For many of us, our holiday traditions include things like caroling, parties, opening one gift on Christmas Eve and other perennials done in a certain way probably because our parents and grandparents did it that way too. But new traditions arrive: a CD that's always placed on repeat and often a TV special or movie we watch yet again. You used to have to wait for your local TV station to rerun It's A Wonderful Life or A Charlie Brown Christmas. Now you can catch it online or buy your own copy on DVD. Some people stick to those genuine holiday-themed shows while others like to roam far and wide by making unlikely titles like Die Hard and Fanny & Alexander part of their unconventional holiday must-dos. This column isn't a rundown of all the classics: it's a collection of the titles that have been repackaged and reissued or put out for the first time in the last few months. So here are some old friends and some new ones that hope to join them as part of your holiday tradition.
YOU'LL POKE YOUR EYE OUT -- Like the Jimmy Stewart gem It's A Wonderful Life, the sweet comedy A Christmas Story has drilled its way into our holiday memory thanks to marathon showings on TV. The fact that it's from the director of Porky's gives this gentle film a racy edge it otherwise happily avoids. Actually, this modest 1983 hit was made on a shoestring and it shows. But the narration is so witty and the cast led by Peter Billingsley so spot-on it doesn't matter. The bb gun, the visit to Santa at the mall, the scandalous table lamp, the bunny pajamas -- they can't help but make you smile. This Ultimate Collector's Edition ($39.98; Warner Bros.) includes a widescreen and chopped up pan and scan version (though why anyone would want the inferior full-screen version in this day and age is beyond me), lots of extras including author Jean Shepherd reading some of his work, a chef's apron, cookie cutters inspired by the movie and it all comes in a cookie tin. For many of us, an esential.
THE MAN IN BLACK -- Johnny Cash hosted four holiday TV specials from 1976-1979, and all of them are collected in The Johnny Cash Christmas Specials ($49.98; Shout). You get 66 musical numbers by Cash and his family and friends on four discs. The styles range from downhome intimacy the first year to a Los Angeles soundstage the third year complete with then rising comic Steve Martin doing variations on his biggest routines. Whenever Cash is centerstage with a guitar, nothing could be better and lots of guest stars keep this lively if somewhat dated in a charming, 70s variety hour way. Chris Isaak's shiny white suit gives the Man in Black a run for his money and Chris Isaak Christmas ($19.99; Koch) is a pure winner. I loved his TV show on Showtime and Isaak's droll humor and ironic sincerity (is that even possible) make him an ideal host as he rocks his way through holiday gems with his band and guests like Michael Buble and Stevie Nicks.
OFF THE BEATEN PATH -- If you've watched those holiday favorites once too often and want to give 'em a rest, the blandly packaged Classic Holiday DVD Collection Volume 2 ($29.98; Warner Bros.) is a great bargain with four little known flicks from the 40s and 50s. All Mine To Give is about th eldest sibling of six orphans who finds a home for each of his brothers and sisters during pioneer days. It Happened On 5th Avenue is about a bum who takes over a rich man's mansion and invites his friends along. Blossoms in the Dust is a three hankie affair about Greer Garson as a woman who founds an orphanage after she loses her own child. And best of the lot is Robert Mitchum in Holiday Affair-- he plays an unemployed clerk who splurges on a train set for a little boy he hardly knows. The big softie!
