Posted in Columns

All that glitters

Grandma had the most incredible Christmas tree – at least in the eyes of my 5-year-old self. The tree was top-to-bottom shiny silver, and decorated with gleaming gold glass balls. Still, all that glitter and glitz wasn’t the best part.

The tree held in its branches a mystery, its aluminum needles stealthily changing color from blue…to green…to red. To blue again.

It was a breathtaking sight, a nearly religious experience to sit in Grandma’s dark living room, watching the tree change color, a symphony of star-like reflections chasing each other across the walls, the ceiling and the gilt-wrapped gifts scattered under the tree.

I remember being almost disappointed when I later discovered that the tree itself was not changing color – rather, the shifting hues came from a rather simplistic light in the back. A wheel divided into thirds – one red, one green, one red, rotated lazily on its hub. Still, it was magic enough for me.

As much as I enjoyed the magic, I respected – OK, feared – the tree as well. I quickly learned that if I walked too close to the tree’s glittering needles, they would send an electrical spark to parts of my unsuspecting body. That only happened once or twice before I learned it was far better to look, but not touch.

Years later, when I was an adult, I helped Grandma clean out her basement, a treasure trove of memories. Grandma had lived through the Great Depression and it was only on rare occasions that she threw anything away – but those are stories for another day.

There, on a dusty corner shelf, was the infamous rotating light. I eagerly looked for the tree, but apparently, it had fallen apart years before. Grandma said the light still worked, so she saw no reason to throw it away. Whether she used it or not.

I looked at the light lovingly, brushing off layers of dust with my hands, instantly taken back to the Christmases of my childhood.

“I loved this light,” I said. So Grandma let me take it home.

I wish I could say I still had it, but I don’t. I don’t remember when it rotated for the last time. It may have been when my kids were young, when I pulled out the light for an impromptu dance show or dramatic presentation. Difficult as it was, I must have thrown it away.

Each year, as Christmas approaches and brightly decorated trees fill store aisles and neighbors’ windows, I think of Grandma, her tree and the magic light and realize they will live in my heart forever.

And today, I know that to be true as I gaze at the 32-inch Fiber Optic Silver Tinsel Tree gleaming from a corner of my desk, winking at me in its multitude of colors and whispering, “Do you remember?”

Of course I do. How could I forget?


Posted in Articles

Many hands make lights work

The holiday season can be hard on those who have lost a loved one. Pam Wolff is no exception. Her husband and best friend, Bob, died suddenly from a stroke in September, and nothing has been the same.

As the holidays approached, Pam worried that the annual lighting extravaganza that was Bob’s passion had died with him as well.

“I wasn’t going to do it, but it’s just not Christmas without it,” Pam said.

Bob and Pam dedicated thousands of hours – and dollars as well – to illuminate their several-acre property on Apple Road in Waterford with tens of thousands of tiny, glittering lights.

This would have been their 14th year sponsoring the light show.

The couple used the opportunity to support something else near and dear to their collective heart – the animals at Lakeland Animal Shelter.

They placed barrels at the end of their driveway so people who stopped could contribute food and supplies to the Elkhorn, Wis.-based shelter, and encourage them to contribute to their local shelters like Countryside Humane Society in Racine, Wis., Pam said.

Bob and Pam adopted their three dogs and various cats from Lakeland years ago, and also served as foster parents for animals that needed a temporary abode.

The animals were Bob’s first love, Pam said – and that’s why he did what he did.

Bob started working on the lights each July, spending eight hours a day wrapping trees and getting things ready for the Christmas season.

“He worked for what he loved,” Pam said.

Alexandrea Dahlstrom, fundraising director and volunteer coordinator for Lakeland Animal Shelter, agreed.

“They’ve collected thousands and thousands of pounds of food for us,” Dahlstrom said. “It was just unbelievable.”

“They were the nicest, most selfless people ever,” she said. “I don’t think there’s an animal they wouldn’t open their home to.”

Dahlstrom said Bob was greatly missed, and in his honor, neighbors, friends, family and community mem-bers wanted to do something in honor of his memory.

Helping Pam with the lights was the best way to do that, she said.

So, on Nov. 25, dozens of people showed up at Pam’s house, ready to work.

“You would not have believed it. We even had a boom truck,” Pam said. “I couldn’t begin to name them.”

She said more than 30 people – maybe even more – carried boxes, climbed ladders, strung lights and set up inflatable characters.

They worked all day, she said. “Nobody stopped. They gave a tremendous gift of time and energy.”

“It looks amazing,” Pam said. “We used every single light I had left.”

“Talk about a Christmas miracle. This was absolutely it.”

