By Max Gardner
Illustration by Tara Jacoby
Christmas in my family was very similar to many others — gift giving, big family meals, cozy times in front of the fireplace. The only difference is that I’m Jewish, and in Judaism, there is no Christmas. Oh sure, there’s Hanukkah, and with it the assumption of eight consecutive nights of gift-giving (in my family, it’s only one night). But for me, Christmas was always just an extension of Hanukkah, and like many kids of the variously secular 90s, we didn’t see it as anything but a chance to glean more booty from a double-holiday haul. And no, we never had a tree in my house. Occasionally we’d do it up at our grandfather’s house when we could get it together to coordinate all of the extended family (more for the cultural imagery than anything religious), but by and large, Christmas has always been a fantasy I saw on screens. Be it “Home Alone,” or “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” or my least favorite of all the Christmas movies (and this is a hill I’ll happily die on), “A Christmas Story” — yuletide festivities were a figment of my cinematic imagination, rather than an actual reality.
Instead of baked ham and ugly sweaters, Christmas became the one time of year my family entitled ourselves to just blob out in front of the TV and let the responsibilities of the real world, along with our brain cells, melt away. As a younger kid, this was opportune, as it allowed me to entrench in repeated viewings of “Star Wars”, or later, when my younger sister came along, repeated viewings of all the classic Disney films, and “Cats.” Our parents were content to let us go blind staring at the screen so they could just relax for once. As we got older, though, that week-long period of rest actually became an important bonding time. Though, as I became a surly tween, I found a new interest in video games, ultimately trading the TV screen for a computer screen. We were a little less together in those days.
And then it happened. Well, it technically happened 3 times, but it happened. The single greatest cinematic franchise debut of my lifetime — ”The Lord of the Rings.” Now, as a serious “Star Wars” kid who wore out the VHS tapes and convinced my parents to rebuy them repeatedly, I didn’t think anything could ever top George Lucas’s space fantasy classics. But then came LOTR, and everything changed. For 3 consecutive Christmases, we were given the unique gift of perhaps the most iconic film franchise of the early 21st century. Long before Marvel and DCEU, Lucas’ return to “Star Wars” with his bad-but-oh-so-rewatchable prequels, “Lord of the Rings” was able to open up my childhood imagination again — rings! Wizards! Ents! Sauron! LOTR had it all. Then, in December of 2004, just a year after “The Return of the King,” we received the best gift of all (for the first time). A complete complement of LOTR DVDs. And in that moment, my family’s first true Christmas tradition was born — our single day marathon viewing of the “Rings” trilogy.
It’s funny to think now that this was what Christmas would come to mean for me, but ultimately, it’s become perhaps one of the things I most look forward to about the holiday season (besides the time off). In my family, we call it “The Return to the Shire.” Our “Return” was augmented again in 2012 when my brother bought for my dad (but really, for all of us) the LOTR Director’s Edition Box Set, which, when you bake back in all of the cut footage, brings the three films to just over 16 hours of viewing time — and yes, we do pause for bathroom breaks and meals.
And so our tradition — this marathon viewing — has stayed a tradition for over a decade since the films first came out. From jumping up and pausing the film to meme when Sam explains taters to Gollum (“boil ‘em, mash ‘em, stick ‘em in a stew” remix, of course), to the spine-chillingly righteous “hell yeah!” my mom and sister hurrah every time Eowyn plunges her blade into the faceless maw of the Witch King of Angmar (“I am no man!”), Lord of the Rings is my Christmas. And with the temperatures dropping, I can’t wait to get home this December to Return to the Shire, now with a young nephew who’s yet to dive into the fantastic world of J.R.R. Tolkien's greatest creation, and share in the holiday cheer that is “The Lord of the Rings.”
Max Gardner is an independent filmmaker and producer living in Brooklyn. When not making pictures move, he bakes bread and loves to push carbs on his friends, which they all happily accept.