The holiday season is always a boon for fans of Christmas movies, as cable channels like Lifetime and Hallmark and streamers like Netflix and Hulu wrap up dozens of shiny new movie balls for viewers. But some of December’s other celebrations – including a world-famous Festival of Lights – end up falling short. The lack of Hanukkah Christmas movies has been widely noted in recent years, with Jews and non-Jews alike (including Stephen Colbert) agreeing that we need quality Hanukkah fare for at least eight nights.
If anyone can pull it off, it’s screen legend Rita Moreno. Despite growing up in a home that celebrates Christmas, the EGOT-winning stage and screen legend married into a Jewish family in 1965 when she married New York cardiologist Leonard Gordon, and has celebrated both holidays ever since. And as the star of Lifetime’s new Christmas movie, Santa BootcampShe’s in a unique position to get some Hanukkah programs on the network’s 2023 list.
“What a great idea,” Moreno tells Yahoo Entertainment with a delighted laugh. “I don’t know why we don’t have more Hanukkah movies. I think it would be fabulous. We could make a film about two different families from two different places. Oh I’ll talk to Lifetime about it!”
While we await Lifetime’s inevitable announcement of a Hanukkah movie starring Moreno, viewers can tune in to their first-ever Christmas movie on November 19th. Directed by Melissa Joan Hart Santa Bootcamp has the Westside Story Star as Belle, the no-nonsense head of titular school for aspiring Santas. This is the place where dodgy Christmas event planner Emily (played by the Walking Dead‘s Emily Kinney) wants to learn how to recruit the perfect Santa for a big party she’s throwing for a demanding client. Along the way, she’s also learning to stop worrying and to love the season of the year… as well as a strapping Santa in training (Justin Gaston).
According to Moreno, there’s a simple reason she’s waited so long to make a Christmas movie. “I’ve never been asked – how is that in plain language?” says the 90-year-old actress with a laugh. “But I’m so glad this was my first because I had such a great time. I loved the costumes and the story is very Christmassy as it should be. And Melissa did a great job as a director. She’s just a doll of a woman.”
manufacturing Santa Bootcamp brought back Moreno’s memories of her early childhood in Puerto Rico, where Christmas was celebrated door-to-door. “We did all kinds of wonderful things,” she recalls. “We take it very, very seriously in a religious and celebratory way. We would have these things called parrandas where people came together with instruments – some real and some cookie jars to drum on. Then at 1am we would go to someone’s house and sing and make a lot of noise and they would have to open the door and let you in coquitoa wonderful coconut rum drink.”
“We loved it from the outside — I don’t know how people feel inside the houses,” Moreno continues. “I can hear them say, ‘Oh God, they’re here!’ But I loved that. And the food was divine – it was Puerto Rican Caribbean food, which was a big part of Christmas. The table was set and it evoked love, harmony and affection. All the good things we are the I urgently need now.”
When she was five, Moreno moved to New York City with her mother and learned new Christmas traditions, most notably the bearded gift-giver known as Santa Claus. “In Puerto Rico we didn’t have Santa Claus – we had the Three Kings,” she explains. “Sometimes people would dress up in costumes like royalty and we would do parades. It was very beautiful.”
But as a kid, Moreno immediately saw the benefits of Santa’s oversized role in American Christmas celebrations. “He’s the guy who brings presents in this country, so I love Santa,” she jokes. “I remember sitting on Santa’s lap as a kid and I still had an accent at the time because I was just learning English. He said, ‘So what do you want?’ And I would say, ‘I want these little dolls with lots of curly hair!’”
After her marriage to Gordon, Moreno was introduced to an all-new holiday menu, courtesy of her Jewish in-laws. “On the very first Christmas after our wedding, his family came over and I haven’t had an extended family dinner in years because my mother came to this country alone and very few family members lived here. So I was overjoyed to have a new family.”
“I remember we made a lot of Jewish food, which was part of the fun of having them,” Moreno continues. “I got some Jewish music to get them dancing and I served up some nice sweet Manischewitz wine and they all got a little drunk. After that they were just cheerful and happy and we all sang. It was wonderful.”
Similar to her Santa Bootcamp Alter Ego tells Moreno that she is the drill sergeant at her own Christmas parties. “I’m going bananas,” she admits. “I decorate everything! If you stand still long enough, you too will be decorated. I’m really like a kid, I’ve always had a giant Christmas tree and it’s stuffed full of ornaments I’ve collected over the years. Unfortunately, with COVID still around, I no longer put up mistletoe. But apart from that, everything in my house is Christmassy.”
And thanks Santa Bootcamp, Moreno was able to tick another Christmas tradition on her list. In one scene, Belle and Emily get up close and personal with a reindeer. And Santa’s favorite sleigh driver made a memorable introduction. “He was wonderful — the first thing he did was pee,” she says of her animal co-star. “Some of us had never seen a reindeer this close, and while we were all staring at it, there was this flow of piss! And he didn’t smell good either; I mean, these guys don’t take a bath.”
Sounds like the poor reindeer isn’t participating in any of Moreno’s reindeer games.
Santa Bootcamp Premiered November 19 on Lifetime