Christmas at the Movies

Way back in the dim reaches of time, people went to the theatre to see Christmas movies.  In my time, most of us saw the classics on television.  Then, of course there were VHS tape, DVDs and now downloads.   Regardless, there is something very Christmassy about settling in on a long winter’s night with popcorn and Pepsi (or whatever) and watching a movie you’ve seen at least a hundred times since you were five.  It says Christmas — just as much as Santa, the elves and reindeer.

Despite what the Internet will tell you, there is no be-all/end-all list of Christmas movies; everybody’s Top Ten is slightly different.  For example, I have a friend who is pretty much normal.  He’s a good husband and father, pays his taxes and keeps a somewhat traditional Christmas.  However, his favourite Christmas movie of all time is Jingle all the Way.  Go figure!  The point is the mark of a good Christmas movie is totally subjective.

Hollywood has made literally hundreds of Christmas movies.  Some of them are extra special and some aren’t fit to be shown on Khatfoodistan Regional Airlines, but they all fit into three broad categories.  They are the retelling of Charles DickensA Christmas Carol, The Christmas Reboot and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Christmas.

After the nativity story itself, A Christmas Carol is the definitive tale of Christmas.  Over the years, half of Hollywood has taken a crack at retelling it.  Scrooge has been played by Reginald Owen, George C. Scott, Bill Murray, Michael Caine (with a troupe of Muppets) and even Jim Carrey (in an animated version.)  These are all decent renditions (and there are probably a few I’ve forgotten) but the very best version was filmed in 1951 and starred Alastair Sim as Scrooge.  Why?  First of all, it’s black and white.  This makes it shadowy and grim, almost sinister, and it gives some verisimilitude to Victorian London.  (The rag-and-bone scene is especially Dickensian.) Secondly, it shows the slow decline of Scrooge, and with him Marley, from young, bright-eyed clerks into the hard, penny-pinching misers they become — figuratively forging the chains that Marley is dragging through eternity.   It softens our attitude towards Scrooge: in a sense we start cheering for him.  And finally, the redemption of Scrooge is a complete transformation — not just Ebenezer with a grin on.  When Scrooge is sitting on the stairs with Mrs Dilber and gives her a sovereign, he is serious about it.  When he goes to his nephew’s house, he’s hesitant, unsure of his reception.  When he confronts Cratchit back at the Counting House he calls him Bob.  The change in Scrooge is real, and we applaud him for it.  This is perhaps the best movie version of A Christmas Carol with only one flaw.  In the bedroom scene, when Scrooge wakes up to discover he hasn’t missed Christmas, as he’s jumping around, you can clearly see the film crew in a mirror on the wall.

There are a ton of Christmas Reboot movies.  The cynical among us would say that finding the true meaning of Christmas is a national pastime in small-town America.  Of course, Christmas is all about a rebirth of faith, but the problem with a lot of the Christmas Reboot movies is they are just not that believable anymore.  For example, in The Bishop’s Wife (1947) I simply do not believe that Loretta Young would throw over guardian angel Gary Grant for pain-in-the- ass David Niven.  I mean, really!  Would you?  The very best of the Reboots are, of course Miracle on 34th Street, Christmas in Connecticut and (as much as I hate it) It’s a Wonderful Life.  But there are a few other films that get overlooked.  One of them is Elf.  As Dorothy Parker once said (about Katherine Hepburn) Will Ferrell’s acting talent runs the gamut from A to B, and he uses every ounce of it in Elf.  Even if you haven’t liked a thing Ferrell has done since Saturday Night Live you’ll have to admit Elf is a classic.

There is no end to the great A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Christmas movies.  The only question is, depending on your sense of humour and sensibilities, which ones are better than the others.  At the top of the heap are A Christmas Story, where Ralphie finally gets his Red Ryder BB gun and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, which is one of the funniest movies in history.  These two are head and antlers above all the rest and are required viewing in comedy school.  After that, it’s up for grabs.  Some people like The Santa Clause, although the sequels are getting a bit old.  Some people like Christmas with the Kranks.  Some people even like Bad Santa.  It all depends on your taste.  One of my personal favourites is The Ref, which is hard to summarize but extremely funny.

Of course the Christmas season would not be complete without White Christmas.  This movie is so synonymous with Christmas it stands alone as the single finest Christmas mood movie ever made.

So, the Top Christmas movies on my list are (in no particular order — yeah, right!)

White Christmas
A Christmas Carol
A Christmas Story
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
A Child’s Christmas in Wales
(very hard to find)
Prancer (just ‘cause it’s cute)
The Ref
The Polar Express

And I’m saving #10 for Harold and Kumar.

