We all know history repeats itself thanks to the ongoing presence of human being in the process who alas have shown a freakish propensity for making the same mistakes over and over and over again, but did 2021 really have to ape 2020 so completely and absolutely?
I think we all really would rather it hadn’t but it happened, meaning that here in Sydney we spent a good solid five months in lockdown, a part result of which was that my Christmas in July became my Christmas in July-through-October tree, only coming down so I could decorate for Halloween.
It may seem odd to keep a tree up for that long when, let’s face it, it’s not Christmas but so grim and exhausting was lockdown the second time around, and so sapped were our spirits, that all that bright colour and festiveness went a surprisingly long way to make life feel good and wonderful, even if just for a little bit.
Thankfully lockdown has ended, and so my tree, which always goes up a few days after my birthday ( which falls around US Thanksgiving time), can go back to simply being a bright, shining, seasonal beacon of pop culture joy and not a support system of sorts.
Keeping my psyche intact is too much to ask of any Christmas tree, really, and I’m thrilled that I can decorate with all my new ornaments – I bought 60-70 this year, instead of the normal 10-20, a sure sign that I was trying to festively shop my way to good mental health – and then sit back and glory in it, knowing that what awaits is not four walls of white but times with friends and family at the most wonderful time of the year.
So, to this year’s ornaments which once again evince the diversity and expansiveness of my pop culture tastes …
THE RESCUERS: Miss Bianca and Bernard in a sardine can
As a child, I LOVED The Rescuers books featuring Miss Bianca and the ever-loyal Bernard, both mice of small size but big bravery and heart, by Marjory Sharp. I clearly remember walking into Dymocks bookstore in Lismore, NSW (Australia) and buying up the entire rest of the series, having fallen head over heels for the characters, their idealistic raison d’être after reading the first book, which was originally published in 1959. The Rescuers is perhaps best known for the 1977 Disney film but for me it was always about the book and I was prepared to devote what seemed like an eternity of pocket-money saving to get all the books into my possession. And of course to spend as much time as it took to read them all and soak in the marvellous adventures of Miss Bianca and Bernard who risked a great deal to help both man and beast. This ornament speaks to the sheer joy of Miss Bianca and Bernard together, fearlessly going wherever they need to go by whatever means available!
UP: Carl and Ellie getting married
I adore just about every Pixar film ever released but by far and away one of my great favourite in a crowded field of favourites is UP, the story of one man’s quest to fulfill a lifelong promise to his beloved wife who is no longer with him. Along the day Carl (voiced by the late great Ed Asner) acquires some new friends in the form of Russell (Jordan Nagai) and Dug the dog (Bob Peterson) who win your hearts over and then some but the part of the film that really gets to you, and which this newly-acquired ornament honours, is the opening sequence where we see, in heartrendingly beautiful fashion, Carl reliving his treasured time with late wife Ellie, including their picture-perfect marriage. This ornament captures all that love and happiness so wonderfully that putting in on the tree involved no hesitation at all.
PEANUTS: School Days (The Peanuts Gang)
Peanuts is without a doubt my favourite comic strip ever. What on top of Snoopy’s doghouse is not to like? Quirky but highly lovably flawed characters, insight and wisdom, surreal silliness (Snoopy’s many personas and the kite-eating tree among them), simple but memorably evocative artwork and real emotional resonance. Whether you identified with Charlie Brown’s social ostracisation and loneliness (I certainly did during a childhood of bullying and few to no friends) or gloried in Sally’s hilariously disillusioned approach to everything or Linus’s enduring faith in the Great Pumpkin, Peanuts, which from 1950 to 2000, had, and still has, a lot going for it. This ornament from 2008, purchased as part of my overboard ornament-buying quest this year to keep the COVID pandemic blues at bay, shows Linus and Lucy at school, their teacher only heard through the “wah-wah-wah” that Peanuts used to illustrate all adults talking in its many well-loved specials.
