Wysz's Guide to Christmas

The most wonderful time of the year

Fact: Christmas is awesome. Therefore, it is worthy of getting its own page on Home of the Wysz. This is not a comprehensive or ultimate guide to Christmas. This guide simply suggests some of the most awesome ways to celebrate the holiday.

If you're looking for more general information about the meaning, history, and celebration of Christmas, start with Wikipedia's Christmas article.

Know what you're looking for? Jump directly to one of the following sections: Cookies | Decorations | Movies | Music | Presents

Christmas Cookies

photos in Christmas Feasts & Treats More photos in Christmas Feasts & Treats
Like most holidays, food is a very important part of Christmas. I like a good dinner, and I love hors d'oeuvres, but what really comes to mind when I think of Christmas are Christmas cookies. Cookies are a huge part of Christmas in my family. We have an amazing variety produced (and consumed) every year, including snickerdoodles, spritzes, chocolate crinkles, and meringues. I'd estimate that we have between eight and ten different kinds each year, with some coming and going as tastes change. I wonder what happened to those pretzel-shaped ones we used to have.

But one cookie that will never be absent is the meringue. This is simply the greatest cookie ever created. Ever. Its sweet taste is addicting and totally awesome. Regular meringues, such as ones that you buy at the store, are alright, but after one or two you're looking for something to wash it down with and ready to move on to something else. The meringues made in my family are different. They're light, some almost hollow inside, except, of course, for the chocolate chips contained within. This is what's so great about meringues: You can't have a bad one. With chocolate chip cookies, for example, you have to find one with the right amount and distribution of chips, and also factor in the hardness of the cookie. With meringues, they're all the same hardness, and it doesn't matter how many chocolate chips you have, because it's simply the difference between tasting sugar and tasting chocolate-flavored sugar. It's all good. They are so addictive that I have had to fight with my sisters for the last one. Once at my grandmother's house, my sister declared, "Don't let Michael get to them!" like I was a dog or something.

Besides cookies, I like other food associated with the season. Potato chips and homemade clam dip is one of the essential hors d'oeuvres in my family. I'm often encouraged to sit back and take a breather when eating them. It's just so good! I'm glad that I started eating it at a young age when I didn't know what it was, because if they had tried to introduce me to "clam dip" now, there's no way I would be interested.

And finally, an old tradition has recently experienced a revival. For most of my childhood, I had a Friendly's ice cream cake on my birthday. My birthday is on New Year's Eve, which is why I associate it with Christmas. The cake was vanilla ice cream with two layers of chocolate cake. And then one year without warning, it was replaced. Several years went by with creations from Dairy Queen and other places, but the cake I remembered was gone. Friendly's had stopped making it. But on my 21st birthday, my cake was brought out, and it was the cake. I couldn't believe it. The first piece was cut, and an inspection of the cross-section confirmed that it was, in fact, built to the exact specifications as the one from my childhood. I hope that Friendly's never discontinues this cake again. Here's a picture:
My Favorite Cake
Looks pretty awesome, doesn't it? It tastes awesome too.

Christmas Decorations

When Santa waves to the crowd at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, he is giving the "all-clear" signal to those waiting to break out the Christmas decorations. At this point, Christmas is officially "go" for launch. We wait until Friday to start decorating and playing Christmas music, and the candles in the windows and outdoor lights are lit on December 1st.

The central decoration of Christmas is the Christmas tree. Why? Because this is where it all goes down on Christmas morning. Nobody looks for their presents under a wreath. Every family has its own traditions when it comes to trees. Some use artificial trees, some cut their own, some buy them on the street for $25, and, based on what we saw a family hauling away at one tree farm, it seems that some set out to bring home the ugliest tree they can find.
photos in Christmas Trees More photos in Christmas Trees
My family always goes for real trees, so the tradition keeps me tied to them. I like the smell of them, and can even be reminded of the season when I get poked by a stray needle in my coat a few months later and crush it for the smell.

The challenge is also part of the tradition. Walking around the tree farm on what is almost always the coldest day of the year, searching for that perfect tree is a great way to start the season. Sometimes the search takes ten minutes, but we've also had years where the search takes hours and spans multiple tree farms. Not only do we need to find two perfect trees, one of them has to be about 12 feet tall. One year, we had one that topped 14 feet. That was just crazy.

