It’s Thanksgiving and the leftover turkey and mashed potatoes have been packed into an already-overstuffed fridge. The football game was a letdown. Your dad passed out on the couch an hour ago and between the line of sweet potato-colored drool and the hand down his pants, things are starting to get awkward. But you don’t see these people as often as you probably should (though, let’s be real, that’s their fault, not yours), so you feel compelled to do something. Something that will involve everyone shutting the hell up and maybe even bonding a little. That’s when the holiday spirit hits you right in the junk: turn on a Christmas movie!
But…what to choose? Something family-friendly? Something off-color? Something animated? Something in black and white? Should there be snow involved? What about Santa? In fact…does it even need to be about Christmas?
Come to think about it…what truly makes a Christmas movie? Is it Santa, presents and snow? Is it a central theme or idea? Is it as simple as the time of year the film takes place? What are the criteria that we can agree on the end the debate regarding classics like Die Hard? Let’s see if we can find some common ground, here.
And if we can’t? Hell, then we’ll just bicker and argue like your family on Christmas once your dad has had just enough gin and tonics to give you an alphabetical list of ways in which you’ve wasted your life and will never be half the man your post-op sister is!
You can’t have Christmas without Father Christmas himself, right?! I mean, without the all-knowing, all-eating, Great White Lie, what else could we use to threaten our children this time of year and bully them into relatively decent behavior? Taking away their electronics? Yeah, right, putting those little brats in front of a screen so we can eat dinner over the sink and shamefully spike our coffee mugs and chug them in the bathroom is the only measure of peace and quiet we get around this time of year! The legend of Santa Claus is essential to Christmas, so it stands to reason that he is essential to the Christmas movie, too.
Santa can be the jolly, fatherly source of joy that we have all come to love from our childhood. He can be a goofball. He can be a rock and roll singer with a blues band behind him and a magic hat. He can be a hard-drinker with a a mouth dirtier a New York subway station bathroom floor. Oh wait, that guy wasn’t the real Santa…well anyway, the point is Santa is a lot of things! But Santa Claus does not a Christmas movie make.
Of course we don’t need Santa for a movie to be a Christmas movie! He’s just icing on the cookies that you already can’t control yourself around. Home Alone is a certified Christmas Classic and there is no trace of Santa. How about It’s A Wonderful Life? Nope. A Muppet Christmas Carol features plenty of make believe, but no Santa Claus. The role of Kris Kringle may be a coveted one for middle aged actors (not quite on the “rite of passage” level of the drug addict role for teen/young adult actors, but hey, give it time), but you can probably name ten or twenty Christmas movies off the top of your head that don’t feature good ol’ Saint Nick. Sorry, fat man, but I hope your elves make a good support group!
Ah, now there’s an overused, underdefined term. What is holiday spirit, anyway? Most of time time, stress levels are elevated around the holidays and they don’t tend to bring out the best in people. Well, behind closed doors anyway. We love to put lights and inflatables around our house to convince people that dammit, we are HAPPY inside this house right now and will stuff ice-infused snowballs into a stocking and beat you over your holly, jolly head with them if you say otherwise! Cynicism aside, however, there is a magical quality to December that we just can’t deny. People are in a giving mood and try to be civil…when they aren’t at the mall causing mini soccer riots over the latest toy craze.
Christmas is a time to reflect on the better angels of our nature. We can look back at the mistakes, fights and flaws over the past year and vow to do better. We learn lessons and grow as people, coworkers, parents or whatever other categories we fit into. Christmas movies should celebrate that attitude, right? But what about the movies where characters don’t learn some grand lesson just in time for the holiday to drop a fresh blanket of snow over their misbehavior? Love, Actually has a lot of characters in it and several of them don’t appear to learn a damn thing and lean into their selfishness (I’m looking at you, Colin Frissell, with your neverending desire to find American skanks to play a game of knob-slobbery with). Did The Penguin suddenly realize that he couldn’t go through with his plans of killing off the entirety of Gotham City because he so full of holiday spirit? No, Batman showed up and kicked his ass. And about Hans Gruber in Die Hard, huh? Did Christmas stop his evil plans? No, John f’n McClane did! What’s that, you say? That’s not a Christmas movie? Pshhhh, tell that to this guy.
Ah, here we are. All families come together for Christmas, right? Besides getting hordes of free stuff (that hopefully includes all the proper batteries, if those cretins know how to shop properly), the best thing about this time of year is that it brings families together, no matter if they live near or far. I mean, unless you’re Kevin McAllister and your entire family up and goes to France without you and leaves you to fend off the Wet Bandits by yourself. That would probably suck.
Okay, that exception aside, family really is the most important thing this time of year, right? I mean, everyone gathers, possibly even getting dressed up, and has warm chats around a fire or an adult beverage, right? I can’t imagine a scenario in which people who have grown up and grown old together would bicker and fight around this most joyous of seasons. Well, except for The Ref, I suppose, but what’s a little arguing among adults? As long as it gets hashed out in the end, no harm no foul, right?
Well, at least in Christmas movies, these ugly little moments are held in private. Because the most important thing is to put on a good face for our loved ones, most especially the kids. They need to retain that sense of wonder, so we would certainly never dream of doing….exactly what Clark Griswold did in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
Ok, wow…maybe this isn’t going so well. No matter what I try to conjure up as essential for the institution of “Christmas movie,” there are too many examples that disprove it. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe we can’t put Christmas in a neat little box with colorful wrapping paper and a nice, tidy bow. Maybe there is no single thing we can point to as the identifier of a Christmas movie other than…Christmas itself. After all, who the hell am I to say Santa Claus Conquers the Martians doesn’t count?
So this year, crack open some eggnog (or don’t, actually, cause that shit is gross), throw another log on the fire, wait for your own personal Misfit Toys to finally go to sleep and pass out shamelessly drunk while watching Bad Santa. Hell, who knows…it just might put your wife in the mood!