In the malls, Christmas is over, and the post-Christmas sales are underway. At the same time, for many Christians who have sought to resist market-driven “Christmas creep” and celebrate the weeks prior to Christmas as the vigil of Advent, the Christmas season has only just begun.
The Christmas season unfolds in stages. The eight days from Christmas to January 1 — to Catholics, the solemnity of Mary the Mother of God — are celebrated as the Octave of Christmas. The “Twelve Days of Christmas” take us to January 6, traditionally Epiphany, celebrated by Hispanics as Three Kings Day. (In some countries, including the United States, Epiphany is now celebrated on the first Sunday after January 1.) The Christmas season doesn’t end until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord.
What can Catholics do to keep things Christmasy until mid-January? Among other things, I suggest keeping the tree and the lights lit until at least January 6, if not the following Sunday — and saving the Christmas movies till after Christmas day.
Granted, options for religious Christmas fare may be lacking — but don’t let that stop you. G.K. Chesterton took that bull by the horns in his spirited defense of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which Chesterton argued was a defense, not of what Christians celebrate at Christmas, but of the way in which Christian society has historically celebrated it, i.e., merrymaking, festal extravagance, and communal and family togetherness.
There are titles we can’t talk about Christmas movies without mentioning: A Christmas Story (1983), Home Alone (1990), The Santa Clause (1994), Elf (2003), and of course the classics, including It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and whatever is your favorite version of A Christmas Carol.
There are also the TV specials: “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1964), “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (1966, about a hundred times better than the dreadful Jim Carrey film), and above all “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” with Linus’s moving recitation from Luke 2.
Then there’s the raging debate: Is Die Hard (1988) a Christmas movie? The case in its favor is thin — but not as thin as the case against it.
Yes, Die Hard was originally released in July, but so what? Most movies we think of as the original Christmas classics (Miracle on 34th Street, Holiday Inn, White Christmas) weren’t released anywhere near Christmas. (It’s a Wonderful Life did have a limited release on December 20, but didn’t open wide until after January 6.)
What made all these films post facto “Christmas classics” was not their theatrical release date, but television. It’s a Wonderful Life, in particular, owes its status as the quintessential Christmas classic in part to an accidental lapse in copyright, allowing local television stations to play it around the holidays without paying royalties to the studio.
Television ritualized It’s a Wonderful Life and other movies by creating the conditions for an annual tradition of watching given movies every holiday season. Movies like A Christmas Story and Home Alone (both of which opened in late November) were products of this television-era Christmas movie tradition; in that sense, they were among the first self-conscious “Christmas movies.”
Die Hard, of course, came along around the same time, and there are indications that, despite its release date, its Christmas trimmings were always intended as more than just window dressing — that it was always meant to work as an unconventional Christmas movie. Take the early scene in the limo: “Don’t you got any Christmas music?” John McClane asks when Argyle cranks the Run-DMC. Argyle’s reply: “This is Christmas music!” What that cut (“Christmas in Hollis”) is to Christmas music, Die Hard is to Christmas movies.
Despite its violent action milieu, Die Hard is deliberately cheerful, escapist fun (director John McTiernan has said the decision to make the bad guys thieves rather than terrorists was intended to keep it light). And, in the same way that Home Alone is as much about embracing the misunderstood outcast and overcoming divisions (Old Man Marley and his estranged family) as it is about a young boy defending his home against burglars, Die Hard is as much about a couple in a troubled marriage reuniting to spend Christmas as a family with their kids as it is about a lone cop battling a team of slick criminals.
Contrast that with, say, the saccharine, licentious, at times misogynist goings-on in Love Actually (2003), a wretched rom-com that gets trotted out as another counterintuitive Christmas movie. Or even the post-divorce snarkiness of The Santa Clause, a broken-family film that ends with Tim Allen getting over his bitterness and accepting his postmarital calling as part-time dad and full-time Santa. (Actually, any holiday-themed fare starring Tim Allen is pretty bad.)
Each year at Christmastime I like to watch some Christmas movie that, for whatever reason, I’ve never seen. This year I hope to catch The Fourth Wise Man (1985) starring Martin Sheen. Tonight, though, my family and I will watch It’s a Wonderful Life, as we do every December 26. I’m not sure when I’ll get around to The Fourth Wise Man, but I’m in no rush. Christmas is only beginning.
“What are your favorite Christmas movies?” As a Catholic film critic, I get this question several times every December, often on the air or via social media. The question, alas, touches on a sore subject for me.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.