Once the trees are selected, we have to get them home safely. While this is easy enough these days with SUVs and helpful people at the farm, it can still be a challenge. Some years the big guy is too big to be bailed, and if you drive to the far side of the farm where the big trees are, you're on your own when it comes to securing them to the roof.

Once home, we usually keep the trees outside in water for another week or two, so they are decorated closer to Christmas. Once inside, secured to the custom tree stand, positioned to fit everyone's definition of "straight," and wired to the beams, the trees are lit and the smaller one is flocked with fake snow. Once the angel is on top of the big tree, it's time for the ornaments. We have a lot of them, and they take hours to hang. Everything looks awesome in the end, so it's worth it.

The decorations don't end with the tree. The world must be saturated with signs of Christmas during the season. In our house, electric candles are placed in every window, and turn on promptly at sunset. When our new house was built, we had all of the outlets for the candles put on one circuit, so they can be controlled with one button. We put strings of lights on a couple of bushes, and do the icicle lights thing as well. I get a kick out of the fact that the packaging on most lights still touts the "If one goes out, the rest stay lit!" feature, even though it has been a standard for years. It's like those old motels with signs that still advertise color TV as an amenity. As you have probably seen on TV and in your own neighborhoods, some people really get into the spirit with their outdoor lighting displays. And today, sophisticated computer control equipment is readily available and affordable to more people than ever, sparking a new revolution in animated outdoor lighting. If you really want to see some cool Christmas displays, check out LightsOnDisplay by Mike Ziemkowski. He is an inspiration to me... just wait until I get my first house! You may also have seen a video that made its way around the Internet in 2005 showing a display by Carson Williams of Mason, Ohio synchronized to Wizards in Winter by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. (iTunes | Amazon) Unfortunately, traffic problems caused by the display prompted Williams to turn it off for the time being.

Other decorations include greens, candles, miniature villages, bears wearing sweaters, and lots of Santas and snowmen. It's also a good idea to have a fire going if you have a fireplace. I have some pinecones covered in an unknown substance that creates green and blue flames when it burns, which is totally awesome.

The one decoration I don't get is the blow-up inflatable thing. I'm talking about the things that became popular a few years ago and are held up by a fan when turned on. When they're turned off, they appear dead or vandalized. I honestly cannot figure out why so many people buy these things. My only guess is that they're extremely inexpensive. I don't want to offend anyone, especially on Christmas, but those things are just tacky, and they always have been. Sometimes I'll see an older decoration that appears cheap by today's standards, like a metal tree, but I can understand that it was probably acceptable when it came out. But these inflatable things aren't even retro. They looked bad the day they were released. The only one's I find tolerable are the kind that create fake snowstorms, but they're generally indoors. I approve of that.

Even websites get decorated for Christmas. I'm not sure if it will work when you try it, but if it's near Christmas, try typing "Christmas'' or a related term into Google's web search. Notice anything different?

Christmas Movies & TV

You can find most of the following items in my Christmas DVD guide on Amazon.com.

It's a Wonderful Life

One of the most well-known classics. This movie is on T.V. every year, and it's one that you always feel you have to watch, even if it's only on in the background while you make cookies. Hot dog!

A Charlie Brown Christmas
Also known as "Merry, Christmas, Charlie Brown!" this 1965 Christmas special totally rocks. The tree, the pageant, and the music. One of my favorites. The later "It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown" (included on the Charlie Brown Christmas DVD) is also worth a look.

You can buy Vince Guaraldi's famous soundtrack for the timeless classic on Amazon or download immediately on iTunes. A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition, a beautiful hardcover book, sits on our family room coffee table every December. If you're really into the Charlie Brown holiday specials, you can get Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Halloween in one box.

A Muppet Family Christmas
This is tied with A Charlie Brown Christmas as my favorite Christmas special. I must warn you that the DVD leaves out some really good parts because of music licensing issues, so please keep that in mind if you consider buying it. My favorite way to experience it is watching the version my parents taped off of TV in 1987. While they cut out some commercials, a few remain on the tape, which is cool because it's fun to watch old commercials for OshKosh B'Gosh and Double Mint Gum. Makes me feel like wearing overalls again.

