As a sort of disclaimer, let me assure you that Christmas Day, and the season that precedes it, is my favorite time of the year. I love everything about it, but that doesn’t keep me from also seeing it slantwise.
“It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees . . .” It seems to be a sad and bitter beginning, but Joni Mitchell’s River is all about nostalgia, and so is American Christmas in the twenty-first century.
This goes deeper than surface appearances. The obvious nostalgia is for rural life and all its simplicities – clean snow, red barns, white farmhouses and a one horse open sleigh. In reality, there is nothing nostalgic about walking to the barn in the pre-dawn darkness to face three hours of chores at five below zero. Never mind; when I see that perfect scene on a Christmas card, I want to be there. Childhood memories of frozen feet don’t stand in the way.
Christmas literature today has come to mean movies. I know that there are new Christmas books every year, but they all seem to fall into a soupy genre I can’t bring myself to read.
Among movies, the original is A Christmas Carol, in all its iterations. It stands alone, a whole genre all by itself, and there is no nostalgia in it. No one wants to go back to the age of “prisons, and Union workhouses”, cold, hunger, and early death. Instead, the story is about the change in Scrooge as he considers the horrors faced by those around him, many of which are his own fault. The horrors don’t go away, except for the few people Scrooge can help, but Scrooge himself is redeemed.
Recently, there have been a spate of TV movies all asking, “will the girl get the guy by Christmas”? I leave them with that soupy genre of books, readily available for those who can stomach them, after pointing out that they have nothing to do with Christmas.
The rest of Christmas movies fall into one category, with one masterplot. They range from silly to profound, but they all have this in common: Santa is accused of assault, or loses his memory, or decides that he doen’t want to be Santa any more, or Santa Jr. doesn’t want to take over for Santa Sr..
Santa, and/or those around him, are on the verge of losing faith, but they are saved at the last minute by _______. Choose a crisis and a salvation, and write you own screenplay.
Don’t get me wrong. I love these films; I watch them all season. They have to be really bad for me to turn one off. But what is the one thing are all these movies nostalgic about? Faith, of course, which so many people today are clinging to by their fingernails.
If Santa stands in for Jesus – and even those who wish he didn’t, know that he does – then every time Santa once again proves himself to be real, that version of Christianity which proposes a warm, loving, all seeing, yet forgiving God is reaffirmed.
Those who are afraid to doubt out loud can sit back and let Santa, acting as a stand-in, reaffirm their faith.
I’ll buy in. For another Christmas season I will set aside my unbelief and bask in the feeling that someone out there will make all things come right.
Now get out from in front of the television; Miracle on 34th Street will be on in twenty minutes.