Life, death, and settling for second best: the many lessons of the Christmas film

on Tue, 11/15/2011 - 13:37
The gooey morals at the centre of Christmas films have much to teach us about life, the universe, and why you shouldn’t trust people in Santa suits
It’s getting on for that time of year when Eastenders characters need to start testing their smoke alarms and looking both ways before they cross the road; the time of year when we’re all knee-deep in our overdrafts and otherwise right-thinking humans are openly weeping at John Lewis adverts.
We’ll soon be optimistically circling all the good telly and films in the bumper edition of Radio Times, despite knowing that, like every year, we’ll miss everything apart from a Miranda repeat and a Deal Or No Deal special in which everyone wears “fun” reindeer antlers. Tis the season, but is anyone feeling jolly?
If not, perhaps we need to recalibrate our festive systems and pay heed to some cockle-warming cinematic lessons. Join us on a brief trek through the messages to take from that most moral of genres: the Christmas movie.

1) Death is coming (so embrace life in all its wonder) 

You thought Dancer in the Dark had a depressing ending? Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman is a million times bleaker. It’s the story of a trusting little boy who spends a magical night of illegal motorbike riding, casual transvestism, and walking in the air with his snowman pal, only to wake up on Christmas morning with just a puddle for company.
The Snowman’s killer blow isn’t the melting in itself, but the animation’s final shot. In what has to be the most poignant post-one-night-stand abandonment in cinema, the camera cranes away over the bereft child, leaving him with nary a hug from his mum or a reassuring sign from the afterlife.
The lesson? That the people we love will eventually leave us, unexpectedly and forever. Cheery, no, but life-affirming? Absolutely. The Snowman teaches us to make the most of every magical experience on offer. A stranger comes to your door wearing nothing but a hat and invites you on an impromptu overseas trip? Run to him! Carpe the bloody Diem! For sadly, at some point, it’s meltsville for all of us.

2) People can change 

The various incarnations of A Christmas Carol remind us it’s never too late to change your life, right your past wrongs, and engage a street urchin to pick up your turkey (and no, that’s not a euphemism, what is wrong with you people?).
Alastair Sim, Bill Murray, Michael Caine, Jim Carrey, Scrooge McDuck and more have all undergone the transformation from misanthropic miser to big-hearted philanthropist on screen (Jim Carrey’s done it twice in fact, once behind the mo-cap in A Christmas Carol, the other behind a face-load of prosthetics in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas).
No, the swift about-turns baddies perform in Christmas films aren’t realistic, but the lesson underneath is that we’re all agents of our own fates and change is possible. Why wait for the ghosts to nudge you into cheerier spirits? Go on, buy the poorest person you know some poultry today, then arrive unannounced at their house on Christmas Day, they’ll love you for it.

3) Believe! (And if you don’t, then you’re a cold-hearted stain on the crotch of humanity) 

The tyranny of belief is worse in Christmas cinema than in any other genre. Quite right, say many, why should non-believers get to enjoy all the weight-gain and tension headaches of the festive season if they’re not even Christians? To those people I say shush thy mouth.
We atheists are programmed just like everyone else to suffer Pavlovian nostalgia spasms upon hearing the first bars of Chris Rea’s Driving Home For Christmas, and we enjoy Terry’s Chocolate Oranges just as much as the next man. Simply because we don’t tie our festive excesses to the spuriously documented birth of a tiny Palestinian doesn’t mean we don’t want to join in with the schmaltz-fest and the sloe gin.
Where are the Christmas films for rationalists though? Despite Jesus and pals being replaced by Santa and his reindeer in most festive flicks, there’s an insidious thread running through many that doubt, scepticism and rationality are evidence of a cold heart and a lack of imagination.
The Polar Expressis the worst culprit, a film which tells children if they ask logical questions or express doubt of any kind in the magic of Christmas, they’re husks, sans magic, sans heart, sans everything. Miracle on 34th Street pulls off a similar trick, urging logical Susan to throw reason out of the window and telling her that if she doesn’t unquestioningly accept the party line, she’s essentially dead inside.
Believe, or else, Christmas movies tell their audiences, and you know what? On this particular point, they can pretty much chaff off.

4) Work isn’t everything 

A whole heap of festive films are keen to remind us that work shouldn’t take priority in our lives, and that the pursuit of a bonus, promotion or paycheque is a hollow endeavour. Largely, it’s the Dads who have to learn this message, what with festive films being more conservative in their representation of gender politics than a Janet and John book.
James Caan in Elf is a typical example of the workaholic who learns to let go of his career in favour of his family. Malcolm (a.k.a Father) Christmas is taught the same thing in Arthur Christmas, Arnold Schwarzenegger in Jingle All the Way, and Tim Allen in The Santa Clause.  Michael Keaton’s work-prioritising Dad in Jack Frost goes so far as to be killed and reincarnated as a terrifying snowman so that his lesson really sinks in.
What to do then? Well, if you find yourself missing your kid’s ballet recital/little league game and prioritising the needs of your boss over those of your loved ones, save yourself the bother of having a Christmas epiphany and just quit. The brief grace period your family will enjoy before the house gets repossessed and they cart you all away to debtors’ prison will be a little slice of Xmas magic.

