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Favorite holiday films: One family keeps 60-year tradition, others swear by stark reality

For Mary Burke of Kirkwood, watching  the 1954 movie “White Christmas” is like Santa Claus and candy canes — a holiday tradition. Burke and her three sisters grew up in the 50s and 60s singing and dancing along with Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney. It’s something they never outgrew.

“One of my sisters is coming in from Denver and she called me last night and said, ‘Get 'White Christmas' ready.’”

Burke’s daughters Stephanie Thayer, 30, and Emma Clemenson, 28, can’t remember a time when "White Christmas" wasn’t part of their holiday.

“We would put it in and I would hear the music swell and I definitely remember that specific feeling of everybody huddling around. And it was very Christmas-y,” Thayer said.

“It’s not Christmas until you watch that movie,” Clemenson added.

The film’s about two army pals teaming up with a pair of sisters to save their captain’s Vermont hotel. For these Kirkwood siblings and their mom, the pinnacle is a song called “Sisters,” about the bond between the two women.

Stephanie Thayer with her sister Emma Clemenson and their mother Mary Burke. The trio watches White Christmas together every year. In the last few years the sisters' husbands have joined in.
Credit Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio
Stephanie Thayer with her sister Emma Clemenson and their mother Mary Burke. The trio watches White Christmas together every year. In the last few years, the sisters' husbands have joined in.

For Clemenson, having that lifelong relationship is the take-away message.

“That family is always there, that blood is definitely more important and thicker than water,” Clemenson said.

Thayer couldn't resist a chance to tease her younger sister: “Really? I thought it was that you should never buy an inn in Vermont,” she joked.

Burke smiled as she watched her daughters laugh, joining in almost like another sister.

“To see your kids grow up and be best friends — that’s what you really hope for,” Burke said. “So I love that they share the love of the movie because I know that every year they’ll come over and be like, ‘Oh, put on 'White Christmas.'’”

Hear Mary Burke and her daughters Stephanie Thayer and Emma Clemenson sing the full rendition of “Sisters” from the 1954 version of the Irving Berlin musical “White Christmas.”

Family time and other adventures

Not every holiday movie is about Christmas (although the vast majority are). One of the few to break the mold is Adam Sandler’s “Eight Crazy Nights” and his famous Chanukah “harmonicah” – “marijuanikah” song.

Diane Lynn estimates that she watches up to 600 movies every year.
Credit Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio
Diane Lynn estimates that she watches up to 600 movies every year.

But even those who celebrate Christmas don’t always enjoy singing along with the classics. That's the case for Diane Lynn of St. Louis.

"It’s nice, but it’s like you’re living in a dream world,” Lynn said.

Lynn, 56, prefers more contemporary holiday films like “Trading Places” and the “Bad Santa” series. She says they more accurately portray the greed and hurry-up mentality of the holidays.

Billy Bob Thornton’s Bad Santa character barely has time for the children who want to sit on his lap. To one young man who wanted a Fraggle Rock toy, he snapped, “Next. I said, ‘Next!’ …  This is not the DMV, all right?”

Furthermore, Lynn wants to know, why does every Christmas classic focus on relationship drama?

“We’re not all of us madly in love or falling out of love or something,” Lynn said. “Some of us are just here, you know, creating adventures or having adventures.”

For some, the scariest adventure can be the rollercoaster of holiday family time. Take the 1994 movie “The Ref” with Dennis Leary and Kevin Spacey. After years of silence, Spacey’s character finally erupts at his controlling, complaining mother.

Here’s a scene from “The Ref” in which the family’s Christmas spirit is wearing thin.

Fights around the turkey and trimmings aren’t unusual, according to Cinema St. Louis artistic director Chris Clark.

“We’ve all had knock-down drag-out arguments at family dinners,” Clark said.

Clark admitted he’s kind of a Scrooge when December rolls around.

“The holidays are stressful, expensive, chaotic,” he said.

Chris Clark is artistic director of Cinema St. Louis.
Credit Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio
Chris Clark is artistic director for Cinema St. Louis. Gremlins is one of his favorite holiday movies, along with The Long Kiss Goodnight and The Ref.

But Clark does have favorite Christmas films, including thrillers like “The Long Kiss Goodnight” about a trained assassin with amnesia. That kind of film in which the red and green are blood and money suits him better than, for example, a classic featuring a flawed human being who comes to see the error of his ways.

‘”It’s a Wonderful Life’ is just fairy tale, a fantasy.”  Clark said.

But even a Grinch can have a soft spot for a feel-good finish.

“The happy, chirpy, cheery ending where everyone sings and everyone’s happy,” Chris said,” You know, that exists in the world.”

Here are the movies our St. Louis Public Radio Public Insight Network responders listed as holiday favorites:

  • “A Charlie Brown Christmas”
  • “A Christmas Story”
  • “Bad Santa”
  • “Elf”
  • “Ernest Saves Christmas”
  • “Home Alone”
  • “Lady in the Lake”
  • “Love Actually”
  • “Meet Me in St. Louis”
  • “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”
  • “Rudolph, the Red- Nosed Reindeer
  • “To Kill a Mockingbird”
  • “Trading Places”
  • “White Christmas," released in 1954 (Not to be confused with the 1942 movie "Holiday Inn," which has a similar storyline and the same signature song.)

Tweet your seasonal favorites to Nancy Fowler and follow her on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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