The holiday season is always a gift for fans of Christmas movies, as cable channels like Lifetime and Hallmark and streamers such as Netflix and Hulu wrap up dozens of shiny new cinematic baubles for viewers. But some of December’s other festivities — including a world-famous Festival of Lights — end up getting the short shrift. The paucity of Hanukkah-themed holiday movies has been much remarked upon in recent years, with both Jews and non-Jews (including Stephen Colbert) agreeing that we need at least eight nights’ worth of quality Hanukkah fare.
If anyone can make that happen, it’s screen legend Rita Moreno. Although she grew up in a Christmas-celebrating home, the EGOT-winning stage and screen legend married into a Jewish family when she wed New York cardiologist Leonard Gordon in 1965 and has been celebrating both holidays ever since. And as the star of Lifetime’s new Christmas movie, Santa Bootcamp, she’s in the unique position to get some Hanukkah programming on the network’s 2023 slate.
“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 do a movie about two different families from two different places. Oh, I’m gonna talk to Lifetime about that!”
While we wait for Lifetime’s inevitable announcement of a Moreno-starring Hanukkah movie, viewers can tune into her first-ever Christmas movie on Nov. 19. Directed by Melissa Joan Hart, Santa Bootcamp features the West Side Story star as Belle, the no-nonsense head of the titular school for aspiring Santas. That’s where Christmas-dubious event planner, Emily (played by The Walking Dead‘s Emily Kinney), enlists to learn how to recruit the perfect Santa Claus for a major party she’s organizing on behalf of a demanding client. Along the way, she also learns to stop worrying and love the season… as well as a strapping Santa-in-training (Justin Gaston).
According to Moreno, there’s a simple reason for why she waited so long to make a Christmas movie. “I’ve never been asked before — how’s that for plain speaking?” the 90-year-old actress says, laughing. “But I’m so glad this was my first one, because I had such a good time. I loved the costumes, and the story is very Christmas-y, as it should be. And Melissa did a great job as the director. She’s just a doll of a woman.”
Making Santa Bootcamp stirred up Moreno’s memories of her early childhood in Puerto Rico, where celebrating Christmas was a door-to-door affair. “We did all kinds of wonderful things,” she remembers. “We take it very, very seriously in a religious and festive way. We’d have these things called parrandas where people got together with instruments — some real, and some cookie cans that you can drum on. Then we’d go to someone’s house at 1 a.m. and sing and make a lot of noise, and they’d have to open the door and invite you in for coquito, a wonderful coconut rum drink.”
“We loved it on the outside — I don’t know how the people inside the houses feel,” Moreno continues. “I can hear them saying, ‘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 laden, and it made you think of of love, harmony and affection. All the good stuff we are in desperate need of right now.”
When she was five years old, Moreno moved to New York City with her mother and encountered new Christmas traditions, most notably that 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 in costumes as the kings, and we’d do parades. It was very beautiful.”
But as a child, Moreno immediately saw the upside to Santa’s outsized role in American Christmas celebrations. “He’s the guy who brings the presents in this country, so I love Santa,” she jokes. “I remember sitting on Santa’s lap as a child, and I still had an accent then because I was still just learning English. He’d say, ‘So what do you want?’ And I’d say, ‘I want these little dolls with a lot of curly hairs!'”
After her marriage to Gordon, Moreno was introduced to an entirely new holiday menu courtesy of her Jewish in-laws. “The very first Christmas after we were married, his family came over and I hadn’t had an extended family dinner for years and years, because my mom came to this country alone and there were very few family members that lived here. So I was thrilled to pieces to have a new family.”
“I remember that we made a lot of Jewish food, which was part of the fun of having them over,” Moreno continues. “I got some Jewish music to get them dancing, and I’d serve some nice, sweet Manischewitz wine, and they’d all get slightly drunk. After that, they were just jolly and happy, and we’d all sing. It was marvelous.”
Much like her Santa Bootcamp alter ego, Moreno says that she’s the drill sergeant of her own holiday parties. “I go bananas,” she admits. “I decorate everything! If you still stand still long enough, you’ll get decorated, too. I am truly like a child; I’ve always had a huge Christmas tree and it’s jammed with ornaments that I’ve collected over the years. Given that COVID is still around, I don’t put up mistletoe anymore, unfortunately. But other than that, everything in my home is Christmas.”
And thanks to Santa Bootcamp, Moreno was able to check another Christmas tradition of her list. In one scene, Belle and Emily get up close and personal with a reindeer. And Santa’s preferred 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 that close up before, and while we were all staring at him, there was suddenly this river of pee! And he didn’t smell great, either; I mean, those guys don’t take baths.”
Sounds like that poor reindeer won’t be joining in any of Moreno’s reindeer games.
Santa Bootcamp premieres Nov. 19 on Lifetime