Mary Poppins Returns, And Delights

We took the little girls to see Mary Poppins Returns on opening weekend, and we all gave the movie two thumbs up.

The original Mary Poppins movie has become somewhat of a staple in our house over the last year. I introduced it to our little girls last winter, after I broke my leg, as my concession to a need for quiet time. They loved it. Songs from the film now litter our bedtime song-and-story routine, and C absolutely must hear “Let’s go fly a kite” before she falls asleep herself.

When we saw the first preview for Mary Poppins Returns, everyone said, “Ooooh.” And we immediately made plans to see it.

First, I need to say that taking a three- and four-year-old to the movies is a task best approached cautiously, for numerous reasons. I normally don’t allow the girls to watch anything I haven’t watched myself, first. I also recognize that sitting still for two hours or more is a task a preschooler has a tough time achieving. So we’ve only gone out to see a movie twice before: For Finding Dory, at the downtown second-run theater at a matinee that included an audience of many, many small children; and for Incredibles 2, which held their rapt attention (though I did have C buried in my neck for some parts).

Mary Poppins Returns, I am happy to report, kept their attention for the entire film. They loved the music, and the animation effects, and the characters.

I loved the story, too.

Watching the Poppins stories as an adult adds a layer of complexity to understanding them. For the little girls, it was about the children, with the help of their nanny, triumphing over the “naughty guys” and having fun with their family. For me, though, I saw the entire story as being about dealing with a grief so deep that it tears a family apart, and the family needs a bit of help to stitch it back together and gain new form.

The decision to provide a sequel to the original Mary Poppins, as opposed to remaking it, was sound. The sequel provides a new story, catches us up on what happened after the credits rolled for the first, and introduces a new character or two, while keeping very much in touch with its roots.

We discover that the elder Banks have passed away, leaving behind the house and a legacy in the form of shares of the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. We find that Jane Banks works as a labor organizer, and Michael Banks, an artist, took a job as a bank teller in the wake of his wife’s death, to make ends meet and pay off a loan he took to manage her final expenses.

We find that Michael’s three children have sensibly been raising themselves, as their father is drowning in his own grief and their housekeeper, Ellen, has been steadily losing sight of reality.

Michael’s fit of despair over the bank’s declaration of intent to repossess his home results in his tossing out the green kite that ends the original Mary Poppins, and it is this very kite that comes back to his son, Georgie, attached to the nanny herself.

The rest of the story offers adventures as the children anxiously plot to help their father, who must prove he has the shares in the bank by finding them. Mary Poppins wisely allows the family to come to its own healing, while she judiciously and silently assists.

The story arc and musical numbers parallel the original: establishing the characters and the problem, offering an insight into the magic that is Mary Poppins, and finding some sort of redemptive and uplifting closure. While the music is entirely new, the musical director wisely uses themes from the original, in instrumental forms, to remind the audience of specific points in the first movie that are relevant in the second. One example is listening to the bank’s theme song as characters move through it; another lies in the use of the “let’s go fly a kite” theme when characters traverse through the park.

There’s also the musical number that could have been cut; in the original, it’s “I Love to Laugh,” which only had the purpose of telling the joke that eventually saved Mr. Banks’ job. In the sequel, it’s “Turning Turtle,” which, while fun, doesn’t do much to further the story, other than to break the children’s hearts a little bit and let Meryl Streep be in the Mary Poppins sequel.

We also see the big street number in both: “Step in Time” for the original and “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” in the sequel.

But, honestly? I cried a little bit. Okay, a lot. Because in the end, of course, the Banks children save their home with Mary Poppins’ help, and the elderly bank president, son of the original Mr. Dawes, (played enthusiastically by Dick Van Dyke, who can still do a mean little tap dance), tells the children the story of Michael’s tuppence, which had been safely invested by Mr. Dawes after the original film and had grown nicely to an amount that would pay off their loan without losing the family shares in the bank.

The lovely Angela Lansbury starts the final number, which takes place at a fair in the park, and the theme, “Nowhere to Go But Up,” reminds us all that there’s hope in a dark, dark, world.

I enthusiastically recommend seeing the movie, especially if you were ever a fan of the first. I think it will be my go-to for the days that seem dark, because it’s always good to remind oneself that there’s nowhere to go, but up.

Seeing the Lights

One of my favorite things to do in winter is take a drive after dark and see the lights on display. In my hometown of Chippewa Falls, Wis., driving through the light displays in Irvine Park is an annual Christmas Eve tradition, and it’s one that numerous communities are starting to embrace as a means of sharing the goodwill and joy of the season.

Locally, the Kiwanis started a holiday light display in Sibley Park a few years ago, and it’s become another annual tradition. The Kiwanis Holiday Lights provide nightly entertainment for the darkest month, and there’s something for everyone.

We took our family to see the lights for the first time this season last night.

The girls noticed the lit-up Santa, Mrs. Claus, and a single reindeer first. But as we drove through the front gate, they started chattering excitedly about the Disney characters they could see on display in the miniature horse enclosure.

We pulled up to the night’s volunteers (who collect donations for area charities; last night’s was a favorite of ours, The Reach), handed them a donation, and accepted a program that detailed the events of the night and the sponsors of the program. We obediently tuned our car radio to the dedicated frequency set for the park, and proceeded, headlights off, to the parking lot next to the warming house, where we could stop, get out, and start our stroll through the wonderland.

The girls hurriedly bundled up in their warm weather gear, and we made our way to the marked path that took us first through the main body of the “farm” part of the park.

