Okay, so the holidays are upon us. It’s impossible to escape. It’s everywhere you go. Some years, it feels like a relentless push, a hammer beating on your skull insisting that you BUY, BUY, BUY.
This year…? Well, it’s almost like that. But I’m still jazzed for it. Part of it, I’m sure, is the potential to find new readers who receive Kindles for gifts, etc. But part of it is unrelated, and is about having a good, solid family at home at last. About being a little more settled at the holiday season after year upon year of bad news arriving just weeks before Christmas.
I’ve always wanted to write a Christmas story. I don’t mean something that teaches the morals of the season or stands in as a thinly-veiled play on existing Christmas tropes or lore. In other words, something about Santa Claus, or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. That’s not what I mean. I’m talking more about a story that uses the season as a backdrop and, at times, an extra character.
Some might say that incorporating the year-end holidays (all the usual suspects) would force some sort of commentary on the story, either by comparing or contrasting the story’s theme with the accepted themes of the given holiday. I suppose that’s true, in a way, and maybe that’s what you want. Maybe it’s easier to make a statement by, say, setting a story about a building occupied by terrorists in which one rogue cop must save the hostages against a backdrop of the Christmas season. But I mean, who would do that??
There are plenty of examples of this kind of thing, and I wanted to look at them today. One that stands out to me (aside from the ridiculously implausible setting up above) is Love Actually. While the movie is far from my cup of tea – in fact, I’ve failed to get through more than half an hour with two women now – I’ve been told that it’s a Christmas movie, and the little bit that I’ve seen (shudder) backs that up.
So let’s look at some examples of stories, whether they’re in TV, film, or books, that use the holidays as a backdrop, and talk a little bit about how that was achieved.
- Die Hard. Some men argue this to be the ultimate Christmas film. Wellllll…while I enjoy the movie immensely, and think it wouldn’t be the same without the Christmas trappings (just look at 3 and 4), I hesitate to call it the ultimate Christmas film. The backdrop of Christmas, especially in the first movie, is important as it brings to mind the issues of being together with family. Lest we forget, John McClane was originally trying to reconcile with his estranged wife on Christmas, and the plot soon revolves around him trying to get back to her, much as people try to get back to their family on Christmas. There’s something of a subconscious hook here, I think, and gave the writers/directors/producers a means to tap into a more universal theme. I think it has a lot to do with why Die Hard was, and remains, so popular. It’s a reminder that we don’t have to come up with everything from scratch; there are powerful themes inherent in traditional mythology that can lend more weight to our stories.
- A Christmas Story. This one was on the borderline, but I decided to put it on. This is my ultimate Christmas film, but it’s obviously way more overt about it than Die Hard. The thing is, the story itself could stand without the Christmas trappings. Sure, you’d have to alter a few things, but it’s more of a memoir than a treatise on Christmas itself. By solidly avoiding many of the traditional Christmas movie tropes, it established its own tropes that may now be overplayed but originated with this story. This one shows that you can subvert traditional tropes while also playing homage to them and create something unique.
- A Dog Named Christmas. This one’s a bit of a…well. I included it because sometimes it’s good, as one reviewer pointed out, to just enjoy a light, uncomplicated, feel-good book. It’s about a developmentally-challenged young man who adopts a dog right before Christmas, but feels bad about the other dogs in the shelter. The rest of the story is about his efforts to get a town-wide Adopt-a-Dog-for-Christmas event going. It edges a little more into the “values” of Christmas, but the holiday serves as a backdrop, as the protagonist would have done what he did anyway; he’s just a good guy.
- Children of the Night. Mercedes Lackey’s Diana Tregarde series stars a young Wiccan, and in Children of the Night (the plot of which has nothing to do with Christmas), she has to protect a young rock star from the spirits of evil during the holiday season. Her issues with Christmas are touched upon, and informs her characterization during the novel – this is another way that the holidays can be used, as a counterpoint to a character’s existing issues and beliefs.
- The Hebrew Hammer. Come on, this had to make the list, and not just because it’s difficult to find suitable Hanukkah films. It’s funny, and it’s about a “war” between Hanukkah and Christmas. Yes, it’s ridiculous, yes, it’s over the top, but it’s a good example of utilizing the holidays to make a statement.
- Bridget Jones’s Diary. Both the book and the film. Bridget meets her primary love interest at a Christmas party, and the season is woven throughout the story. Christmas is not so much a theme or character as a backdrop, but it’s used effectively.
- The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Another dual book/film. The children discover the way to Narnia during the holiday season, and I think it’s no coincidence given both C.S. Lewis’s mission with the series and the comparisons between Aslan and Christ, with the story being somewhat about the birth of “Christ” within the characters’ hearts.
- Edward Scissorhands. The Christmas scene near the end of the film provides a perfect view into why Edward will never entirely be a part of the mainstream world. In the middle of hope and his own attempts to find a place within that world, everything falls apart. Another scenario something like the one in Children of the Night, but taken to a more logical conclusion.
- Gremlins. It’s a somewhat macabre (and funny) take on the holiday, with death and destruction all around, including Phoebe Cates revealing that her father died in a chimney, dressed as Santas Claus, on Christmas Eve. Sometimes it’s hard to remember just how important Christmas is to this film, but it’s woven throughout.
- L.A. Confidential. Both the book and the film. One of the key scenes in the film is centered around the holiday, and we see several other scenes that involve Christmas, such as the man and woman arrested for smoking a joint in front of the Christmas tree. I love this story in both incarnations, and the Christmas element, especially in the heat of L.A., makes for an interesting contrast with so many of the self-centered actions that we see in the book and film.