No matter where you live or how you spend the Holidays, the odds are that you‚Äôll probably wind up hearing a pantheon of Christmas-themed music and movies oriented around the said Holiday. I grew up celebrating both holidays, but considering how omnipresent Christmas is in our culture, and that Hanukkah isn‚Äôt the most vital of Jewish holidays, I gravitated towards the former. But considering how brutally hyper-commercialized Christmas has become since‚Ä¶well, Santa was created for such a purpose, are there any pieces of music or film that actually capture the essence of what the holiday‚Äôs about?
Short answer: Music- no, Movies- yes, though not too many. When filtering through the seemingly endless barrage of normally terrible Christmas-related films, two rise to the top instantly for diverse reasons.
A Christmas Story (1983)
The first, A Christmas Story, starring Peter Billingsley and Darren McGavin, is not only one of the greatest Christmas movies, but one of the greatest coming-of-age films, one of the greatest period pieces, and one of the greatest comedies ever produced. Novelist Jean Shepherd (who also wrote the screenplay) hits a bulls-eye with every character he creates and every scenario he draws from his romanticized 1940‚Äôs Indiana childhood. The protagonist, Ralphie, captures that precise moment from childhood that anyone can understand. We‚Äôre getting old enough to help change a flat tire, pick up dirty words, and fight back against meatheads like Scut Farkus and Grover Dill, but are still young enough to believe Santa or the Tooth Fairy, and for your whole kid-year to revolve around Christmas, as Shepherd put it in the introduction narration.
When all is said and done, A Christmas Story presents the ultimate wink-and-nod to the ideal of Christmas in America. The Parkers even wind up going out for Chinese in the end, which is an appropriate nod to Jewish customs, and the scene concludes an endlessly rewatchable and quotable cinematic gem. TNT has seen to create its own tradition around it; they show it every Christmas day 12 consecutive times.
As terrific as A Christmas Story is, it still can‚Äôt compare to 1951’s Scrooge, starring Alastair Sim. Charles Dickens‚Äô classic Victorian romantic novel ‘A Christmas Carol’ has become possibly the best-known of all the holiday stories not taken directly from the Bible, but until director Brian Desmond Hurst adapted it for the screen, nobody had nailed it.
Sim, the quintessential onscreen Ebenezer Scrooge, played the part with such reverence for Dickens‚Äô tragic character that we sympathize with him from almost the beginning. Never for a second is any character reduced to one dimension, especially since Hurst‚Äôs version beautifully spells out Scrooge‚Äôs life during his journey with the Ghost of Christmas past. We see every major change in his life, and in the world surrounding him, that leaves an emotional scar- the growth of industrial and commercial interests, his beloved sister‚Äôs death during childbirth, the loss of his true love Alice- all played with such perfect intropection and no pretentiousness whatsoever. Noel Langley‚Äôs script does not forget the vitally important sense of humor as well, injecting clever, perfectly paced dialogue throughout.
Hurst‚Äôs version also benefits greatly from the breathtaking cinematography, grandiosity, and excellent score. Victorian England lends itself to the ideal romantic fantasy story, and certain shots burn themselves into the back of your mind, never letting up, even as Scrooge‚Äôs transformation shakes the screen. Moments like when Scrooge greets Marley on his deathbed, as well as when, during his reformation on Christmas day, he appears at his nephew‚Äôs Christmas party to make amends, rank among my favorite movie scenes of all time. Both scenes, among many others from this film, are just as moving and entertaining at anytime of the year.
The reason that both of these movies are so great is because they see far beyond the holiday itself. They build off the widely interpretable Christmas, and create wonderfully didactic stories that stay in our minds and hearts, as the Spirit of Christmas Present says, ‚Äúnot only one day of the year, but all three-hundred sixty-five.‚Äù