TOY STORY: Buzz Lightyear talking
When it comes to Toy Story, the venerable four-part series that in 1995 kicked off Pixar’s run of seemingly neverending animation masterpieces, it’s easy to either fall into camp Woody (Tom Hanks) or camp Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), with the two central characters possessing quite different personalities and approaches to life, love and adventure. But when it comes down to it, what matters is the staunch friendship between the two toys, who draw from each other’s strengths to become the bestest buddies ever. I love them both equally but there is something about Buzz Lightyear’s chutzpah and willingness to throw himself into anything, even if he comes a-cropper, that warms my heart and impelled to grabbed this talking ornament which has a number of great catchphrases programmed into it for extra festive fun.
STAR WARS: Ahsoka Tano
I have been a Star Wars fan for years and years. Ever since 1977 in fact when I saw the film that came to be known as A New Hope, but was then just plain old Star Wars, and fell in love with Luke, Leia and Han and their fight for anti-authoritarian freedom and justice! The universe of Star Wars has expanded markedly since then to include all kinds of books, comics, movies and shows, and one character who has moved to the front of the pack character-wise is Ahsoka Tano, and who, according to Wookiepedia “was a Force-sensitive Togruta female former Jedi Padawan who, after the Clone Wars, helped establish a network of various rebel cells against the Galactic Empire.” As well as appearing in Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, Tano also popped up in The Mandalorian S2 E5 episode, “The Jedi” in which she plays a pivotal role in freeing the citizens of the planet Corvus and helping Grogu and the Madalorian to take further steps towards an exciting but unknown destiny. This ornament is one of only 3,500 produced and while it cost an arm and a leg to acquire, there was no question of it not being on my tree.
DR SEUSS: Horton Hears a Who, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, The Sneetches
It’s hard to imagine a childhood in which Dr. Seuss doesn’t figure prominently. In over 60 books, Theodor Seuss Geisel used colourfully fun artwork and cadence-rich rhymes to tell some of the most imaginative and meaningful stories for kids ever. While he was a multi-talented man who moved easily between political cartooning, writing, and filmmaking, it is the children’s books for which is he best known including Horton Hears a Who! (1955), The Cat in the Hat (1957), How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1957), Green Eggs and Ham (1960), One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish (1960), and The Sneetches (1961), three of which have found festive form in Hallmark ornaments and which have joined my tree this year to add some poetical fun to proceedings.
SCOOBY-DOO: Scooby Saves the Day
Complete with “magic sound”, this Scooby-Doo ornament from 2017 captures that brilliant moment when the baddy who’s been terrorising everyone in some supernaturally creepy disguise is outed by the Mystery Machine team of Fred Jones, Daphne Blake, Velma Dinkley, and Shaggy Rogers, and their talking Great Dane who loves Scooby snacks and is afraid of just about everything! Premiering in 1969 in Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, Scooby is one of those characters for whom I have endless amounts of time. He may not really be the one who catches the crooks – for that you should really thanks Velma’s brain and Fred and Daphne’s bravery – but he is trhe heart and soul of this franchise which even 50-plus years later, still delights with its lighthearted sense of fun and escapist ability to make life seem goofily better on just about count.
Ever since I laid eyes on my Mum’s treasured childhood copies of A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh and When We Were Very Young, which happily ended up with me following her much-mourned and all-too-early death, I knew that Winnie, Tigger, Piglet and the rest of the Hundred Acre Woods gang were going to be friends for life. And so it has come to pass with my home filled with Winnie-the-Pooh books, movies and shows, Jim Shore figurines (got a lovely set for my 50th) and, of course, Christmas ornaments aplenty which I added to this year with two ornaments from 2001 and 2006. I used to have a policy of only grabbing one ornament for each character or franchise but honestly when the ornaments are this adorable and I love the characters so much, how can you stop at just one?
MADAGASCAR: The Mane Event
I might be a man of a certain age but if there’s one thing guaranteed to make the world feel like a wholly better place in no time flat, it’s switching on a goofy, silly animated movie and sitting back so the inspired silliness can just wash all over you. Madagascar, which kicked in 2005 with a film of the same name, and has now spawned two sequels, spin-offs and shorts, is a perfect escapist go-to, possessing a quick, easy premise – New York City Zoo animals want to escape confinement and get way than they bargained when they successfully leap the fence – hilariously funny characters and some engaging, message-light, storytelling that is as much about being there for your friends and belonging somewhere, even if that is the place you left behind as it is about witty, off-the-wall nutty jokes. It may not be the best animation out there, but it’s pretty damn cool and so having Alex the lion on my tree, which is light and bright anyway, just makes things feel like a slice of escapism in an ornament.
