happiness (and by “virtual” I really do mean virtual, since I’m not up to real ones any more). Here’s Sleeping Beauty’s Castle during the transformation they do several times a night during December:

Sleeping Beauty Castle at Christmas

It’s a Small World. Possibly the most ridiculed ride at Disneyland, largely because of that simple and incessant theme song, It’s a Small World is an epic showcase for the 1960s designs of Disney artist Mary Blair and its facade is an intricate exercise in neo-Rococo excess, especially at Christmas:

It's a Small World facade at Christmas

In fact, It’s a Small World goes through more Christmas transformations than any other part of Disneyland:

It's a Small World facade at Christmas

It's a Small Clock as Santa Claus

It's a Small World Christmas interior

Club 33. Club 33 is a private dining establishment commissioned by Walt Disney shortly before he died, intended as a place where he could entertain important guests, and was to be the only place in Disneyland that would serve alcohol. (Walt was a teetotaler.) Now you can get alcoholic beverages in both California Adventure and Downtown Disney, but never mind. What’s important about Club 33 is that it’s hidden away behind an unmarked door in New Orleans Square and you and I can’t get in. It’s for people who are very important to Disneyland or people who know somebody who’s very important to Disneyland. We knew somebody who knew somebody who was very important to Disneyland and made it in by the skin of our Mickey Mouse ears. Here’s the main dining room, with the top of our friend’s head (Hi, George!) visible in the foreground:

Club 33 Main Dining Room

Club 33 is expensive, elegant and historic. I blew nearly a month’s grocery budget on one meal. I don’t regret it. I don’t think I’ll ever go there again, but I’m ecstatic that I had the chance to go there once.

World of Color. I’ve saved the best for last. The World of Color, in the Paradise Pier section of Disney’s California Adventure, is presented at least once a night, usually twice. It’s the most spectacular manmade thing I’ve ever seen that existed in the same portion of physical reality as I did rather than just being a picture. It’s a water show, which is like saying that Moby Dick is a fish story. It involves colored, dancing fountains choreographed to music from Disney films and used as projection screens for scenes from those same films. (There are also occasional towers of fire.) It is, in other words, indescribable and what I just said only vaguely approximated it. I could spend the rest of my evenings there watching the World of Color and count it a life well spent. It evokes our common cultural memories of Disney cartoons while transmuting them into a brand new art form, one that could only exist in a place where people with excessive talent are given excessive amounts of money to design things that are excessively entertaining. I deeply love it. Here’s a glimpse of it:

The World of Color

There’s more, like the cleverly revamped 3D Star Wars-based attraction Star Tours and Minnie Mouse’s dishwasher, where you can see real-life cartoon dishes soaking in bubbling real-life water. I’ll probably talk about those eventually too. I remember a time when it was hip to deride Disney and use the term “Mickey Mouse” as an all-purpose word to suggest cheap gimcrackery. Disneyland fell on hard times for a few years when the management tried to run on it on a budget, but now that the brilliant John Lasseter of Pixar has become the Principal Creative Advisor for Walt Disney Imagineering and revived — nay, improved — the parks, those days are pretty much past. Our annual passes have expired now so we’re going to take some time off from Disneyland, but I don’t think we can stay away forever. Now that we’ve seen everything at least once, I think we’d like to concentrate on revisiting the things we loved, like Pirates of the Caribbean and Toy Story Midway Mania.

In the meantime, I’ll talk about the year that just ended. You’re welcome to stick around and listen.

Chris and Mickey and Amy

Chris & Mickey & Amy

Three Spheres for the Mouse!

Years ago, the late paleontologist and popular science writer Stephen Jay Gould cited Mickey Mouse as an example of neoteny, the evolutionary tendency for adult members of a species to acquire over time the features of their own infant counterparts. For instance, while we humans may bear only a passing resemblance to our hominid ancestors, who would seem brutish to us (not to mention unusually hairy) if we met them at a party, we bear a much greater resemblance, with our dainty features and unsloping foreheads, to our ancestors’ babies. Mickey Mouse, according to Gould, demonstrated a kind of cartoon neoteny, having gone from the relatively rodentine mouse of Steamboat Willie:

Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie

to the cuter, more infantilized mouse of later decades:

Mickey as infant mouse

Notice the shorter snout and larger eyes, which Gould claimed were features of infant or fetal mice. At a stroke, Disney had removed what was repellent to most people about mice — the beady eyes and questing nose — and made Mickey as cuddly as, well, a baby.

