From Dickens to Disney, The Guardian, December 20, 2003
film, literature and in music, Christmas has come to signal a feast of
sentimentality. But, in the best, there's a darkness under the blanket of snow,
says Blake Morrison, and a hint of the alien beyond the glow of the hearth...
A man called George comes home on Christmas Eve after a crap day, the worst ever, at the office. He's stressed out, with a stinking cold, and in the middle of a financial crisis. "Hello darling, hello daddy," his wife and children call as they go about their festive pursuits, merrily ignorant of the storm to come. One child is practising Hark! The Herald Angels Sing on the piano: "Must she keep playing that?" he snarls. Another child wants to know how to spell frankincense: "How would I know? Ask your mother." A third is lying upstairs with a temperature: "It's a wonder we don't all have pneumonia," he moans.
old barn of a place, it's like living in a refrigerator. Why do we have to live
here in the first place, and stay around this measly, crummy old town?"
the matter?" his wife asks.
the matter," he says, but then bawls her out for inviting relations round -
"Family? I don't want the family over here" - and grumbles at the size
of his own family: "Why do we have to have all these kids?" The scene
culminates in him smashing up the living room. Later, after getting drunk, being
beaten up and crashing his car, he will stand on a bridge, staring down into a
black torrent, ready to jump to his death.
of us could fail to recognise the ingredients of a quintessential family
Christmas - rows, claustrophobia, alcoholic excess, worries about money and
suicidal despair. It's the kind of grimly contemporary, even postmodern, version
of yuletide that leads one of the characters in Martin Amis's novel The
Information to ask, "How are we going to get through Christmas?" But,
in fact, the scene comes from Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life, made in 1946
and one of the best-loved Christmas movies of all time.
is remembered as a feel-good movie and we'd feel miffed if it didn't appear in
the seasonal schedules. There's the schmaltzy intimacy of the small-town setting,
Bedford Falls (authenticating that required RKO to construct a 300 yard-long
street with 75 stores and 24 full-grown oaks). And there's a cheesy denouement,
too: saved from suicide by a guardian angel, George Bailey (played by James
Stewart) ends up singing a chorus of Auld Lang Syne. But before the Capra-corny
ending, we're asked to peer into some pretty dark waters - to see the worst of
Christmas as well as the best.
of us over the age of consent feel ambivalent about Christmas - resentful of its
demands on our time, credit cards and digestive system, but afraid to ignore its
chimes of hope and goodwill. There can be a comic, even tragicomic, side to this.
For my mother, Christmas tended to be a trial, not least because we spent it
with my father's relations and never hers. She'd happily have skipped the whole
business, I suspect. Yet, when my father was dying of cancer in December 1991,
she fretted that Christmas would be "spoiled" as a result - and in the
middle of her grief continued to worry about letting us all down. However hollow
the rituals (and to my mother they could never have seemed more hollow than that
year), they're also hallowed rituals. We feel a pressure to do right by them
and, for one day in the year at least, to believe in something, whether Santa
Claus, the infant Jesus or the possibility that one's least favourite uncle
will, this time, behave. That's the double bind explored in the classic
portrayals of Christmas, both on screen and on the page.
course, the accepted view is that any cultural artefact timed for release at, or
showing a preoccupation with, Christmas will be, by definition, sentimental tosh.
A mere list of Christmas movies - The Muppet Christmas Carol, Mickey's Once Upon
A Christmas, The Santa Clause, Jack Frost, Olive, The Other Reindeer, Jingle All
The Way - is enough to send any sane person screaming to the attic. A good rule
of thumb is to avoid anything with "Christmas" or "Santa" in
the title, though it's interesting to note how many not-bad American films in
the former category were made during or just after the second world war, when
Christmas had a special meaning for American servicemen abroad - Christmas In
Connecticut (1945), Christmas In July (1940), Christmas Eve (1947), Christmas
Holiday (1944), White Christmas (1954) - and, though it may be cheating to
include it in the latter category, I like the sound of Santa Sangre (1989), in
which, according to Halliwell's Film Guide, "an armless but far from
harmless mother forces her demented son to use his arms and hands as substitutes
for her own, severed by her jealous husband". Perhaps a full-on mutilation
movie isn't quite the thing for Christmas. There are knife fantasies enough over
the average turkey dinner without them being projected on screen. Still, my
point is that classic Christmas texts do acknowledge the horror and mayhem,
before bringing us to a happier resolution. In that way, we have our fruit cake
and eat it.
