Life has a way of taking apart all the pieces of your enchanted world and refusing to put them back together again. Movies can’t put back the pieces, but they can show possible ways for it to happen. We all have illusions born in childhood: depending on the age, what next week is going to be like, what a particular school year is going to bring, what being an adult is like, or what Christmas is. As children, we don’t have to be able to articulate what a thing is. Everything we do and everything that happens to us combines to produce in us a general feeling or emotional reaction to events like Christmas, and obviously that reaction can be positive or negative depending on our experience.
But the things that make up the “Christmas spirit” when one is a child are difficult to sustain through the gauntlet of growing up and taking on adult responsibilities. Perhaps we get occsaional nostalgic glimpses of it, especially through our children’s eyes, but it is exceedingly difficult to retain the feel of it when the responsibilities and cares of adulthood keep pushing their way in past the lights and the decorations.
For me, even the adult glimpses of childhood joy are difficult to access. People might assume that being a pastor connects one to the joy of Christmas in a way that it does not for “regular people.” But I assure you, my experience has been that it is precisely the opposite. It is without doubt pure joy to be able to proclaim the mystery of the birth of Jesus for the sake of sinners. It is everything else that goes along with and surrounds that proclamation that makes things difficult for pastors. In part, it is because everyone has his or her own experiences of Christmas, and if the pastor doesn’t do what is expected in order to sustain those experiences, the pastor can and often will be accused of “ruining” Christmas.
I am not peeling back the curtain in this way to complain or to make you pity your pastor. In fact, the vast majority of people are very generous to pastors and their families at this time of the year. These are just the realities that attend the pastor’s vocation. The difficulty of allowing the Word of God to have its way in the midst of the pastoral preparation and work of Advent and Christmas comes with the territory. We pastors have to find our own ways to the Mystery. The disenchantment of the season comes in different forms to different people.
All of that is the long way around to be able to say that I understand fully the disenchantment and disillusionment that forms the basis for three “Christmas” movies I watched recently (Fatman [2020; Redbox]; Christmas with the Kranks [2004; for rent on Amazon Prime and elsewhere]; and Krampus [2015; for rent on Amazon Prime and elsewhere]. None of these are great movies, but in their own ways, all three movies (attempt to) deal with how “the true meaning” of Christmas is swallowed up by commercialism and a lack of love.
In Fatman, Mel Gibson plays an exhausted and frustrated “Chris Cringle,” who is trying to figure out how to continue constructing all the necessary toys when his government subsidy is cut in half. The pressures of the job have taken their toll on Chris and he’s thinking he might have to give up the business. Though he doesn’t want to, financial realities force him to sign a contract with the government to manufacture components for military aircraft. Actually, Mel Gibson’s Chris and his wife, Ruth (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) are the best part of the movie and give it whatever emotion it has. I hoped for more from Walton Goggins, but that is probably a deficit in what he had to work with, rather than any fault with his acting.
The problem is, Fatman can’t decide what it wants to be. The first third drags. Then it tries to pull together too many plot-lines (Santa, bullying, a hit-man with childhood trauma, government contracts), which causes it to feel scattered. Is it a critique of capitalism, and of the military-industrial complex? Not really. Is it a dark comedy? I guess I laughed twice. Is it about the reality of Christmas in a technological world? I don’t really know. I imagine that coming up with the concept and getting Gibson, Goggins, and Jean-Baptiste on board were far more fun than the actual movie turns out to be.
Christmas with the Kranks is based on a John Grisham book, Skipping Christmas, which I remember as poignant, although it’s been a very long time since I read it. And I never wanted to see the movie, because it seemed like it turned Grisham’s story into a sort of slap-stick comedy (which it does). I had stayed far enough away from it that I didn’t realize that Nora was played by Jamie Lee Curtis and not Tim Allen’s Home Improvement co-star Patricia Richardson.
