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December is a long month for Jewish parents. From the day after Thanksgiving until New Year’s Eve, America is completely saturated with Christmas and it can be very difficult to explain to small children why Santa seems to come to every house but theirs. Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick has a thoughtful essay on the fine distinctions drawn by some Jewish parents when it comes to cultural touchstones like “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The semiotic lines parents draw between “The Grinch” (universally allowed) and “The Night Before Christmas” (not so much) are as much a reflection of the complex balance between making sure children do not feel like outcasts and preserving their cultural and religious identity as it is a reflection on the differences in the programs. Lithwick finds that the controlling principle seems to come down in favor of the programs watched by the parents when they were children, back when their own parents were faced with the same difficult choices.

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As much a tradition as indigestible fruitcake and the dogs barking “Jingle Bells,” every Christmas season brings us at least one new family holiday angst-fest, stuffed with secrets, accusations, forgiveness, food, and laughter. The best of them give us the dual pleasures of identification with the frustrations deep connections of family life and a little distance, too.
This version adheres just enough to the usual traditions to satisfy, with most of its appeal in its top-notch ensemble performances and the freshness of its setting in the home of a middle-class black family. Loretta Devine plays the mother, known to her family as “Ma Dear.” Only her youngest child is still living at home (pop star Chris Brown as Michael, known to his siblings as “Baby”). Coming back for Christmas are the rest of the siblings, each with some secret to hide or spring on the family — or both. College student Melanie (Lauren London) has a new boyfriend (Keith Robinson as Devean). Successful model Kelli (Sharon Leal) is not as confident as she would like everyone to think. Married Lisa (Regina King) is not as happy as she would like everyone to think. Marine Claude (Columbus Short) is not as single as everyone thinks. And oldest brother Quentin (Idris Elba) owes money to some people who are not exactly on Santa’s “nice” list. Even Mom has a secret. She does not want her children to know that she has been living with Joseph (Delroy Lindo).
The movie nicely captures the rhythm and volatility of adult sibling interactions, a mash-up of in-jokes, old and new and often-shifting alliances, the need for acceptance and approval, and affectionate teasing that sometimes flares up to reveal or aggravate old wounds. Director Preston A. Whitmore has a sure hand in balancing half a dozen different storylines and multiple switches of tone from light-hearted romance to lacerating confrontations and gritty drama. The plots may be predicable but the individual cast members are all superb and completely believable as family, the whole greater than the sum of the parts. Brown has a nice screen presence and delivers an outstanding rendition of “Try a Little Tenderness” as well as the title tune. The delightful closing credit sequence is one of the movie’s highlights, for its own pleasures and also for what it reveals about the strength of the cast’s connection. This movie is a pure holiday pleasure that is likely to become a standard for watching while trimming the tree for many years to come.

Entertainment Weekly asked its readers which movie character’s life they would like to have and got some wonderfully wide-ranging answers. Yes, some wanted to have lives with lots of money, lots of superpowers, and lots of smooching with very attractive co-stars. But some wanted the spectacular homes (two mentioned the house in “Practical Magic,” travels, or adventures of their characters. Some wanted to be characters in the Harry Potter series, there were a smattering of Twilight-lovers and superhero-wannabes. I was interested to see how many people answered with the movies that affected them most as teenagers — “Sixteen Candles,” “Ferris Beuller’s Day Off,” “Say Anything,” “Clueless.”
That’s the great pleasure of stories, isn’t it? The chance to live those lives in our fantasies. My dream home from the movies is the house on the water in “Rich in Love.” My dream superpowers might be the ones from “My Super Ex-Girlfriend.” But my dream significant other is the one I have — no movie dreamboat comes close!

1. What Christmas classic features sibling rivalry between two brothers, the sons of Mother Nature?
2. What Christmas classic features the Island of the Misfit Toys?
3. Who is repeatedly told, “You’ll shoot your eye out!”
4. Mr. Magoo stars in what re-telling of a classic Christmas story?
5. Which Christmas classic features an old top hat with some magic in it?
6. What Christmas classic features two performing duos who put on a show at a snowless ski resort?
7. Which Christmas classic features a cop named Bert and a cab driver named Ernie?
8. What book filmed at least three times begins with a character saying “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents?”
9. Who sings to her sister, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas?”
10. Who gets sent to the attic bedroom after a fight with his brother about pizza?
11. Whose boss gives him a “jelly of the month” Christmas gift?
12. Which version of “A Christmas Carol” has a very appropriately named “actor” in the lead role?

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