CLASSIC TV, SMARTLY PACKAGED -- Special Christmas episodes are a tradition on TV, especially for sitcoms. TV Sets: Holiday Treats ($12.98; Paramount) has an ugly cover but don't let bad wrapping fool you into missing out on this bargain. It collects eight holiday-themed episodes of hit shows from the 60s to the 90s, ranging from The Andy Griffith Show (Andy and Barney throw a Christmas party for a prisoner) to The Honeymooners (Ralph sells his bowling ball to get Alice a nice gift) to The Brady Bunch (mom gets laryngitis. Other shows include I Love Lucy, Taxi, Family Ties, Wings and Frasier. Doris Day: Christmas Memories ($14.98; MPI) contains three holiday episodes from her sitcom but what really won me over were the extras: commentary from Day herself (who is LONG overdue for an honorary Oscar), newsreels of Day, and holiday episodes of her radio show. A Shari Lewis Christmas ($9.98; S'More) also is generous. You get her three holiday shows (best for old folks looking to get nostalgic and the very young), plus another one from her local New York show Hi Mom, and a theatrical trailer offering a Christmas greeting from Lewis and Lamb Chop. Finally, if the relatives are getting on your nerves, you can fantasize about murder and escape America with Lovejoy Christmas Specials (($24.98; BBC Video). It contains two 90 minute movies set during the holidays -- one in Prague and the other in North Carolina and if spending Christmas with Ian McShane seems odd, you've been watching too much Deadwood.
WOULD-BE TV CLASSICS MAKE THEIR CASE -- Five new specials hope to get lodged in your brain and at least two of them might just do it. A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift Of All ($19.99; Paramount) pretended to mock those Bing Crosby specials from the 70s but in fact loved them and did its best to recreate their silly charm, thanks to some fine original songs and musical guests like Elvis Costello, Feist, Willie Nelson and even a singing Jon Stewart. Wonder Pets: Save The Nutcracker! ($16.99; Paramount) is a clever way to introduce that classic ballet's music to a toddler and the three other episodes included ain't holiday themed but will surprise adults who haven't sampled this silly, musically sophisticated show yet. I love Sesame Street and Dora The Explorer is better than GPS in my book, but Elmo's Christmas Countdown ($14.93; Genius) and Dora Celebrates Three Kings Day ($16.99; Paramount) are both DVDs the kids can watch while I'm in the next room cooking or playing video poker or something. And while I've never been a big fan of the Shrek movie franchise, I was very pleasantly surprised by the TV special Shrek The Halls ($19.99; Dreamworks). It's priced too high for a 22 minute TV episode but it cut back on the incessant pop cultural references and created a genuinely delightful holiday gem.
OLD VS. NEW AND BLACK/WHITE VS. COLOR -- Why anyone would watch the live action Jim Carrey version of Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas when the animated TV special is so perfect is beyond me. But if you don't own it and want it, this Limited Edition Collectible Gift Set ($34.98; Universal) contains loads of extras and a snow globe to boot. Similarly, why anyone would want a colorized version of Holiday Inn (the Bing Crosby flick that introduced "White Christmas") is also a head-scratcher but this new edition ($26.98; Universal) has a lovely new black and white print, a colorized version you can hand off to someone you don't like and a CD with 12 songs from the soundtrack including "Happy Holidays."
MORE HOLIDAY HOPEFULS -- Among the other titles with holiday themes that strove for classic status (but fell short) are Thomas Kinkade's Christmas Cottage ($19.98; Lionsgate); Jim Henson's The Christmas Toy ($14.98; Lionsgate/Hit) which is minus the Kermit bookend; Rankin Bass's 1979 Jack Frost ($19.98; Warner Bros.); the crusty priest in a new town fable Noelle ($29.98; Paramount); Vince Vaughn's clever concept but poorly executed comedy Fred Claus ($28.98; Warner Bros.) and the so-so animation and storytelling of Christmas Is Here Again ($14.98; Screen Media), The Flight Before Christmas ($19.98; Genius/Weinstein), My Little Pony's A Very Minty Christmas ($16.99; Paramount) and Strawberry Shortcake's Holiday Dreams ($26.98; Fox).
THE BEST OF THE BEST -- And then of course, there are the stone cold classics, which any decent soul should own because why should you have to wait til December to watch them? A Charlie Brown Christmas ($19.98; Warner Bros.) is the gold standard, of course. This edition includes It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown and a making-of featurette. Then there's Classic Christmas Favorites ($39.98; Warner Bros.) which contains a generous 10 specials on four discs including the Chuck Jones TV masterpiece Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas, the Rankin Bass gem The Year Without A Santa Claus and eight more.
So what's the one movie or TV special you can't miss every year?