The other Christmas stories
Sitting down with the Christmas Radio Times and a highlighter
Well, it’s almost time for the annual folderol to begin once more: the time-honoured ritual of trying to find entertainment that is both appropriately Christmassy and actually enjoyable.
You might already have realised that a large proportion of the Metropolitan Editorial body are somewhat unhinged about Christmas. At midnight on December 1 the Christmas playlist gets turned on and we start getting properly demented, not least in our entertainment choices. But just as an awful lot of seasonal music is treacly, unlistenable mush, most Christmas films are unseasonably dreadful, and the ones that aren’t quickly become over-consumed. We’re word perfect on It’s A Wonderful Life and now use Die Hard (1988) as a kitchen timer (you have to put the Christmas Eve pasticcio into the pre-heated oven at ‘Hans Gruber bums a cigarette off John McClane’ if you want it to be ready for the end of the movie).
A few years ago I became so desperate for fresh input that I started writing my own Christmas stories every year, which I record with fellow Metropolitan contributor (and trained actor reduced to the status of a bum) Jon Millington, and release as daily podcast episodes over Advent. (The rest of this piece will feature links to previous stories of mine, as you’d expect from any self-respecting self-generating media node. If you want to get on board for this year’s, which kicked off yesterday, here’s the link: Apple podcasts / Spotify / YouTube)
I’ve always been interested in the mechanism of stories, and writing a new one for Advent each year means I’ve realised something important. Here it comes: there are only three Christmas stories. There’s ‘saving Christmas’; there’s ‘Christmas redemption’; and there’s ‘entirely unrelated thing, which happens at Christmas’. The basic mechanisms are solid, but they are also limited and familiar. Many films combine elements from more than one category, but it takes considerable creative imagination to add something new. This is perhaps why so few Christmas films are genuinely good - why so few of them surprise us, move us and interest us, while making us feel as though we’ve been rolled in glitter.
You know what would make great Christmas entertainment? The Metropolitan! And you can get it free to your inbox every Saturday morning, delivered by a jolly, white-bearded old man (that’s me). Just subscribe below.
Story 1: Saving Christmas
This is the basic Christmas story: the season is under threat, and must be reinstated. These are usually children’s stories, and so are often literalised as Father Christmas being thwarted in some way: kidnapped (as in the parody action film ‘The Night the Reindeer Died’ at the beginning of Scrooged); or the victim of circumstance (as in Arthur Christmas, Aardman’s plucky entry into the genre); or - horrors! - unbelieved (The Polar Express).
This sort of thing is fairly standard seasonal schedule filler, something to plonk the kids in front of to distract them from the wrapping going on in the front room, and largely responsible for the idea that seasonal stories are simplistic and childish.
However, you don’t have to be a kid to enjoy stories in this category. In White Christmas (1954), the happiness of a retired US Army general is threatened by a paucity of Christmas bookings at his Vermont hotel, and the forces of goodness and community (Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and the anatomically alarming Vera-Ellen) must overcome the jeopardy. White Christmas would be unremarkable were it not for the songs, especially that one. (Whatever you do, don't mix it up with its racist cousin Holiday Inn.)
Altogether better is Miracle on 34th Street, with its delicious sly nonsense about the New York postal service and a judge’s re-election prospects, and an unusually un-icky child performance from a tiny Natalie Wood. In the story of Maureen O’Hara’s harassed, sceptical businesswoman it also has some elements of Christmas redemption, which brings us on to…
Story 2: Christmas Redemption
This is the grown-up version of ‘saving Christmas’, but it’s different enough to merit its own category. An individual is lost in misanthropy or self-hatred or overwork, and has to be reconciled with their family, society and the generosity of good cheer that is the true spirit of Christmas. This the mechanism for both It’s A Wonderful Life and, most obviously, A Christmas Carol in all its endless iterations. Pleasingly it’s also the mechanism for The Man Who Invented Christmas, which tells the story of how Dickens had to write A Christmas Carol on a near-impossible deadline while coping with his deeply dysfunctional father. A film featuring Miles Jupp as William Thackeray and Justin Edwards as John Forster, Dickens’s agent and best friend, has got to be worth your time.
