Tuesday, December 09, 2008
The Best Christmas Song Which Is From A Movie And Which Demonstrates That Modern Christmases Require Something Bad To Happen, and Which Is Not, etc.
At Christmas, it's easy to get caught up in the merriment of the season and the friends and office parties and Secret Santas and decorating and egg nog...
... it's especially easy to get caught up in egg nog...
But there's that side of Christmas that only gets mentioned, if at all, in the beginning of Christmas movies -- the side of Christmas that says if you have something sad going on, it's sadder, exponentially sadder, at Christmastime.
Most sadness in Christmas pop culture exists for the sole purpose of being alleviated. If a sad thing happens in a Christmas movie or TV show, if a person's life isn't going quite right, if someone embezzles the bank money, if Santa decides that people don't believe in him anymore so he might not deliver presents, if a person raised as an elf gets told he's adopted and goes to find his real dad, if any of those or a thousand other things happen in a Christmas movie or TV show, they are happening, generally, so that they can unhappen and everything can be cool this Christmas.
It's not clear to me why that is, other than to create dramatic tension. Isn't Christmas happy enough without things having to be bad before hand? And yet, over and over, Christmas becomes not just a time to say "I love you," but first to say I don't love you and never did and then to realize, when living alone, that you did love the person, and then to track the person down at the office Christmas party or the disco and tell the person I really did love you all the time. And that person always loved you, too, so you're all happy.
This is a relatively modern invention. Older Christmas stories -- the traditional ones on which most of our Christmas is based -- don't have that problem. Scrooge didn't have to get new problems to learn the value of Christmas. I suppose that you could argue that Scrooge's whole life was the problem, that he was forging those chains in life that Marley wore in death, but it wasn't set up that way. Scrooge, miserly and mean as he was, appeared pretty satisfied with his life and didn't realize that there was a problem until Marley came to warn him about it.
Or take "'Twas The Night Before Christmas." There's no problems there. That poem is the genesis of pretty much every Christmas image we have, and it posits, simply, a wonderful Christmas. It sets up an idyllic image: everyone's sleeping soundly, everyone's got visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads. The drama in that poem, such as it is, occurs from this: things go from pretty good to even better.
Those two paradigms, Dickens and Moore, set up what used to be the model for Christmas: Either everything was fine, and got better; or, we thought everything was fine, learned that it wasn't, and it got better. In no case did anything get worse and then get better.
That form was followed by more modern Christmas specials. In How The Grinch Stole Christmas, the Grinch is essentially Scrooge: He hates modern society, hates Christmas, and fights against it, only to learn in the end that Christmas, and people, and society, are in fact okay. The Grinch's life didn't get worse before it got better. His life was the same as always -- and then it got better.
Or take Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer, the claymation special. Rudolph was a sort of reindeer-Scrooge. From early on, his life was set as something that he accepted and was resigned to -- until it then improved, through the miracle of Christmas. Rudolph didn't have things turn bad one year and then get better at Christmas. Neither did Frosty, for that matter -- Frosty The Vaguely-Christmas-y-Snowman's life was static (chased by magician, holding mock parades) until it got better with Santa's intervention.
Now take modern Christmas movies, where things have to get worse before Christmas can fix them. In National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, Clark's dream Christmas cannot be a dream Christmas until he [SPOILER ALERT INVOLVING THE SECOND BEST CHRISTMAS MOVIE EVER] unwisely blows a lot of money on a pool, has his Christmas tree burn, and his boss is kidnapped by his brother-in-law, resulting in a SWAT team bursting through the doors -- at which point the spirit of Christmas intervenes to make everything all right again -- but all right with a twist, because "all right" in modern Christmas movies is not an improvement in our situation; it's a return to the status quo. Clark Griswold isn't better off at the end of the Christmas movie -- he's where he expected to be, with a houseful of guests and a Christmas bonus that is slightly larger than the year before.
Or take the Best Christmas Movie ever, "Bad Santa." [SPOILER ALERT FOR A MOVIE THAT YOU WILL FIND EITHER HILARIOUS AND CHARMING, OR OFFENSIVE TO YOUR VERY CORE.] In Bad Santa, Billy Bob Thornton's character -- already pretty low in life -- has to sink to the depths of alcoholism and despair, getting double-crossed and then nearly killed and in a car chase, all to get the spirit of Christmas to improve his life. And when it does improve his life, where does he end up? Full of bullets and going to jail-- but he'll get out soon, he tells young Thurman Merman. He is more or less in the exact same position in life at the end of the movie as he was in the beginning.
So what is it about modern society that not only requires that we get worse before we get better, and that "better" be defined as "getting back to what we had in the first place before we nearly lost it?" Is that what Christmas means, now? Is the idea of Christmas that we'll sink low and then be "rescued" and restored to our place on the ladder? Is that some sort of offshoot of the not-so-much-joking reference to overspending on credit cards that won't be due until February, an inside reference to sinking ourselves in credit debt and then bailing ourselves out over the course of a year, to do it again the next year?
Or is it a commentary that in the way olden days (before 2002), life only seemed okay and had to magically get better to be really okay, while life today is perfect and the only way we can get that magic of Christmas to affect us is to first wreck our lives a little, so that Christmas has something to fix?
I don't know. I don't have an answer for that. I just have the questions, today. I don't know why we have to have people die at Christmas, and people break up at Christmas, and have people learn to play the drums only to learn that the girl they love is going away, and have people leave their country just to meet some hot chicks, why people have to get worse before Christmas can make them better.
I got to thinking about this because I got to listening to "Christmas Is All Around Us," a song from "Love, Actually," which is supposed to be a parody of other pop songs and Christmas songs, but which actually ends up being not only a good Christmas song in and of itself, but also being The Best Christmas Song Which Is From A Movie And Which Demonstrates That Modern Christmases Require Something Bad To Happen, and Which Is Not an old standard, "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree,", "Jingle Bell Rock," or "Run Run Rudolph."
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