The original Christmas story is the birth of Jesus Christ in Nazareth. It is, literally, the story of a birth, the birth of a new hope. Two thousand years later the Christmas message has turned into mainstream fictional entertainment, much of the Christian teaching has been subsumed by cross-genre plots like the comedy, the romcom, the buddy story, and stories about reversals of fate and fortune. They are warnings about loss (the loss of kindness, of generosity, and of humanity), and celebrations of the Christmas spirit through a redemptive ending (celebrations of newfound generosity, the rediscovery of acts of sharing and kindness, compassion, forgiveness, overcoming pride, being more honest with oneself, and generally learning to be a better person). These are ‘feel good’ stories with a moral heart.
While it wasn’t the first Christmas story, Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol (1843) has become the best known Christmas tale. Fittingly, it’s a cross-genre story that merges the ghost story with a morality-based redemptive ending. The Christmas setting gives the story a contrast between the coldness of winter against the warmth of human goodness. When three ghosts visit Ebenezer Scrooge, showing him his callous selfishness, he realises that he must change his ways. His new behaviour also transforms the lives of those around him. It makes his life more meaningful and happier. The tale has been retold in countless theatrical productions, radio plays, and films: from Scrooge, or, Marley’s Ghost (1901) to Scrooged (1988), The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), and A Christmas Carol (2009) .
In It’s Wonderful Life suicidal George Bailey is forced to rethink his life when an angel takes him around his town, showing him a world where he never existed. The plot device has similarities to A Christmas Carol except the protagonists moral position is reversed: he is a good man who isn’t aware of his own goodness, or how his goodness has made the world a better place.
Mainstream Christmas films often feature a central character who has fallen into cynicism or materialism and must be reminded about the Christmas message. This may involve some Christmas ‘magic’, an intervention by Santa Claus or one of his helpers, or a Good Samaritan type of character.
In romcom versions of the Christmas story (especially made for television films) two characters are mutually attracted to one another, but one (or both) of them stubbornly refuses to contemplate getting into a relationship. They must be reminded about the importance of giving love a chance, taking a risk, seeing beyond their career — and learning to embrace their family and friends.
The importance of family is a recurring theme in the Christmas story. In National Lampoons Christmas Vacation(1989), Clark Griswold does everything he can to provide a traditional Christmas for his family, just like the ones he enjoyed as a boy, and to protect his family from the harsh realities of the world. In Jingle All the Way (1996) another father, Howard Langston, realises that his workaholic lifestyle has alienated him from his wife and son. He attempts to compensate for his lack of attention by obtaining the last Turbo-Man action figure for his son. His quest results in self-discovery and redemption. What his son really needs is a father who spends more time with his child.
Sometimes a magical being is the catalyst for change, an elf, or a snowman. In The Snowman (1982), a living snowman takes a boy on a fantastic journey to the North Pole. And in Jack Frost (1998) a deceased father revisits the world of the living, and his son, by taking on the form of a snowman. In Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and Bad Santa (2003) two unlikely Characters are mistaken for the real Santa Claus, and (even if they are or not) other peoples’ faith in them has a transformative effect on their predicament, and their belief in themselves.
In the buddy story Deck the Halls (2006) two neighbourhood enemies who loathe one another discover each others’ finer qualities. After a heated battle of wits they find forgiveness and friendship.
The Christmas story is a ‘feel good’ story, full of hope. It’s a place where decency and humanity triumphs. Part of its appeal is that are no ‘win/lose scenarios’, because there are no losers — only winners.