The Strange Case of the Christmas Movie

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Actors and recording artists can count on two things to bring in sales: Christmas movies and Christmas albums. They may not care much for Jesus or the prophets, but they sure do love those reliable profits.

The made-for-TV Christmas movie has become a particular staple over the years. It began with animated stories for children starring Rudolph, Frosty, Charlie Brown, and the Grinch, and soon graduated to romantic romps for grownups, usually targeted at women who want nothing so much as a boyfriend for the holidays.

In 2008, Hallmark introduced its “Countdown to Christmas” series of holiday movies designed to warm your heart and tease a trickle down your cheek. The characters are always beautiful, busy, and troubled by something. By the end of the film they’ve fixed the problem, fallen in love, and discovered something new about themselves — usually that they’ve been working too hard. Hallmark must be doing something right, because the Christmas Countdown season now straddles two full months, with 41 new Christmas movies introduced this year and a whopping 165 in its film library.

I haven’t watched a single one.

The made-for-TV Christmas movie soon graduated to romantic romps for grownups, usually targeted at women who want nothing so much as a boyfriend for the holidays.

 

I’m just not interested in superficially sentimental drivel. I want to scream when I hear Mariah croon, “All I want for Christmas is you.” I couldn’t care less that George Michael’s heart recipient “gave it away the very next day” and now he’s looking for “someone special.” When did Christmas become the ultimate dating mixer?

A quick perusal of Netflix provides similar drivel. The streaming service is offering 150 holiday films this year, and most of them are about romance, with titles such as The Holidate, 12 Dates of Christmas, Christmas with a View, LoveHard, and Christmas Wedding Planner. Many plots are clearly influenced by Christmas classics; for example, “Christmas Inheritance” copies several scenes from Christmas in Connecticut (a delightful Barbara Stanwyck vehicle from 1945), while The Claus Family borrows its main premise from Tim Allen’s perennial favorite The Santa Clause. Vanessa Hudgens’ Princess Switch trilogy (2018–21) is a knock-off of The Prince and the Pauper (1937), run amok, with Hudgens playing not two but three lookalikes switching places and accents. Hudgens has a field day kissing all three of the love interests in various scenes.

Switch also brazenly mirrors the more recent A Christmas Prince (2017–19) trilogy, which preceded it by one year; in both film series, an ordinary girl meets a handsome prince in a small middle European kingdom; the besotted prince proposes on their first Christmas, they marry on the following Christmas in part two, and baby arrives on the third Christmas, in movie three. (I suppose we can expect Hudgens’ characters to follow suit with a baby or two in 2022 — I hope they don’t mix up the fathers during conception!) My granddaughters love these movies, and they’re actually kind of cute when seen through their preteen eyes, while snuggling with them on the couch — if you can suspend all disbelief about royalty driving their own cars, decking their own halls, and making their own hot chocolate.

Royalty is a major theme in this year’s Netflix Christmas listings, with the two aforementioned princess movies, plus A Cinderella Story set in modern-day Manhattan, Christmas with a Prince, A Castle for Christmas, and the time-travel flick The Knight before Christmas, to name a few. Vanessa Hudgens also stars in Knight — I guess she found her niche in the rags-to-riches princess role. It makes me wonder if we aren’t all searching for a happily-ever-after ending to the nightmare of covid, where most homes are definitely not a castle, especially after nearly two years of being cooped up in them.

Call me Scrooge, but I’m just not drawn to the contemporary theme of would-be princesses seeking romance for Christmas.

 

Netflix also offers a number of nostalgic settings populated by impossibly good-looking 20-something characters with impossibly successful careers as writers, photographers, artists, or bloggers. The films often sport a mysterious older character who may or may not be Santa in disguise, à la Miracle on 34th Street. A California Christmas, Christmas in the Heartland, and A Very Country Christmas are cautionary tales reminding us that the country mouse is always better off than the city mouse — so quit dreaming of those princess wishes that aren’t coming true anyway.

Call me Scrooge, but I’m just not drawn to the contemporary theme of would-be princesses seeking romance for Christmas. I’m even less interested in movies about dysfunctional families and dysfunctional Santas. I want my Christmas movies to have some kind of emotional, spiritual, or psychological depth. Their plots should contain loss and restoration, despair and hope, epiphany and transformation, with the magic of comedy and wonder thrown in. Lacking those themes, modern Christmas movies are little more than romantic comedies set in December.

Happily, there are several satisfying options for those seeking a good Christmas movie, even on Netflix. Kurt Russell’s very fine The Christmas Chronicles (2018) is back (see my review https://libertyunbound.com/a-newer-sleeker-santa/), along with its less fine but still engaging sequel The Christmas Chronicles 2, with Russell’s real-life wife, Goldie Hawn, as Mrs. Claus.

I also recommend The Family Man (2000), in which Jack (Nicolas Cage), a wealthy, carefree, single bachelor, wakes up in the bed and the life he would have experienced if he had married his college sweetheart Kate (Tea Leoni), with all the financial woes and parental responsibilities that would have gone with it. He’s guided on this journey by a humble and mysterious helper, played effectively by Don Cheadle. In addition to being a movie about the tender joys of fatherhood, The Family Man shows that choices have far-reaching consequences, and that the country mouse often does, indeed, live a richer life than the city mouse. It’s one of Cage’s best films.

The best Christmas movies provide a moment of revelation when the protagonist sees clearly for perhaps the first time.

