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)
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.
Source: Criterion Collection