5) But a conventional, heterosexual, tax-paying, nuclear family life is

It would take all the room the internet has left on it to list the Christmas films which remind us that family comes first. Underneath that charming message though, lies a very narrow representation of what a family is. 
To Susan in Miracle on 34th Street, having a real family means leaving her New York apartment for a house in the country and asking Santa to get her career-minded Mum knocked up, but not before tricking her into an arranged marriage with their creepy neighbour Mr Bedford.
The brilliantly off-colour Bad Santa is a rare example of a film promoting not a nuclear family, but a motley crue of oddballs who happen to love one another. The kid in that picture ends up being looked after by a cocktail waitress with a Santa fetish, a barely sentient grandmother and an alcoholic ex-con. It’s a refreshingly anarchic depiction of family for a Christmas movie which still manages to warm the heart. Other Christmas films, take note.

6) People wearing Santa suits are rarely to be trusted

Now this is a practical tip more than a lingering life lesson. Any of you who’ve seen The Nightmare Before Christmas, Gremlins,Bad Santa, or The Grinch Who Stole Christmas will know that 49.5% of the people you see in Santa suits are alcoholics with nefarious plans, and are thus ripe for a swift kick to the wobblies. The other 49.5% are evil critters intent on hijacking the festive season and can be bested either by being put in a blender, or by being loved so much their heart swells to three times its usual size which, let’s face it, would also definitely end in death.
1% of the people we see wearing Santa suits are actually Santa. He’s pretty much cool so just let him get on with it.

7) Capitalist consumerism is evil 

If Charlie Brown was around today, he’d be occupying Wall Street for sure. The melon-headed worrywart was anxious about capitalist greed and Xmas consumerism in 1965, and the original Miracle on 34th Street voiced its concerns as far back as 1947. Lord knows how those folk would react to the Simon Cowell-sponsored tinsel fest we spin around in each year between October and January.
A bunch of festive movies entwine technology and capitalist greed as co-destroyers of the true meaning of Christmas. Arthur Christmas teaches that technology and efficiency are no substitute for a golden heart and a desire to make people happy.Santa Claus: The Movie sees John Lithgow flood the Christmas market with shoddy merchandise and get duly punished. The Santa Clause 2 shows the dystopian consequences of Christmas magic being replaced by technology.
These Luddite festive films teach that hi-tech stuff is bad, but communal well-being and childhood innocence are good. They’re basically the Romantic poets, but with elves.
The message here? Reject consumerism and greed…

8) Except when it’s great 

For every movie chastising the commercialisation of the Christmas season, there are as many cementing the notion that stuff you buy is what makes Christmas. In a recession, it’s about as easy to muster sympathy for Chevy Chase crying over his bonus in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation as it was to do the same for that Daily Mail columnist who couldn’t afford to buy her mince pies from Harrods last year.
The excremental Jingle All The Way stars the ex-governator as a workaholic dad prepared to go to absurd lengths to obtain a sought-after toy for his kid, and its priorities are as screwy as its acting. Attempting to drive home the message that Christmas isn’t about stuff, it manages to reinforce exactly that idea, showing a father only able to prove his love for his son through the naff Turbo Man doll he fights a postman for.
Christmas With The Kranks is just as bad (in both senses). Empty nesters Tim Allen and Jamie-Lee Curtis decide to forget about Christmas and go on a cruise, only to be mercilessly bullied into rethinking things and coming to understand the true meaning of Christmas: the tons and tons of stuff you buy.

9) Dreams can come true

Many are the Christmas films preaching that dreams will come true if only we wish hard enough. Little Ralphie’s tenacity in A Christmas Story is rewarded by the BB gun (“You’ll shoot your eye out!”) he so desires, even if the real message in that one is to be careful what you wish for.
Susan gets her conventional family life in Miracle on 34th Street by asking Father Christmas. Buddy in Elf gets his real father, the Grinch gets loved, and Tiny Tim from A Christmas Carol gets to survive the winter. Xmas, say the movies, is a time for miracles. But…

10)  But you can’t always get what you want 

No festive film teaches this better than It's a Wonderful Life. George Bailey watches the dreams of his youth float down the sewer, learning to wave them on their way and be grateful for what he has. That the film is often considered to have one of the happiest endings in cinema just shows how willing we are as a species to give up and settle.
It's a Wonderful Life teaches us not to lust after long-held ambitions, but to buck up, give thanks for your lot, and soldier on. In many ways, it’s the most practical and most depressing lesson of all.
Merry Christmas everyone!