With the star-studded Black Nativity (2013) and Tyler Perry directorial A Madea Christmas (2013) slated for cinema release later this year, it is clear that movie studios are still keen to seize the potential of Christmas custom. There’s even a re-emerging rumour that a remake of Christmas in Connecticut (1945) might be on the cards; with Jennifer Garner in the starring role. But, what is the real ethos of the Christmas movie and how does it relate to the original message of Christmas?
In the fourth century, the pagan festival of the Winter Solstice was claimed by Christians as the day on which to celebrate the birth of their saviour, Jesus. The festival remains an amalgam of the two cultures – with pagan customs such as exchanging gifts and decorating trees in union with the Christian traditions of carol singing, the nativity and the season of peace on Earth and goodwill to all men.
It seems as though another image synonymous with Christmas – that of Santa Claus – has been around for just as long, but it was not until 1616 that the first incarnation of Father Christmas was created by Ben Johnson for the purpose of personifying the spirit of Christmas. Some depictions, which followed, incorporated traits of St. Nicholas, the Dutch patron saint of children. But, it was not until 1931 that an advertising campaign for Coca-Cola debuted a rotund version of Santa wearing a trademark red suit complete with white trim, sporting a big, bushy white beard and rosy cheeks. It seemed that this, final version of Santa would be around to stay.
Santa’s global propagation at the hands of corporate advertising brought forth accusations that the true meaning of Christmas had become distorted. Some feared that children would become more preoccupied with thoughts of material gifts than thinking of others or the birth of Jesus.
However, perhaps ironically, most successful Christmas movies featuring Santa are ones which seem to rebuke capitalism and greed. In fact, many of them seem to encourage the virtuous sensibilities of forgiveness, compassion and love.
(1985) is a fine example. An over-ambitious elf named Patch (Dudley Moore) is led astray by a megalomaniac magnate called B.Z. (John Lithgow) in a bid to monopolise Christmas fare. Together, in an effort to surpass the expert craftsmanship of St. Nicholas (Davis Huddleston), they create candy canes which enable children to fly, subsequently impressing children and drawing their allegiance away from Santa’s otherwise loyal fan base. Inevitably, the merchandise proves defective, becoming volatile when exposed to heat. B.Z. is then arrested for the irresponsible distribution of such hazardous goods. Meanwhile, demonstrating an act of clemency, Santa rescues his treacherous elf Patch from an exploding vehicle along with a young orphan for whom Santa then provides a caring home. Love and forgiveness prevail over greed.
Other films portray Santa as a character who inspires the reaffirmation of a dwindling faith. Miracle on 34th Street (1947 original and 1994 remake) is about a Santa impersonator working in the Macy’s department store of New York who – aptly named Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn and Richard Attenborough respectively) – claims to be Father Christmas himself. Suspected of being mentally unwell, he is confined to an institution. Things look bleak until masses of children’s letters arrive for Kringle, each addressed specifically to Santa Claus. As a result, the US Post Office is forced to recognise that Kringle and Santa Claus are one and the same, making Kringle’s identity as Santa legally binding. The sceptics are silenced and Kringle is released. Doris (originally played by Marine O’Hara), a mother having found herself embroiled in the whole affair, finds her own pessimism weakened subject to all the events she has witnessed and a thawing of her heart is catalysed by Kringle’s inimitably warm personality. As a result, her belief in goodness and decency is restored.
As well as being one of the first movies to adopt performance capture techniques, The Polar Express (2004) deals with similar themes. A cynical young boy embarks on a terrific train journey to the North Pole, overcoming perils and strife on a quest to find out for certain whether or not Santa is real. Eventually he meets Santa in person and, with his scepticism appeased, he is safely returned to the warmth and safety of his home. Consumerism and advertising seem to feed on our desire for comfort and convenience, but The Polar Express suggests that in order to discover something of value, it is sometimes necessary to venture beyond our comfort zone; that courage, not greed, reaps rewards.
