Friday, November 27, 2009

The Christmas Canon: The Annual Return to my Holiday Favorites


Admittedly, I'm a sucker for the cheesy and the melodramatic pretty much any time of year. But, by virtue of me having just eaten my fair share of turkey, it is now officially the Christmas Season. And Christmas Season is that most wonderful time of the year in which the schmaltzy and sentimental become acceptable within pop culture. The soft rock radio station in my town has shifted to Christmas carols, gaudy light displays are going up at houses across America, and old holiday movies and TV shows are making their annual return.

Regardless of religious affiliation, every person has their own holiday favorites to which they return year after year. Whether it's that particular corny Christmas carol, or that television holiday special, or even a tried and true classic tearjerker of a film, the cultural touchstones of December give us something to look forward to each year. The fact that these things can only be enjoyed within a limited timeframe only serves to make them that much more special.

I myself have five classics that I go back to each December. You will never be able to convince me that there is anything wrong with any of these choices. I try to be a fair critic as to most of the material I choose to write about, but there are times when tradition and childhood memories outweigh any sort of critical judgment. That's not to say that any of these works are bad, but just to serve a caveat that my holiday blinders are on as I discuss these favorites.

1. A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS

The amazing thing about A Charlie Brown Christmas is that it should have been a disaster. Cartoon characters quoting lengthy passages from the Bible? Real children doing the voices? But this short TV special straddles the line perfectly between naive charm and wry humor. The youth voice acting (many children did not understand the very lines they were reciting) helps to ground the show in a childlike sense of wonder. The thin plot, in which Charlie Brown frets over the true meaning of Christmas, is just corny enough to suit the needs of the holiday season. (Spoiler alert: It's about Jesus.) The message could come across as tedious or preachy, but instead when Linus' timid voice quotes the Gospel of Luke in the climactic scene (with the definitive "that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown), I get goosebumps.

The humor is never laugh-out-loud funny, but so cute that you can't help but smile at Charlie Brown's pitiful Christmas tree, at Schroder's numerous attempts to play "Jingle Bells", at Snoopy's garish holiday decorations. As an added bonus, the soundtrack is some of the best Christmas music you'll ever hear, from Vince Guaraldi's jazzy version of the classics to the children singing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" at the very end.

2. HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS

No, not the horrendous Jim Carrey flick. Let us never speak of that again. I'm talking about the old animated TV special that you can still find somewhere on television on any given Friday night in December. My family had a recorded copy of this on VHS, and I try to find time to watch it every year. As a kid, I tuned in for the slapstick humor, but as I grow older, I find myself more and more impressed with Doctor Seuss' clever rhymes. The highlight is when the Grinch discovers the true meaning of Christmas ("It came without ribbons! It came without tags! / It came without packages, boxes or bags!"), a meaning that is remarkably similar to Linus' lecture to Charlie Brown. Like A Charlie Brown Christmas, the Grinch's anti-materialist holiday message is corny and old-fashioned, but that doesn't make it any less effective. I'll take a room full of friends and a slice of Roast Beast over packages, boxes or bags any day.

3. IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE

This one is a little divisive. If you're like me (that is, you have good taste), you consider this movie an undeniable holiday classic, a masterpiece from both Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart that impeccably paints a man's life through thick and thin, and portrays the true power of family and friends. But I also know a fair number of people who despise this movie. They know who they are.

I've heard the complaints. The movie is corny and old-fashioned. Bedford Falls is so Edenic as to be boring. George Bailey is self-pitying. The ending, while uplifting, is unrealistic. But how can you not like George Bailey? How can you not find yourself rooting against the original Evil Banker, Old Man Potter? (Especially after this recent recession, bankers are great go-to bad guys).

In addition to being eminently quotable, It's A Wonderful Life still manages to make itself emotionally affecting over sixty years later, if you let it. I have great memories of forcing my friends to watch this in college, watching George Bailey's life unfold over a bottle of Christmas champagne, and trying to hide the fact that I was in tears by the time he discovers that "no man is a failure who has friends". In fact, It's A Wonderful Life perhaps sums up the Christmas Experience in America better than any other work - we all hope our friends and family will be there to support us in times of need, but we also hope that they'll be there with a big basket of money.

4. A CHRISTMAS STORY

This one is also divisive, and TBS's recent decision to air this for days at a time has caused some (not unfairly) to issue cries of "overrated". I have one friend who refuses to watch the movie at all. But I've been a fan of Ralphie and his Red Ryder BB Gun (with a compass in the stock) before it became a phenomenon of basic cable. A Christmas Story carries a slightly different, more irreverent holiday message - your family may be crazy, but you have to love them anyway.

This movie also has the distinction of scaring the shit out of me when I was a child. The scene were Santa Claus laughs at Ralphie's Christmas request and kicks him in the face is enough to make any child terrified of That Jolly Old Elf. But any fears and worries are quickly placated in the amazing scene where Ralphie beats the crap out of the despicable bully Scutt Farcus.

5. A CHRISTMAS CAROL

The literary holiday classic. Whether reading the Dickens novel or appreciating any one of the numerous stage, television, and film adaptations, this tale of holiday redemption is undeniably powerful. Like other choices on this list, it has become so ingrained in our cultural conscience as to become a cliche, but if you overlook the slight fact that it has been done and redone to death, the narrative still carries a lot of weight. Again, we have that good old-fashioned anti-materialist message, as we learn from Scrooge that Christmas is only a fun holiday if you let it be fun, and no one is too old or grouchy to have a good time. Poor Tiny Tim's disease in the vision of the future treads perilously close to kitsch, but the story is back on track by the time Scrooge runs to the window and discovers that the spirits "did it all in one night!". Whether on page, with muppets, or in song, this is the original Christmas classic.

RUNNERS UP:

Some of my friends are big fans of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. This is a deserved modern classic, but the Holden family's National Lampoon movie of choice is and always will be the original Family Vacation to Wally World. I'm just not sure I have room in my heart for two Chevy Chase vacation flicks.

Finally, I also realize that Rankin-Bass claymation holiday specials are quite popular in some households. Somehow, I never grew up watching these, and now as an adult I can't quite understand the appeal.

Perhaps that's how holiday traditions work - we like these works more out of seasonal childhood nostalgia than because of their actual merits. But maybe, like Scrooge, there's still a chance for us to break out of our shackles and find something new to appreciate in the holiday season. This Christmas (or Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, et cetera), take a look at one of your old childhood holiday favorites. But try to ignore the cliches and watch it as if you're watching it for the first time. I guarantee you won't be disappointed, and if you're lucky, you might even discover the true meaning of the holiday season.