The Christmas Sermon

Tim Popple returns to the fold for a very special Sunday Sermon. Merry Christmas everyone!

Christmas is many things to many people, but the unifying factor, the overlap in the Venn Diagram of Christmas as it were, is family. Secular or sacred, family is at the heart of Christmas. Whether you’re thinking of the Holy Family, or the wholly annoying family down the road, whose children are always out shouting on the street, as they ride their new bikes at 5am, Christmas is family. And family is central to so many festive films, both in the execution of the film, and in the associative memories of watching those films.

Memories of watching Santa Claus The Movie, or TV movie The Night They Saved Christmas permeate my childhood, and leak through to adulthood, providing that unmistakeable rosy hue of nostalgia. The films themselves may be poorly made, but the child in me that loved these films without question still loves them. They remind me of watching a small 4:3 TV (that had a remote control that was actually wired to the TV) while my older brothers argue. They remind me of the same tacky decorations put up every year with abandon. Of the crib scene that once upon a time had the figures all glued in but over time the Three Kings became unstuck, and so spent the 12 days walking around the living room getting closer to the crib. They remind me of going carol singing in an old people’s home on Christmas Eve, and the joy of seeing the wrinkled faces burst into a smile and the cloudy eyes clear at the memory of Hark, The Herald Angels Sing. They remind me of the time my brother ripped open a gift and exclaimed, “JUST WHAT I JUST WANTED”. A phrase that has since become a family meme. Bond films watched ad nauseum in the pre-Christmas build up remind me of singing at the Christmas services. Associative memory is powerful.

There are Christmas films that are specifically about family. Perhaps the definitive family Christmas film is Home Alone, where the effect of having no family is felt most keenly by a 9 year old boy. It is a film that has survived 21 years (yes, I know, depressing isn’t?) and remains a true holiday classic. In a rare moment for a secular film, the most powerful emotional moment in that film happens in a church, when young Kevin Mcallister talks to the old man suspected of being a murderer. It is key that the man is thought to have killed his entire family: what greater sin can there be in a family film? That Kevin actually helps the man save his own family is a beautiful reflection on Kevin’s own predicament. It’d be It’s A Wonderful Life for children, except that film is for all ages too. The ultimate Christmas film, Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life is, for the most part, surprisingly bleak. Here is a man whose hopes and dreams are constantly and consistently shattered, ripped apart, stamped out, and burned down. It’s relentlessly grim, and necessarily so. The catharsis at the film’s conclusion is the result of careful planning throughout the film, and the release is sublime. I only saw the film for the first time when I was 21, at a cinematic re-release, so it is shorn of childhood associations but, nevertheless is absolutely Christmas-centric.

An odd absentee from my childhood is The Muppet Christmas Carol. One (of many) advantages to having children is to catch up on those you missed yourself. Watching Christmas films, sharing childhood with your own children, is possible the most amazingly multi-layered emotional experience I have had. It’s a kaleidoscope of emotion that mixes nostalgia, pride, warmth, and pure happiness. And part of that magic comes from belief. The belief in something greater than you or I. The belief in a higher power of beneficence. I speak, of course, of Father Christmas. Maintaining the myth is one of the many things Christmas films do, whether it’s creating new aspects to the myth (The Santa Clause) or reflecting a child’s own doubt by casting doubt on the myth itself (Miracle on 34th Street). Belief is important, though not essential. Like Fred Bailey says, “faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to”. Certainly when Santa descends from his throne of lies, the essence of Christmas shifts, but it is no less magical because of the aforementioned links to Christmas Past. We’re all children at Christmas-time.

If I may venture, without prejudice or agenda, into that other meaning of Christmas – the original one – it is startlingly odd that there has never been a really good cinematic adaptation of the Nativity story. Like many parts of the bible, it’s a heck of a good story. The confusion of a girl found pregnant, not just without intercourse, but to someone said to be great. The journey itself, the indignity of lodging in a stable. The visitation by local tradespeople and royalty to this humbling scene. And the hurried, undercover exit to avoid discovery by Herod who, in his jealousy at a new king being born, attempts to have him killed. With a story with so many emotional and thrilling touchstones, it is perplexing that aside from scenes within other films (Ben Hur et al), pastiches (The Life of Brian), and Twilight-esque po-faced film The Nativity Story by Catherine Hardwicke, there is nothing of note in cinema. There is such great potential for telling the story well, not with any Christian agenda, but in aid of a great story. Consider Darren Aronofsky’s forthcoming story of Noah’s Ark. I very much doubt the film will be propaganda, but rather a cracking yarn. What directors could best serve this story, and how great could the film be.

Whatever your religious persuasion, theist or atheist, family-centric or standing alone, Christmas is when, as Frank Cross said it so blindingly well in Scrooged, “for a few hours out of the year we are the people we always hoped we would be”. Put aside differences, grab the box of Quality Street (mine’s the Noisette Triangle, thanks) and watch White Christmas. Or Die Hard if the children have gone to bed.

Merry Christmas, movie house! Merry Christmas, Emporium! Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!

Tim Popple works as a verger and has been involved in churches and cathedrals his whole life. He is also the editor ofThe 24th Frame, and can also be found on Twitter.

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