While Mickey’s initial function was to star in cartoons, he gradually took on a secondary function, one that now seems to be his primary role, that of corporate symbol. Mickey’s face has become better known (and perhaps always was better known) than that of his creator, Walt Disney, and certainly better known than the faces of any of the CEOs who have run the Disney corporation since its founder’s death. Amy and I have an annual pass to Disneyland this year, so we’ve seen a lot of the Mickster lately. It hasn’t escaped our notice that Mickey’s progression from rodent to infantile mouse has proceeded to places that Stephen Jay Gould never envisioned. Mickey has, in fact, become a complete abstraction. As a logo for Disney, Mickey has gone from a smiling cartoon face:

Mickey's face

to an abstract sequence of ovals:

Mickey Mouse as three ovals

In this respect Mickey has followed the path of recognizable simplicity pioneered by the logos for such companies as Apple:

and Nike:

Nike Swoosh

The three-oval Mickey logo has considerable utility — for instance, as the instantly recognizable identifier for a television channel:

Disney Channel identification

You can see examples of the abstract Mickey Mouse throughout Disneyland, perhaps most strikingly in the park benches, where Mickey seems to have fallen over on one ear:

Mickey Mouse park bench

But what’s most interesting to me about the three-oval Mickey is that, perhaps to a greater extent than any other corporate logo, it lends itself to extension into the third dimension. Simply replace the ovals with spheres and you have a version of Mickey that an experienced 3D artist can create in about five seconds:

This three-sphere mouse can then be rotated into perspective view:

Mickey wireframe model in perspective

and painted with color to give it a realistic solidity:

Mickey color 3D model

Does that three-sphere form in any way resemble a mouse? Not really. Yet it’s instantly recognizable as both Mickey and as the public face of the Disney Corporation. (This says a great deal about the human ability to recognize faces and forms given only the sparest of visual cues.)

This three-sphere Mickey has even more utility than the three-oval Mickey. At Disneyland and Disney World you can see it in the form of balloons:

Mickey Mouse balloons

which sometimes glow in the dark:

Glowing Mickey Mouse balloons

Or as tasty beignets in a New Orleans Square restaurant:

Mickey Mouse Beignets

But my favorite application of the three-sphere Mickey can be found hanging on our tree this Christmas:

This ornament can be purchased at the Disneyland gift shops in several different designs and color schemes. You can even get it with a more realistic Mickey — to the extent that a cartoon mouse can ever be described with the adjective “realistic” — climbing on top of it:

Mickey Mouse realistic ornament

So the modern Mickey isn’t entirely about abstraction and simplification. However, it’s possible for Mickey to be abstracted without being especially simplified. At first glance this t-shirt (found under the same tree where those ornaments are hanging) seems to depict a random collection of planets and moons:

Mickey planet t-shirt

until you view it in the correct orientation:

Another Mickey planetary t-shirt

It’s Planetary Mickey!  An artist, or maybe a Photoshop expert, has taken a set of what are probably NASA photos of our solar system (there’s also a spiral galaxy posing as Mickey’s right ankle) and assembled a surprisingly complex Mickey image from them. No three-sphere Mickey here! Indeed, Planetary Mickey even has that little bump on the tip of his snout (I suspect it’s Venus or maybe — no joke intended — Pluto) that represents what remains of his rodent nose.

Mickey’s in his 80s now, which may explain why you rarely see him in cartoons any more, and you have to wonder what he thinks about his increasing abstractification. (Is that even a word?) I suppose I could ask him, because this also showed up under the Christmas tree:

Mickey Mouse in person

Those Things With Words In Them

Christmas has come and gone since I last posted. Santa brought lots of fattening candy to my house, along with a couple of Disneyland t-shirts and two XBox games (Fallout: New Vegas and The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim.) There were also three unusual artifacts under the tree:

Stack of books under Christmas tree

These are called books. (They’re also all biographies, but that’s coincidence.) Look at them carefully, because there will come a time when you will tell your grandchildren that in your youth you could walk into a store and be surrounded by thousands of such things, while all of them were still shiny and new. The children will scoff, of course, but only a little bit, because young people sense instinctively that the world was very peculiar before they were born. What makes these books especially distinctive is that they have an actual physical presence — they exist as print on paper rather than as an electronic matrix of bits and bytes on a hard drive or in the static RAM of an e-book reader. All of the books that I’ve read this year have existed in this latter form and were mostly stored on my Barnes & Noble Nook, an original model e-ink Nook early in the year and a Color Nook later in the year because I prefer its backlit display. Here it is pretending to be the latest Stephen King novel:

E-books are not new. I remember reading them on my Palm Pilot nearly a decade ago. But over the last couple of years they’ve begun swallowing increasingly large chunks of the book market, even as the book market itself has become increasingly small, and publishers have begun to worry that the days of dead-tree books, and the brick-and-mortar stores that sell them, are numbered.

