There’s no doubt American Christmas traditions can lean towards kitschy, what with all the nonstop parties, colorful decorations, and fruitcakes we love to hate. In his new book, Holiday Jubilee, Charles Phoenix, the Ambassador of Americana, shares his inspiration and over-the-top recipes to celebrate all the happiest days of the year—especially Christmas.
Taking inspiration from his almost 30 years of collecting vintage Kodachrome slides from the 1950s and 60s, Phoenix relishes the mid-century aesthetic. During that time, he says, "The masses lived really well and had amazing, beautifully designed products. They are the most impressive products for the middle class ever; it was a period of high style. The fashion was function, and the function was fashion. It just kills me, the whimsy, style and grace of it all. And the quality—the quality is amazing.”
To some, kitsch is a bad word, conjuring up visions of tacky garishness. But Phoenix digs deeper into the superficial veneer to see the style, products, and aesthetic rooted in tradition, sentimentality, and joy. “This stuff isn’t just junk," he says. "This history isn’t just kitsch. It’s the real deal. This is real history. We didn’t invent the holidays in the 20th century, but that’s when we perfected them.”
Here, the king of kitsch shares his tips and recipes to jazz up this holiday season with some old-school style.
Embrace the old traditions and move them forward
Love 'em or hate 'em, we're going to be faced with those fun, sentimental, and goofy things our families and friends have been doing for what feels like forever. "I look at the holidays as this wave of traditions that crash on us every year," he says. "Whether we like it or not, we go through the motions. I believe traditions are paramount to our bonding with people and being happy. So I'm here to celebrate and explain them and to tell their backstories. And if there’s a way, I want to move them forward by creating new recipes or redoing something I saw in an old slide."
Enlist help—and make it fun
Phoenix suggests having a party to prep for the party. “If you’re going to make the Cherpumple or the Astro Weenie Christmas tree (see below), double up your party time by not preparing the Cherpumple or the Astro Weenie Christmas tree by yourself," he says. "One is the making party and one is the serving party.”
The making party can be a few days or even just a few hours before the serving party, depending on what you're prepping. Regardless, invite your buds over, get out the festive beverages, and have fun. “This is not a loner sport," Phoenix says. "You have to have helpers. That’s part of the joy of crafting this stuff.”
Make a big deal out of a moment
Whether it's a party or a dinner, don’t just cut the pie without fuss or silently put out a main dish to try to achieve quiet perfection. Turn that dish into a shining moment of glory! “Gather everyone around and announce what it is," Phoenix says. "Those who helped make it will have already created a buzz. Make a very big deal of it. Tell the guests what it is. Tell them what the ingredients are. Tell them why it’s so delicious, and make sure everyone gets selfies with it. Turn it into a really special moment where everyone is there for it. You could be presenting an M&M: Just smash it with a mallet and say, 'Everyone gets a microscopic bit of this!' Turn it into a memory. It’s a bonding moment. We all want to bond.”
The fuss creates a festive moment your guests can all share. "It’s really about bringing people together and addressing them and saying, ‘Thank you for being here. And now we’re going to have this shared moment together. And then we’re all going to eat cake or whatever it is.'”
Don’t worry about being perfect
Remember, perfection isn't necessarily fun. “If you're making the Cherpumple, it doesn’t have to be perfect," Phoenix says. "That is not the goal here. The goal is honesty, truth, heart, and soul." Don't worry if the cake is leaning or the berry pie is dripping, Phoenix says. That's actually better. "If yours fails, falls, hemorrhages, collapses, or whatever, that is lucky for you because it just makes it more of a soulful, honest, real party," he says.
Phoenix remembers one of his own dessert "failures"—his first Crazy Candy Cane Cake. "I got all these boxed candy canes and stuck them on top for decoration," he recalls. "I should have known—but secretly maybe I was wishing it would happen—that the cake was going to literally develop a major fault line in the middle. Guests were like, 'Your cake is moving!' and then, 'Wait, look! Look!' and all of a sudden all these people have gathered around. And the cake, with perfect timing, started to split slowly while everyone’s watching it, and pretty soon, BOOM! It fell on to the table. And everyone’s taking pictures and laughing and eating it off the table. They don’t care. This is about having fun and making a moment out of it. So let’s just be a little more relaxed about all of it."
Bring an easy, fun, and memorable dish to the potluck
Phoenix suggests his Twink and Ho cake, a riff on traditional banana pudding “It’s an incredible dish," he says. "People go crazy for it. It can be interpreted in many ways; basically what I do is a cookie, a candy, and a sort of cake.”
Charles Phoenix's Twink & Ho Recipe
- 4 packages instant vanilla pudding, mixed according to box instructions
- Peppermint extract to taste
- 1 small bottle red food coloring
- 1 small bottle green food coloring
- 1 large bag peppermint candies
- 4 large tubs Cool Whip
- 30 Twinkies
- 30 Ho Hos
- 2 dozen each large and small candy canes
- 1 jar maraschino cherries
Prep the pudding: Divide pudding into two bowls. Add mint extract to taste. Generously add red food coloring to one and green to the other.
Smash the candy: Put some peppermint candies into a double zip-lock bag and tap lightly with a hammer until they are broken into small pieces. Sift to get rid of the really teeny broken bits
Layer it up: Cover the bottom of a punch bowl with 1 inch of red pudding. Place a ring of Twinkies around the bowl so the bottoms of the Twinkies face outward. Fill in the middle with broken Twinkies. Cover with Cool Whip and sprinkle with crushed peppermints. Layer with half the green pudding, half the Ho Hos, and crushed peppermints. Repeat each layer. Finish with a layer of Cool Whip and decorate with a colorful kaleidoscope of Christmas candy and cherries. If you have leftover Twinkies or Ho Hos, eat them before someone else does.
Get a hostess gift that's unique and inexpensive
Be creative. Be goofy. "I’ll do something wacky like bring them a giant box of Froot Loops or 12 cans of Reddi Whip," Phoenix says. "Vintage wrapping paper is a fun gift to give; same goes for a vintage ornament or vintage Christmas lights. You can get these at a local antique mall, flea market, or on eBay. If you really want to have fun, get matching pajamas!"
Wrap gifts with big bows
"I like big bows on things," Phoenix says. "The paper is less important to me, but the bow is what really gets people’s attention. And people pay much more attention to the bow if it's giant. Plus, you can wear it around your waist later, or one of the kids will collect them all or whatever."
Make a no-fail New Year's munchie
The go-to is Phoenix's Fried Confetti (puffed breakfast cereal fried in butter). It's delicious and colorful and perfectly captures the sparkle of New Year's. "It’s the perfect party food," Phoenix says. "And if you have any left over—which you won’t—it’s so good the next morning with milk. It’s like 1 + 1 = 198!"
Charles Phoenix's Fried Confetti Recipe
- 1/2 stick salted butter
- 1 cup each
- Apple Jacks
- Cap'n Crunch
- Froot Loops
- Corn Pops
- Lucky Charms
Separate marshmallows from Lucky Charms. Sift cereal to remove unwanted crumbs and dust. On low heat, melt butter on stovetop or electric skillet. When butter is melted add cereal mixture. Toss continuously for 3 to 4 minutes until the room begins to smell of sweet, buttered, toasted cereal deliciousness. Make as much Fried Confetti at one time as your skillet can hold. For large party-sized bowls, fry each of your cereals separately, then mix. Remove from heat before cereal begins to brown. Don't stop stirring or it will burn! Try to control yourself from eating it all.
And don’t forget...
Extra food coloring. Extra food coloring on everything! Oh, and no holding back. Don’t hold back on anything.