By the time the clock strikes Christmas Eve, most of us have watched more than our fair share of holiday movies. Thanksgiving weekend alone, the annual kickoff for all things merry, aired enough saccharine Christmas movies to replace the pecan pie. The year I binge-watched Hallmark Countdown to Christmas, I vowed to set limits on the sugary sweet flicks that populate the season like chocolate sprinkles on a sundae. There’s just so much of that stuff you can inhale before your sugar high propels you to la-la-land.
“There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.” A Christmas Carol
When my kids were small, we nailed all the prerequisite family holiday movies from Frosty the Snowman to A Charlie Brown Christmas, colorful animation to traditional Yuletide schmaltz. We cheered the Grinch’s change of heart and Rudolph’s blinking red badge of individuality. But, like anything else, an overdose of sugar can put your teeth on edge. Maybe Christmas movies come only once a year so you have time to regroup before getting your next fix of contrived holiday cheer.
But that’s just me.
When the kids flew the coop, movies like Santa is Coming to Town went with them. Grown-up shows rang in the season but didn’t always ring my bells. My house didn’t quite measure up to the mind-numbing holiday décor that draped over every Hallmark movie set. (and to be honest, eeew) My Christmas lights would never compare to Clark Griswold’s and my slowly morphing monochrome color schemed house (think coastal, remember?) would disappoint any self respecting North Pole resident. Truthfully, isn’t decorating perfection exhausting?
In my very empty nest, I let my not-so-inner graphic designer out, choosing ‘white space’ and a Pantone color palette to Santa’s workshop. Still, I’d watch those Hallmark movies with a certain amount of guilt — and curiosity. How DID that snow, that fell artfully on coats and hats, never melt? If MY hair was pelted with the white stuff while I was gleefully building a flawless snowman, I guarantee it would have that wilted, wet dog look not one ‘fresh from the salon’. And those dollhouse movie towns, bedecked in snow globe perfection? Has anyone ever seen one? They are all a little too blindingly bright, a little too magical for my taste. Any resemblance to the world I live in is purely coincidental.
“Welcome, Christmas, while we stand, heart to heart and hand in hand.” How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Living in a less than picture perfect world is not a bad thing; it’s a real thing. Unlike a Hallmark holiday-wrapped movie, life isn’t perfect but it’s mostly good, even blessed at tomes. It’s not covered in fairy dust but cookie crumbs, crayon marks, dog hairs and milk (or wine) spills. People don’t always end up happily ever after but lose one another through misunderstandings, hurt and yes, death. Unlike the wistful happy endings in celluloid, they are often just the stuff of dreams.
Still, those Christmas movies, heartfelt or cheesy, come with something for everyone, including a good shot of holiday spirit. Forget the recycled plots and inexorably happy endings we know are the stuff of screenplays. It’s the life lessons, the timeless moral fables that sucker us back in each Christmas season.
If I have to pick a few favorites, one has to be the offbeat (more than a little) Christmas Carol remake, where Bill Murray plays the snarky, jaded Frank Cross. As unhappy and ruthless as his fabled predecessor, Scrooge, Frank Frank learns to “Keep Christmas in my heart” by living in the past, present AND future. He’s transformed into someone whose heart opens to suffering, and struggle. I can’t help but think this tale is even more timely, given these fraught last few years when we, like Frank, are all called to be aware and awake to the injustice and need around us. And, bonus, this Christmas Carol is also as hilarious as heck, populated by characters like a passive aggressive sugarplum fairy who smacks Frank in the head with a toaster. Ah, ya gotta like a woman with spunk!
“Seeing is believing but sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see”. The Polar Express
Who doesn’t love ELF? With all the reasons to be cynical, depressed about the state of the world and politics (don’t get me started), there are a lot of reasons it might be harder to jingle your bells this year. If you’ve lost someone, it’s even more difficult to experience the season of light without variations of darkness, too. Buddy the Elf, takes us out of ourselves as he makes the best of every situation. Despite his challenges, he’s determined to spread cheer and positivity everywhere. When he says ‘Smiling is my favorite’, he invites us to do the same. And it’s good to remember that even just a smile can be a light in someone’s darkness.
“You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch”. Yup, Dr. Seuss’s grumpy guy in Whoville’s mountain is one bitter, angry, cynical sucker. The Grinch puts a reality check on the entire town by stealing all the presents on Christmas Eve. Nice dude. But, thanks to the warmth of sweet Cindy Lou Who, Mr. Grinch learns the lesson that Christmas is more than shiny gifts and commercialism. The innocent Cindy teaches the true meaning of the holiday where everyone is capable of love and kindness. Embracing the Christmas spirit, the Grinch’s heart morphs from ‘an empty’ hole to one that can reach out. How the Grinch Stole Christmas comically illustrates that even the most cynical of us can redefine ourselves. In this age of Amazon and Black Friday, who can’t use a little reminder that “maybe Christmas perhaps doesn’t come from a store”?
Holiday classic, Home Alone, fulfilled a lot of kid’s daydreams of what they would do if left to their own devices. Two of my grandboys who just it for the first time, offered a few of their own ideas while realizing freedom ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Even though resourceful Kevin foiled crooks that were dumber than dumb, he soon learned that what you think you want – and what you really need – are two different things. Duh.
That legendary little tree, in A Charlie Brown Christmas, proved that love could make anything beautiful. “I never thought it was a bad little tree. It’s not bad at all, really. It just needs a little love”. Don’t we all, Charlie, don’t we all.
Though my personal, renegade fave is Prancer (Hey, it stars Sam Elliott. Enough said) no list of Christmas movies would be complete without It’s a Wonderful Life. Through the many years, the movie tells the timeless story of George Bailey and his angel Clarence. and how we can all impact the lives of people, even if we don’t realize it. To appreciate what we have, to never give up – those are post-it reminders for all of us. Feeling always grateful for my own blessings of friendship, I especially love Clarence’s reminder: “Remember, George, no man is a failure who has friends.”
“No one’s walking out of this old fashioned family Christmas. No, we’re all in this together” Christmas Vacation
Sometimes the very best holiday movies are the ones that will never see the big screen. Those are the grainy home movies shot on old video cameras or savvy, sharp videos taken on today’s state of the art cell phones. They are not blockbusters. But, they are most meaningful movies of all because they capture our lives, and those of families and friends. They frame us in our most precious of states – the times when we were small – or they were. The best feel-good movies are the times we were together, laughing, sparring, toasting, loving. The times when we connected, told stories and wove them into memory. Sometimes they are all we have left of those we loved. But, buried in those digital treasures, among those holly and tinsel-kissed moving histories of our lives, are the greatest life lessons of all.
In a season packed with sleighs full of life lessons, may we all be blessed with inspiration, kindness, compassion and love.
Merry Christmas to each and every one!