Sunday, December 11, 2022

Watching Christmas Movies

It is December, and that means it is time to watch Christmas movies. This year my wife and I sampled a couple of new releases. First we watched Spirited, starring Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds. It is a musical remake of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. We were hoping Ferrell had created a worthy successor to the holiday classic Elf, which my son’s family watches every year religiously. Spirited is no Elf, but it is well-done. There’s lots of singing, great choreography, and a clever twist on the familiar tale.

The second holiday film we saw was The Noel Diary. We chose it because the lead actor, Justin Hartley, starred in This is Us, which is one of our favorite television dramas. The Noel Diary is a typical heartwarming rom-com (romantic comedy) where boy meets girl, with a little parent-child reconciliation thrown in for good measure. We enjoyed it.

Shortly after watching those movies I read an article by the Religion News Service entitled Everyone Gets Their Love Story, subtitled How Christmas Rom-Coms Have Taken over the Season. It chronicles how Christmas movies have changed over the years. There are now more faces of color and even some LGBTQ romances. Times have changed. It is all an attempt to cash in on the $700 billion Christmas industry, which the article calls “the Christmas Industrial Complex.”

Anyway it got me thinking about how holiday movies nowadays are so different from the ones I grew up watching - films like It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, White Christmas, and A Christmas Carol. It also got me thinking about how all these Christmas films – new and old – have so little to do with the themes of the Christmas accounts found in the gospels.

Holiday movies are “feel good” flicks. They are often about romantic love, designed to pull on our heartstrings, and invariably have happy endings. How different from the Bible narratives. The biblical Christmas stories have no romance. Mary and Joseph are in an arranged marriage, which got off to a rocky start due to suspicion of adultery.  There is no mention of any love between the two lead actors in the nativity drama. There is no post-Christmas sequel to tell us how the holy couple eventually fell in love and lived happily ever after in Nazareth.

Most importantly there is no happy ending. The Christmas story in the Gospel of Matthew ends with mass murder, traditionally called “The Slaughter of the Innocents.”  King Herod decides to eliminate a possible rival for his throne by murdering all the children in Bethlehem age two and younger. As the camera fades on the exiting Wise Men, we hear the sound of young mothers weeping in grief.

True, God warns Joseph about the murder plot, and the holy family escapes safely to Egypt. But God does not intervene to save the other little children of Bethlehem or warn their parents. That is troubling to anyone raised on the Sunday School song “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.”

The holy family lived as refugees in a foreign land for several years. One can only imagine how difficult those years were. Then Joseph died at some point after Jesus’ twelfth birthday, leaving Mary as a single mom raising a houseful of kids on her own. She did not remarry a rich, handsome stranger and grow old together, like Ruth in the Old Testament story. No Hallmark ending for Mary of Nazareth.

The biblical Christmas stories are so different from the plots of Christmas films that it makes me wonder how rom-coms came to dominate holiday flicks and why Christians are okay with that. Indeed nostalgic Christians seem to be the target audience for many of these “family-friendly” films. The most likely explanation is that Christians - like everyone else – tend to only see God at work in happy endings.

Yet by insisting on storybook endings we are missing the most powerful truth of Christmas: God is present in the unhappy times as well. God’s presence includes the good and the bad. God is the light shining in the darkness of real life, which includes grief, sorrow and hardship.

That is why the gospel writer Matthew reminds us: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call Him Immanuel” which means, “God with us.” God is with us no matter what. To that Christmas ending, I say, “Amen.”


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Ann Cady said...

Personally, I don't watch a lot of Christmas movies. I do like to watch Patrick Stewart's Christmas Carol and The Muppet Christmas Carol (I'm a sucker for muppets). However, my favorite Christmas movie of late is The Christmas Candle. Yes, it has a happy ending but I see it as showing how the Spirit moves in mysterious ways to bring about renewed faith.