Thursday, December 23, 2010

Best Comedy Christmas Songs

Sure, Christmas songs get us in the holiday spirit, but Comedy Christmas songs achieve the same thing while entertaining us on another level. For that reason, I decided to compile this list. May you be filled with yuletide laughter.

5. 12 Days of Christmas - Foster Brooks
For nearly 50 years the irreplaceable Foster Brooks entertained the world, and made his mark in comedy with his hilarious lovable drunk persona. If you're not familiar with Mr. Brooks, I would recommend a quick youtube search and you'll be laughing all day. Though he was mostly known for his various television appearances, his take on this classic Christmas carol is pure genius. It starts a little slow, but as Foster becomes more and more hammered with each verse, there's no denying that he was a master at his own unique craft. It continues to leave me in stitches each time I listen. Merry Christmas, Foster Brooks, you're the drunken relative we all wish we had.

4. Chiron Beta Prime - Jonathan Coulton
Jonathan is an artist I've only recently gotten into in recent years, but he is quickly climbing the list of my favourite songwriters. He usually writes songs that focus on science fiction, technology, and other nerdy subjects mixed with various genres. Personally, the more I listen to him, the more I feel like he's been inspired by the likes of Weird Al and Ben Folds. If you're still unsure if you'd like his music, he did write the song "Still Alive" that appeared at the end of the amazing video game, Portal.

So anyway, this Christmas song is written like a Christmas card from a family enslaved by robots on a mining asteroid. It's hilarious and mad catchy.

3. Christmastime - The Arrogant Worms
One of the first songs I ever heard by the Worms, I remember distinctly listening to it on CBC radio around Christmas. These guys are no stranger to writing funny holiday songs, they even have a Christmas album in their sizable discography. Still with so many to choose from, this one stands out for it's energetic chorus and the delivery of lines like "Hey Mr. Santa Claus, I believe in you because, you've got more credibility that any doctor, cop, or lawyer!"

Unfortunately I couldn't find the song in any video to embed here (which may be a part of the internet's effort to keep us Canadians down), so I'm going to make you do extra work and listen to it on their website. Click the play button for holiday cheer!

2. The Night Santa Went Crazy - "Weird Al" Yankovic
I didn't want two songs by the same artist on the list, but I seriously considered Weird Al's other festive gem, "Christmas at Ground Zero" for its clever lyrics before finally choosing his other dark Christmas song. While it does make me feel old knowing the song is 15 years old already, I'll never forget listening to it for the first time and being shocked by its violent lyrics and then laughing my head off over the destruction of the North Pole and the gruesome demise of most of Santa's reindeer.

Please enjoy the extra gory version of the song posted below. I think you'll agree that nothing says Christmas like rocking out to Santa turning mad. I think you can also agree the story it tells would make one hell of a movie.

1. There Are Much Worse Things - Stephen Colbert and Elvis Costello
Colbert's 2008 TV special, "A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All" was a impressive bit of holiday fun filled to the brim with funny and well-written Christmas songs. I've since watched and listened to the songs dozens of times, but it's the final tune of the special that sticks with me the most. You may click and listen to it here.

The more I listen to the song, the more I appreciate all the different things it has to say. It begins by addressing the state of Christmas; how it's become the "cheesy crass commercial travesty" we know today that seems to be devoid of any religious significance. It then pokes fun at the importance we put on Christmas, as if it will solve all our problems at the end of the year and we will find "the answer to all sorrows in a box beneath the tree".

From there Stephen and Elvis sing of faith, cynicism, knowledge, and hopeful optimism. For me the song captures so many different feelings about the holidays and life that I feel you could easily write whole essays about it. And yes, while it may not be laugh out loud hilarious, it still is at heart a comedy song. It's sincere and beautiful, and as someone who celebrates Christmas without having any interest in going to church or being religious, it feels especially meaningful to that modern mentality. You may believe in everything, nothing, or things that are empty to others, but if it makes you happy then maybe that's all that matters, because ... after all, there are much worse things.

