The 12 Days of Christmas Movies
What makes a Christmas movie? This is a debate that rages in friendship bubbles across the land, as furious arguments break out over whether Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988) or Love Actually (Richard Curtis, 2003) truly qualify, and consequently whether Elf (Jon Favreau, 2003) is the best Christmas movie by default of being the only one that ticks all of the Christmas boxes. I don’t wish to engage in these petty, and ultimately pointless, genre squabbles: my definition of a Christmas movie is pretty loose and all of the above would fit the bill for me. Instead, it might be prudent to consider the ideology of the Christmas movie and the values it embodies more broadly.
The origins of Christmas, as I’m sure we all know, are as a Christian religious festival. The relationship between film and religion is a deep and increasingly well-studied one, and yet amongst these discussions, Christmas movies barely feature. For, rather than religious origins, the epitomal Christmas movie has come to represent the secular, Americanised, commercial version of Christmas, and it is the values of this form of celebration that they hold dear. Indeed, scholar John Mundy asserts that, for the most part, this conversion of Christmas values in popular culture had occurred by the late nineteenth century, and that Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) had a significant role to play in this.[i] Given that this more modern set of ideals seems to have usurped traditional Christianity in popular culture, then, it is poignant to explore just what values this new ideology cultivates.
Let’s think for a moment about what Christmas means in this modern, secular sense. It is a time of coming together, of family. It is the season of good cheer, of mirth, laughter, music and beer. It is the magical season of snow and Santa, a rare magic that can capture the hearts and minds of not only children, but adults as well. It is a time of giving gifts and putting aside our differences, no matter how much we might argue with our families on Christmas Day. And how is this reflected in the Christmas movies? Well, we get raucous comedies and joyous musicals, quite matching our good cheer. We get animations and family films, reflecting the childish fantasies of Christmas. We get love stories, bearing out a more adult sense of magic. Perhaps the most perceptive insight is from Mundy, who argues that “the transformative power of Christmas is co-opted to resolve tension and conflict in ways that are ideally suited for Hollywood’s formal requirement for narrative resolution”.[ii] In other words, the Christmas coming together despite all the pratfalls and arguments that befall us is the perfect material for a mainstream movie.
These are all discussions that I find fascinating, and so, over the next 12 days leading up to Christmas, I will be watching and reviewing 12 Christmas movies. 6 will be traditional films that are either well-known Christmas staples or which epitomise the values outlined above. The other 6 will be more alternative Christmas (or perhaps anti-Christmas) films which disrupt or problematise these values in some way, and mash-up genres that are not commonly associated with the Christmas movie. Though I will be sticking to Final Shot’s primary purpose of watching films I have never seen before for the first time and honestly reviewing them, I will also consider how well they fit into the Christmas values I have discussed, and whether their final moments bring conflict into resolution, or subvert this practice, which is perhaps the most important one of all to the placement of a film within the Christmas movie genre pantheon.
[i] From Mundy’s “Christmas and the Movies: Frames of Mind” in Sheila Whiteley edited collection of essays Christmas, Ideology and Popular Culture (2008). I will be drawing on Mundy’s chapter a lot as I explore the values of Christmas movies. [ii] Mundy, 165.