If you’re one of those people who’ll be settling in tonight with a cup of hot apple cider to watch a vacation movie, you’re not alone. Holiday movies have become firmly entrenched in Americans’ winter celebrations.
The New York Times reports a massive increase in new holiday movies this year. Disney, Netflix, Lifetime and Hallmark now compete head-to-head for viewers’ attention, with both new releases and reruns of the classics.
Holiday movies are so popular, not just because they are “escapes” as my research on the relationship between religion and cinema asserts. On the contrary, these films offer viewers a glimpse of the world as it could be.
Christmas films as a reflection
This is especially true with Christmas movies.
Impartial. Impartial. Factual.
In his 2016 book “Christmas as Religion”, religious studies scholar Christopher Deacy states that Christmas films act as a “barometer of how we might want to live and how we might see and measure ourselves.”
These films offer a variety of portraits of everyday life while affirming ethical values and social mores along the way.
The 1946 classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” – about a man who longs to travel but gets stuck in the city of his childhood – depicts visions of a community in which every citizen is a vital part.
Another commonly replayed film this time of year is 2005’s “The Family Stone,” which depicts the clashes of a mostly average family, but shows viewers that feuds can be resolved and harmony is possible.
The 2003 British holiday film ‘Love Actually’, which follows the lives of eight couples in London, brings viewers the eternal theme of romance and relationship trials.
Vacation movies create alternate realities that bring comfort to us.
Watching movies as a ritual practice
As the holiday movies take viewers into a fictional world, people are able to overcome their own fears and desires regarding self-esteem and relationships. Such films can bring comfort, reaffirmation and sometimes even courage to continue working in difficult situations. The films offer the hope of believing that all might end well in the end.
When people see a part of their own life unfolding onscreen, the act of looking works in a surprisingly similar way to a religious ritual.
As anthropologist Bobby Alexander explains, rituals are actions that transform people’s daily lives. Rituals can open “ordinary life to ultimate reality or to a transcendent being or force”, he writes in the collection “Anthropologie de la religion”.
For example, for Jews and Christians, ritually observing the Sabbath day by sharing meals with family and not working connects them to the creation of the world. Prayer rituals in Muslim, Christian and Jewish traditions connect those who pray with their God, as well as with fellow believers.
Holiday movies do something similar, except that the “transcendent force” they make viewers feel is not about God or some other Supreme Being. Instead, this force is more secular: it is the power of family, true love, a sense of home, or the reconciliation of relationships.
Movies create an idealized world
Take the case of the 1942 musical “Holiday Inn”. It was one of the first films – after the various silent era versions of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” – where the plot used Christmas as backdrop, telling the story of a group of artists who gathered in a country inn.
In reality, it was a deeply secular film about romantic interests, framed in a desire to sing and dance. Upon its release, the United States had been fully involved in WWII for a year and the national mood was not in good shape.
The film did not hold up like a classic.
But Bing Crosby’s song “White Christmas”, which was featured on it, quickly became engraved in the holiday consciousness of many Americans, and a 1954 film called “White Christmas” became better known.
As historian Penne Restad puts it in her 1995 book “Christmas in America”, Crosby’s crooning offers the “quintessential expression” of holidays, a world that “has no dark side” – a world in. which “the war is forgotten”.
In the following Christmas films, the main storylines were not set against a war background, but there is often a battle nonetheless: that of overcoming a materialistic holiday, buying gifts and presents.
Films such as “Jingle all the Way”, “Deck the Halls” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” revolve around the idea that the true meaning of Christmas is not in rampant consumerism but in goodwill and family love.
Dr Seuss’ grumpy Grinch thinks he can ruin Christmas by taking all the presents. But as people gather, without gifts, they hold hands and sing along as the narrator tells viewers, “Christmas has arrived anyway.”
Although Christmas is a Christian holiday, most holiday movies are not religious in the traditional sense. There is hardly any mention of Jesus or the biblical setting of his birth.
As media studies scholar John Mundy wrote in a 2008 essay, “Christmas and the Movies,” “Hollywood movies continue to build Christmas as an alternate reality.”
These films create on-screen worlds that elicit positive emotions while providing a few laughs.
“A Christmas Story,” from 1983, becomes nostalgic for childhood vacations when life seemed simpler and the desire for a Red Ryder air rifle was the most important thing in the world. The plot of 2003’s “Elf” centers around the quest to find a lost father.
Ultimately, as the narrator puts it at the end of “A Christmas Story” – after the family got over a serious, laughable incident, the gifts were unwrapped and they got together for the Christmas goose – this are times when “all is well with the world.”
Sr. Brent Rodriguez-Plate is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Film and Media Studies, by special appointment, at Hamilton College.