She said she was amazed how well everyone learned how to do the lights – “after 14 years we (she and Bob) actually got pretty good at it,” Pam said.

The main thing: “Don’t forget to put the plug at the bottom,” she said, adding that the plugs were all in order when everyone was done.

Now, Pam is ready to flip the switch for at least this one last season. She plans to turn on the lights at dusk on Sunday, Dec. 2, and then each evening through the first week of January.

The barrels will be at the end of the driveway as they have been every year, waiting to be filled by the generous visitors who donate food, old blankets and towels, bleach and other supplies for the animal shelter.

Pam has her own gift for visitors who come on Saturday, Dec. 8 – Santa Claus will make a special visit to the site from 6 to 9 p.m.

Pam’s voice was filled with emotion as she said, “When I looked around yesterday and saw all those wonderful people – it’s a huge gift.

“Bobby has got to be looking down, and he’ll just grin. I know he will.”

What: Christmas lights display
Where: Home of Pam Wolff, 23230 Apple Road (Highway K) about 4 miles east of Highway 36, Waterford, Wis.
When: Dusk to 9 p.m. weeknights; dusk to 10 p.m. weekends through the first week of January
Donations: Donations will be accepted for Lakeland Animal Shelter, Elkhorn. Look for barrels near the driveway.

Donations to be accepted for area animal shelter

Pam and the late Bob Wolff dedicate their Christmas light exhibit to the Lakeland Animal Shelter in Elkhorn, Wis., each year, providing barrels for donated pet supplies from the people who stop by to view their home.

“We try not to buy any supplies. We basically run off donations,” she explained. “It’s (the Wolff’s light show) a huge help as far as the stuff that we need.”

“They’ve collected thousands and thousands of pounds of food for us.”

Dahlstrom said the shelter takes in about 2,500 animals every year. That means 20 to 30 loads of laundry between the shelter and foster homes, as well as at least 250 meals served at the shelter – and that’s on a daily basis.

Currently, the shelter cares for 300 or more cats and 35 to 50 dogs at any given time, she said.

The number of animals brought to the shelter increases during the winter, Dahlstrom said. Many of them lived outside during the summer, but when the weather gets cold, people bring them in.

The shelter is located on Highway 67 three miles south of Elkhorn.
Suggested donation items include:
• canned cat or dog food (cans are easier to store and are rodent-proof)
• paper towels
• bleach
• clay cat litter
• kitten food
• dry cat food
• cat toys (washable toys last longer)
• dog toys
• old blankets and towels
• cleaning supplies including liquid laundry soap, dish soap, antibacterial hand soap and scotch brite scrub sponges
• six-inch putty knives
• inkjet photo paper
• Martingale-style collars
• anti-pull harnesses
• cat carriers of all sizes
• Supplies for ill, injured or orphaned cats, kittens or puppies, such as electric heating pads, hot water bottles, all-meat baby food (chicken, beef, or turkey, pureed), Authority or Wellness canned cat or kitten food, KMR or Mother’s Helper kitten formula, animal nursing kits, Esbilac puppy formula

For more information:

Posted in Columns

Reel countdown: Classic and not-so-classic movies enhance the holiday spirit

My husband and I are obsessed. We love movies – enough to watch them over and over and over again, whether they’re on TV or DVD. It doesn’t matter.

So, as of Dec. 1, we started watching at least one of our growing collection of Christmas movies each night. We checked Christmas movies out of the library, and rented a few others. Some are traditional, feel-good, family films. Others – well, they’re probably more appropriate for Mom and Dad to watch after the kids go to bed.

So here it is, our not-so-comprehensive list of our favorite Christmas movies, their basic plots, best lines, and the reason we watch them again and again. (And again…)

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

This is, hands-down my favorite Christmas movie. Actually, it’s my favorite movie of all time.

For the uninitiated, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is the story of George Bailey (played by James Stewart), a regular guy who – like many of us – feels his life is con-trolling him, rather than the other way around.

Clarence, an angel who needs to earn his wings, is assigned to George’s “case.” One snowy night, Clarence give George a glimpse of what the world would be like if George had never been born.

I think I’ve seen the movie at least 25 times – probably more. And I never fair to shed a tear or two at the end.

Best lines:

• “I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I’m comin’ back here to go to college and see what they know.”

• “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.” (Zuzu Bailey)

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

“Miracle on 34th Street” makes me realize that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

The main theme of this movie – commercialism vs. the spirit of Christmas – reflect the same concerns many of us have today, almost 60 years later.

But perhaps I delve too deep. Really, it’s a great story about a little girl – and her cynical mother – who learn to have faith in their imaginations and in people, when they meet Kris Kringle – the real Santa Claus.