defining text here is A Christmas Carol, a book that made its author so
synonymous with Christmas that when he died (so the story goes) a London barrow
girl was heard to say: "Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die, too?"
What everyone remembers from it is the transformation of Scrooge from miser to
cheerful philanthropist. But it wouldn't have survived as long as it has but for
two other elements: the haunting of Scrooge by three ghosts, and the humour of
his misanthropy ("Bah, humbug") before he sees the light.
supernatural has always been part of Christmas. It's an acknowledgment of the
alien threat beyond the cosy hearth. But the haunting of Scrooge, as he is
forced to watch scary clips from Christmases past, present and future, speaks to
more familiar adult dreads. Past Christmases link us to our losses - to people
we loved who are no longer with us. Present Christmases, as enjoyed by others,
fill us with envy - how much nicer and happier they seem than us. Future
Christmases encompass the years when we'll be dead and forgotten - another bleak
thought. This is the triple horror visited on Scrooge. No wonder he agrees to
mend his ways.
he does mend them, Scrooge gets the best lines, like Milton's Satan. "Every
idiot who goes about with Merry Christmas on his lips should be boiled with his
own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart," he says,
and then fends off the man collecting for charity:
shall I put you down for?'
wish to be anonymous?'
wish to be left alone.'
ending of A Christmas Carol is a turkey, as Scrooge buys a giant bird for the
Cratchit family. But before letting us relax and tuck in ("God bless us,
every one!"), Dickens rolls us through a bed of holly.
Scrooge-like figure is essential to any Christmas classic. He's the Cromwellian
Puritan trying to abolish it. Or the Grinch, in the Dr Seuss book, trying to
steal it. Or the dangerous furry mogwais in Gremlins. Or the horrible tycoon
Potter in It's A Wonderful Life. Or Raymond Briggs's Father Christmas, grumbling
at all the blooming work. But really he's just us - a voice for the uncharitable
sentiments provoked by shopping rage, charity tins, out-of-tune carol singers,
office party hangovers and seasonal burnout.
of the most interesting Scrooges of recent years is Nicolas Cage in The Family
Man (2000), single, career-driven and still at his desk at 8.35pm on Christmas
Eve. Then comes his redemption: just as George Bailey, in It's A Wonderful Life,
is shown what life would have been like if he'd never been born, so Cage is
shown what life would have been like if, 12 years earlier, he'd married his
fiancee. Plunged into the parallel universe of a family Christmas, he's appalled
by the shabbiness and suburbanism - but grows to love it and declines the chance
to return to his old life.
the years, many writers have enjoyed playing Scrooge, or even Herod. "A
slavering Niagara of nonsense," Larkin said of Christmas; an "atrocious
institution", said Shaw ("We must buy things that nobody wants, and
give them to people we don't like"); while Wendy Cope offers this: "At
Christmas, little children sing and merry bells jingle,/The cold winter air
makes our hands and faces tingle/And happy families go to church and cheerily
they mingle/And the whole business is unbelievably dreadful, if you're single."
can be a dreadful business for families, too, not least because of the pressure
to be familial. "Petty jealousies and discords are forgotten; social
feelings are awakened in bosoms to which they have long been strangers; father
and son, or brother and sister, who have met and passed with averted gaze, or a
look of cold recognition for months before, proffer and return the cordial
embrace, and bury their past animosities in their present happiness... and all
is kindness and benevolence": thus the radiant Dickens version. We know
family Christmases aren't like this, but hope wants to triumph over experience -
and when it doesn't, and the rows begin, there's a sense of failure and guilt.
