Holiday movies add magic to winter season

By Matt Martin
In American history the winter holidays contain a vast and ever-shifting series of traditions. Like all cultural traditions over time, some continue stronger than ever (Christmas trees, Hanukah menorahs, intense gift-giving, gorging on family feasts) and some ebb and virtually disappear (When was the last time you went caroling? I thought not.) And for many people, the religious significance of this season is all but forgotten or was always irrelevant. But beginning at almost the birth of cinema in the early 1900’s, holiday films have become an integral part of the season for young and old, religious or not.

With this in mind it is not surprising to find that virtually all holiday movies have very little to do with one religion or belief structure. Commonly, there is no connection to religious history, and instead, the films generally celebrate the overall feel of winter holidays: the closeness of family, the desire to believe in human good, the innocent faith of children in holiday magic, and the sense of renewal brought on by the beginning of a new year. Among the almost 500 holiday films in American cinema alone, fewer than 5% have any specific religious connections.

Not surprisingly, the earliest known holiday film was a British short film adaptation of A Christmas Carol in 1901. It was later expanded into a more complete version of the story in a full length film of the same name in 1908. Since then it has become the most filmed story in history, with over 35 versions to date. Roundly considered the finest adaptation was the 1951 version with Alastair Sim as Scrooge, which in continually aired on cable stations every year during wintertime. Equally fun versions include the 1970 version with Albert Finney (which added a musical element!), the 1988 Christmas Carol parody, Scrooged, with Bill Murray, and the eternally pleasing 1992 Muppet Christmas Carol with Michael Caine as Scrooge.
The poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, also known as “The Night Before Christmas” was first published anonymously in 1823 (generally attributed to author Clement Clarke Moore) and is largely responsible for the modern conception of Santa Claus and the mythical details of his life and actions. Like A Christmas Carol, it has had dozens of film versions, with the first version showing up in a 1905. These two stories and their various film adaptations encompassed most of the holiday movie cannon until the 1940’s.

During World War 2 a single movie set a new standard that would immediately create a new genre: the holiday film. Following the exploits of two struggling entertainers (singer Bing Crosby and dancer Fred Astaire) as they try to open a seasonal getaway in the middle of nowhere, Holiday Inn released in 1942 instantly became one of the most beloved films of all time and a massive financial blockbuster. Although the song and dance numbers are all equally impressive, its intense popularity seemed to stem from a single scene in the movie. Bing Crosby sits at a piano in a candlelit den, surrounded by a simple Christmas tree, a raging fire, and the love of his life. Quietly he sings her the legendary Irving Berlin song, “White Christmas”, and the definitive holiday moment was created. The film won multiple Oscars, and Bing Crosby’s version of the song would become the best selling song of all time, until 1997 when Elton John’s reworking of his song “Candle in the Wind” for Princess Diana’s funeral eclipsed it.

Immediately, rival studios green lit numerous holiday films, hoping to ride this new cultural obsession. Unlike many attempted Hollywood cash-ins, some of these films would even overshadow their inspiration. In 1944, two major releases took America by storm and further cemented the traditions of the American Christmas. Christmas in Connecticut was another instant success: a comedy about a famous writer who lies about her traditional family holiday, only to be forced to fake it when multiple celebrities ask to join her. Aside from being a funny, charming study in reality vs. fiction, it was the first to consider the pros and cons of the commercialization of Christmas. Soon after, the film Miracle on 34th Street, about a department store Santa who may or may not be the real thing, would be released to glowing reviews and adoration.

But the seminal holiday film would not be a sweet, innocent farce. It would be a heartbreaker. On Christmas Eve a kind but hopeless businessman on the verge of financial and familial collapse decides whether to kill himself. An angel appears to him and shows him what life would be like had he never been born. Through flashbacks, he realizes his importance to his family, his town, and ultimately, himself. Released in 1946, It’s a Wonderful Life became not only the definitive comment on what was best about the holidays but also on what America hoped was the best about itself. Jimmy Stewart’s performance would become his most legendary, and the film has played in constant rotation in theaters and on television for over sixty years.

The following decades would be filled with holiday films, with America averaging between six and twenty new ones a year. In recent years two films in particular have become modern classics and are virtually inseparable from the holiday. The 1983 film A Christmas Story, which chronicles one boy’s search for the ultimate gift (a Red Rider BB gun) in 1940’s Indiana, perfectly captures the seemingly lost innocence and inevitable chaos of the classic American Christmas. And the 1989 film Christmas Vacation with Chevy Chase shows just how bad a holiday can get. Not surprisingly, both films central comedic tone is on the growing chasm between America’s illusion of holiday perfection (which was created by films as much as by reality in the first place) and the sometimes harsher, less magical nature of the modern Christmas.

As time goes by, regardless of religion, politics, and ever-changing family dynamics, America will continue to look toward its arts to enjoy its holidays. In the end that’s what we do at holiday time: sit around with family, full from enormous meals, and watch movies and television that reflect on why we did this in the first place. If you are too full of either food or family interaction to decide, here’s a handy partial list to keep your cinematic stocking stuffed.

The Classics:
Holiday Inn ● Christmas in Connecticut ● Miracle on 34th Street ● It’s a Wonderful Life
The Bells of St. Mary’s ● The Bishop’s Wife ● 3 Godfathers ● Remember the Night
White Christmas ● Babes in Toyland ● The Nutcracker ● I’ll Be Seeing You
The Man who Came to Dinner ● Santa Clause conquers the Martians
Twilight Zone episode: “Night of the Meek”

The Moderns:
A Christmas Story ● Christmas Vacation ● The Nightmare before Christmas
Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas ● Muppet Christmas Carol ● Home Alone
Home for the Holidays ● Planes, Trains, & Automobiles ● Black Christmas
A Charlie Brown Christmas ● Die Hard (yep.) ● Ernest Saves Christmas ● Diner
Mixed Nuts ● The Polar Express ● Rudolph and Frosty (the claymation versions)
Santa Claus: the Movie ● Silent Night, Deadly Night ● The Ice Harvest ● The Ref
Edward Scissorhands ● Christmastime in South Park

Ho-ho-ho…now get to watching.

Matt Martin has written movie reviews for the St. Louis Post Dispatch and is co-owner of Black Lodge Video, located on the corner of Cooper and Evelyn. Black Lodge is the largest video store in the eastern US and is a faithful CYCA membership sponsor.

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