12 Days of Christmas: Day 1 – A Brief History of Christmas Films

It’s been building steadily since October but now the rising tide of Christmas is upon us. In 12 days time the presents will be wrapped, the vegetables prepped, the little ones will be bouncing off the ceiling and there will be a mad last-dash to the shops for milk, bread and the present you haven’t bought for the relative that’s just announced they are on their way round. Then in less than 24 hours the turkey will be stripped bare, our stomachs will be bursting with sprouts and we’ll settle down on the sofa for The Queen’s Speech, wondering how so much effort and time could go in to one day.

Christmas really is the best time of the year. It’s a time when you actually have to think about others as well as yourself. It’s a time of over spending, over eating and under-valuing your worth as a cook or a wrapper. For the kids in your life its about continuing the fantasy of Father Christmas and the tradition of a mince pie, carrot and a glass of whiskey left for the big man and his reindeer. There are many Scrooge’s out there that will attest the commercialisation and heavy expectations of Christmas and though it’s true that advertisements and stock go into the shops long before we’ve finished buying suncream, there’s a certain je ne sais quoi about the festive season that is only amplified by Christmas films. The smell of cinnamon and spiced apple, the warmth of mulled wine, the beauty of bright lights against the harsh bitter cold dark nights, the same recycled Christmas songs, the indulgence of a dozen pigs in blankets and not even feeling sorry about it: what’s not to love about Christmas?

Christmas encompasses many things, and one of those is the Christmas film. It has become a bit of an institution and like most films it found its popularity in the 80’s and 90’s. Unlike other genres, the Christmas film is a niche, most certainly because it’s seasonal but also because in reality the breadth of what you can do with this type of film is limited. The first post in the 12 Days of Christmas series will cover a brief history of Christmas films, from the earliest entry to the latest attempt at capturing the vivacity of the season and the reason why filmmakers love to tackle this indelible genre.

Christmas Films

A BRIEF HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS FILMS

The earliest entry and the kickstarter for this genre was the 1912 silent film A Christmas Accident, in which a grumpy man who struggles to make ends meet and who is constantly at war with his well-to-do neighbours has his cold heart thawed by their young girl when he accidentally walks into their house on Christmas Eve. Its a sweet and warming tale that encapsulates the epitome of a Christmas film: second chances, forgiveness and an opportunity for happiness, all nicely wrapped up in a bundle of Christmas spirit.

The earliest – and certainly not the last – adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol hit the screens in 1935 and started a wave of interpretations of this classic book. The beauty of the early films is the fact that they were shot in black and white. With the absence of the usual abundance of colours associated with Christmas, these films still managed to capture the feeling of Christmas despite its somewhat cold appearance.

The next wave for the Christmas genre and the period that produced one of the greatest Christmas films of all time was the middle of the century from 1946 to 1952. The stars of the Golden Era of movies and the silk voices that rose from the wax and the needle became iconic for their roles in films like It’s A Wonderful Life, Holiday Inn and White Christmas, the latter known for its popularisation of its featured Christmas songs. It’s A Wonderful Life is a beautiful piece of film, taking the concept of a man hard-done-by who finds a new lease of life through the spirit of Christmas and catapults it straight into your heart. It is a gut-wrenching, heartbreaking yet heart-warming story that is the perfect film to watch on Christmas Eve – which is why I’ll be writing about it then.

It's A Wonderful Life

From then came a slew of A Christmas Carol interpretations that played heavy on the chains forged in life and the second chances afforded to Christmases biggest catchphrase king. The genre fell by the wayside slightly with no discernible reason until the mid-80’s, when sentimental and snow-melting slushy feel-good films like One Magic Christmas and A Christmas Story kind of over-egged the sentimentality and good nature of the Christmas season. Though entertaining, these entries felt a little forced.

Elsewhere, Christmas featured in all sorts of films whether related or not. Even the Slasher genre got involved with entries like Silent Night featuring a killer Santa Claus and Maniac Cop being set during the festive season. The bright red colours of Christmas were the crimson of a different kind.

Then came 1989 and the start of the modern wave of entries that lasted until at least 2011. The films that came before 1989 were standard Christmas film entries: redemption, forgiveness, happiness, sweetness and smiles. The reality of Christmas is often an entirely different story and so some of the greatest modern writers and actors captured that in the best way possible: a real Christmas film. Dysfunctional family members home for the holidays, disastrous decorations and trashed turkey took over from the sickly sweet sentimentality, and though these films were peppered with slushiness they had a heavy dose of cynicism to counter-act that. The Godfather of the 80’s, Mr John Hughes, crazy-paved the way with films such as National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and Home AloneMeanwhile, entries ranged from The Santa Clause through to Four Christmases that balanced the Christmas spirit with the honest reality of family strife and high expectations.

Home Alone

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is one of my favourite Christmas films of all time. Though I love the sentimentality and feel-good nature of It’s A Wonderful Life, there’s just something about Christmas Vacation that ticks all of the boxes. Our iconic lead is the relatable working hero Clark Griswold who is planning to use his company Christmas bonus to build his ideal swimming pool in the back garden. Meanwhile his family descend on his doorstep, his extravagant lighting show struggles to work and his tether is reaching its end. Clark’s outburst at the end gives the audience that relieved release, hearing the words said that we’ve probably all wanted to say to someone at Christmas at one point or another.

Christmas Vacation

The 90’s into the noughties brought an abundance of varied Christmas films, ranging from the dysfunctional families to the animated children’s adventures to the North Pole and beyond. More dramatic films such as This Christmas and The Family Stone placed emphasis on family life with little room given for slapstick mishaps; in place of that was real drama and heartache that was only healed through the spirit of Christmas. Others such as Fred Claus put a unique spin on the story of Father Christmas, whilst Arthur Christmas and The Polar Express re-invented the wheel with their animated expansions of the North Pole.

But, just like Christmas songs, films have struggled in recent times to produce a good enough contender to stand against the giants of the 80’s and 90’s. Are audiences becoming desensitised to the sentimentality? Are they tired of the dysfunctional family concept? Is there any other way that we can show the North Pole? Since 2011 we’ve kind of hit a rut of Christmas films with no particular buzz surrounding any future projects. We are limited with what we can do when it comes to Christmas films as there are only certain areas we can focus on, so perhaps there needs to be a bit of a cooling-off period where we enjoy the classics before a new era is ushered in. Who knows? I’ve got my own ideas but one thing is for certain – the classics will never die.

Arthur Christmas

TOMORROW: A Christmas Carol

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