Christmas Eve on Sesame Street
This special, originally aired in 1978, is another item in the family taped-off-of-TV collection. Nice to go back to the days when parents, not Cookie Monster, were responsible for what children ate. He eats a phone in this one. And something else at the end... but that's a surprise.

The Muppet Christmas Carol
This is another Muppets creation in which changes to the original content in the DVD version have irked fans. Read the reviews and decide for yourself. It's like reading Star Wars fans talk about the changes that Lucas has made over the years. I've read the reviews and decided that there are some people out there who really like the Muppets.

It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie
This newer special stayed on our TiVo for over a year, and I'll probably get the DVD at some point. I enjoyed it, and the "corporate synergy" joke came while I was taking a course about television! And listen to the tune of God's doorbell...

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Animated & Jim Carrey)
I like both of these movies. Why else would they be on this list?

Home Alone (and Home Alone 2)
I'm pretty sure the soundtracks to these movies, by the one and only John Williams, are what made me fall in love with the song "Carol of the Bells."

Late Night Christmas Lighting Spectacular - AKA "Lighting of the Vigoda" ( Late Night With Conan O'Brien - Late Night With Conan O'Brien - Late Night Christmas Lighting Spectacular )
This 2005 clip from Late Night with Conan O'Brien parodies NBC's coverage of the Rockefeller Christmas tree lighting and serves as further proof that Conan can get Abe Vigoda to do anything. This aired the same night that Letterman interviewed Oprah, and I have to say that I enjoyed Conan's bit more than the Oprah interview. It's family-safe except for the part with Triumph. You'll have to decide for yourself if it's worth 2 bucks to download.

A Christmas Story
It's a story about Christmas!

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation
Christmas Vacation could be considered a documentary of the modern American Christmas.

The Santa Clause (and The Santa Clause 2 - The Mrs. Clause)
Your standard modern Christmas comedy. But that's not a bad thing.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947, 1994)
I've actually only seen the 1994 version and honestly can't remember very much about it (although I know I liked it), but I feel compelled to include both versions in this list.

This is a new classic, at least in my mind.

The Polar Express
Also in the "new classic" category. I saw the first trailer a full year before the film was released, and had to wait all year for it to come out. It's visually awesome and the soundtrack is fun as well. The segment where the train skids across the ice is what sticks out in my mind as I write this; they had some really talented artists work on this film.

A Garfield Christmas
We have this taped off of TV somewhere, but I haven't seen it in a few years. Garfield is awesome, and so is this Christmas special.

Jingle All The Way
I've never seen this movie, but I get a kick out of every time "Arnold" yells it on Conan.

The Classic TV Specials
Stop-motion Rudolph, Frosty saying "Happy birthday!"—it's all here in one box of Christmas memories. Also, be sure to check out Letterman's fun Rudolph parody. Click here and then click on "Dave Visits Rudolph And Santa." You'll need to have RealPlayer installed.

Christmas Music

Christmas music is awesome, and by law must include bells. For several years, my Christmas music collection, whether it was counted by album or by track, outnumbered my selections of non-Christmas music. Thanks to the impulse-buy nature of the iTunes Music Store, I've now amassed more non-holiday songs, but my Christmas collection continues to grow. Back in the day, we listened to most Christmas music on the radio. No, we weren't using FM transmitters with our iPods. We were listening to the actual radio stations. You know, those things with all the commercials? Our only recorded music was on 3 cassettes: Merry Christmas from the Chipmunks (iTunes | Amazon), Christmas With The Beach Boys (iTunes | Amazon), and The Christmas Music of Johnny Mathis - A Personal Collection (iTunes | Amazon). One year, a certain rendition of Deck the Halls was getting a lot of radio play, and I really liked it and wanted to know who played it. My mom was able to catch the name "Something Steamroller" when the DJ announced it. After she told me, I hopped on Amazon.com, which at the time only sold books and music, and searched for either "Deck the Halls Steamroller" or "Christmas Steamroller" and found a lot of "Mannheim Steamroller" hits. I doubted that the song I heard was from the mid 80s, but I clicked on the preview for "Deck The Halls," and thanks to our speedy 28.8 modem, was able to confirm that it was in fact the song I loved. From there, the digital collection became what it is today, with over 250 Christmas songs in my music library. The one song I still don't get is It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year. The song refers to "scary ghost stories" being told on Christmas. Is my family the only one that doesn't tell ghost stories on December 25? The only traditional scary ghost story that I can think of related to Christmas is A Christmas Carol, but still, that's only one story. Where are the stories?

