This season I decided to re-watch Christmas films with a new eye. I wanted to ask myself while I was watching these films if anything about the story would be altered if suddenly we, as a Nation, decided to make Christmas a fully secular holiday.
In my last post, I looked at what I would call my personal favorite Christmas film "A Christmas Story" and tried to analyze it from this point of view. What I discovered was that, even though my own upbringing was religious, the fact that this film - which hardly mentions the holiday's life as a "holy day" - was central to my experience of Christmas proved in a small way that, at least from a practical point of view, Christmas is functionally a secular holiday in America. Not long after writing that post, I was forwarded another post by a friend that covered similar topics this time from an Atheist’s POV about her Jewish fathers love for a secular Christmas, as well as some supporting evidence about the history of the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Both confirmed my belief that what the majority of people in this country celebrate is not a Christian "holy day" but a secular holiday, one I've dubbed "Kristmas."
In this post, I'd like to take the build on that exploration a bit further by examining exactly what values we associate with Christmas in our movies about it (in America) and how those might differ from traditional Christian "holy day" highlights. I'll do that by looking at three more Christmas films: Elf, Bad Santa, and Nightmare Before Christmas. I chose these three to look at as I think each of them, in it's own way, does a good job of trying to define for the audience what Christmas is by showing us what Christmas isn't.
If Christmas isn't a Christian "holy day" then exactly what values do these films show to be part of it? What is the "moral" to most Christmas stories if not to celebrate the birth of Christ?
The Pumpkin King, Jack, from Nightmare Before Christmas ponders these same questions. What is Christmas all about? He's fascinated by the colors, the shapes, the decor - all the trappings of his own world seem to pale by comparison (Halloween Town.) But when he brings the elements of Christmas as he sees it back to his people, a chain of misinterpretations unfolds that leaves the end result so far from Christmas that the children of the world can barely recognize it.
As some have put it, Jack knows he doesn't understand what Christmas is really about, but that doesn't stop him from celebrating it in his own way anyway. Perhaps that’s where we are in the modern world. We see the trappings of Christmas and, like the game of telephone, we try and pass the heart of the season through from generation to generation through often strained strings of communication. What results sort of looks like the Christian “holy day” and sort of doesn’t.
For Jack and Halloween Town, things really only go awry because their vision to emulate Christmas goes too far and Jack becomes obsessed, self absorbed, and arrogant. By process of reversal, then, we might say that - as far as the Nightmare Before Christmas is concerned, the central themes of Christmas must revolve around the opposites of Jack's mistakes (lack of unhealthy obsession and relative selflessness.) Thankfully, Jack comes to his senses and the spirit of Christmas kindles another value common in most Christmas films - a heart open for love vs. closed to it.
Just as Jack feels out of place in Christmas Town, Buddy the Elf feels like an alien in his new experience in the human world after having been raised by Elves. For me, Elf is a bit more like Tarzan than it is like your standard Christmas film, but the secular values that have become synonymous with American Christmas movies is present here as well - with a strong dose of the traditional "warming of the cold heart" motif as well. Elf illustrates yet another secular Christmas value, however, the ability to be child-like. It is Buddy's child-like nature that opens up his father's heart and helps him find his true love as well.
Children always play a central role in Christmas films. It would seem that is yet another common value of Christmas. Christmas has become emblematic in recent years of the harsh realities we must face as becoming adults - realities that often embitter us and dampen our sense of wonderment, which leads to hardened hearts and unhappy lives. That is certainly a theme in Dickens' classic Christmas Carol, but we'll cover that in a later post.
Buddy's child-like nature helps his father re-connect to his younger son as well, repairing some of the damage that a fast-paced lifestyle with adult responsibilities has forced on him. In the end, Santa needs Buddy's child-like optimism to help save Christmas by spreading "Christmas Cheer." Cheer, then, seems to be yet another central value to the secular American Christmas film.
Cheer, however, is not a quality that one would associate with the third in our series of examinations that seek to explore what Christmas is by looking at the films that show what Christmas is not: Bad Santa. You can't get much more explicitly (explicit being the operative word in this f-bomb laden film) anti-Christmas than alcoholic who dresses up as Santa and teams up with a larcenous midget to plot long-con safe grabs at shopping malls after Christmas shopping rushes.
Everything about Willie Stokes is the opposite of what we've noted as secular Christmas values:
He’s selfish to the point of being a sociopath, literally taking from others instead of giving, and as hard hearted as he possibly could be. But in keeping with the trends, it is a child who helps Stokes open his heart, become less selfish, and ultimately find true love and the value of family.
Family - in the modern sense as eclectic and diverse - is at the heart of these films that typify the secular values of Christmas; family attained through a spirit of giving by way of selflessness (not always attached to material goods, but often), and an openness to love by way of the re-kindling of a child-like softened heart and imaginative wonderment.
Whether it is Jack, Zero and Sally, Buddy the Elf and his New York Dad, or Stokes and the Santa Fetish Waitress, the values of the secular Christmas are clear. They may not exactly be the same as the purpose of the Christian “holy day”, but these are good values, yes? It is for this reason I say that it is worth it for Christians to give up trying to “keep Christ in Christmas” and simply enjoy the fact that non-believers are inclined to value selfless love over anything else, if only in the movies and only once a year.