I think that Christmas with the Kranks wants to be a parable about how you really do need your neighbors and your family. But except for one scene where the neighbors decide to help out the Kranks, who have just realized that their daughter is coming home for Christmas, it plays as a superficial joke about how you really do need to spend a lot of money and do all the things you always did in order for Christmas to be “Christmas.”
When their daughter leaves after Thanksgiving for the Peace Corps, Luther decides they don’t need to do all the things they normally do for Christmas, which had cost him $6,000+(!) the previous year. I should say so. Instead, he gets the idea that he and Nora are going to take a cruise. But in Luther’s office, and because of Nora’s preparations and parties in previous years, and because their neighbors are hectoring, emotional blackmailers, the Kranks have trouble escaping the events into which they have locked themselves. (And as someone else pointed out, the priest in the movie doesn’t actually seem to have anything to do with church. He seems concerned that the Kranks are “skipping Christmas,” but he is at their house helping decorate and then at the party itself on Christmas Eve.)
The pressure that the neighbors put on them to buy a bunch of stuff, decorate a bunch of stuff, and pull a stupid Frosty the Snowman statue out of their basement would be enough to make me never again put up a single light or decoration. At the end, all they’ve discovered is that they have people who are willing to give them a lot of stuff in order to convince Blair that they were always going to do all the things that make Christmas “Christmas.” (OK, it’s true, Luther is inspired to do a generous, nice thing for the couple across the street.) But the message with which we are left is that if you don’t do all those things you’re not “good” people, because all that stuff is what Christmas is about. Huh? How does that counteract the initial implication that spending $6,000 on Christmas is a waste of money? (It doesn’t counter it, and it is a waste of money.)
The third movie was Krampus, which, like Fatman, has a great cast that the movie can’t quite use to their full ability. Actually, though, Krampus is the most complete and coherent of all three. I dislike that it puts Krampus’ coming up against Christmas and Santa Claus, instead of as the “shadow” of St. Nicholas on December 5-6, but otherwise it’s a not-too-scary horror about bad people getting what’s coming to them. It also seems to make use of a bunch of German and Icelandic Christmas nightmare fuel, which feels unique.
The difference between this movie and others is that there doesn’t seem to be any way to turn away the wrath of Krampus once he’s decided to come for you. Selfish people change? Krampus doesn’t care. People sacrifice themselves even for people they don’t really like? Krampus doesn’t care. He arbitrarily chooses to spare people occasionally, like the grandmother when she was a child, or Max now, but his decisions are purely capricious, like Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. Good people don’t conquer the monster, and they don’t win in the end. I have questions about the ending, however. I might be tempted to say that the fulfillment of all the family’s hopes, their reconciliation, and their “happy Christmas” only comes after their deaths. But they are still inside a snow globe in Krampus’ basement (or something). Yeah, I don’t know, either.
All three of these movies begin with one or more characters who are disenchanted or disillusioned with the state of Christmas. But none of them are able to give any satisfying answers on how to re-enchant Christmas. The same things that give rise to the problems in the beginning are only more firmly established at the end. The only thing that seems to change anything is fear (for those who hear about Krampus, or what Chris produces when he visits Billy). These—at least Fatman and Krampus—may be unique additions to and contrasts with the rom-com sort of Christmas movies that overpopulate Netflix, but they end up in essentially the same place: be nice and have nice things; be mean and get bad things. And, of course, that is the overarching meaning of a jolly, laughing man who watches you while you sleep and knows if you’ve been naughty or nice.
More than anything, at this point, my Christmas disillusionment has to do with the repetition of limp holiday platitudes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like we’re going to escape that any time soon. For my money, the best and deepest Christmas movies, addressing the disenchantment of the season and the solutions to it, are Home Alone (especially Kevin’s interactions with Marley and Marley’s own reconciliation with his son) and A Charlie Brown Christmas.
A blessed last week of Advent and a merry Christ-mass to you, whether your disenchantment is firmly in place, or whether it lifts just a little at the celebration of the infant God in the manger!