Why the Late, Great John Hughes is Likely the Author of the Tenets of a Secular Christmas

not pillowsPlanes, Trains, and Automobiles - hands down best Thanksgiving film ever.

In my last few posts I've focused in the ways in which it could be argued that Christians ought to let Christmas go and be a fully secular holiday, picking a new day to celebrate the "Holy Day" of Christ's birth. After all the process of picking December 25th was long after the Nativity and somewhat arbitrary.

I also examined the secular nature of the holiday by examining some of the artistic cultural artifacts that have emerged from America, specifically the Christmas movie. I wanted to know - if Christmas is indeed de-coupled from its Christian origins, what then are the common values we might prescribe to the observance of his secular holiday I have dubbed "Kristmas?"

Through examining some classic and typical Christmas films I determined that some of the common values associated with the secular Christmas might be seen to be that 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.

In this post I'd like to explore the notion that - though we in American tend to give the seat of top importance in terms of our media to the secular ovservance of Christmas, it does not stand alone. Christmas is but one of three stages to a triumvirate of secular holidays, bookended on either side by Thanksgiving and New Years, but with similar values being associated to all three. To continue the theme of examining these values as expressed in cinema, I'm going to take a look at what I believe to be the best Thanksgiving film around - John Hughes' "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles."

Based on when and where I grew up I was destined to love John Hughes' films. There was just no avoiding it. What works best in this one (as with most others) is the way his characters describe for us what it means to be human by exposing for the audience some of their most telling and all too common foibles, yet dealing with them in a very human way - with the help and acceptance of others. Those others become the ad-hoc “eclectic family” I illustrated earlier is so key to the values perpetuated by this trilogy of secular holidays that starts with Thanksgiving and runs through Christmas and New Years.

For many of John Hughes’ characters, family is not limited to the “normal” nuclear configurations and it is the absence of family that often serves to provide the most telling moments of need for familial ties - be they blood or otherwise. Hughes must have LOVED Christmas; if not the holiday itself the vibrant emotional cocktail of a petri dish that it provides. Even in one of Hughes’ most famous (though not best) holiday films “Home Alone” it is the absence of family that is the device to lead us into the story about the importance of family during the holidays.

Hughes made many Holiday films including “Christmas Vacation,” the “Home Alone” sequels, even going so far as doing a remake of the 3rd best Christmas film of all time, “Miracle on 34th Street.” In that respect, it could be argued that if there is any such thing as a common series of values propagated by secular Christmas films from Hollywood, Hughes is one of the first framers.

Just as Paul, Matthew, Luke, and Mark (and to some extent John) went about the process of codifying and franchising the standardized lines on the mythological development of the birth of Christ for all of Christendom, John Hughes has been instrumental as a chief architect in the building of the common tenets of the secular “Kristmas.”

Had John Hughes lived long enough or been in Hollywood’s good graces long enough, he might have continued his efforts into the third in the series of Holidays that make up the secular trilogy, New Years Eve. As it is, there is a new film coming out this year called New Years Eve.

I have not seen the film, only the trailer, and for me what sums it up best is the quote at the end that the film has more celebrities than rehab. Rather than being a well organized ensemble, I’m afraid it is going to be this season’s “phoning it in while cashing in on the holidays in a ‘Jingle all the Way’ sort of way film.

I’m not sure that John would have taken that EXACT approach, but what is clear is that this New Year’s Eve film is attempting to codify and extend the secular values of that holiday by adding yet another key element: Serendipity.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about serendipity:

Serendipity means a "happy accident" or "pleasant surprise"; specifically, the accident of finding something good or useful without looking for it. The word has been voted one of the ten English words hardest to translate in June 2004 by a British translation company.[1] However, due to its sociological use, the word has been exported into many other languages.[2]

If there is one element that a secular holiday can’t really include, it would have to be the role of God in bringing all things together.

How does one explain all the miracles and good tidings that emerge from observing the other tenets of the secular holidays? By pointing to the value of happy accidents. Not planned good things, not benevolent magical forces (unless you count Santa himself); 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 come not via God but via the power of Serendipity. With a capital S.

It’s a safe way of getting around having to get folks to suspend their disbelief during a film and justify that what they are watching unfold on screen is believable enough to warrant at least two hours of emotional investment, without holding a lifetime of guilt over their heads.

I’m not so sure Hughes would have gone the route of Serendipity. There certainly was a strong sense of an unusual force guiding Neal’s journey in “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” as though it was a lesson he really needed to learn in a Dickensian sense (now I can die, I’ve used the word “Dickensian” in a piece. I’ve been waiting to do that since that episode of The Wire.) But there was almost a hint at Theism in Hughes sensibilities and in the events that unfolded for his protagonists.

What do you think a John Hughes New Years Eve film would have looked like?

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