Christmas: The To Don’t List

Christmas is not only the biggest holiday in North America; it’s also the most complicated.  The logistics of pulling off a flawless modern Christmas can be so daunting even Martha Stewart sometimes makes a run for the eggnog.  However, just because you want a nice Christmas doesn’t mean you have to turn into the person you most hate.  You know the type.  They’re those smarmy, organized buggers who made a Xmas To Do List, back in September (on their iPad) and wander around most of December looking smug and checking things off their comprehensive list – from their phone.  They’re the ones who have the perfect tree, the matching cedar wreath and lights just the right length to go exactly around the winter scene window.  Their placemats are Egyptian linen, their tinsel is biodegradable and their dog is never sick. They always find those great esoterically appropriate gifts which you know you could have found, too — if you had more time.  And they always seem to have enough time left over to show up at your house with handmade candy canes.  These people were put on Earth to vex the rest of us who do Christmas like a hamster running on a wheel, and despite moments of envy, nobody wants to be like them.  Yet, in order to at least get into the neighbourhood of a stressless Christmas, we all need a little guidance.  I’ve devised a generic Christmas To Don’t List, just to help you along.  Some people might not need all of the items but everybody is going to need at least one.

1 – Don’t fight with your family.  It’s only a couple of days, for God’s sake  Be nice.  Yes, the conditions are just right for a good old-fashioned family flare-up: you can’t get away; you’re bored out of your skull; Ray’s wife is still the bitch she always was; and if you hear one more of Uncle Eddie’s long-winded, go-nowhere stories, you’re going to hang yourself in the garage.  But that’s not the point.  Remember, Ray might divorce what’s-her-name and marry somebody way worse.  Uncle Eddie’s might die and you’d be saddled with Aunt Louise for all eternity, and maybe some of the family think you’re the one who’s the jerk.  If you want to, you can change your friends like long distance runners change their socks, but this is the only family you’re ever going to have: make the best of it.

2 – Despite the need to control the urges of To Don’t #1, don’t tie into the adult beverages like it’s the end of prohibition.  This includes the Office Party, the neighbours’ Open House and Christmas Dinner itself.  Nobody’s going to take the booze away; pace yourself.  If you don’t, you run the risk of putting Bob from shipping in a total body lock with plenty of tongue, underneath what never was the mistletoe; or telling Bashir, man-to-man, that you think his wife’s really hot, especially in those shorts she wore last summer; or worse yet, explaining to your nieces that their mother got married in high school to a juggler but the grandparents had it annulled.   None of these things is going to make for a very holly jolly Christmas the day after, and they can all be easily avoided.  So tip the jug in moderation.  Besides, if you do, you’re not going to suffer a head the size of a buffalo the next morning when Cousin Amy’s kids need to practice their drum and trombone duet.

3 – Do not get carried away.  Just because the Three Wise Men brought gold, frankincense and myrrh (what the hell is myrrh, anyway?) as gifts doesn’t mean you have to.  Those credit cards are not a license to go bankrupt.  Use your head: January’s coming.

4 – Don’t deck the halls like Clark W. Griswold/Fa la la la la la la la la.  It sounds like a good idea to get the house all festive, but think about it … First of all, it’s a lot of work.  Secondly, they’re going to look like crap in February when you didn’t take them down ‘cause you’re too busy and it’s been minus 15 degrees since New Year’s.  Finally, remember how you’re always laughing at those idiots on the morning news whose house looks like it was donated by a nuclear power plant?  You don’t want to be that guy.  One, at the most, two strings of lights, carefully placed, can say Christmas a lot brighter than trying to out-Vegas, Vegas.  Use discretion.  (And leave the plastic Santa with the paint peeling off his hat in the garage.)

5 – Don’t eat so damn much!  You’re going to regret it when you get down to that all-inclusive Mexican vacation in January, slip on the Speedo™ and it disappears.  Nobody likes to look like a volleyball on legs — especially at a resort where the bikini is considered formal wear.

6 – Do not watch more than a couple of feel good holiday movies.  Too much sugar is bad for you, and in an hour or two, when your blood sugar drops like a stone, your perfectly good Christmas is going to appear cheap and tawdry compared to Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye’s or the Miracle on 34th Street.   Space them out, and if you’re exposed to It’s a Wonderful Life or A Very Brady Christmas, either shoot yourself in the head or get a complete brain transplant: you don’t want those kinds of memories.

7 – Do not ever say “Christmas is getting too commercialized.”  You just sound like a middle class cliché.

8 — Don’t ever forget Christmas is about loot; the presents you get and the presents you give.  Really think about what you want for Christmas and what you’re going to give other people.  And remember the most precious thing you have to give or ever want to receive is time.