Very few genres or subgenres of filmmaking have as many expected elements as Christmas films. Just as you’re meant to haul out the old familiar decorations year on year, if you as the screenwriter behind ye olde holiday movie don’t deliver the goods, people notice, and you might ruin someone’s Christmas Eve. No pressure. Not to mention you’re also up against a pretty significant canon of classics and a monstrous collection of Hallmark movies. It’s smart to take all the pointers you can get, but most people think they’ve got something as ubiquitous as a Christmas classic down pat. What might you not have considered?
Well, if you ask David Jay Willis, at first his advice rings familiar. Wanting to break into low-budget Christmas films, Willis set about analysing his favorite holiday movies. Here are some of his findings:
Though we love it, Christmas must be in jeopardy, so that, over the course of the film, jolliness and belief can resurrect the holiday. This quality pairs nicely with the must-have family theme; the reconstitution and reaffirmation of the family unit. Christmas brings us together, and for this purpose, first it must hang in the balance. Even subversive movies about what a disaster Christmas can be, such as Nation Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, adhere to this pattern. Though at first they represent an obstacle to Chevy Chase’s idealised holiday celebrations, Christmas is eventually saved by his off-kilter family through spoiler-filled hijinks.
Elf, another of Willis’ favorites, centres on a grouch of a dad who no longer believes in Christmas, and who is more broadly growing apart from his family. His temperament is only saved by reconnecting with his son Buddy the elf, the very embodiment of holiday joy. This is one of the most elegant marriages of the two themes.
But, none of this seems too out of place. Well, Willis’ next observation may turn a few heads, as the writer explores the subtle and brief sexual element present in most Christmas movies. He acknowledges how strange this statement sounds, but consider: even in the Hays-Code adhering heyday of It’s a Wonderful Life that film thinks to include a “fallen woman”, or the bizarre leg lamp featured in A Christmas Story (Willis believes that the mother character’s protests are motivated by feeling sexually ‘threatened’ by the decor), or once again, Christmas Vacation with the alluring neighbour. Even the spectacularly family-friendly Elf features a sequence in which Zooey Deschanel is discretely seen showering, when an oblivious Buddy wanders in to better hear her sing, and then to join in.
Why are all of these here? Willis found himself asking the same question before being struck by an epiphany: Christmas is sentimentalized as sort of noble, a time when you’re meant to be on your best behaviour, to show kindness to your fellow man and all that. The sensual element is a tiny touchstone of coarseness meant to help ground the movie around it, if only just a little. The contrast is an aide to better demonstrate the value of all this mawkishness, or else you might go out in a diabetic fever.
Whether you agree with Willis’ Freudian insight, what’s valuable to remember is that it’s always worth interrogating the mini-tropes that often go overlooked in any genre. Dedication comes down to the miniscule, after all. Merry Christmas.