If there’s one song among the many memorable ones written by Disney’s gifted composers down through the years, it’s “A Whole New World”, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Tim Rice from the 1992 animated masterpiece Aladdin in which Aladdin finds true love with Princess Jasmine in the fictional city of Agribah and a fabulously realised blue Genie, played with characteristic, hilarious, manic energy by Robin Williams (who steals every damn scene he’s in). The song captures the soaring captivating emotion of the film but what also resonates strongly throughout is the inspired comedy which finds playful expression in this ornament from 1998 featuring the Genie, Iago (Gilbert Gottfriend) and Abu (Frank Weller), all three of them giving my tree that lovely extra touch of funny festive magic.
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE: Living the Wild Life, Max Sets Sail and Where the Wild Things Are
Maurice Sendak’s 1963 book, Where the Wild Things Are is a thing of spirit-nourishing wonder and beauty. Diving into the story of Max in his wolf costume whose imagination takes him to a wild and jungley place and then home again where he finds love and supper waiting for him is another of life’s true delights, made even richer by the 2009 live-action film. Stumbling across these three ornaments 2008, 2010 and 2011 was one of those happy accidents that results from over-enthusiastic general typing into eBay and I honestly be more thrilled. Having them on my tree brings a treasured book from my childhood into my Christmas present, reminding once again of the power of love, belonging and imagination.
One of the great pleasures of a year of too much streaming choice was watching the TV series Loki which, much like WandaVision had some real fun with a Marvel character who has spent much of his time in the Marvel Cinematic Universe becoming a richly-realised, deeply-nuanced, and amusingly complicated character. After all that effort to take him from cardboard cutout bad guy to flawed anti-hero who may just have a partial heart of gold, it was wonderful to see the MCU team give him so much to do in six action-packed and emotional resonant episodes. Truly one of the highlights of the year, Loki was fun and insightful and an absolute treat! Glad I managed to track this ornament down in the States to add some mischievous fun to my tree!
NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION: Car with tree
One of the most precious things I do at Christmas is to sit down and watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, a 1989 film that is ridiculously silly and OTT but also packed full of some lovely family-centric sentiment. More importantly for me, it was my dad’s absolute favourite festive film, and as we watched Clark Griswold try to put on the best Christmas ever to catastrophically hilarious results, it bonded my dad and I in some really lovely lasting ways. These bonds became all the more important when he died in 2016 and all I had left to remember him by that first Christmas was this manically crazy but heartfelt movie, which continues to occupy a central place in my festive viewing schedule. While I already have some Christmas Vacation ornaments, it’s this year’s one that is making me smile since it captures the hilarity of what should’ve been a simple outing to get a tree turning into something way wilder, far funnier and wonderfully pleasing to watch.
Good lord but this film cuts straight to the heart doesn’t it? Released in 2020, Soul takes us to the Great Beyond after Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) falls down a manhole and comes to an untimely end. But Joe doesn’t want to die and when he finds himself in the Great Before, with a chance to start life all over again, he takes it, changing not only his death/life but that of soul-to-be 22 (Tina Fey) who has some real issues with being born. Like, real issues and really looking at the state of the world right now, who can blame her? Still, life is a wondrously good and uplifting thing much of the time, with real pleasures to be had from music, family and friends and Soul celebrates this, especially music which is Joe’s passion as a soul musician and which finds beautiful expression in this gorgeously detailed ornament.
THE MUPPETS: The Great Gonzo
Gonzo the Great is one of the quirkiest Muppets out there, which is saying something, happy to be fired out of cannons, date chickens and spend the night in a haunted house. He essentially has no fear, and at times, little common sense, but he’s so sweet and lovable and loyal to friends like Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear that you can help but love him. First appearing in the 1970 special, The Great Santa Claus Switch, Gonzo was developed and performed by Dave Goelz, and is now one of the main stairs of the Muppets many escapades. Tracking this 2014 ornament was a real joy because while I have a fabulous Gonzo ornament already that’s quite unique and rare, I love the fact that this one shows him in silly, manic fun doing what he loves best.