James Joyce's A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, an argument over Parnell
breaks out during dinner, prompting Mrs Dedalus to put down her knife and fork:
"For pity sake and for pity sake let us have no political discussion on
this day of all days in the year." There's the dream: that for one short
day, when days are their shortest, we be nice to each other. But in modern
western societies, Christmas can stretch for 12 days. By the time schools go
back and offices reopen to the sound of voices murmuring, "Thank God that's
over", the murder rate has risen and therapists report a sharp upturn in
we expect in modern accounts of Christmas is an ironic acknowledgment of this -
but not too much. Christmas ain't like it used to be, and it never was, but, hey,
we can all use a little nostalgia. Bill Nighy as the ageing rock singer in
Richard Curtis's latest seasonal offering, Love Actually, is jokily upfront
about his attempt to cash in on Christmas with a remake of Love Is All Around:
the song is "shit", he says, solid gold shit. But the film affirms the
idea that love, post 9/11, is all around, and that getting together with friends
and families at Christmas is a jolly good thing.
the dross and cynicism, the search for the perfect Christmas continues. The plot
engine of Jonathan Franzen's much acclaimed novel The Corrections, about five
members of an American family, is the mother, Enid's, messianic determination to
have "one last Christmas" - "one last really nice family
Christmas" - before she sells up the large family house in midwest St Jude.
By March, she has already extracted a promise from the youngest of her three
grandsons, Jonah, to join her nine months hence. But corralling her grown-up
children proves more difficult. Her daughter, Denise, is a workaholic chef.
Chip, a failed screenwriter, has disappeared to Lithuania. And though Gary,
Enid's other son, is more promising material, with children of his own, he has a
wife, Caroline, who can remember how awful Christmas was the previous year (and
how awful Enid's present to her was, a pink polyester bathrobe which she
immediately deposited in the trashcan). "Gary, she is bonkers on the topic
of Christmas," Caroline complains, and not only refuses to travel to St
Jude but persuades her elder two sons not to go, either.
so much stacked against her, including the mental and physical decline of her
husband, Alfred, there seems no chance of Enid fulfilling her dream. And in the
end even little Jonah stays home in the east playing computer games rather than
join his grandma: "a parable of the crisis of moral duty in a culture of
consumer choice". But for a few hours, miraculously, the five Lamberts do
succeed in sitting at the same table together. The scene provides the novel with
its climax, the reintegration of an atomised family, and in an epilogue we see
how their lives are changed as a result. Franzen pulls off the classic trick - a
dystopian portrait that none the less acknowledges the potency of Christmas.
used to think the Americans had ruined Christmas by replacing Dickens with
Disney. No point fighting it, I decided, and took the family to Florida, where
we spent Christmas Day, in sunshine, at the Epcot Centre, and ate lunch in an
aquarium restaurant watching sharks. But even down in Key West the traditional
imagery of sleds and reindeer was pervasive. And the dominant face on the motel
TV screen wasn't Mickey or Pluto but Santa Claus - an American invention, it's
true, but one whose origins lie back in Europe, with St Nicholas.
fact, the Americans and British have been in cahoots over Christmas for more
than 200 years, swapping and refining each other's customs but studiously
avoiding major innovations. Things are done in a certain way because they've
always been done that way, and it's blasphemous to modernise the script. In a
job on a newspaper's literary pages once, I was keen to publish a nativity ode
by a highly respected contemporary poet. But, in its evocation of the holy birth,
the poem used the image of afterbirth in a bucket, and the editor wasn't having
it. It's no time of the year for iconoclasm.
Presley discovered this in 1957 when he recorded a rock version of Irving
Berlin's White Christmas. The words were the same - "I'm dreaming of a
white Christmas/Just like the ones I used to know" - but Elvis was the
voice of reckless youth and all true Americans (Berlin included) were outraged.
