“. . . isn’t just a day; it’s a frame of mind.”
—Edmund Gwenn, Miracle on 34th Street
“The mother of all holidays” is how Jean Shepherd put it in his narration of A Christmas Story, and it’s true enough—but Christmas is also the year’s most demanding day (or fortnight, really) in terms of atmosphere, emotional temperature, and point of view. We don’t feel a need to get all colonial or even terribly grateful on Thanksgiving; nobody talks about “getting into the spirit” of Mother’s Day, Veterans Day, or even Independence Day. But for Christmas, there is a pervasive compulsion to summon reserves of tolerance, generosity, congeniality, and childlike optimism, and we go to extraordinary cultural lengths to make it happen. Hence, the phenomenon known as the Christmas movie. Films that fall into this category serve as narrative windows into that Edenic space in which cold hearts are warmed, charitable love dawns on the greedy, and, most of all, childhood memories and the purest notions of home become easier to grasp and hold. Old movies—those more closely linked to the idealized past from which all adult ardor for the holiday flows—are best; crassly commercial contemporary parables about crass commercialism (Jingle All the Way, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Christmas with the Kranks, to name a few) are not, and we’ve largely left them behind. The season is short, after all.