Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, a newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, retrospectives, recommendations, and more. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
As we approach the culmination of this holiday season, you may be looking for some seasonal entertainment to keep your spirits bright. Scroll through any TV guide or streaming library, and you’ll find an overwhelming selection of festive options to choose from. Discerning what’s worth your time can be tough, and let’s face it, whether we’d like to admit it or not, one can only watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “A Charlie Brown Christmas” so many times before the magic starts to wear off a bit.
To help you with this quandary, I asked the members of the Daily Yonder crew for their rural recommendations for high-quality holiday entertainment. We did our best to focus on overlooked, under-the-radar selections, but, as ever, your mileage may vary.
Whether you’re hunkering down at home this holiday or hitting the road to visit family and friends, we hope the movies, TV specials, short stories, and songs below might be a well-received gift from us to you.
Our best wishes to you and yours for a happy holiday.
Holiday rom-coms are a genre unto themselves. And while many of them are simply awful (sorry, Hallmark fans), there are a few standouts that remind me just how great this genre can be. My personal favorite is 2006’s “The Holiday,” which tells the story of two women who swap houses, countries, and dating pools for the holidays and find love in their new environs. Moving between a Los Angeles mansion and a beautiful cottage in the Surrey countryside, the movie posits the benefits of an urban-rural exchange for the lovelorn. This is a familiar trope for those who partake in the holiday romance genre, but this one is better because of the all-star cast, which includes Kate Winslet, Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, and Jack Black. With such a wonderful combination of stars and clichés, it should be no surprise that “The Holiday” is funny, sweet, hopeful, and comforting in all the right ways.
– Anya Slepyan
“The Holiday” is currently streaming on Hulu, YouTube, or Sling with a live TV subscription and is also available to rent or buy on disc or via digital media platforms.
Joe Pera Helps You Find the Perfect Christmas Tree
Before Joe Pera stole our hearts with “Joe Pera Talks with You,” there was this one-off holiday special, which served as an informal pilot of sorts for the full series that would follow. Our feelings about Joe Pera are well documented, and we continue to lament that we will not be getting any new episodes of “Joe Pera Talks with You” this holiday season (or beyond). If you’re a fan like us, there’s a chance you might have overlooked this earlier holiday special. And if you’re not yet a fan, why not start at the beginning? As Joe himself says, in his trademark slow and humble way, “It’s a pretty good Christmas special.” Even in this first foray, focused on the finer details of different types of trees, his unique charms are on full display.
– Adam B. Giorgi
George Winston’s December
I don’t know about you, but I listen to Christmas music exclusively between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Any earlier is blasphemy, any later and it becomes noxiously nostalgic. Which is why now is the perfect (and only) time to suggest a Christmas album you might not be familiar with: “December” by pianist George Winston.
Winston grew up in Montana, spending a good part of his youth in Miles City, a rural town, in a rural county, in a very rural state. As a musician he has dubbed one of his signature styles “rural folk piano,” a uniquely “Winston” approach to the instrument that is on striking display in “December.” Captivatingly melodic and lilting, this album is as much a dedication to the winter season as it is to Christmas. That said, I recommend its sparkling rendition of “Carol of the Bells” above any other.
– Caroline Carlson
George Winston’s “December” is available on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, or wherever you get your music.
“That’ll Do, Pig” from Gilmore Girls
If there’s any time of the year we can all get behind romanticizing small-town living, it’s at Christmas. I spend every December trying to find a Hallmark movie that captures the charm of Stars Hollow, Connecticut, the fictional home of Rory and Lorelai Gilmore. But with its vintage street lights, cozy cafe, and walkable town square, nothing else beats Stars Hollow (or the California set where it was filmed). And because my partner and I can rarely make it through an entire movie without falling asleep, the 45-minute episodes are the perfect length.
The “Gilmore Girls” holiday episodes immerse you in a snowy little New England town. Just don’t pay too close attention or you’ll notice details like deciduous trees with green leaves still on the branches. In ‘That’ll do, Pig,” (season 3, episode 10) Rory keeps awkwardly bumping into her ex-boyfriend, Dean. One of the many luxuries that small town life affords is that you can’t go anywhere without knowing someone (or everyone). I’ll leave it up to you to find out what happens when Rory and her current boyfriend, Jess, inevitably run into Dean at the Christmas carnival. So cuddle up with a warm beverage and enjoy a Gilmore Christmas. And if that’s not enough, all (eight) of the holiday episodes are compiled in this list.
– Sarah Melotte
“That’ll Do, Pig” (and the rest of “Gilmore Girls”) is currently streaming on Netflix. The episode is also available for purchase on digital media platforms.
A Muppet Family Christmas
There are many Muppet holiday offerings to choose from, including the rightfully revered “Muppet Christmas Carol.” That said, this old TV special from the ’80s might be my personal favorite. It follows the Muppet gang as they head out for a holiday gathering at the farm where Fozzie Bear’s mom lives. It opens with a top-tier rendition of “We Need a Little Christmas,” and it has the rare distinction of being one of the few Muppet specials that featured characters from all the big Henson productions, including “Sesame Street,” “Fraggle Rock,” and “Muppet Babies.” My mom long kept a VHS tape that featured a recording of the original airing of “A Muppet Family Christmas,” along with other Jim Henson Company gems, like “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” and “The Christmas Toy.” For many years, it was a special treat to pop that tape into the VCR each Christmas.