 

New this year on Netflix is A Boy Called Christmas, a luminous fairy tale in which writer and director Gil Kenan creates an origin myth reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. In a frozen land where it is always winter and never Christmas, the king offers a reward to anyone who can bring the community a reason to hope. Nikolas (Henry Lawfull), a motherless boy, sets out on a quest to find his missing father. Along the way he encounters both treachery and friendship as he gradually gathers the accoutrements of his true calling: a red cap made by his mother, a reindeer, a map that takes him “under the moon” and past Lake Blitzen, a village of toy makers, and the magical power that comes from believing. He also discovers the pain of sacrifice and the tender truth that “grief is the price we pay for love — and it’s worth it, a million times over.” The movie reminds us of the need for hope, not just romance, in this increasingly hopeless world. As a dear friend said when his mother was dying of cancer last year, “Hope defined our standard of living.” And it was good.

A Boy Called Christmas is presented as a story within a story. Maggie Smith is a dark Poppinsesque character who appears on the scene one dark Christmas Eve to stay with three recently motherless children while their father is away. The external story intrudes occasionally on the unfolding myth in wonderfully inventive ways, giving the film a luminous fairytale quality. As narrator, Smith brings a no-nonsense approach to grief while exhibiting a kind sensitivity at the same time. She is wonderful in the role.

Christmas is associated with epiphany, and the best Christmas movies provide a moment of revelation when the protagonist sees clearly for perhaps the first time. In The Christmas Chronicles, the young lead, Teddy, is angry and bitter because his father, a firefighter, has lost his life running into a burning house. On the steps of a church where a choir is singing his father’s favorite hymn, Teddy questions the meaning of sacrifice. “He had a wife and two kids,” he laments bitterly, “and he gave it all up to help some random strangers.” Eventually his bitterness is resolved, of course, and he learns the true gift of Christmas, which is redemption born of sacrifice.

That same theme drives the movie that the American Film Institute lists as its “most inspirational film of all time,” It’s a Wonderful Life (1947). In it, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is a man with a dream — seeing the world, having adventures, escaping from small-town life and responsibilities. But circumstances keep getting in the way, and at the film’s end, through no fault of his own, he faces arrest. In despair, he plans to kill himself. But his guardian angel, Clarence (Henry Travers), anticipating the moment, shows George what the world would have been like had he never been born. George discovers that his many sacrifices made all the difference in the lives of others. In his own quiet way he has been a hero and adventurer after all. His life mattered.

Scrooge is the opposite of George Bailey. He has sacrificed nothing for others — and yet, he learns, he has sacrificed everything in the process.

 

It’s a Wonderful Life is about as close to a perfect movie as you can get. Director Frank Capra and star Jimmy Stewart both said it was their favorite film. I teared up just now, remembering that perfect moment in the end when everyone whom George has helped through the years comes to his aid, and pure love abounds.

And yet . . . one of my daughters hates this movie. She hates that George sacrifices everything — college, travel, honeymoon, notoriety, a satisfying career, and even his good name — for the benefit of others and the detriment of his own desires. She thinks the film asks too much of him, and that, by praising this film, society asks too much of us. Her contrarian view contains more than a hint of Randian objectivism.

Publisher Stephen Cox had a similar reaction to his first viewing of the film. He recalls, “I will never forget my first crack at that movie, 40 years ago. I was staying with a friend who joyously noted that the movie was on TV that Saturday afternoon. During the first scenes I thought, ‘This is the most ridiculously retrograde thing I’ve ever seen! It glorifies someone who keeps giving up his life for the yokels and incompetents who happen to live in his vicinity.’ But by the end of the film, not only my host but I was in tears. The artistry was so great — and the incompetents really did turn out to be incompetents; that wasn’t missed.”

The story on which It’s a Wonderful Life is loosely based makes the same case for sacrifice, but in the opposite way. The kind and generous George Bailey is a foil for Ebenezer Scrooge, that parsimonious old humbug in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which has been filmed, staged, adapted, and parodied for nearly two centuries. Ebenezer is the opposite of George Bailey. He has sacrificed nothing for others — and yet, he learns, he has sacrificed everything in the process. Both are classic examples of a person redeemed and transformed through epiphany.

The best Christmas movies ask us to examine our lives, reflect on our choices, and discover changes that can lead to happier futures.

 

Both George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge are vastly more of themselves at the end of their stories than they are at the beginning. Yet unlike George Bailey, Ebenezer Scrooge thinks only of himself. He makes no sacrifices for others, accepts no excuses, and offers no aid. Some might say he’s a perfect Randian. Nevertheless, Scrooge is unsettled and unhappy. Like George Bailey, Scrooge is guided by an angel to see a version of his future, and like George, he discovers the joy that comes from helping others and sharing in their lives.

Both become Christ figures in their respective stories, as they choose to rescue others by bearing their burdens. Interestingly, although the name “Ebenezer” has come to be a hiss and a byword, synonymous with meanness and parsimony, the word “ezer” actually means “benevolent savior.” It first appears in the Bible when God creates Eve as an “ezer kenegdo,” not just a “helpmeet” but a savior, equal yet opposite to Adam. The word “Ebenezer” means “stone of my support.” The name suggests that Scrooge is stone-hearted yet solid, and created all along to be a savior of his community, just as Jesus was sent, at Christmas, to be a savior of the world. Ebenezer’s name reveals that his creator (Dickens) knew his true character from the beginning, and analogously that God sees our character with perfect eyes. Thus A Christmas Carol is an homage to the original Christmas story, and not just a good story about being kind to others. It’s a story worth revisiting every year.

The best Christmas movies can trace their roots to A Christmas Carol. They ask us to examine our lives, reflect on our choices, and discover changes that can lead to happier futures. They often contain a mysterious angel character guiding the protagonist toward the correct path. They give us hope that we aren’t alone in the darkness, and that a mighty, wonderful, everlasting counselor — who may or may not be Santa — does indeed exist.

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