I’m not exactly covering new territory today. I have written extensively over the past few years about my passion for all things Christmas. So I was thinking…all the sports leagues, various organizations in more essential industries…heck, even pro wrestling…have their own halls of fame. Here at The Manofesto I created the Hall of Influence section three years ago. And since Christmas is the most wonderful time of year I think it deserves a hall of fame too. I will be mainly dealing with the entertainment aspect of the holiday for now, but reserve the right to expand upon the premise at a later date. I am inducting what I consider to be and have referred to numerous times as the illustrious pantheon of classic Christmas films, as well as a handful of “contributors” whose major impact may not have been on the silver screen. But of course I would be remiss if I did not make the first inductee into The Christmas Hall of Fame the true “reason for the season”, the entity who really should be our focus not only in these few glorious weeks, but each & every day of our lives. That of course is my Lord & Savior Jesus Christ. I already wrote about Jesus when inducting Him into my Hall of Influence, so I will let those words suffice for this exercise as well. With that being said, onto the other inductees.
Isn’t it amazing that a movie that barely registered on the pop culture radar when it was released in 1983 has, in the past 15 years, emerged as one of our most cherished Christmas traditions?? It ranks #5 on my Favorite Movies list, and tells the enduring story of a young child’s fervent desire for that one special Christmas gift. A Christmas Story is funny, nostalgic, subversive, and heartwarming all at the same time. Kudos must go to TBS for the 24 hour marathon that every fan looks forward to on Christmas Eve. It has been a precious custom since 1997. I know someday a bunch of suits in Atlanta will say it’s time to move forward and do something else, that the film’s popularity has run its course. I just hope that day is many many years from now when I am old & grey.
Bing Crosby died 35 years ago, but his contributions to Christmas are as important today as ever. First of all he made two awesome classic films…1942’s Holiday Inn & 1954’s White Christmas. I like to fix a mug of hot cocoa, snuggle under a warm blanket with Rocco, and watch both movies back-to-back on a chilly December night. Secondly, in 1977 Bing did a Christmas TV special during which he sang a famous duet of Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth with glam rocker David Bowie. The program was recorded in September and of course aired in December. In between, on October 14, Crosby died making the event that much more memorable. I guess a duet between such two polar opposites (a genuine example of the generation gap) was a pretty big deal back then. The song is still played on the radio each Christmas season. In addition to that and a plethora of other beloved carols (It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas, I’ll Be Home for Christmas, Mele Kalikimaka, Christmas In Killarney, etc), in 1941 Bing Crosby recorded what is today the best-selling song (of any genre) of all time…White Christmas. I ranked White Christmas #4 of my Top 25 Christmas Carols, and even though countless artists have covered the song in the past seven decades there just isn’t any better version than Crosby’s.
Dickens did much more than just write a book. On some level he defined and even saved Christmas. We tend to have an overly romanticized idea of Victorian England, but Dickens’ entire catalog is infused with realistic portrayals of the gloomy, hardscrabble life typical of the Britain he knew. Due to various religious & political forces Christmas hadn’t even been celebrated for centuries there, but A Christmas Carol, with its multi-layered message of charity, kindness, family, generosity, and love, revived the holiday. More specifically for our purposes not only is the book a great read, but it has spawned numerous film adaptations that have become annual traditions, and the general theme of the tale has been used in countless stories in movies, books, and television. It is safe to say that Charles Dickens’ contributions to Christmas are amongst the most enduring of all.
Most of the traditional Christmas classics are several decades old. This is the exception. Debuting in 2003, Elf is a fun little movie about an orphaned child that ends up at the North Pole and grows up thinking he is one of Santa’s elves. As an adult he learns the truth and sets out for NY City to find his father, a grumpy book publisher who is on The Naughty List. Hilarity ensues. This is the role that Will Ferrell was born to play. I wonder how his SNL contemporaries feel knowing that long after they have been forgotten about Ferrell will be fondly remembered if only for this one role that he snagged in the prime of his career?? Because let’s face it…Elf is here to stay, to be enjoyed for many years to come by children of all ages.