Best lines:

• “Your Honor, every one of these letters is addressed to Santa Claus. The Post Office has delivered them. Therefore the Post Office Department, a branch of the Federal Governent, recognizes this man Kris Kringle to be the one and only Santa Claus.”

• “Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to. Don’t you see? It’s not just Kris that’s on trial, it’s everything he stands for. It’s kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles.”

Elf (2003)

I was a tough sell on “Elf.” I like Will Ferrell in smaller doses, and I figured this movie would include the usual gratuitous jokes about body functions.

When I finally saw the movie, I was surprised – and bought my own copy right away with the idea that “Elf” was one of those instant Christmas classics.

Elf is the story of Buddy, a now grown-up orphan baby who stowed away in Santa’s pack and was raised by elves. As an adult, Buddy heads to New York to meet his birth father – who is on Santa’s naughty list.

Best lines:

• “You smell like beef and cheese, you don’t smell like Santa.”

• “It’s just like Santa’s workshop! Except it smells like mushrooms… and everyone looks like they wanna hurt me…”

White Christmas (1954)

What Christmas would be complete without Bing Crosby singing the title song from this classic movie?

The plot revolves around the adventures of a pair of Army buddies (played by Crosby and Danny Kaye) who team up for a song-and-dance act. They meet up with a similar sister act, and romance ensues.

The four head to a Vermont lodge to do a Christmas show and find that the men’s former Army commander is the owner.

This movie has some fun comic bantering. Rather than listing best lines, I think it’s more appropriate to list the best songs, which are:

• White Christmas (of course!)

• Sisters

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

I saw the most recent version of this Christmas classic, “The Preacher’s Wife,” first – and loved the story – but the original is really the best.

In this movie, Cary Grant plays an angel who attaches himself to a bishop and his family. The bishop has lost his focus and maybe a bit of faith, while his wife tries hard to keep their romance alive.

The snappy dialogue is what makes the original superior to the remake.

Best line:

• “Sometimes angels rush in where fools fear to tread.”

A Christmas Carol (1951 Alistair Sims version)

There are dozens of versions of Charles Dickens’ story of transformation and redemption – this 1951 version is the classic.

Best lines:

• “A merry Christmas, Ebenezer! You old HUMBUG! Oh, and a happy new year! As if you deserved it!”

• “God bless us, every one!”

The Santa Clause (1994)

Santa falls off a man’s roof – and the homeowner, a divorced dad, becomes Santa’s replacement.

Best line:

• “We’re your worst nightmare. Elves with attitude.”

Home Alone (1990)

A little boy gets his wish – to have no family – when he is accidentally left behind when his entire family goes to France for Christmas.

Best line:

• “I took a shower washing every body part with actual soap; including all my major crevices; including in between my toes and in my belly button which I never did before but sort of enjoyed. I washed my hair with adult formula shampoo and used cream rinse for that just-washed shine. I can’t seem to find my toothbrush, so I’ll pick one up when I go out today. Other than that, I’m in good shape.”

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993 – animated)

Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king of Halloween Town, is bored, so he ventures into Christmas Town – and wants the ghouls and goblins of Halloween Town to put on Christmas.

I love the music in this, and it is one of my son’s favorites. He’d like to see it produced as a Broadway show – someday, someday.

Best line:

• “And on a dark cold night, under full moonlight, he flies into the fog like a vulture in the sky! And they call him Sandy Claws!”

Family Man (2000)

This is one of my husband’s favorites. It’s a sort of updated version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” – in reverse, as the main character, Jack – a single, wealthy man who lives in a New York high-rise apartment – wakes up Christmas morning to find himself married to his former girlfriend, living in a house in the ‘burbs with a couple of kids and a dog.

Maybe my sweetie identifies with Jack when he says, “We have a house in Jersey. We have two kids, Annie and Josh. Annie’s not much of a violin player, but she tries real hard. She’s a little precocious, but that’s only because she says what’s on her mind. And when she smiles… And Josh, he has your eyes. He doesn’t say much, but we know he’s smart. He’s always got his eyes open, he’s always watching us. Sometimes you can look at him and you just know he’s learning something new. It’s like witnessing a miracle. The house is a mess but it’s ours. After 122 more payments, it’s going to be ours…And we’re in love. After 13 years of marriage we’re still unbelievably in love.”

At least I’d like to think so.

Of course, I identify with Kate, Jack’s wife, when she says, “Jack. Strong. Coffee.”

Best lines:

You just read ‘em.

Somewhat irreverent – but loads of fun:

The Ref (1994)

Denis Leary plays a cat burgler who kidnaps a constantly-bickering married couple.

