December 26, 2014
video essay

Watch: Why Are Christmas Films So Sad?

Plus, other year-end existential thoughts on cinema.

Whether you actively celebrate Christmas or are simply an innocent bystander to the sound of jingle bells and peppermint-flavored everything, chances are you watched your fair share of holiday movies.

And you might've noticed a prevalent theme in them as well—not just the fact that they all take place around Christmastime or feature Santa in one of his many, sometimes strange manifestations (ahem, Tim Allen)—but that they tend to be, well, kind of grim and depressing. In this excellent piece from Criterion, video essayists Michael Koresky and Casey Moore take a look inside the world of Christmas movies to investigate the "longstanding tradition of bleak midwinters at the movies," noting such classics as A Christmas Carol, It's a Wonderful Life, Mon oncle Antoine, My Night at Maud's, and A Christmas Tale.

I admit, Christmas movies never struck me as being particularly depressing and dreary, but upon taking a closer look at their themes it makes perfect sense when you consider what this holiday represents for many people: joy, unity, togetherness, redemption, light—essentially everything a traditional fictional character fights to obtain in any drama. And what creates good drama? Putting that character up against forces, like depression, dissension, loneliness, condemnation, and darkness, that directly oppose their goal to obtain these things.

For many, the holiday season is not only a time of great joy, but also of great sadness; the cold chill of the winter winds, the shorter days and longer nights, the final existential thoughts that bear down on your mind as yet another year draws to a close. It's no wonder that we see a considerable amount of these types of films taking place during Christmastime because whether it's George Bailey finding it or Kris Kringle offering it, hope is an attitude that so many of our greatest fictional characters are desperately trying to acquire. The year's end only intensifies the search for it; it's an iconic "ticking clock" that mirror's the one whose pulse is louder and heavier, the grandest and gravest timekeeper of all: death.

'A Christmas Carol' dir. Brian Desmond Hurst (1951)
'A Christmas Carol' dir. Brian Desmond Hurst (1951)

However, at the end of these Christmas films, we usually see our hero completely absolved of all wrong-doing, redeemed and reconciled with the world from which they were cast or they themselves abandoned. They're given another chance, a new lease on life just before December ends and January begins. They're born anew by the dawn of the new year into a world where everything from the past is forgotten and everything that lay ahead is what that character fought the dark cold to obtain.     

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1 Comment

It is an interesting analysis, but I would also point out that with the exception of comedy, virtually every other story structure deals with many of the same issues. I would also point out that far beyond simply the changing of seasons, the Biblical texts themselves carry a strong theme of redemption. Case in point: the current discussion surrounding "Unbroken", here is a man who has in reality experienced a dark life and it consumes him when he returns home, until and finds redemption at an evangelistic event.

December 26, 2014 at 11:22AM

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The films that were produced before and after participation in WWII by five famous directors -- John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler, and Frank Capra -- are covered in the book "Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War" by Mark Harris. What they saw firsthand had a terrible effect on all five and it showed in their movies. It was extremely difficult to make lighthearted romps after seeing and documenting the Nazi death camps.

Which leads to your other point -- the existential consideration of one's mortality as year after year pass and you step closer to the grave. Death awaits us all. How you deal with that truth is critically important.

Christmas is about the incarnation of the creator God into human flesh. The baby's mission is to redeem His creation from the curse of death. There's a reason the Gospel is called the "good news." If one understands and believes the offer, Christmas is a wonderful time, and for existential reasons. If you don't believe the offer and feel alone, hopeless and simply waiting for death of nothingness in a hollow meaningless universe, it's no wonder Christmastime can be depressing.

December 26, 2014 at 1:52PM, Edited December 26, 1:52PM

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I don't see any importance in Xmas, now that I am an adult. However, I can understand why some people are depressed with the event, when they are alone and others are with family. There are a great many quarrels at Xmas too. I think it would be very interesting to see a movie about Xmas focused on the divide between relatives. I have never seen such a movie. Anyway...tut tah Xmas for another year :)

December 26, 2014 at 6:55PM

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Peter Kenneth The 3rd 1/2
stock video once in a blue moon
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www = world wide web, you should add "American" or "US" to your title as you cannot generalize this affirmation for the whole world.
Film industry is big in US, but Cinema is present everywhere else. Spain, Italy, France, China, HKG and many other countries are producing bunch of funny films during Xmas period.
You should welcome this Film culture diversity, discover it and promote it.
For example, one 1982 French Xmas movie became cult. "Le Père Noël est une ordure" (Santa Klaus is a bastard). Easy to find on the world wide web with English subtitle.
Best wishes for 2015 to your great website!

December 26, 2014 at 7:33PM

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Franc Sanka
Director of Photography / Film and Photography Teacher
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