This can feel almost overwhelmingly cosy and sentimental with its emphasis on the nuclear family and social conformity but these souls must be redeemed, because Christmas is nothing without community and participation. Gift-giving is key: it’s a marker of social binding, and also requires us to carefully identify and consider the nature of those social bonds when we write them out as Christmas lists. To give a present is to think about the recipient as an individual; to receive one is to see oneself as part of a relationship. The exchange of gifts in that primal Christmas story Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is both a competitive display of generosity and a proof of Gawain’s knightly rectitude.
Jon Favreau’s Elf covers both adults and kids by embedding redemption in the world of Miracle on 34th Street. Buddy the Elf restores Christmas spirit to a world-weary New York and thereby saves the actual literal Santa and the entire holiday; but he also redeems Walter, his cynical, exploitative father, allowing him to reconnect with his family. This elegant combination of infant and adult preoccupations means it's one of the few modern Christmas movies to achieve classic status.
Story 3: A thing happens, and it is also Christmas
This is the most nakedly commercial form: Christmas is slapped on top of another genre, and festive symbolism adds a level of emotional content the story might not otherwise contain. Die Hard, with which I have no quarrel at all, is an ‘entirely unrelated thing, which happens at Christmas’ film. Its trick of stirring some gingerbread spice through a tired genre dough has been exhaustingly repeated by the director Shane Black; almost all of his films have a largely affectless Christmas setting - even Iron Man 3 - but I particularly recommend that you avoid the witless Lethal Weapon (1987) and the smugging with menaces of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005).
This kind of thing can feel like box-ticking - we’re releasing this in December so we better have some snow in the background. But in the better examples Christmas gets used like this because it has an act structure: it has set-up (Advent), inciting incident and rising action (shopping and preparation), and climax (Christmas Eve and Christmas Day). It is a ticking clock, a relentless countdown, and the promise of a happy ending all in one. Stories set at Christmas don’t have to be dreadful; check out the wonderful Carol with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara falling in love across the department store counter, or the multiple Christmas scenes in Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can.
Beyond these categories we have the fundamental tension within all Christmas stories, which is that their weaknesses - sentimentality, cosiness, childishness, wish-granting - are also their strengths. These things can feel conformist and stifling, but in their ideal they are uplifting and fulfilling. Christmas is, after all, a fictional event in itself; it is a dramatisation, a story that we tell ourselves about our families, our loved ones, our childhoods, and the year that has passed. Its celebration of family (whether natal or found) is also a celebration of our own comfort and luck. But the Christmas we imagine and plan for is almost never the Christmas we experience; our individuality exists within a social structure that both moderates and upholds it.
The modern Christmas conspires to alienate us even as the spirit of the season insists on togetherness. Real Christmases are full of less-than-convivial moments, as you struggle through a compacted department store, pull a cracker with an objectionable colleague, or sit in a traffic jam on the way to see regrettable relations. But this is, again, the psychological structure of the story of Christmas: the season itself is a redemption story, from the full misanthropy of the queue for the turkey to the post-prandial effulgent bonhomie of Christmas Day. All of which inspires sentiment, of course, and merriment, good fellowship, love; everything that comes with being slightly tipsy from lunchtime on.
Christmas has not just the dramatic structure but also the emotional arc of a good story, and so it rankles all the more that there should be so few good uses of it. But then, perhaps this is another reason why there are so few good examples; the individual experience of the season is the most compelling story of all.
After all, are we really going to watch A Muppet Christmas Carol when we put it on on Christmas Eve? Sure, we’re going to pause in the food preparation, the present wrapping, the tidying up, to enjoy our favourite bits (Bunsen and Beaker, Mr Fozziwig’s Rubber Chicken Factory, ‘no cheeses for us meeses’), but it’s not there to be watched. It’s there because it's part of the ritual. And Christmas is the ritual, the practice of the spell, the telling to ourselves of the story, in the hopes of a happy ending. In the hopes of a Merry Christmas.
This year’s Christmas Story is ‘Secret Satan’, another seasonally themed murder mystery. When one of his work colleagues is murdered with a Secret Santa present at the office Christmas party, Linus Sweet decides to try to find out whodunnit.