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas Traditions Explained

Last year I outlined a list of Weird Christmas Traditions from around the world. This year I thought I’d take a better look at some of the traditions that most Christians take part in every year and may not have any clue as to why.

Also, to our non-Christian, anti-Christmas readers: Merry/Happy Whatever!

5. Christmas Lights

During the Christmas holidays lighting a person’s house or trees – which we’ll get to later – is one of the most common practices of the Christian faithful. Houses are adorned, inside and out, with bright coloured or white lights from front to back.

So where did the tradition come from?

As you may or may not know, the Christian religion wasn’t always in the state it is today. There was a time where Christians were persecuted for their beliefs and had to hide in secret to congregate and profess their faith.

During these hard times Early Christians would light a candle in the window of the building they were performing a mass in, so that other Christians would know the location.

Now, as any good little history buff knows, the Christian religion is a conglomeration of many faiths. Winter solstice traditions, which were a mainstay of Pagan religions, are where most of our Christmas traditions take root.

Winter for the Pagans was a dark, horrible time of the year. During the colder months they had to hope that their food stores held out, survive the bitterly cold days and nights, and generally deal with the grief of those whom died during the winter – of which there were many. A celebration during these months helped to uplift spirits and break the bleak depression of the winter.

The Winter solstice celebrations – held on the darkest day of the year - included most of the merry-making we enjoy today, like a big feast with family and friends, gift-giving, and the burning of a large log in the hearth. This not only offered heat for the home, but represented the sun – which would return after the dark days. This tradition would become the “Yule” log and would be the basis of lighting candles in homes (for decoration, that is) and – in turn – for those horribly tangled LED lights you curse out every year as you staple them to your house.

4. Eggnog

What we call eggnog today is a drink that is heavily milk-based, contains loads of sugar, and - as per its name - contains eggs. It has a yellowish colour and depending on the level of milk used in the mix - from low-fat to downright cream - it can be very thick and creamy. Although these days you see people that just drink the nog, it is often mixed with some kind of liquor and served at social gatherings around the holidays.
So where did the tradition come from?

In days-gone-by milk and eggs had no "shelf life". There were no refrigerators! They were also costly. The only people that really had access to them were dairy and egg farmers, and the upper crust of society whom owned all the farms.

In an effort to keep the milk products they would be mixed with different liquors, including sherry and brandy. Eventually this became a treat that was enjoyed at many aristocratic social gatherings.

So why nog? That is a topic of debate by historians. There are several hypothesis, though. One includes that eggnog would often be mixed with rum or grog. The idea is that the term egg n' grog eventually became eggnog. Another idea is that eggnog would have once been drunk from a noggin - a wooden, carved mug used to serve booze back in the day. The drink might've been called an egg noggin and eventually shortened.

The mystery doesn't stop there, I'm afraid. Why do we drink it around the Christmas holidays? Well, there's no good reason. Like I mentioned before, eggnog was often enjoyed at social gatherings by the aristocrats. The belief is that over time it just became vogue to drink eggnog around Christmas and New Year's and that just eventually became the convention.

3. Mistletoe

Mistletoe, in regards to the Christmas decoration, is known as Viscus album in the UK. In NA a different form of mistletoe is used to adorn homes during the holidays, known as Phoradendron seritonum. It's a hemi-parasitic plant. Yeah, that's right. Plants can be parasites, too. Mistletoe actually survives by stealing sustenance from other plants.

So where did the tradition come from?

This one goes as far back as the Norse, at least. You see mistletoe, for some reason or another, has been linked to male virility for a very long time. In Norse mythology a mistletoe arrow was described as having killed Baldr, god of love and happiness. There are also descriptions of a sword made of mistletoe itself. If you don't get it, look up phallus.