Home Alone & Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
Much like our affection for Will Ferrell will last much longer than his actual career due to one key career choice, Macaulay Culkin has remained in our collective consciousness for two decades even though he hasn’t really done anything memorable since these movies came out. He is forever frozen in time as a precocious little boy who was twice left by his family to fend for himself against two incompetent cat burglars at Christmas. I just watched Home Alone a couple of days ago and it never gets old. We always associate writer/producer/director John Hughes with 80’s teen films like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but after he was done with all that adolescent angst he ventured in a new direction and the Home Alone films were his wonderful contribution to the Christmas season.
It’s A Wonderful Life
IAWL ranked #4 on my Favorite Movies list, but when the Christmas season rolls around most people know that I simply refer to it as THE Movie. I so miss the days when it was on constantly during the holidays. I appreciate that NBC thought enough of the film to buy the rights, but two showings just aren’t enough, especially when one of them is always on Christmas Eve when I am otherwise engaged with family stuff. At any rate, the central themes of IAWL…friendship, family, and realizing that what you have and what your life is ain’t all that bad…really hits home with a lot of people, and I know that it is a story that has always resonated deeply for me. There are funnier Christmas movies, and certainly there are ones that deal more directly with spiritual matters, but it says a lot about the quality of this story that nearly 70 years after it was produced we are still watching on an annual basis.
About as old as IAWL is this 1947 offering in which a Macy’s Santa Claus goes to court to prove that he is the real deal. I know that there are people that have issues with Santa, that feel as though he has somehow taken the place in children’s hearts that should be occupied by Jesus Christ. I respect those opinions but personally I don’t view Santa as being any kind of substitute. I’ve said many times that I feel like Jesus & Santa would be friends. I think Santa would acknowledge that Jesus is the true centerpiece of Christmas, while Jesus would bless Santa Claus for his benevolent & charitable work.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
This film ranked #6 on my Favorite Movies countdown and was still only the 3rd highest rated Christmas movie. Most youngsters whose formative years were the 1980’s likely hold a special place in their heart for the Griswold family…blundering patriarch Clark, long-suffering wife Ellen, and perpetual teenagers Rusty & Audrey. I suppose after the smashing success of the initial Vacation film in 1983 that a sequel was obligatory. But when that follow-up, which found our loveably clueless clan visiting Europe, fell flat there was only one option left to save the franchise…a Griswold Christmas movie. More than two decades later we can all give a collective thank you to the powers-that-be who crafted this story, which continues to provide hours of entertainment on various cable channels each year. The jokes never get old and the gags still continue put a smile on my face.
The Polar Express
Most people my age…I suppose they still call us Gen-X…grew up with “traditional” animation or the stop-motion animation that we’ll get to in a bit, but kids these days are enjoying a real revolution in movie technology. Lots of things we see on the big screen today are computer generated…sometimes even the things we think look real. One invention that has taken hold the past decade or so is motion-capture, which you can read more about elsewhere if you are so inclined. If you’ve seen it then you know what I am talking about and it’s pretty neat stuff. My favorite use of motion-capture has to be this 2004 rendering of a 1985 children’s book. When ranking The Polar Express #16 of my Favorite Movies I stated that “Jesus tells us in the book of Matthew that we are to be like little children, retaining our innocence and always leaning on Him for guidance. We have a tendency to grow up and shed our idealism in favor of doubt, skepticism, and cynicism. I have never had an issue with Santa Claus as a symbol of Christmas because I think that he represents the purity of childhood, an ideal state that The Lord tells us we need to somehow retain.” I stand by those comments and continue to enjoy each & every viewing of this wonderful film.
Arthur Rankin, Jr. & Jules Bass
You think you don’t know who they are, but trust me…you do. They are the two producers who teamed up in the 60’s to create Videocraft International…what we know better as Rankin/Bass Productions. That particular company produced over two dozen animated holiday specials, many of which (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, Rudolph’s Shiny New Year) we still enjoy annually. Rankin/Bass’s unique style of stop-motion animation is unmistakable, a singular timestamp that captures the essence of its era and is a hallmark of many of our childhoods. Technology has moved forward and lot of animated entertainment put forth nowadays looks way cooler, but much of it lacks the heart of the old-fashioned stuff. Anything that has lasted as long as the Rankin/Bass production creations and is still beloved by the masses certainly deserves kudos.
