C.S. Lewis once wrote an essay describing a far-off land called “Niatirb” (“Britain” spelled backwards) where two feasts seemed to be held on the same day: “Christmas” and “Xmas”. The distinction between the two feasts seems to hold in the US too. This is reflected in our holiday entertainment fare, with some interesting results that lie in various places along a sort of spectrum from “Christmas” film at one end to “Holiday” film at the other.
Consider perhaps the greatest American Christmas film: It’s a Wonderful Life. It is chock full of Frank Capra’s Italian Catholic practical piety which was much more interested in “doing something for the little guy” than it was in theological accuracy (dead men like Clarence the “angel” do not become angels in the Catholic tradition, they remain men). Yet despite this sort of theological ignorance, here is a film that shares something with Dickens’ Christmas Carol in its amazing ability to deliver a “gospel scare” that has a decidedly un-holiday lack of warmth and fuzziness yet which reaches a conclusion as gloriously affirming of the dignity of the ordinary human person as an encyclical by John Paul II. It manages, by sort of weird alchemy, to be a deeply Catholic movie.
Even more explicitly aimed at the “Christmas” end of the spectrum than this (and designedly so, according to its creator) is Charles Schulz’ A Charlie Brown Christmas. I owe a personal debt to this production since, in my areligious childhood, Linus’ speech (wherein he quotes St. Luke’s Nativity story) was the only exposure to Scripture I had for almost the first thirteen years of my life. Here too, is a tale that clearly (and in this case, explicitly) draws on biblical roots to teach biblical truth and link Christmas with Christ (of all people!).
Another film that does something similar is the 1947 version of The Bishop’s Wife. Here, once again, is a film conscious of both the linkage of Christ with Christmas (“It’s his birthday, after all” says the minister in the climax of the film) and, once again, of the supernatural (in the person of the angel played by Cary Grant). Contrast with this is the more recent version of The Preacher’s Wife (with Whitney Houston) in which the focus is not so much on the linkage between Christ and Christmas as on “affirming cultural values” in ways that would meet with approval from a 90s Hollywood film producer. Angels, in such a world, no longer serve God or Christ. Rather, they are something more like Greek gods who take a shine to a mortal and come down to “help them out” without reference to any overarching supernatural purpose by the God of the Universe. They are more like magical beings than like miraculous ones.
This step back from a Christian worldview always tends to nudge works of art away from the “Christmas” end of the spectrum and toward the “Holiday” end of the spectrum. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is an example of this. It’s not that I dislike the show. In fact, I love it (as I love anything Chuck Jones ever did). But I’ve always been disappointed at the hedging conclusion (“Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more”). It’s allusive, if you happen to know what it alludes to. But, as a kid, it took Charlie Brown to tell me what the “more” was. Dr. Seuss gave me no clue.
At the far end of the “Holiday” spectrum are films like White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street, The Santa Clause and Home Alone. These are not “Christmas” films. They are “Holiday” films that celebrate a secular feast that happens to fall on Christmas and which is generally associated in a dim way, not with Christ, but with the fading American reverence for hearth and home. I say this, not to denigrate them, but to be clear about what they are. They have no particular connection to the Christian faith, nor even to any particular form of American civil religion. They breathe the general sentiment (not a bad thing in itself) that Christmas is a “magical” time (though it would be more accurate to call it a “miraculous” time). They encourage reverence for the family (a very good thing indeed) and they are harmless enough, but they are emphatically Holiday movies, not Christmas ones.
The trouble with Holiday shows is not really with the shows themselves. Part of a feast is frivol and fluff. One of Shakespeare’s sillier plays-–Twelfth Night–was written to celebrate the general goofiness that engulfed England during the Twelve Days of Christmas. Likewise, the Nutcracker is a beautifully lightweight piece of frippery that I enjoy every Christmas just as I enjoy whipped cream. Everything doesn’t have to be Hamlet all the time and everything does not have to filled with Weighty Theological Depths About the Incarnation either. Part of saying “God became man” is saying that God was once a kid who liked pretty lights, silly stories, and merry songs, like all little kids. So we should imitate him in this.
But at the same time, it is important to remember that a culture addicted to fun is a culture that is in danger of mistaking whipped cream for the main course and of making itself sick on the “magic” of Christmas while ignoring the nutritious and satisfying miracle of Christmas. As a parent, I have no objection to my kids enjoying the festal fluff of the Holiday season. But I also think we owe it to our kids to make sure they know who is the Founder of the Feast.