Even in pre-Christian Europe mistletoe was considered a sign of male essence. Want to know why? Because when the berries are crushed up, they resemble semen. Yeah, bet you wish I didn't go there.

So how does this translate to the kissing Christmas decoration we know so well? The exact reasons aren't known, although it is again an extension of the male virility and fertility history of the plant, but as early as the 1820s there is literature that describes the use of mistletoe as a Christmas staple.

It would be cut from the bush and then hung in the home around Christmas Eve. It must then stay there and not touch the ground until Candlemas - a Christian feast that is held on February 2nd. It was believed that it could protect the home from lightning or fire, which I have no idea why; silly superstitious 19th Century Christians. 

The tradition of kissing is an extension of mistletoe's history as some weird phallic/male symbol, as young men could steal a kiss from the girl they were courting as long as they removed a berry from the bush. Once the berries were gone, the plant no longer held its spell.

I won't make any comments about that one.

2. Christmas Trees

The main decoration in a Christian's home around Christmas is the Christmas tree. It is adorned with lights, decorations, and in some traditions gifts, candies and fruit. At the top of most Christmas trees is a star, which depicts the Star of Bethlehem, but what started the tradition of people dragging perfectly good Evergreen trees into their homes?

So where did the tradition come from?

As far as we can tell from our history books, the Germans came up with the Christmas tree. In around the year 700, St. Boniface - in an attempt to fight off the pre-existing beliefs in Norse mythology - cut down a representation of the tree of Thor. Years later he found a fir tree growing in the roots of the old oak and saw it as a sign from God. He is quoted as saying, "... let Christ be at the centre of your households..." and from then on the tradition of taking a fir tree into one's home at Christmas began.

It is also recorded that in Estonia, circa 15th and 16th centuries, that a tree would be taken into the town square nearing the end of the Christmas holiday. It would be adorned and was the centre for dancing and singing. On the final night of reverie it would be burned and there would be a celebration held around the fire.

In a sort of amalgamation of traditions, families would take trees into their homes and decorate them, and would also light them with candles. It would remain a Germanic tradition for many years. It was customary in earlier times for the family to decorate the tree and hide it from the children for several days before Christmas eve, when it would finally be revealed.

The Christmas tree was actually considered a Protestant tradition, as were many of the Germanic Christmas traditions. It would be adopted by the Roman Catholics around the 16th and 17th centuries simply because it could not be stopped.

Today instead of candles on a large, dried out piece of wood, we take a safer route to light our trees… we plug sixty or so strings of lights into one socket, wrap them around our trees and stare glossy-eyed at all the pretty lights.

1. Santa Claus

Where to even begin?

Santa Claus has become the iconic image of Christmas, much to the dismay of the Catholic church. Seems there was a rather iconic birth on Christmas day as well. Although we consider the image of a plump, jolly bearded fellow in a red suit to be the definitive version of Santa Claus, that is just one of the many versions that exist all over the world of whom was once known as the Sinterklaas.

So where did the tradition come from?

The most common history associated with Santa Claus is that he is a legend based on St. Nicholas – a devout Catholic who lived in what is known as modern day Turkey. He is best known for giving gifts to the poor and even saving three young women from being made into prostitutes by giving their father a hefty dowry in their names. What a nice guy, huh?

Images of the man - known as Sinterklass to the Dutch and surrounding countries - certainly fit the part with a long beard and adorned robes, however this is but the roots of what would become the man we know so fondly as Santa.

In the UK he’s known as Father Christmas, and although very similar to our Santa Claus, he generally wears robes and is reported to live somewhere in Poland, not like the American Santa that lives in a perpetually wintry North Pole.

He is often reported to have some kind of magic at his disposal. In North America he lives with elves and several magic reindeer that help him to deliver presents to all the good little girls and boys in just one night. In Nordic countries he rides a magical goat to deliver his presents. The goat is actually the Yule Goat, which was once the reported gift-giver of the Nords, but over the centuries has merged with the St. Nicholas character.

