If you agree with me that "family fun" is an oxymoron, then Christmas isn't your favorite holiday, either.
Slowly driving through slippery black slush to some relative's house where the same old Johnny Mathis holiday special plays on a loop, only partially drowning out all-too-familiar semi-drunken feuds over "the right" cookie recipes and stuffing ingredients. All the forced march gaiety: The insistence on singing carols even though no one knows more than one verse, then playing Trivial Pursuit. Every year, I won ("How can you NOT know the names of The Beatles? Again?!") so the rest of them pouted for the remainder of the evening, whispering that I was "weird" — especially after I pointed out that their quaint "Victorian Christmas" figurines had likely been, in real life, spreading strangely-named diseases to vitamin-deficient child prostitutes.
Now that I'm an adult, I get to spend that dark, dank No Man's Land between Christmas Eve and New Year's Day doing exactly what I want instead: Eating junk, reading, and watching movies.
I've come around to the radical view that Lethal Weapon is a better Christmas franchise than Die Hard, but my annual favorite is still 2003's The Hebrew Hammer, which is as crude, gross and goofy as Blazing Saddles but with the advantage of being actually funny.
Although the Trailer Park Boys Christmas special (language warning) is a close second.
As you might have guessed, I don't ritualistically watch the Big Three Yuletide classics: It's a Wonderful Life (1946), A Christmas Carol (1951) and A Christmas Story (1983).
For one thing, I grew up watching the first two every December, and when it comes to A Christmas Story, I had no reason to, because I was already living it:
I spent too many years trapped in a tiny apartment with a bellicose stepfather whose every idiotic idea had to be indulged, and a too-nice mother who wouldn't or couldn't tell him off. So, no, I can't spare 90 more minutes of what's left of my life being cajoled into agreeing with apparently everybody that the suffocating domestic situation depicted in that film is hilariously heartwarming.
I might as well just glue plastic holly around my TV and put on Hostel.
Or, you know, poke my eyes out.
(Every year about half a dozen people assure me that Albert Finney is a better Scrooge. Those people are mistaken.)
As sheer entertainment, the film is a masterwork. But its source, Charles Dickens' hastily written novella, is, as the kids say these days, problematic.
First, and most ironically, this story about a nasty man who wants more money was written by a nasty man who wanted more money: After putting her through childbirth ten times (not counting miscarriages,) Dickens grew weary of his "mad," "fat" wife and took up with an 18-year-old. And self-indulgence on that scale demands regular infusions of cash.
I don't care to take moral instruction from such an individual, however artfully it is presented.
Secondly, we have been told for a hundred years that Charles Dickens' writing helped soften Victorian attitudes about the poor, but "it's hard to trace any direct consequences on reformist legislation (...) to Dickens's influence," according to a guy who actually likes him.
I also find it revealing that, while making a film whose protagonist is such a meanie, the director of A Christmas Carol remained harsh to all the actors except Sim throughout the shoot. How edifying can a fable truly be if its message had no discernable effect on the very man making the movie?
Now we come to It's a Wonderful Life — or as I call it, Uncle Billy Must Die — and yes, I admit it:
Every time Clarence gets his wings, I cry.
But I cry during half the movies I watch, including Galaxy Quest.
I also cry while slicing onions. The chemical makeup of the onion is accidentally arranged in such a way as to have that effect on my eyes. A comparable, albeit manmade formula — of sounds and shots — is well-known to prompt that reaction in movie viewers. Even someone as stonehearted as I am is defenceless in the path of its power.
However, like A Christmas Carol, It's a Wonderful Life revolves around money, and as I said when I wrote about Psycho, the closest I get to being scared every time I watch Hitchcock's masterpiece is seeing Marion's car sink into the swamp, with that stolen $39,300 (in 1960 dollars) inside.
That's why, when I see ditzy Uncle Billy — who has no business working at the savings and loan George Bailey supposedly cares so much about — accidentally slip that $8000 to Mr. Potter (over $100,000 in today's money) I break out in hives (and want to reach through the screen and punch him.)
So many questions:
It's great that George stopped the troubled pharmacist from accidentally poisoning that kid, but doesn't that mean there's still an incompetent druggist in town?
Does anyone really believe that, if he hadn't been born, George's wife would have ended up a spinster librarian instead of married to wealthy Sam Wainwright?
By what manner of cosmic machinery does George's mere presence on earth somehow prevent Violet from becoming a prostitute?
And why doesn't he just fix that stupid broken knob on the staircase?
We're supposed to feel sorry for George because his life is so miserable, but Mr. Potter offered him an out: a $20,000 ($264,000) job that would not just get his growing family out of that drafty, broken down house that's making his children literally sick, but require him to travel the world just like he always wanted.
He responds by calling Mr. Potter a bunch of names and storming out.
Would you do that? Would anyone else in Bedford Falls? Would any normal person in real life, even on "principle"? Why didn't he just take the job, work there long enough to become a multi-millionaire, then start up the savings and loan again, with Wainwright as a partner?
I wouldn't go as far as Andrew Gilchrist, who quips that vice-ridden Pottersville looks like way more fun than Bedford Falls anyhow; the invisible corruption that underpins such red-light districts — see The Phenix City Story — is even vaster and more corrosive than that visible to the naked eye.
Gilchrist is even put out by the title on the marquee of the Bedford Falls movie house: "The Bells of St. Mary's, a film about a priest and a nun trying to save a school" — as if such a plotline is self-evidently execrable. (Although he is writing in the Guardian, so...)
It's true that The Bells of St. Mary's isn't in the pantheon of Great Films (and for good reason) but it does have one thing to recommend it: a scene I watch every year in lieu of any of the classics previously discussed. Tellingly, It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol posit a pagan cosmology that's at odds with the very Christian holiday that supposedly inspired them both; if "Jesus" is uttered at any time except as a curse word in A Christmas Story, forgive me for missing it.
With all due respect to Johnny Mathis, I'll just watch this on an endless loop, thanks very much.
While we had to postpone this year's cruise to next year, it's sure to be a great time on the Mediterranean with Douglas Murray, John O'Sullivan and Michele Bachmann among Mark's special guests. Book yourself a stateroom here. To join in on the collegiality year round, consider joining The Mark Steyn Club, a global community of Mark Steyn readers and listeners.