As a writer with approximately 90 published books to my credit, my feelings about the e-book revolution are mixed. I love carrying an entire library around in a device slightly smaller than a notebook, but I also love bookstores and if I ever write another book — the last one came out about a decade ago — I’d really like to see it on a bookstore shelf and not just on a bookseller’s Web site. Not all writers feel this way, though. Many have embraced the e-book not only because it gives them another market for publication at a time when markets for publication are disappearing but because e-books offer them a way to control their own destinies by publishing their books themselves.

Self-publication. I remember a time, not that many years ago, when writers uttered those words with disdain. The term we used for printing houses that catered to authors who wanted to self-publish was “vanity presses” and authors who turned to these houses as an outlet for their books were regarded as pathetic figures, unable to convince real editors that what they had written was worth the time and money it would take to polish, print, distribute and advertise. And, indeed, most self-published books went no farther than the bookshelves of the author’s family members. They were like those Web sites you bookmark and then never bother to go back to. They sounded interesting in theory, but the execution was just a little bit off.

This has all changed, and the change has taken place with remarkable speed. A lot of perfectly respectable authors, ones whose names you would have seen on the shelves in Barnes & Noble just a few years ago, are now publishing their own books, either because the shrinking roster of traditional publishing houses can no longer find room for them or because they feel that the relatively small percentage of a book’s price that traditional publishers let them keep (when I was writing books this was usually 6 to 12 percent of what was left after certain publishing expenses, vaguely defined in my contract, were deducted) can’t compete with the much larger percentage that they can skim off the sales price of an e-book sold through’s Kindle Store.

I’m really not sure how I feel about this. In the interest of full disclosure, I should state that a large part of my income comes from editing books for authors who are intending to self publish and that Amy, the professional graphic designer I live with, has a sideline in designing both e-book and print-on-demand editions for authors who want to use the currently available self-publishing outlets. (If you’d like to use our services, just ask. I recommend going through Hotspur Publishing, a small press run out of Eugene, Oregon, by my writer friend David Bischoff, the URL for which can be found in the Blog Roll on the right side of this page.) But I’m still not sure I see why any writer who might have a shot at traditional publication through a respectable publishing house would choose self-publication first, without at least attempting to go the traditional publishing (or, as some people now call it, the trad-pub) route. Yes, the respectable publishing house would keep a significant chunk of change from the books’s earnings, as would printers, distributors and bookstores. But the publisher would also secure the writer’s book a degree of public visibility that self publishers have to struggle to achieve.

Perhaps the most successful self-published writer that I know of is a 20-something woman named Amanda Hocking. As a private nurse with lots of spare time on her hands she wrote more than half a dozen books, mostly in the paranormal genre, and published them herself. By early this year these books had earned her something like two million dollars, a sum even a traditionally published author would envy. Yet the moment St. Martin’s Press, a traditional publisher, offered her a multi-million dollar advance for a new series of books, she took it. If self publication offers such tremendous advantages for authors who could secure traditional publication if they wanted to, why is the most popular self-published author of our time making the leap to the trad-pub world?

My guess is that this blog will be read by more than one self-published author and I encourage them to comment. Here’s the question I want to ask: What are you looking for in self publication? The freedom to write anything you want? Freedom’s great, but most self-published authors I know are struggling to achieve a fraction of the sales they once got as traditionally published authors. I reserve the right to have a personal epiphany about self publication as the logistics of the publishing field shift in the months and years to come, but for now I don’t really get it. In the meantime I’ll continue to play both sides of the fence, even as I struggle to figure out which side of the fence I’m really on.

Sex and Snow: Secular Songs of the Season

It’s December the twenty-fourth
And I’m longing to be up north.

Those lyrics, which send happy little thrills up my spine when I look at them in the wee hours of Christmas Eve 2011, are from one of the most famous songs ever written, a song that’s probably second only to the Beatles’ “Yesterday” in the number of versions that have been recorded. If you don’t recognize the words, it’s because the songwriter removed them from the song’s most famous recording. The songwriter was Irving Berlin, the song is “White Christmas,” and I bet you’ve heard it at least a dozen times in the last week, if only on the sound system at your local Wal-Mart.

