When I still lived with my family in Georgia, we had a tradition of watching one Christmas-themed movie a night in the week leading up to the 25th. Over time, the general selection has changed — “Elf” replaced “The Polar Express” because if we wanted to see Tom Hanks serving hot chocolate to dead-eyed children, we’d raid Steven Spielberg’s 8mm collection; “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” replaced “Home Alone” because after seeing “Gone Fishin’” and a few Snickers commercials, we’ve come to the conclusion that Joe Pesci has suffered enough for our petty amusement.
But three films have always remained constant: “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on the 22nd, “A Christmas Story” on the 23rd, and “It’s a Wonderful Life” on Christmas Eve, right after church and potato soup and just before beer.
As I’ve gotten older and more marginally aware of culture at large, two things have happened: I’ve realized that these films, whether through their (possibly un)intentional hawking of a somewhat naïvely positive worldview or through blatant firearms mismanagement, project a conflicting message, and that that hasn’t diminished my enjoyment of them one single iota. Let me show you what I mean:
1. A Charlie Brown Christmas
The Case For: A touching, surprisingly wry take on the quintessential “true meaning of Christmas.”
The Case Against: An adherence to rote Judeo-Christian doctrine.
Dealing with the latter first, there’s little to argue about on the surface. The animated short’s true climax is Linus’ recitation of the King James’ version of Christ’s birth; delivered, in the film, to an empty audience, it’s rather clear that Linus is addressing the viewing public, reminding us before and after that “That’s what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown.” It’s a direct, bare-bones, heavy-handed message, and one that could be accused of promoting religious exclusivity.
But whatever. Christians get a pretty bad rap these days, mainly because the loudest ones are usually the worst ones, or because the loudest ones don’t really know what it means to be a Christian in the first place. Jesus — man as well as myth — lived a life characterized by charity, grace and humility, and those are qualities worth celebrating and embodying every day of the year, let alone on Christmas.
Plus, hey, Vince Guaraldi managed to squeeze one of the greatest jazz scores of all time into less than 30 minutes, on a primetime children’s program. Like. A. Boss.
2. A Christmas Story
The Case Against: A (possibly NRA-funded) firearm propaganda film.
The Case For: Darren. F’ing. McGavin.
On paper, this is a movie that deals with little Ralphie’s maniacal obsession with “an official Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time.” Ralphie is nine years old, and has daydreams where he not only lives out his own victim complex by imagining himself a blind beggar, but by sniping gangs of roving bandits who, honestly, are probably not looking to do any more than stealing a pie from the windowsill. In the world of the film, Ralphie will probably grow up to be a Special Forces sniper who gets arrested at age 41 for distributing anti-government propaganda.
A gun, though, isn’t really what “A Christmas Story” is about. When we’re children, we don’t necessarily understand or appreciate what togetherness, family and fellowship, at their core, are all about. All of that excitement is rather geared towards a single object or idea; for me, it was, at various times, a trampoline, a Nintendo 64 and, yes, a BB gun.
As the film illustrates, this sort of fixation, rather than acting as a hindrance to the “true meaning of (insert Important Thing),” transcends all else: Ralphie’s single-minded near-mania sees him through cultural disaffection, bullying, and an altercation with Drunk Santa.
In other words, he’s able to cut through the BS, and get at what really matters — which is Christmas and love and family, embodied in his “blue steel beauty.”
3. It’s a Wonderful Life
The Case Against: Schmaltzy, saccharine everyman story, conveniently and far too neatly gift-wrapped.
The Case For: “Clarence! CLARENCE!!!”
It’s easy to see why audiences roundly rejected this one upon its initial release. Heavy on the sentiment, it fell sour on the palates of the immediately post-WWII demographic, a people grown rightfully disillusioned with the very notion of optimism, and with the world in general. It really only became a classic some decades after release, when it fell into syndication, and a new generation of viewers came to identify with it.
If you ask me, though, James Stewart’s very presence and performance in this film is cause enough to take it, and its message, seriously. “It’s a Wonderful Life” was his first film after serving in the war, and also his first in five years. He was rattled, affected, changed and yet still managed to deliver a fairly incendiary take on his classic everyman persona. We could all stand to follow his lead.
Does life wrap itself up as neatly as it does in the film? Absolutely not, generally speaking. But it is a testament to the power and the possibility inherent in perseverance, in faith (whether in your fellow man or otherwise) and in strength of character.