In 1843 the man himself made an appearance in Charles Dickens’ famous novel A Christmas Carol as the "Ghost of Christmas Present". It’s a far cry from what we call Santa, but you can see that he’s a plump, bearded man that represents the festivities of Christmas.

There is a common misconception that the red-suited Santa is just a clever marketing campaign started by Macy’s and now owned by Coca-Cola. Although Macy’s definitely uses the image of Santa in their holiday marketing, as does Coca-Cola, they do not own the image of Santa Claus. Santa is the very essence of public domain. This common myth came about because Macy’s has Santa appear at the end of their Thanksgiving Day parade to mark the beginning of the Christmas season, and Santas have famously appeared at their store for many generations. There’s also the film A Miracle on 34th Street, which involves Macy’s and Santa Claus. This is just ingenious holiday marketing.

The same goes for Coke. The image they use on their holiday packaging may be trademarked, but they do not own the man in the red suit. There is a belief that it’s because of Coke that Santa’s suit is red, not its original green colour. The truth is that the red suit was first depicted by Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly (1863) and has nothing to do with Coca-Cola – although it is a very opportune coincidence that Coke has capitalized on.

There are a great many other depictions of Santa in all different countries and religions the world over. The fact is that Santa is a representation of the good cheer and celebration of the Christmas season. So, to you and yours I wish a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Greatest Hartford Whalers

"Breakfasts come and go, Rene, but Hartford - "The Whale" - they only beat Vancouver, once, maybe twice in a lifetime."   - Brody Bruce, Mallrats

In their nearly eighteen years of existence as an NHL franchise (1979-1997), the Hartford Whalers didn't exactly set the league on fire. If I had to pick one word that best sums up what they'll be most remembered for, that word would be "mediocrity". They failed to reach the playoffs in ten seasons and only made it past the first round once. They were knocked out five times by the Montreal Canadiens, twice by the Boston Bruins and once by fellow WHA imports the Quebec Nordiques, who are also the team their lone playoff round victory came against in 1986. Altogether they had three winning seasons.

The Whalers were one of four teams that merged with the NHL after the WHA went under. In that league, they'd been the New England Whalers, one of the most successful teams. They won the league's first ever championship and actually lasted as a franchise all the way to the WHA's demise in 1979 - something only the other teams moving on to the NHL with it had achieved. Most WHA franchises lasted about three or four years, sometimes moving several times before ultimately folding.

But in the NHL the Whalers were basically punching bags in the early eighties (although they did actually make the playoffs in 1980 - their first season in the league), graduating into also-rans in the latter half of the decade and early nineties before receding into the league's basement in their final years. They'll never be associated with greatness.

But they still had a few pretty great players over the years. This list, which turned out to be way more difficult than I was expecting, honours those players who were the greatest within the context of being Hartford Whalers. That is, they'll be judged on what they brought to the team in their time there and nothing else. I mean obviously, Bobby Hull is one of the all time best left wingers, but his nine games with the Whalers in their first NHL season as a forty year old isn't exactly going to put him in their hall of fame. So here are the greatest to ever wear the Blue, White and Green as I see them.

note: You'll notice that each entry on this list represents one of the five positions in the game. I can assure you this is sheer coincidence and didn't affect my selections.

5. Geoff Sanderson, #8 LW (1991-97)
Selected in the second round of the 1990 draft with their second pick after Mark Greig (who, after three seasons of being unable to crack the Whalers on a consistent basis, was traded), Sanderson was the last high draft pick to ever make a sustained impact in Hartford. He was still on the team for their final season before relocating to Carolina and led them in goals and points that year.