Here's a small selection of my favorite Christmas music:

Mannheim Steamroller
As you know from the introduction, I think this stuff is awesome. While I like all of their songs, their faster tracks seem to have a more universal appeal. I've listed them in an iTunes iMix called Most Rockin' Mannheim Steamroller Christmasicon. My favorite album is simply titled Christmas, and is fun to listen to all the way through, especially with the obligatory (but awesome) Stille Nacht at the end. The CD is available from Amazon or you can download it immediately from iTunes.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra
Whether it's Christmas music or Beethoven, these guys have fun with whatever they're playing. I discovered TSO just a few years ago when I heard a cool rendition of Carol of the Bells, one of my favorite songs, in their Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24) track on Christmas Eve And Other Stories (iTunes | Amazon).

Vince Guaraldi's soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas (iTunes | Amazon)
Everyone likes Charlie Brown, and everyone likes the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas. At least all the cool people do.

Bruce's "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" (iTunes | Amazon)
This song rocks.

I could go on and on, but this page is already long. For more fun Christmas songs, check out my Awesome Christmas Songsicon iMix or pick up a copy of Now That's What I Call Christmas! which includes pretty much all the essentials. One of my favorite songs on this album is Paul McCartney's Wonderful Christmastime.

Christmas Presents

photos in Christmas Presents More photos in Christmas Presents
Christmas morning means Christmas presents, which are awesome. If you're expecting a Christmas Eve delivery from Santa, you can track him online thanks to NORAD.

While receiving presents is usually pretty easy, shopping for someone else can be difficult. Experts agree that the only guaranteed way to get someone a gift that they won't return is to purchase an item that's non-refundable. Fortunately, even last-minute shoppers can find such an item: iTunes gift certificates! You can print them yourself, send them as emails, or, if you plan far enough ahead, send them in the mail.

If you're a Christmas enthusiast who wants to show the world how you feel, you may be interested in these items that I've created using Cafepress.com:

Long-sleeve t-shirt with 'More Sleighbell' text and picture of sleighbells
Cure the fever with more sleighbell!
On back: "Christmas is awesome."
Available items:
Long-sleeve t-shirt
Long-sleeve t-shirt (with blurred bells)
Black t-shirt (nothing on back)
Hooded sweatshirt
Jr. Hoodie

Teddy bear wearing a t-shirt and red ribbon
The t-shirt on this bear proclaims: "Christmas is awesome."Available in red and green text.
Bird with Arms
Christmas ornament featuring my 'Bird with arms' doodle
One day while doodling, I created a bird with arms instead of wings, and thought it looked pretty neat. I gave it a red nose for Christmas.

Available items:
White ornament
White ornament (En español)
Blue ornament
Greeting cards (6-pack)

Remember, you can create your own custom items on Cafepress if you want a really unique gift. Just click on "Make your own stuff."

  Apple Store
Well, kids, that's Christmas. Let me leave you with a few random thoughts that didn't fit into the other sections:
Thanksgiving is basically dress rehearsal for Christmas. You figure out the best route to the relatives' if you're traveling, check the oven capacity if you're cooking, work out seating arrangements, give/get Christmas lists, and refresh yourselves on the self-timer function of your cameras.
Guests will always arrive much later than you expect, unless you are unprepared, in which case they will arrive early and bring friends.
Christmas cards are out of control. You will give them to everyone, and everyone will give them to you. There are only about two degrees of separation between any two people when it comes to Christmas cards.

See also: Wysz's Guide to Valentine's Day

Thanks for visiting, and Merry Christmas! If you have any questions or comments, you can email me at wysz@mac.com

Special thanks to The Internet Archive's Wayback Machine for saving this page after I had mistakingly deleted it!