Burglary & kidnapping aren’t usually things that we associate with our most glorious holiday, but every rule has an exception, right?? I think it might be safe to assume that the early 90’s is right about when America had had its fill of the traditional holiday specials and began skewing in a darker direction. I am not saying that this has been a positive trend, but again…there must be the occasional compromise. This little ditty stars erstwhile comic Denis Leary as an acerbic cat burglar who targets a quaint little New England hamlet on Christmas Eve. However, things go awry and he is forced to take cover by kidnapping an unsuspecting couple. The problem is that this couple is in marriage counseling due to the wife’s affair, their son is a schemer who is blackmailing his military school teacher, and the husband’s family is a dysfunctional mess that stops by for Christmas Eve dinner. Trust me…it’s all quite hilarious. Kevin Spacey makes almost anything he is in instantly better, and this is a perfect example. The Ref may not be on the same level as some other Christmas classics, and it certainly isn’t as accessible, but it is well deserving of recognition.
The Santa Clause
A point of clarification…we are dealing here only with the 1994 original, not the entire trilogy. The two sequels were tepid at best. However, the first film, starring Tim Allen as a single Dad who accidentally inherits the mantle of being everyone’s favorite Jolly Old Elf, is a charming take on the Santa legend. The blending of modern sensibilities with old-fashioned magic & childlike wonder is skillfully done and fun for the entire family.
Author Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, wrote a lot of memorable children’s stories…Green Eggs & Ham, The Cat in the Hat, Horton Hears a Who, etc…but his best was undoubtedly 1957’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which was adapted into an animated TV special in 1966. It is a Dickensian tale of an ugly old creature that despises Christmas and decides to stop it by stealing everything from his neighbors, the Whos down in Whoville. The Grinch takes their trees, their presents, and even their roast beast. But despite all the worldly tokens of Christmas being stolen from them the Whos still gather together on Christmas and sing their cute little hearts out, which of course sparks a change in outlook for The Grinch. Despite its secular nature it is a lovely lesson in what Christmas should…and shouldn’t…be about that can be understood & appreciated by children & adults alike.
Let me take this opportunity to highly recommend an excellent biography called Schulz and Peanuts by David Michaelis. It was published in 2008 and I have referenced it here several times over the past couple of years. Maybe I’ll get around to doing a full scale review for The Bookshelf in 2013. Anyway, we all know Schulz as the creator of the comic strip Peanuts, with its colorful characters like Charlie Brown, Lucy & Linus Van Pelt, Peppermint Patty, and of course Snoopy. Schulz’s creation has been made into dozens of animated TV specials over the past half century, many of them related to various holidays. However, let me be clear…Charles Schulz does not deserve accolades simply because he made a Christmas special. Schulz deserves recognition because, amongst all of the Peanuts specials produced, A Charlie Brown Christmas is the absolute best (it was also the first), and among the plethora of Christmas movies & specials we are privileged to enjoy each holiday season it is one of the finest of its genre. It is one of the few Christmas specials that directly address the real reason for the season. To see a television show actually utilize Scripture and utter the name of our Lord & Savior Jesus Christ is a genuine rarity in a society that is increasingly hostile to God.
Trapped in Paradise
On a random spring evening in 1994 myself and a few of my friends…Greg, The Owl, and probably a couple others…ventured down to the local video store. We rented some movies (VHS because that’s just how old I am), one of which was this Christmas film about 3 dimwitted brothers who rob a bank in a small Pennsylvania hamlet but can’t manage to successfully get out of town. Is it a good movie?? Not really. Nicolas Cage has certainly done much better (Moonstruck & Raising Arizona come to mind), Dana Carvey has rarely been funny outside of Saturday Night Live, and Jon Lovitz wasn’t even funny when he was on SNL…but there is just something about this movie. Maybe it is strictly the circumstances under which I first saw it. All I know is that nearly 20 years later it still puts a smile on my face every December.
- 10 Famous Christmas Movies (famous101.com)
- Fun Christmas Movies for the Holiday Season (writingirl1.wordpress.com)
- A Season of Cinema (toledoblade.com)
- What’s Your Favorite Christmas Movie? Here’s What E! has to Say… (ksfm.cbslocal.com)
- Do You Know The Story Of This Song? (new102.cbslocal.com)
- Stage: Elf Versus Charles Dickens (seattleweekly.com)
- Virtual Advent: Favorite Christmas Movies (bonjourcass.com)