Forgive me, I’m about to go all Scrooge. Christmas, you see, is a particularly grim time of year. Rolling around with grinding, Groundhog Day relentlessness, it is an interval of dark days and long nights, bad music, kitsch clothing and decor, enforced jollity, stilted family gatherings, hyper-commercialism, over-consumption and tiresome end-of-year round-up articles.
But there’s no escape. As is demonstrated by Christmas with the Kranks (2004), in which a couple decide to avoid Christmas by going on a Caribbean holiday only to find themselves shunned by their appalled neighbours and children, participation in this ritual is mandatory.
And it drags on, too. As folk-singer, Loudon Wainwright III observes in Suddenly It’s Christmas, the joy lasts for weeks:
When they say “Season’s greetings”
They mean just what they say:
It’s a season, it’s a marathon,
The Christmas film is almost as old as the medium of cinema itself – there are hundreds of them. Perhaps the first, by Brighton film-maker George Smith, dates from 1898. Few truly capture the real spirit of Christmas, but here are four that do.
Big Business (1929)
Laurel and Hardy are closely associated with Christmas in the US due to the annual broadcast of their fantasy musical film, March of the Wooden Soldiers. But Big Business offers a more critical take on the period. Selling Christmas trees door to door, Laurel and Hardy quickly become embroiled in a battle with one reluctant customer that culminates in the enraged man smashing their car to pieces while the pair destroy his house and garden.
A brilliantly economical example of slapstick comedy, and a parable for the self-destructive escalation of armed conflict, the film is also a metaphor for the ritual of exchanging presents at Christmas. Following the study of potlatch gift-giving rituals by anthropologist Marcel Mauss and philosopher Georges Bataille, we might understand the gift, not as an altruistic offering, but as the self-aggrandising demonstration of superior wealth and power. The gift is an aggressive challenge to the recipient to respond with a more extravagant gift, to waste more. To give is, in effect, to demand, and this film captures the accelerating violence of gift-giving beautifully.
Jingle all the Way (1996)
The savagery of present-giving is also the theme of this satirical comedy, which film critic Roger Ebert found depressing for “its relentlessly materialistic view of Christmas”. The film tells the story of a workaholic businessman, Howard Langston, who has neglected to buy his son a present and sets out at the last minute to buy him a “Turbo Man” doll, only to find out that the sought-after toy has sold out everywhere.
In the course of the film, Langston – played perfectly by the improbably muscular Arnold Schwarzenegger as a character bubbling with barely contained rage and panic – encounters vicious shoppers, contemptuous store-workers, a criminal gang of counterfeit toy-makers disguised as Santas, aggressive cops, and an unstable postal worker. In the syrupy conventional ending, Langston’s son realises that his father is the real “Turbo Man”, but it is the abject, desperate desire to consume, rather than family values, that is the film’s principal theme.
Bad Santa (2003)
The abject quality of Christmas is even more central to the black comedy Bad Santa. The film’s protagonist Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) is a safe-cracker who masquerades as a department-store Santa so that he and his accomplice can rob the stores after closing time. He is a foul-mouthed, racist, lewd, chain-smoking, incontinent alcoholic who hates all children, but especially the sweetly ingenuous young boy, Thurman Merman, who is convinced, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, that Willie is Father Christmas.
A cynical retort to the classic Miracle on 34th Street (1947), in which a kindly department-store Santa is revealed to be the real Father Christmas, Bad Santa exposes the gap between the pious, traditional image of Christmas epitomised by Norman Rockwell magazine covers and soft drink adverts, and the ugly reality of contemporary commercial culture. In his laziness, his selfishness and vindictiveness, and in his unconstrained appetites, Willie is the monstrous embodiment of the spirit of Christmas as a nauseating interlude of excessive consumption.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Typically remembered warmly as a feelgood film, this is actually one of the bleakest Christmas films of all. It tells the story of George Bailey, who is driven to consider suicide on Christmas Eve, wishing he’d never been born. He is persuaded against it by his guardian angel, Clarence, who demonstrates Bailey’s importance to other people in the town by showing him a grimmer parallel reality from which Bailey was absent. As Jeffrey Richards observes, the film is “an allegory of post-war America” in which the picket-fenced town, Bedford Falls, “represents the nation”, and everyman “George Bailey the spirit of individualism”.
Having failed to realise his youthful ambitions to travel, go to college and become an architect, Bailey has found himself trapped in a boring job and a small town, marking time. He decides to live after being persuaded by Clarence that he nevertheless played an important role in stopping predatory financier, Henry Potter, from taking over the town.
The film’s popularity can be attributed partly to its reassuring message: an injunction to be happy with your lot, no matter how meagre it may appear, to “put up and shut up”. But, as a celebration of compromise, It’s a Wonderful Life is ultimately a defence of the status quo of American finance capitalism.
Or, more bluntly, as critic Ronald Bergan observes of this “greatest Christmas film”: “It’s a wonderful lie”.