A speedster with a nose for the net, Sanderson scored 189 goals in 439 games as a Whaler. This puts him fifth on the all-time goal-scoring list. Some might wonder why I'd include him over Pat Verbeek, who with 192 goals in 433 games scored slightly more in slightly less time. Verbeek also had more points overall than him (403 to Sanderson's 352) by virtue of getting significantly more assists. But the fact is Sanderson was more of a pure scorer - he had more goals than assists as a Whaler and also finished his career with more g's than a's, a rare trait. Both players had two forty-goal seasons in Hartford but Verbeek had his playing alongside one of the best set-up men of all time, Ron Francis. Sanderson arrived the season after Francis's (in)famous trade to Pittsburgh. While Sanderson got to work with a talented playmaker in Andrew Cassels (my favourite Whaler ever), there's really no comparison.

Sanderson only got to play in two playoff series as a Whaler, three games as a callup when he was eighteen in 1991 then seven games in his rookie season when he was nineteen.  He scored one goal in that series against the Montreal Canadiens. But if the Whalers hadn't been so brutal from 1992 through 1997, he would've gotten more.

4. Ulf Samuelsson, #5 D (1984-91)
One of the toughest Swedes to ever play the game, Samuelsson was another Hartford draft pick, taken 67th overall in 1982. A physical, stay at home defenceman, his main job was making life miserable for his opponents and he was good at it. While Dave Babych provided offence from the blueline, Samuelsson (who actually enjoyed his best offensive totals as a Whaler) provided defensive responsibility and snarl, averaging around 170 penalty minutes a season. In 86/87, he posted an extremely impressive plus/minus of +28 and +23 in 88/89 - not easily done on a team like Hartford.

He was there for five straight playoff seasons; the closest thing to "glory days" that the Whalers can boast as an NHL franchise and he was part of the biggest trade in team history when he, along with Ron Francis was dealt to the Pittsburgh Penguins, where he would win Cups and establish himself as an elite shutdown defender. Samuelsson makes this list because he was unique - there really was no other Hartford Whaler like him.

3. Mike Liut, #1 G (1985-90)
Perhaps the most underrated goalie of his generation, Liut was the man between the pipes for the Whalers when they were at their best. Starting his career as a St. Louis Blue, he was drafted in 1976, three years before the Whalers were in the NHL. But in an interesting twist, the New England Whalers did in fact draft him in the WHA draft (it was common for players to be drafted by teams in both leagues during the WHA's existence) at nearly the same position as the Blues selected him (fiftieth overall rather than fifty-sixth).

When you're talking about the Hartford Whalers, really, there are only two goaltenders who should be in the discussion: Mike Liut and Sean Burke. But Burke never played a single playoff game as a Whaler and I think Liut's numbers are just more impressive. He had three twenty-win seasons to Burke's two, 13 shutouts to Burke's 10 and holds the record for wins in a season with 31. The season he did that (86/87) he also led the entire league in shutouts with 4 (that's eighties hockey for you). Liut is the franchise leader in wins with 115 - all this despite having played fewer games than Burke.

It was largely due to Liut's heroics that in the 1986 playoffs, the Whalers pushed the eventual Cup champion Montreal Canadiens all the way to overtime in Game Seven. This was after Liut was in the net for the team's ONLY playoff series victory, against the Quebec Nordiques in the round before.

I have absolutely no idea why the Whalers traded him in 1990 but I suppose it did work out for the best (sort of) because he would develop back problems that would eventually force him to retire.

2. Kevin Dineen, #11 RW (1984-91, 1995-97)
The Whalers selected Dineen with their third pick in the 1982 draft, just before Samuelsson. Actually, it's become pretty apparent that the '82 draft was definitely the best for the Whalers. Even though their first two picks (Paul Lawless, 14th and Mark Paterson, 35th) were misses, with their next three they snagged Dineen, Samuelsson and Ray Ferraro, who would make this list if it was a top ten.

Dineen, something of an undersized power forward at 5'11, 190 pounds, made an immediate impact as a rookie, scoring 25 goals in only 57 games. The following year he was also limited to 57 games but popped in 33 goals. Over the next four seasons, he would always score at least 25, twice eclipsing 40. He always put up over a hundred penalty minutes each season, including 217 in 87/88. He led the team in goal-scoring three times (sharing the lead with Ron Francis in 87/88) and was always a solid contributor in the playoffs.