The dialogue is fast and furious and filled with black humor. It’s certainly not your traditional Christmas movie – but it’s great for some serious laughs.

Best lines (there are really too many to count):

• “Santa doesn’t drink champagne. Santa only drinks milk.”

• “I hijacked my (BLEEPING) parents.”

Die Hard (1988)

The Bruce Willis action movie that started it all – a cop goes to his estranged wife’s company Christmas party, and takes on international criminals.

Best line:

• “Hey babe, I negotiate million dollar deals for breakfast. I think I can handle this Euro-trash.”

Die Hard II: With a Vengeance (1990)

More Bruce Willis action. Just another Christmas Eve saving the world from terrorists.

Best line:

• “As I was going to St. Ives?/I met a man with seven wives./Every wife had seven sacks,/Every sack had seven cats,/Every cat had seven kit-tens./Kittens, cats, sacks, wives, /How many were going to St. Ives?”

A Christmas Story (1983)

I remember the first time I saw this movie at the show. I immediately thought of my dad as a little boy, growing up in Chicago. One of the national cable stations shows this one for 24 hours straight on Christmas Eve – and I still can’t get enough of it. It’s tied with “Christmas Vacation” for my second favorite Christmas movie of all time.

Best lines:

• “No! No! I want an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle!” Santa Claus: You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.”

• “Fra-gee-lay. That must be Italian.”

• “Deck the halls with boughs of horry, ra ra ra ra ra, ra ra ra ra.”

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)

Clark W. Griswold just wants to have an old-fashioned family Christmas. What’s wrong with that? Apparently, if you’re Clark W. Griswold – everything.

This is probably the most quotable Christmas movie ever – with giggles and belly laughs following every line – especially those involving Clark’s Cousin Eddie. This line pretty much sums up the movie – and many of our feelings after a spending a little too much time with the family:

Best line:

• “Where do you think you’re going? Nobody’s leaving. Nobody’s walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas. No, no. We’re all in this together. This is a full-blown, four-alarm holiday emergency here.”

Scrooged (1988)

Dicken’s Christmas Carol, turned a bit on its ear. Buster Poindexter and Carol Kane are my favorite ghosts of Christmas present and past ever.

Best line:

• “It’s Christmas Eve. It’’s the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we-we-we smile a little easier, we-w-w-we-we-we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year we are the people that we always hoped we would be.”

Trading Places (1983)

A snobby, rich investor and poor con artist switch places as the result of a bet between two rich brothers, to see whether the good guy goes bad and the bad guy becomes good.

The bet takes its course, until the main characters get together to plot their revenge.

Best line:

• “You know, it occurs to me that the best way you hurt rich people is by turning them into poor people.”


Those of us of a certain age (ranging between 30 and 50, I would guess without giving myself completely away) grew up just waiting for these animated Christmas specials to come on TV each year.

That’s back when TV specials were a family event. Dad made popcorn, my sisters and I would put on our PJ’s and we’d sit, wide-eyed, in front of the televi-sion.
We could even quote every line and sing every song, even without the benefit of watching the shows over and over on video or DVD.

A Charlie Brown Christmas

You’d have to be a Grinch to not love Charlie Brown and his pathetic little Christmas tree.

Best lines:

• “I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.”

• “Maybe Lucy’s right. Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you are the Charlie Browniest.”

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer

I think we’ve all felt like Rudolph, Hermey and the misfit toys at one time or another.

Best lines:

• “Well, some day I’d like to be a dentist.”

• “Hey, what do you say we both be independent together, huh?”

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

I confess that I’m so opinionated about Dr. Seuss that I’ve never seen the more recent live-action version of The Grinch. Sorry – you just don’t mess with the Seuss! And you don’t mess with Boris Karloff, either.

Best line:

• “All the Whos down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot, but the Grinch, who lived just north of Whoville, did not. The Grinch hated Christmas – the whole Christmas season. Oh, please don’t ask why, no one quite knows the reason. It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight. Or maybe his head wasn’t screwed on just right. But I think that the best reason of all may have been that his heart was two sizes too small.”

Santa Claus is Coming to Town

There was something scary, yet ridiculous about the Burger Meister Meister Burger that made me laugh as a kid.

Best line:

• “Toys are hereby declared illegal, immoral, unlawful AND anyone found with a toy in his possession will be placed under arrest and thrown in the dungeon. No kidding!”

Frosty the Snowman

Frosty was a jolly, happy soul. Until somebody melted him. But then Santa saves the day!

Best line:

• “Happy birthday! Hey, I said my first words. But…but snowmen can’t talk. Ha ha ha, come on now, what’s the joke? Could I really be alive?”