Lights, camera, Christmas

Jimmy welcomes the camera, his arms outstretched, as behind him people talk, dance and embrace in a bar decorated gaudily with tinsel and “Merry Christmas!” decorations. “Frosty the Snowman” is playing. Johnny and his wife walk in, Johnny holding the door open to show a new pink Cadillac parked outside. Jimmy is furious: “Didn’t I say not to go buying anything for a while? What are you, stupid?”

We see a huge artificial Christmas tree, almost too large for Henry to get through the door. “I got the most expensive tree they had!” Henry calls to his wife and daughters. Cut to Henry’s family sitting around the now-decorated tree, Christmas music still playing, surrounded by wrapping paper and gifts. A puppy, bow round its neck, sits with them. The scene’s final shot is a slow close-up of the tree, nothing else. As we move closer and begin to see individual faux pine-needles, Henry speaks: “Lufthansa should have made us – the heist of a lifetime. Six million in cash – more than enough to go around.”

It isn’t, of course. Over the next few minutes, the people involved in that heist – the same people we saw dancing and laughing in the Christmassy bar – are murdered. Johnny and his wife are dead in their pink Cadillac.

Goodfellas (1991) is not a Christmas film. The scenes just described take place over five minutes at most. But in that time director Martin Scorsese exploits the emotional grip and implicit associations of the festive season – friends coming together, giving gifts to each other – to say something about the people on screen. These characters may come together at Christmas, he says, but they are not friends or family. Gifts might be exchanged, but so might bullets. For all the apparent bonhomie, Mob spirit is very different from Christmas spirit.

For filmmakers, Christmas is a conceptual turkey, stuffed full of cultural and societal notions, fantasies and ideals that can be used on screen. In her 1996 book Christmas in America, cultural historian Penne Restad noted that more than a quarter of the top-grossing films in the US featured Christmas. Of these, only a small minority were explicitly about the season; the rest had perhaps the briefest cameo – a shot of a tree or snow or Christmas dinner – inserted for its potent emotional effect on audiences.

Such is its power to stir feeling that Christmas can be inserted into nearly any setting: in Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Jack Nicholson throws a secret Christmas party for the patients in their hellish psychiatric ward; in Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot (1981), we see Christmas on board a German U-boat; even in Psycho (1960), Hitchcock shows us Christmas decorations as Janet Leigh drives out of town towards the fatal Bates Motel. In Cuckoo’s Nest the effect is pathos, in Das Boot it’s irony (though it also humanises the crew), and in Psycho it’s tension and grim foreboding.

Conversely, films that ostensibly have Christmas as their subject may deal with very different themes. Take Holiday Inn (1942), the Bing Crosby vehicle that gave the world “White Christmas”. Here Christmas functions as a hopeful emblem of the future for wartime America, a period when some 27m Americans left their homes, mostly moving from rural to urban areas. Crosby, however, moves to rural Connecticut to set up a nightclub that only opens on holidays; when he dreams of the life “we used to know”, he is sentimentally evoking the memories and hopes of a homesick generation.

Similarly, in Meet Me in St Louis (1944), another canonical Christmas movie from the same period, Judy Garland sings: “From now on all our troubles will be out of sight ... Here we are as in olden days.” Like Holiday Inn, it looks forward while fixating on the past, and displacement is a key theme, but it too does not deal directly with the war; Hollywood trade papers at this time warned studios that this was not what audiences wanted to see. Both movies, in fact, give Christmas some of its original pagan charge, a symbolic reminder in deepest winter of the spring (we hope) to come; they have also done much to fix an idealised version of the festival in the popular imagination.

Yuletide sentimentality was not limited to American films. Made in the same year as Holiday Inn, Noël Coward’s In Which We Serve (1942) promoted national unity and class solidarity by cutting between the Christmas dinners of three families from different classes. Jean Renoir also used the season in La Grande Illusion (1937), except that he, an ardent humanist and internationalist, used Christmas in the service of his own ideals instead of his country’s. Set towards the end of the first world war, the film depicts its characters – German, French, Jewish – spending Christmas on a secluded farm together. Here the tree, the candles, the music are the unifying factor among people who are supposed to be enemies; Christmas is the language that they all speak.

It is a still more international language nowadays. Western Christmas rituals, exported by Hollywood, have permeated even those countries and cultures in which Christianity is not a dominant religion, including India, China and especially Japan. Satoshi Kon’s anime Tokyo Godfathers (2003) looks at homelessness and addiction via a plot involving an abandoned baby found on Christmas Eve. And in one of the key scenes of Palestinian director Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention, winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2002, a Father Christmas is beaten by a gang of youths.

Which is not very festive – but that, surely, is the point. Filmmakers delight in exploiting the tension (or the affinity) between what Christmas is supposed to be – goodwill to all men and all that – and what is actually happening in the stories they tell. Yet that current ideal of Christmas itself owes a lot to Hollywood; its connection with the Nativity is as tenuous as so much else in the modern holiday. If Christmas remains irresistible to filmmakers, that reflects their predecessors’ success in shaping it.

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