Blue Christmas, on the same album, was derided, too. Red, green and silver are
allowable Christmas colours - but not yellow, blue or black. White remains the
ideal: the white of snow; the white of fairy lights (coloured lights being naff);
the white of Father Christmas's beard, which makes him look like an archetypal
Dead White European Male, despite the fact that he's still living (and even
though it's Mother Christmas who does all the work).
are traditionally white in the Wasp sense, too. When radio stations across the
deep south refused to play the Elvis version of White Christmas, one of their
objections was that it sounded "too coloured". You do see the
occasional black person in Christmas movies, as housekeepers (It's A Wonderful
Life, Miracle On 34th Street), criminals (The Family Man) or in bit parts (Love
Actually). But Christmases as black people celebrate them have barely featured
since the 1870s, when there was a brief vogue for magazine illustrations of poor
black families in the deep south trapping possum for Christmas lunch or paying
homage to Sandy Claws.
snow is a compulsory motif at Christmas may be related to the fact that Dickens
(so his biographer Peter Ackroyd tells us) experienced a white Christmas for the
first eight years of his life. Most of us in the UK now have less chance of
seeing snow on December 25 than we have of seeing a yeti. But the greenhouse
effect has only increased the longing: la nostalgie de la neige. Macaulay Culkin
stares out at snow at the end of Home Alone, and no Richard Curtis film would be
complete without it. It's the comfort blanket covering all evils.
(spoken with a croaky ET tremor) is another key motif in Christmas texts. "Heaven's
fallen sister - Home," Dickens once wrote, and most children, being
xenophobes, agree it's the only place to be. But when there's an extended family
and two sets of grandparents, definitions of home become vexed. In Home Alone,
Culkin is left behind when his parents and siblings fly to Paris and fail to
notice his absence - it's their punishment for taking fancy foreign holidays and
his for saying "families suck". Left behind to defend the house, the
eight-year-old survives two burglars, a suspected serial killer and an escaped
tarantula. There's a similar act of child empowerment at the end of Love
Actually, when an 11-year-old boy outwits airport staff at Heathrow to carry the
message of love to his girlfriend.
is for kids, as people say. But there is always some horrible, killjoy child
denying the existence of Santa. I became that kind of child myself at a village
party 40-odd years ago when, after receiving my present from the great man, I
sneaked outside for a look at his sled and reindeer - and found only a Morris
Minor. In Miracle On 34th Street, a hard-bitten single mother brings her
daughter up to disbelieve in Santa. These two snooty sceptics must be taught a
lesson, and duly are. Their teacher and saviour is Kris Kringle, a department
store Santa who, for claiming to be the genuine article, stands accused of being
a liar and madman. He wins his case; the single mother gets a husband; and her
daughter gets the family home she wanted. Such are the rewards of faith.
comparison of the 1947 and 1994 versions of Miracle On 34th Street shows how
little has changed: Santas, Scrooges, tests of faith, jokes, dangers, miraculous
conversions - the basic Christmas ingredients stay the same. But there are
subtle differences. In the 1947 black-and-white version, Imagination triumphs
over Reason, and the dollar ethos is attacked ("There's a lot of bad isms
floating round - but the worst is commercialism"). In the later film,
consumerism is taken for granted, and the battle is between Faith and Atheism,
with those rallying round Kris Kringle singing gospel music and waving banners
that read "We Believe!" Dickens and Disney largely secularised
Christmas, through a pagan imagery of fir, mistletoe, plum puddings, roaring
fires and teddy bears. Christian fundamentalism seeks to restore the stable and
also noticeable about the 21st-century Christmas is its lack of civic-mindedness.
The Dickens version involves considering others less fortunate than oneself. And
the joy at the end of It's A Wonderful Life is that of a whole community.
There's no such wider vision in Home Alone, The Family Man, Love Actually or The
Corrections, which celebrate family and friends but see outsiders - other people
- as hell.
it doesn't do to complain at Christmas, or you end up accused of Scroogism. Much
easier to lie back and take in yet another romantic comedy. Hamlet or King Lear
might be more stimulating; more appropriate, too. But not every Christmas
offering is bland. Pay attention and you'll taste poison in the stuffing or hear
gunfire when the cracker explodes. Merry Christmas!
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