Secular Cinematic Christmas

its-a-wonderful-lifeIt’s hard to imagine Christmas without movies. This could mean the packed movie theaters near the holiday shopping centers or the home classics you and your family or friends watch every year. There’s also specific films geared to a Christmas opening weekend, ones that, while maybe not inherently focused on the holidays, are so inoffensive that the whole family could see it. (It is no surprise that the qualities that make these films so inoffensive are the same ones that make them so easy to forget.) Film and television shape the way we, as Americans, perceive the holiday itself. Ideas of normalcy and tradition are informed by those that we see on TV.

As a Jew, I think probably the majority of our ideas about celebrating Christmas came from its cinematic manifestations. In my house, we always watched It’s a Wonderful Life and the Marx Brothers. The religious and political incongruities between the two were not lost on me and perfectly summed up the kind of household I came from: earnest, liberal, Jewish cine-buffs who can’t resist a little Capracorn. In my new house with my closest friends and partner, we’ve already watched Home Alone 2 twice. This is the kind of movie, Christmas or otherwise, that was never really woven into my childhood rhetoric, but is clearly such a staple of the kind of Christmas movie I’m talking about. One that inspires FOMO in me for lacking the Christmas tradition of watching Home Alone 2. The tradition therein, is the movie, and the film is based in tradition.

This cinematic idea of Christmas is the secular notion that most of us all feel comfortable with: the nostalgia of decorating a tree, the collective piling around a fire, the baking of cookies. It taps into something very vulnerable for us all, whether these are real things we’ve done or things we’ve felt the absence of due to the saturation of Christmas notions permeating our ~airwaves~. In a meta twist, the other day I watched a movie about Christmas songs (Jingle Bell Rocks, really good you should go check it out), about how this kind of music really functions as a nostalgic form. But I’ll go one step further. This is an often false nostalgia, a sentimental red-herring. A self-fulfilling prophecy: Christmas shapes film, film shapes Christmas, it all shapes us.

Author: Madeline Meyer

Madeline recently graduated from Oberlin College where she studied Cinema Studies. She writes screenplays and ill-received dad jokes. She likes board games and olives.

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