– Adam B. Giorgi
“A Muppet Family Christmas” is regrettably unavailable for streaming, rental, or purchase, but it can be found — through many VHS recordings by any other name — on platforms like YouTube.
IMDb describes “Bad Santa” like so: “A miserable conman and his partner pose as Santa and his Little Helper to rob department stores on Christmas Eve. But they run into problems when the conman befriends a troubled kid.” The movie is really a story about hope and redemption at Christmas. This “Bad Santa” is really, really bad, but the kid eventually softens his heart and saves him from a horrible life of excess. The movie is hilarious, irreverent, and certainly shocking at times, but it’s one that I will watch every time I see it as I’m scrolling through channels.
– Teresa Collins
“Bad Santa” is currently streaming on Showtime and is also available to rent or buy on disc or via digital media platforms.
“Merry Christmas, Johnny Rose” from Schitt’s Creek
“Merry Christmas, Johnny Rose” (“Schitt’s Creek,” season 4, episode 13) is one of those rare sitcom holiday specials that makes me re-evaluate my general dislike of sitcom holiday specials. Unlike many episodes of its type, “Merry Christmas, Johnny Rose” does not interrupt the action of the show or take a break from the season’s arc. Instead, it represents the season in a nutshell. The show is about growth — the protagonists begin as a dysfunctional family of deeply selfish and narcissistic snobs and are gradually transformed by their new lives in a small, rural Canadian town. “Merry Christmas, Johnny Rose” highlights this transformation by contrasting the family’s lavish annual Christmas parties — complete with a 12-foot tree in the parlor of the family mansion — with their new tradition: a bit of caroling and a ‘zhampagne’ toast (they can’t afford champagne) in their motel rooms. Although still mourning their elaborate soirees, the family (reluctantly) comes together and topples face first into the true meaning of the holidays. Also, it’s hilarious.
– Anya Slepyan
“Merry Christmas, Johnny Rose” (and the rest of “Schitt’s Creek”) is currently streaming on Hulu. The episode is also available for purchase on digital media platforms.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
A corduroy-clad fox is the protagonist of this truly phenomenal Wes Anderson film in which the titular character, Mr. Fox (voiced by none other than George Clooney), goes on a multi-day stealing spree at three different farms located near his house, which is inside of a tree. What starts as fun and games becomes a real problem for Mr. Fox, his family, and the rest of his furry friends when the farmers decide to wage war on the animals until they have Mr. Fox’s head. Despite how intense that may sound, this movie is so cozy and makes for an immaculate fall or winter watch, especially because it’s not holiday-specific (my favorite type of holiday movie). My love of “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is so strong I quite literally have a tattoo in homage to it — now have I convinced you to watch this movie?
– Claire Carlson
“Fantastic Mr. Fox” is currently streaming on Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video and is also available to rent or buy on disc or via digital media platforms.
Let It Snow
I steer comfortably clear when it comes to Hallmark holiday movies and the other low-budget “straight-to-television” productions that flood the airwaves each year. My perception of most “Netflix Original” holiday films is that they fall solidly into this category, more often than not. The 2019 indie film “Let It Snow” is one Netflix offering that bucks this trend. Based on a YA novel of the same name, it spotlights an ensemble of exceedingly likable young actors, as their paths intertwine during a stormy, small-town Christmas. It’s not pushing the envelope by any means, following a well-worn template for teen movies and feel-good holiday stories. But it’s well made and it nails just the right level of youthful earnestness, longing, and possibility — conjuring that feeling, once familiar to many, of returning from college and hitting the hometown bars during your holiday break (see also, Taylor Swift’s “‘Tis the Damn Season,” for similar effect).
– Adam B. Giorgi
“Let It Snow” is currently streaming on Netflix.
A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote
“Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago.”
And so begins the great rural short story that has traveled with me since Dang Palmer, my high school drama teacher, sent me to the library to find the reprint in a holiday magazine. Its author, Truman Capote, had just written the bestselling potboiler, “In Cold Blood,” and it bought a second chance for this forgotten gem of a story about a little boy and an older outcast cousin who lived in a sprawling Alabama farm house. These best friends, a hunched old lady in a threadbare sweater and corsaged hat, and Buddy, a precocious seven-year-old left to her supervision, along with their rat terrier Queenie, set out on grand adventures. They kill flies to earn money, buy bootleg whiskey, bake thirty cakes including one for the Roosevelts, go deep into the forest to cut a tree, and build kites for each other, hers decorated in blue and green good conduct stars. They are the best kite flyers in the county by Buddy’s estimation.
Since tenth grade I have been telling that story, reading to civic groups and at family gatherings. For years I read it on my radio show, “The Men’s Achievement Hour, Human Potential Show,” praying that any copyright infraction would be forgiven in the spirit of the season. And always I would try to finish the story without choking up, though I never got there. And the compelling part of reading it was that so many of the listeners in the audience would look forward to it and cry too. They would call or write or stop me on the street to tell me so. One listener, several counties away in White Oak, Kentucky, was the artist Pam Oldfield Meade. She would always check the schedule to make sure she did not miss it.
And then one year for Christmas, she sent me a painting of a pair of kites floating into a winter Alabama sky.
– Dee Davis
“A Christmas Memory” is available in print and ebook format from your local library or wherever books are sold.
This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.