Snowmen, reindeer, decorated trees, singing carolers ... and a desperate man staring at his own gravestone in fear and anger. Ah, Christmas.
Yes, a man confronted with his own death on a dismally cold night, and we watch, again, as the television plays that favorite holiday flick. We snuggle in close with loved ones on the couch, sipping eggnog, with piles of presents nearby waiting to be unwrapped, and recite the film's lines — because we can.
Some of the best Christmas movies are more than a little melancholy. Certainly, all good stories include challenges and obstacles giving the protagonist's journey toward her goal some rise and fall. But, good grief, shouldn't the movies we consume in this most wonderful time of the year be a little more full of peace and joy? Couldn't they feature a few less ghosts, or at least not confront us with suicide attempts right off the bat?
I'm a fan of Christmas. I say let's stretch it out, invite it in, celebrate Christmas early and often. I welcome its bustle, its lights, its gifts and songs, travel and cheer. But, I resonate with Charlie Brown when he tells the good doctor Lucy that the holiday brings its share of trouble.
Like Chuck, Ebenezer Scrooge and George Bailey, I also know the busyness, loneliness and financial and relational stresses that can come in the confusion of Christmas. So, I appreciate the role these movies play in acknowledging this truth.
After all, the story of Christmas, as Linus reminds us in "A Charlie Brown Christmas," is infused with not only the mundane but also the exceptionally difficult. It is, remember, a story about immigration, taxes and death — as well as miraculous life.
In fact, the inclusion of death along with birth in popular Christmas narratives runs throughout history. The Christmas ghost story predates Dickens' mass popularization of it in "A Christmas Carol," and its essence informs "It's a Wonderful Life."
We watch these holiday favorites and listen to Christmas tunes to get in the mood, implying that the season resists its own "proper" sentiments somehow, and needs a little nudge.
Yet it's not just happy feelings we seek and repeat as yuletide traditions. Featuring — and legitimizing the worldview of — an almost interminably depressed and socially challenged little boy, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" is one of the most successful and long-running annually repeated shows on network television. And more than a dozen versions of "A Christmas Carol" play at nearly all times on some channel in the weeks before Christmas.
These movies are not only about Christmas, but have become a part of the Christmas ritual itself in American culture. Many of us have our long-established rules and timelines, certain settings and ways in which we repeat our engagement with a familiar popular text. For multiple generations this has included watching "It's a Wonderful Life" on NBC on Christmas Eve.
Watching someone watch this movie for the first time is a gift in itself. It delivers when it shouldn't. The movie is old, black-and-white, scratchy and (let's face it) a little socialist-leaning in the season of Capitalism Gone Wild. But this is, perhaps, one of the keys to its success, its relevance and power. Christmastime epitomizes its source religion's paradox. In the language of Christianity, we are "caught in between the now and the not yet," between being Scrooge and a reborn George Bailey, tinged with cynicism and yet full of hope.
Eventually each of these popular treatments of our seasonal moods gets around to the Christmas spirit in the end. Although Scrooge's change of heart seems full and lasting, I always imagine he faces some lingering effects of his prior personality. Tiny Tim's leg is not healed. George Bailey's friend floats him a line of credit, not an outright gift of millions, suggesting his days of working hard at the Building and Loan are not over.
And Charlie Brown, well, he doesn't become Snoopy. But in keeping with the fundamental Christmas message of incarnation — that is, loving others so much that one sacrifices power and comfort to be fully present with them — each of these "darker" Christmas movies actually achieves the Christmas spirit.
They help us picture togetherness, even in the tangible context of brokenness.
Ebenezer Scrooge makes time to be with his family. George Bailey's neighbors come to his rescue. And Charlie Brown's friends meet him halfway between austerity and excess, bringing about the miracle of the perfect Christmas tree and party.
So this holiday, as the lights on the tree brighten and dim, and the shows come on, may God bless us, every one, with a little merry, without banishing the melancholy.