He was traded to the Flyers early in the 91/92 season and performed much the same there, although his scoring did come down a bit. The Flyers even made him captain - a post he hadn't held as a Whaler - for the 93/94 season. He was traded back to Hartford during the 95/96 season and was there for the Whalers's last ever season of 96/97 as team captain. At thirty-two, he scored a very respectable 19 goals and was fourth in team scoring, also collecting 141 penalty minutes.

When the Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes the following year, Dineen became that franchise's first ever captain. He finished as Hartford's second all-time points leader.

1. Ron Francis, #10 C (1982-91)
As I've said, this list turned out to be surprisingly difficult to come up with. Players like Pat Verbeek, Blaine Stoughton (four 40 goal seasons as a Whaler including two over 50), Ray Ferraro and my buddy Andrew Cassels (third on the all-time assists list) were all great Whalers who deserved careful consideration. But I'm pretty sure I made the right choices. That said, selecting number one was ridiculously easy and I never had any doubts. The greatest Hartford Whaler of all time is #10, Ron Francis.

Like Dineen, Francis would experience being traded away from the Whalers then years later coming back to the organization that had drafted him (fourth overall in the 1981 draft). But by then they were the Carolina Hurricanes.  Even though he was pretty old for a player by then (thirty-five) he was his amazing, consistent self and cemented himself as the best player ever to play for the franchise in either NHL incarnation. So of course he's the best Whaler. No contest.

In his second NHL season as a nineteen year old (after putting up 68 points in only fifty-nine games as a rookie), Francis led the Whalers in scoring with 90 points. While his 59 assists were wholly indicative of the kind of player he was, the 31 goals may have been a tad misleading. In his twenty-three NHL seasons (over which he missed very few games), he would only hit the thirty goal mark three times, all while with the Whalers.  The 32 he scored in 89/90 was his career high. It was also the year of his career high points total as a Whaler - 101.  He would actually have 119 points (with a ridiculous career high assist mark of 92) in 95/96 but that was with a high-powered Pittsburgh Penguins squad that included Petr Nedved, Jaromir Jagr and of course, Mario Lemieux.

But in Hartford, Francis was the guy. He led them in scoring four times and was leading them when he was traded in 1991. Every other year he was either second or third on the team and he ALWAYS led them in assists. Because helpers were really his game. He piled up 557 of them in 714 games as a Whaler which is more than any other Whaler's career point total (Dineen had 503). While he was never a big goal scorer, Francis still consistently put up over twenty each year, bringing his career points as a Whaler to 821. Do the math on that (or just let me) and you'll see that his points per game average in Hartford was an excellent 1.14. He also holds the team record for most assists in a single season with 69 in 89/90 and averaged close to 60 a year.

A truly classy individual, Francis didn't win any of his three Lady Byng Trophies in his time in Hartford but he still played much the same then - putting up mostly modest to low penalty minute totals while playing at an extremely high level. In his nine plus seasons as a Whaler he was captain for six. His inclusion in a blockbuster trade to Pittsburgh in 1991 (which also sent Samuelsson, remember) really marked the beginning of the end for anything positive for the team while they were still in Hartford. The 1992 playoffs the following year would be the team's last ever trip to the post season before relocating to Carolina. For the Penguins, Francis proved to be the missing piece of the puzzle and they would win the Stanley Cup that very season (90/91) and again the next with him playing a huge role both times.

Like pretty much any Whaler, Francis never got to do much in the playoffs with the team but his numbers there are good, if not great. While he would win his Cups with another team and eventually return to the franchise as a Hurricane (and be captain once again) the NHL's FOURTH LEADING SCORER (and second in assists after a guy named Gretzky) will always be remembered as Mr. Whaler.