It’s an understatement to say that it’s been a tough week or two. My blog colleagues have summed up their feelings and my own succinctly, beautifully, and in ways that leave little else to be said. After a certain point – and I say this as a writer – you don’t look for words anymore. Just action.
So I thought maybe we could use a change of subject. And considering that the annual Day of Mass Consumption is upon us, I thought I’d take a moment or two to explore the most stirring aspects of the season.
If you ask me what I remember about Christmas as a child, I can’t really name a cherished present. I remember family gatherings and great music and food. But there’s something even more intensely burned upon my brain, something that made Christmas seem bigger, gave me greater anticipation, and lent the season a magic with which reality couldn’t compete.
I’m talking about Christmas movies.
When I was a kid, these movies aired in rotation from the day after Thanksgiving until you grew sick of them, which might not have been until after New Year’s. They were funny, warm, metaphorical tales filled with valuable life lessons about the time of year when giving is so valued. (And even though a giver necessarily creates a receiver, you’re not really supposed to talk about that.)
I had a few favorite Christmas movies that I looked forward to each year, and that I continue to enjoy as an adult. They’ve taught me much of what I know about life. And what were those lessons?
Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.
There are a few of these late ‘60s / early ‘70s claymation Christmas movies from Rankin/ Bass Productions, and every single one of them is weird and wonderful. But this one happens to be my favorite because it tells the origin story of Kris Kringle – a.k.a., St. Nick (how’d he get canonized?!), a.k.a., Santa Claus, a.k.a., the dude with all those screaming babies at the mall.
This movie is nuanced and complex, with many layers of interpretation and meaning. I’ll try to sum it up: Kris Kringle is an orphan who, as a baby, is carried by the forest animals to the Kringle family. The Kringles make toys way up in the woods. These woods are guarded by the evil Winter Warlock, and he doesn’t like anyone trespassing on his land, so the Kringles can’t take the toys anywhere. Further, the closest town the Kringles could theoretically take the toys is Sombertown (subtle), ruled by the German-ish Burgermeister Meisterburger (legit name), who doesn’t allow toys.
So you might ask: why were the Kringles making the toys in the first place if they couldn’t get them to anybody? Good question. This might be the director’s subtle statement on the futility of life as a manual laborer in a kratocracy. Just a guess.
Anyway, Kris grows up handsome and strong and starts questioning the present constraints of his reality. Long story short: he transforms the Winter Warlock, gets toys to the children of Sombertown, and destroys the dictatorship of Mr. Meisterburger. Plus, he marries the love of his life, Jessica, who’s majorly stacked.
None of this is important. The most important takeaway from this movie is that Santa Claus is a ginger. A GINGER! That’s right: everybody’s worshipping a guy who probably has a freckled butt.
Lesson(s) Learned: Gingers have a lot to contribute to society because they’re nice and give us gifts.
A Charlie Brown Christmas.
In all of history, never has there been such a sad 3rd-grader as Charlie Brown. And even Sylvia Plath and Eeyore had to be 8 years old once. If Charlie Brown was real and lived in 2012, he’d be on the kid version of Zoloft. Charlie’s friend, Linus, says it best:
“Charlie Brown, you’re the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem. Maybe Lucy’s right. Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie Browniest.”
TRUTH, Linus. No one does depressed kid with abusive friends quite like Charlie Brown. On the upside, the plot of this movie focuses on Charlie’s dissatisfaction with Christmas consumerism – there’s even an underdog Christmas tree that becomes decorated and beloved. Everyone learns a lesson, Snoopy continues to be aggravating, and Charlie Brown’s friends are momentarily nicer to him. The end.
But the real point of the movie is that you can sell anything if you have the right background music. The jazzy interludes by Vince Guaraldi are the highlights of this movie. The music has the power to transport you to the Christmas of your memory or an idealized Christmas that’s never been – whether reminiscent of skating on a pond in the snowy woods, walking down a slick city street in December, or sitting in front of a warm fire. There’s also this magical WTFery.
Lesson(s) Learned: Even 8-year-olds can display male pattern baldness.
Frosty the Snowman.
This tale is not so much about a snowman come to life, but of a struggling magician who needs more practice, his wascally wabbit, and children who steal hats.
The story begins when a magician visits a school but throws away his “magic hat” after his magic act fails spectacularly. That’s when his rabbit, Hocus Pocus, brings the hat to one of the schoolchildren, Karen. Karen is the leader of the schoolchildren gang. Karen places the hat atop a snowman they created, and – sparkles! – the snowman comes to life. Inexplicably, the snowman shouts, “Happy birthday!” It’s probably because his brain is made of snow.
Once the magician sees that his hat is really magic, he wants it back. Naturally – it’s his hat. But Karen and the children escape with Frosty. Since the temperature is rising, they get aboard a train for the North Pole. It’s a refrigerated train filled with cakes.
Can we talk about the freight train full of cakes for a second? Are these for real? Trains that transport cakes? I want one for Christmas.