In warmer weather, Sibley houses several varieties of young farm animals for feeding and petting, right next to its farm-themed playground. By night in the winter, these paths are lined with lights, and the enclosures filled with things like ice sculptures, the Disney display mentioned earlier, and live reindeer, which are penned in behind much higher fences than usually found at the park.

The live reindeer, in fact, were C’s favorite, and she wanted to come back to them again and again over the course of the night. We saw them first, then strolled along to the warming house, where volunteers served up hot drinks, popcorn, and mini-donuts next to Jack Skellington and his company. We bought a bag of hot mini-donuts, and another of popcorn, to share while we looked out the large picture windows to the view of the Grand Lawn, adorned with the tall tree made of lights.

When we were warm, we headed back outside to stroll down the metal platform path onto the lawn itself. It rang merrily with the girls’ boots as they tried to run (and were firmly told to use walking feet). Many giggles accompanied selfies on the bridge, and then we scampered back to our car so that we could drive through the rest.

We listened to the music on the radio as the lights danced in tune, driving slowly through the display so that we could really enjoy the way the different sections (snowmen, snowflakes, waves of lights) coordinated their dancing. We admired the different trees decorated for the tree competition, and we tried to count how many Santas we could see in all the different displays.

As we started down the road to exit the park, we spotted Santa in his sleigh, with all his reindeer flying directly over the road ahead of us, all lit up. We had a lot of fun being out after dark.

If you go, know that Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays feature a live Santa and wagon rides as well as the displays. Information on hours and special events can be found on the Kiwanis Holiday Lights web site, linked above.

Happy Holidays!

The Bleak Midwinter and the Joy of Holidays

I’ve had a couple of interesting interactions lately about my use of “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” when I’m not certain about the religious training of the person to whom I am addressing the greeting.

Most people are happy to reciprocate with a “Happy Holidays” of their own.

But there have been a couple who seem to get angry that I’m not using their traditional holiday greeting. One even went so far as to add the reasoning that this holiday season wouldn’t exist without their particular religion.

I want to be clear about this: I am a Christian, and the fundamental tenet of Christ’s teachings remains rooted in love for all people, period. We don’t get to pick and choose whom we share the love with, because we are all deserving of it. One of the bones I have to pick with many evangelical leaders is that their teachings often lead to hate and anger, which directly conflicts with Christ’s word on the subject. And that hypocrisy irritates me to no end.

That said, Christians are actually pretty late to the midwinter celebration parties.

Celebrating light in a season of darkness has a long history. Many pagans in the northern hemisphere celebrated on the Solstice, which marked the shortest day of the year, and the need for light in the darkness was highlighted.

Hanukkah celebrates a Festival of Lights in remembrance of the Maccabean Revolt that took place more than a hundred years before the birth of Christ.

In some years, Ramadan also falls in midwinter, aligning the Islamic tradition of fasting, prayer, and charity in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar with other religious celebrations.

Kwanzaa, celebrated at midwinter, is another latecomer, arising out of the need to connect peoples of the African diaspora in their scattered locations, but it focuses on unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.

All of these celebrations, at their heart, look to battle back the dark, to celebrate the light, and to renew faith, in whatever form that takes for the celebrant.

Christians celebrate the birth of Christ, even though historical documentation suggests Christ was actually born in the spring. As an educated Christian, I’m fine with the tradition of celebrating His birth at midwinter, not only because it’s tradition, but because the celebration of His birth does all of these same things.

The celebrations renew our strength in the battle against the dark, and our faith in Christ’s love.

Extending the courtesy of “Merry Christmas” to anyone, of any faith, simply reflects good wishes for the person addressed. “Happy Holidays” does the same thing, with a respect for the beliefs of the person addressed also implied. Either or both are acceptable, because they are meant in good cheer.

Battle back the bleak midwinter, and take no offense from those who would wish you well in the effort.

Baking for the Holidays

I’ve spent the last few days in a baking marathon, getting ready to gift treats to friends and families for the holidays.

Said marathon was accompanied by eight inches of snow and two enthusiastic preschool helpers, who had a great time playing with all sorts of cookies.

When I’m able, I like to make one new cookie each year, followed by an assortment of old favorites. This year, so far, I’ve made my comfort chocolate chip cookies with a mix of butterscotch and chocolate chips, stir-and-drop sugar cookies with a green glaze, lemon-sugar cookies with a lemon frosting, fudge, and assorted chocolate-covered pretzels.

I still need to make, per tradition, chocolate-covered peanut butter balls and gingerbread cookies.

I’ve been posting pictures of the treats as I make them on Facebook, just to tease my friends and family. It’s been fun. And I dropped off my first treat box today, to my department’s treat day. It’s the week before finals in the Department of Mass Media, and for a change, I’m not a part of the general wash of frantic activity.

I have, however, been busy.

I mentioned several weeks ago that I had serious writing goals for November.

I presented at a conference, and I managed to write more than 25,000 words on my original fiction. I also made it through literature review and preliminary research for the main paper I’m working on as part of my sabbatical, so I’m feeling pretty accomplished.

I’m also thinking about a draft abstract for LauraPalooza, the deadline for which is Wednesday of this week, so I’d better move on it if I plan to.

But as snow fell this weekend, my focus was entirely on my family, and my young taste-testers, who love to smell every ingredient before I put them in the mixing bowls.

Lemon was a “thumbs up” from my younger, but a “thumbs down” from my older little girl. Fudge was “thumbs up” for my older little girl, but a “thumbs down” from my youngest, despite her trying it twice. They have widely different tastes in some areas!

But both love getting to help. With supervision, they made a bunch of white-chocolate-covered pretzels, decorated with green M&Ms, and placed Rolo candies on other pretzels for the Rudolph treat.

I look forward to helping them learn to make the other treats as they grow.