I once witnessed a couple of friends hit holiday-movie rock bottom. It was not a pretty sight. They’d thrown a party at their house the night before; the kind of Christmas bash couples in their thirties tend to host in the months before they finally break down and reproduce. Naturally it was a shocking display of bad behaviour from start to finish; I mean that in the most affectionate way. I don’t remember much (the consequence of my hostess’s bright idea of mixing vodka, champagne and Cointreau into the evening’s “signature cocktail”) but I do recall the surprising pleasure of longboarding into their dining room wall while doing the Single Ladies dance.
When I dropped by the morning after the Party to End All Parties to drag the hosts out for brunch, my friends were recalcitrant, to say the least. I found them sprawled on the sofa, munching salt-and-vinegar chips and watching Chris Farley in Beverly Hills Ninja. Not a single glass, ashtray or longboard had been touched since the night before. My friends seemed no more surprised by my arrival than they were capable of cleaning themselves. “Have you ever noticed,” the husband eventually croaked, “how completely awesome this movie is?”
Having spent the past two weeks descending deeper and deeper into my own Christmas-movie sinkhole of shame and self-loathing, I fully understand why my pals refused to leave to couch that day: They were physically incapable of doing so. That’s how the holiday-movie downward trajectory works. It immobilizes the victim through a slow drip of addictive, brain-numbing chemicals combined with a serum that somehow makes you feel good while simultaneously sapping your will to live. One minute you’re sipping eggnog and singing along to Meet Me in St. Louis; the next, you’re drunk, lethargic and hopelessly transfixed by Die Hard 3.
This holiday season, I’ve had ample time to contemplate the range and variety of Christmas movies on TV and I have come to the following conclusions: (1) A few are okay but most are truly awful. (2) Eighties nostalgia might be dead in fashion terms, but with Christmas movies, it remains a winning formula. (3) Awfulness ceases to matter much once one’s critical faculties have been sufficiently dulled by chocolate truffles and potatoes cooked in goose fat.
Still, it’s a curious thing, the way we operate the television this time of the year. Instead of doing what we do the rest of the time (scheduling, recording, slotting with military precision), we use our week or two of downtime to loaf around the house, taking occasional dips into the world of televised escapism.
What we find there, more often than not, is the luck of the draw. One lazy afternoon we might watch all of Sense and Sensibility and 10 minutes of It's a Wonderful Life. The next evening, it’s the TV movie Pregnancy Pact (starring the almost unknown Thora Birch) immediately chased by The Santa Clause – and so on. In this sense, movies on the holiday schedule are a nostalgic throwback to the time when we faced the TV dial with calm acceptance, rather than an opportunity for control.
Holiday movies drag us down, it’s true, but in other ways they also buoy us up. I didn’t shed a tear when my great uncle died, but I do have a little cry every Christmas when Maria leaves the children to go back to the convent in The Sound of Music. Does this mean I’m a heartless person? On the contrary, I’d argue: It means I know how to pounce on a good catharsis when I see one.
Which brings us to the heart of the matter: What constitutes a successful holiday movie and why? Looking at the TV listings over the past couple of weeks, you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s no rhyme or reason to be found; but on closer reflection, there’s a bit more to it than that.
According to a painstaking survey I recently conducted over several days while bickering with my sister and eating butter tarts, holiday movies fall broadly into the following four categories: the classics ( The Sound of Music, The Wizard of Oz, Blazing Saddles), action nostalgia (the Die Hard and Bourne series), sentimental favourites ( Pretty Woman, Big) and actual Christmas movies ( Scrooged, Elf and the like).
Beyond these superficial categories, however, some deeper overarching themes can be found, though admittedly most of them are vague and academically dubious. What I can tell you is this: Holiday movies might be awful, but I just can’t tear myself away.
Come Monday, I’m going to have to shake off my funk and do something with my life apart from eating Toblerone and watching Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus, but until then I plan to stay right here, glued to my spot on the sofa. If you can think of something better to do, I encourage you to get at it. In the meantime, I’ll be here, doing my part to keep the festive spirit alive.