When they reach the North Pole, Karen is cold, so Frosty decides to bring her to a greenhouse. Not the smartest move; everybody’s stupid in this story. This is probably where I should mention that Frosty is a snowman who plays with fire. Literally, I mean. He smokes a pipe. Anyway, Frosty melts inside the greenhouse and Karen cries. Then the magician shows up because he followed them there. Santa suddenly arrives and yells at the magician, who really only wanted his own hat back. The magician slinks off, promising to repent. This is the only time I’ve ever questioned Santa’s judgment.
Then Santa takes Karen home and Frosty promises to return to visit her each winter. First, though, I think Frosty should go to school and learn basic science.
Lesson(s) Learned: Snowmen are tobacco enthusiasts.
A Christmas Story.
What can I say about this masterpiece? As it turns out, a lot. This is a parody of children’s greed, which didn’t really need a parody, but we are truly better for its existence.
The only thing 8-year-old Ralphie Parker wants for Christmas is a Red Ryder BB gun, and he has to convince the adults in his life that he deserves one. His mother and his teacher famously tell him, “You’ll shoot your eye out.” Because, c’mon – he will.
He then proceeds for the remainder of the movie to prove that he does not, in fact, deserve a BB gun. He gets a C+ on a paper; witnesses his friend, Flick, stick his tongue to a frozen pole, then leaves him there; treats his brother poorly; beats the crap out of a bully; hogs the bathroom; rats out his friend for something he didn’t do; and uses the F-word. He basically deserves lint for Christmas.
But his father – his abusive, curse word-loving father – thinks that his son deserves a BB gun for Christmas, probably because his moral compass is askew. So, Ralphie gets one. And then he shoots his eye out.
Well, nearly, anyway. Ralphie gets a cut on his face when his gun backfires. He concocts a story that an icicle fell on him, which his mother believes because he’s a convincing liar. Typing all of this out has made me realize what a psychopath Ralphie is.
And then the Parker Family enjoys the rest of their Christmas by going to a Chinese restaurant, which really makes them Jewish.
Lesson(s) Learned: Icicles can kill people.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
I’ve never seen this movie, but I’m going to go ahead and give it five stars based on what I know of my personality.
Lesson(s) Learned: I will judge a movie I’ve never seen.
This is the musical – and best – version of A Christmas Carol. It stars Albert Finney as Scrooge. Al (we’re on a first-name basis) was only 34 at the time and had played a sex maniac only a few years earlier, but is a very convincing, miserly old man here.
You all know the story of the Republican who thinks people should die because they cost too much, even though his empire is built on the hard work of said people. Then there’s sickly, poor Tiny Tim, who wants nothing more than for god to bless all of us, even though god seemed to have skipped him and his family. Talk about humility. Ralphie, take note.
Ghosts from the past, present, and future visit Scrooge throughout the night to prove to him that his disdain of the 47% comes at the expense of his humanity. Ironic that the dead need to teach the living how to live. Good one, Charlie “Don’t Shorten My Last Name” Dickens!
The thrill of this version, though, is the excellent music. First, there’s a song about hating people. Then, there’s the group number about remembering the exact date of Christmas. And there’s the very polite manners number. And so much more.
Lesson(s) Learned: Rich people have feelings, too – especially when their lives are threatened.
It’s a Wonderful Life.
This is a beautiful, heartwarming, and vexing movie. George Bailey is the good son – the one who rescues his brother from drowning as it destroys the hearing in his ear, the one who takes over his family’s always-on-the-verge-of failing bank, the one who marries the good girl.
There are some truly gut wrenching scenes. Like the one where the pharmacy owner, Mr. Gower, hits young George on his bad ear, and… don’t mind me. My eyes are just a little sweaty today. Or the one where George helps the small business owners get their own homes. Or the one where he woos Mary under the moonlight.
George Bailey is the town hero who hates the town. So maybe this is the heart of what unsettles me about the movie: like any sacrificial lamb, George would rather be somewhere else.
Anyway, he gets a bad attitude because of it. His children are imbeciles, his house is dilapidated, and his wife seems blithely unaware of his needs. Then, because of an issue at the bank, he decides to take his own life. But an angel, Clarence, steps in at the last minute to show him what everyone’s life would be like if George had never been around. So, again: he can’t do what he wants because people need him.
This is where the movie gets interesting. Because, among other things, the town without George becomes Las Vegas – casinos, hookers, crime. George, desperate to find a now-unmarried Mary, nearly throttles Clarence to find out where she is. Finally, Clarence screams, “She’s at the library!” with the same amount of shame as if he had said, “She’s in the outhouse taking a dump!”
George learns just how valuable he is to everyone in his life, and comes to appreciate what he has. But, again, there’s the question of: is it what he wants? There’s also no mention of what life would be like if you removed anyone from the equation – I mean, where would we all be without Yanni or the guy that invented the Chia pet? I don’t want to know what that world looks like.
Lesson(s) Learned: The worst thing in the world for a woman is to be single and educated.
What are your favorite Christmas movies? Happy Holidays, everyone!