Likewise, in the much beloved British animation The Snowman (1982), a boy is able to fly when taken by the hand of a magic snowman and embarks on an amazing journey, resulting in a meeting with Father Christmas himself. Sadly, the boy wakes up the next day to find his snowman in ruins having melted during the night. It seems as though all is lost until he discovers a scarf in his pocket, one that Father Christmas had given to him the night before; proof that his experience was real. The fascination lies in the narrative: the journey of the young boy. If Santa had simply arrived at the boy’s door with a Christmassy scarf then there would have been absolutely no sense of magic or wonder. But that is the kind of instantaneous gratification that consumerism allegedly promotes. Some believe that this particular story goes deeper still – a story about death and holding onto memories.
Even films that aim to deliver a fresh twist on the Santa myth seem to preserve the ethos of restoring faith, justice and morale. Elf (2003) is the story of Buddy (Will Ferrell), a human raised in the North Pole amongst Santa’s elves. Upon discovering his true lineage, Buddy sets off on a journey to find his biological father: a grumpy, workaholic publisher (James Caan). Along the way, Buddy takes it upon himself to bring the spirit of Christmas to the embittered ranks of New York. Later, when Santa finds himself in peril, it is the Christmas cheer of New Yorkers, many of whom were inspired by Buddy, that save him. Buddy envisages the concept of harmonious community and all its potential in a setting notorious for its antisocial disposition.
Bad Santa (2003) starring Billy Bob Thornton, The Grinch (2000) featuring Jim Carrey and Fred Claus (2007) with Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti and Kevin Spacey all deliver an atypical approach to the archetypal Santa Claus saga, but all adhere to the idea that the Christmas spirit of love and kindness is a thing to be conserved.
In other movies, Santa represents an embodiment of refuge and protection. In The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), St. Nicholas (James Cosmo) appears with gifts of weapons and armour for the young heroes and provides a brief but welcome respite from the villainy that pursues them.
It’s only the Finnish movie Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010) that truly bucks the trend, portraying Santa as a malevolent creature bent on punishing naughty children and adults alike – in a most grizzly fashion.
Christmas stories that deal with a completely different subject matter than that of the Santa Claus fable often share the premise that Christmas is not only a time of joy and giving, but a time for redemption and second chances. Arguably, one of the most famous movies of this genre is the much adored film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1951). The film portrays an old, belligerent curmudgeon named Ebenezer Scrooge (Alastair Sim), whose miserly actions and misdemeanours are leading him down a dark path until he is visited by three Christmas spirits who enable him to see things from a profoundly different perspective. Disturbed by the things he is shown, he is shocked into realising the error of his ways and transformed into an altruistic, happy-go-lucky philanthropist. The adaptation was so well received that its other, affectionately made incarnations, A Muppets Christmas Carol (1992) featuring Michael Caine, and the wickedly funny Scrooged (1988) starring Bill Murray, have also become a staple of the seasonal broadcasting schedule.
Ironically, some of the most well renowned Christmas movies – Home Alone (1990), Love Actually (2003), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), The Holiday (2006), White Christmas (1954) and even Die Hard (1988) – do not really have much to do with Christmas at all. The festive season merely adds an evocative, ambient backdrop as opposed to an intrinsic cornerstone of plot.
With shop windows dressed, television channel idents themed, streets and houses decorated, Christmas can be a difficult thing to escape from. And, purportedly, Christmas is a time of increased stress; a time of culmination, when tensions finally come to a head having built up over the course of the year. It seems that the humble Christmas movie offers an antidote to all the negativity, whilst being conscious not to discount it. Their narratives, like many movies, frequently possess the key elements of adversity and resolution, a narrative arc working on behalf of the audience to reassure them that no matter how overwhelming their problems might be, they may well yet be overcome.
This article was included in the September 2013 issue of PlanetChristmas Magazine.
By Richard John Fairman