Actually, the full, original opening to “White Christmas” goes like this:

The sun is shining, the grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway
There’s never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it’s December the twenty-fourth
And I’m longing to be up north

Those lyrics, which Berlin removed from the song for the Bing Crosby version and which have rarely been recorded since, mean a lot to me, and for more than one reason. The first is that I live in western Los Angeles, two miles from Venice Beach and less than ten miles from Beverly Hills, L.A. I didn’t grow up here, though. I grew up (and spent most of my life) in the Washington, DC, area, where we really did get snow this time of year.

The second reason is that I’m a Christmas music freak.

Yes, I’m that guy who starts listening to Christmas music shortly after Labor Day and is still searching the radio dial on January 2nd hoping to catch Nat King Cole singing about roasted chestnuts. When I was 13 I wore out the grooves on the Andy Williams Christmas Album (we still had vinyl recordings then) and I still listen to it on my iPod. I have Christmas music streaming through my iPod Touch and into my clock radio even as I type this. (At the moment Johnny Mathis is singing “Caroling, Caroling/Happy Holidays” on the Sirius/XM Holiday Traditions channel.) But that’s not really what I want to talk about. Christmas-loving atheist that I am, what I want to talk about is secular Christmas music.

I don’t really know when secular Christmas music was invented. Maybe it was when people started writing self-referential songs like “Caroling, Caroling” instead of songs about babes in mangers. Maybe it dates back to the years BC, when the season we now call Christmas was a pagan holiday celebrating the end of the sun’s long drift toward the southern horizon. All I know is that secular Christmas music, by which I mean Christmas music that has nothing to do with the birth of Christ, is what makes it possible for me to love Christmas music despite my total lack of religious belief.

My apologies to those of you who prefer hearing Mariah Carey and/or Justin Bieber sing “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” but the secular Christmas music I love was mostly written in the 1940s through the 1960s, by songwriters like Berlin, Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne (“Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”), Mel Tormé and Robert Wells (“The Christmas Song”), Ralph Blane and Hal Martin (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”), and Jay Livingston and Ray Evans (“Silver Bells”). I adore “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas” by Meredith Willson, especially when it’s sung in counterpoint with “Pine Cones and Holly Berries” (also by Willson). I turn into a grinning fool when I hear “Carol of the Bells” (which actually dates back to 1904 and was written by Russian composer Mykola Dmytrovych Leontovych, but was converted into an English-language carol in 1947). With the possible exception of that last one, these songs all belong to the tradition of the American Popular Song and have the gorgeous melodic precision of the best mid-20th-century Tin Pan Alley songwriters. They were also the songs that I heard my parents playing when I was a wide-eyed child who still believed in Santa Claus, back in the days when I could stare at the lights on the Christmas tree for hours. (I don’t believe in Santa any more, but I still love to stare at those lights.)

Since secular Christmas music has no specific subject matter to address, either pagan or Christian, it tends to be about the collateral elements of the season: presents under the tree, carolers in the snow, getting home for the holidays, and of course Santa and his reindeer. But once I ceased being that wide-eyed child (to the extent that I ever did cease being that wide-eyed child), I realized it was mostly about either sex or the weather. Much of it is about both.

Let’s review: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (Frank Loesser) is an obvious case, and one of the greatest comic duets ever written. It’s about a man trying to seduce a woman and a woman trying to seduce herself, with a little encouragement from the weather. (“Never such a blizzard before!”) “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” isn’t as funny, but it’s almost the same song: “Since we’ve no place to go/Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!” “Winter Wonderland” is considerably subtler (“He’ll say are you married/We’ll say, no, man/But you can do the job when you’re in town”), but “Santa Baby” just does away with the weather part altogether. Conversely, “White Christmas” does away with the sex and is just about weather.

Sex (or, to be less crass about it, romance) just became more and more popular as a subject for secular Christmas music when the Tin Pan Alley era ended. Karen Carpenter sang about it beautifully in “Merry Christmas, Darling” and, yes, for you Mariah Carey and/or Justin Bieber fans, it’s also what “All I Want for Christmas is You” is about.

But sex and/or the weather isn’t really what secular Christmas music is about to this yuletide-loving atheist. Christmas, for me, is an excuse to listen to music that would be much too corny and sentimental for me in any other context. It’s a chance to hear music that carries a message that breaks right through all the cynicism I’d normally be tempted to throw at it. When Sinatra sings “It’s that time of year when the world falls in love” (“The Christmas Waltz” by Sammy Cahn & Jule Styne), he isn’t singing about either sex or the weather, and he makes me believe that, for this one brief moment in time, the world really is in love. Sappy, sentimental love.

And if it isn’t, I’d rather you didn’t tell me until at least the 26th of December.