Thursday, December 22, 2011
He had a real purpose. All gone now.
WHAT'S IN A NAME? The wags are all coming forward with their lists of best and worst Christmas movies. Big Hollywood is even featuring a list of best non-Christian Christmas movies.
I'm not going to critique the lists, but I will characterize what's on them: Obsolete nostalgia that caters to adults, not children. Grown men are arguing back and forth about whether Christmas Story has finally eclipsed It's a Wonderful Life, while others are still charmed by Miracle on 34th Street, White Christmas, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, and Holiday Inn. I don't think anybody much cares for The Polar Express, but the Hallmark Channel is disgracing the whole subject with an endless set of treacly movies involving Santa's family and various dysfunctions therein that can only be resolved by has-been actors checking the "heartwarming" box on their fading resumes.
Hollywood, in all its native generosity, wants to give us various Bad Santas who rob banks and Christmas charities but back off at the last second in a nod to, um, peace on earth and like that.
But none of these is actually a movie for children. The only magic ever cited is that of grownups rediscovering the innocence of childhood for a day or a week at most.
What I'm about to say is heresy, but I have to say it anyway. It's all junk. And this isn't a rant about post-modernism. The problem was intensely exacerbated by the Coca Cola company, but the real problem begins all the way back with Clement Moore's T'was the Night Before Christmas (which postdates the last surviving vestige of Old Christmas, Dickens's "A Christmas Carol."). That's what separated Santa Claus from his Christian roots. When he became a "jolly old elf," he became secular, and the division of Christmas into two co-existent but contradictory holidays, one religious and one commercial, began. Why the current favorite, A Christmas Story, is almost devoid of religious content. What kid actually gets more than a tenth of the wry humor in Jean Shepard's admittedly amusing memoir? If they do, it speaks more to their observations of silly parents than their own experience. Ovaltine decoder rings? If they're laughing at that, it's only because you're laughing and they're sharing your laughter.
Even the new movies are just remakes, dressed up with sophisticated industrial allusions or the toleration of childish credulity, designed to drive home the point that Santa Claus doesn't, can't possibly, exist. The apotheosis of this intention is a new iPhone ad. Santa receives a text from Mrs. Santa: "You have 3.8 billion appointments." Ha ha.
Santa Claus -- otherwise known as St. Nicholas -- was once a Christian not a commercial symbol. He wasn't magical; he was a sliver of divinity. He was each child's introduction to the consequences of moral obligation. If you'd been good, he would reward you. If you'd been bad, you might get sticks and lumps of coal in your stocking. He was a Christ figure in children's terms.
I remember. I remember worrying whether I'd been good or bad and how that might be judged by someone who didn't necessarily hear all my excuses. My earliest memory of critical self-reflection. And then, when Christmas morning came and there were presents instead of coal, I felt joy. So I am not such a bad boy after all. That's the message of Christian redemption in a nutshell. Kindergarten Christianity.
All gone now. Even the oldest of the most revered movies postulate Santa as a kind of idiot who exists only to bring delight to children one day of the year. Unless they're conveying the dark truth that Santa is a figment of childhood imagination, best responded to by learning the truth sooner rather than later or, more sentimentally, later rather than sooner. (Poor Natalie Wood.)
So Santa Claus is dead. The MSM revels in stories about drunken Santas at malls, unvetted Santas who might be child molesters, Santas who are coached to keep children's wishes within their parents' economic means, and on and on. My parents once walked a similar but far less deadly tightrope: the street corner Santas were his helpers, as were the department store Santas, and the Clement Moore poem was a Christmas Eve ritual almost akin to confession and absolution: Yes, all is forgiven and he is on his way; you can sleep peacefully tonight. A kind of preparation for Communion. Why, perhaps, we reciprocated with cookies and a beverage for the one who was going to sanctify us by his presence.
One final point. I know it can be argued that the Santa question has been rendered moot by time itself. The myth is corny, inconceivable, preposterous. No wonder there hasn't been anything new in a couple of generations. Adult nostalgia is the only possible corner of Christmas in which Santa can still exist at any level.
But this, too, is a falsehood. The extraordinary success with children of all ages of Harry Potter points the way toward a new Christmas classic -- if only anyone wanted to make one. Is there not room in a Harry Potter type universe for a new version of St. Nicholas who does indeed see and remember what each child has been up to and rewards or admonishes them individually? He doesn't have to be fat or jolly or small, and he doesn't have to have a factory filled with toy-making elves. He's a spirit who guards and instructs the children, fabricating their gifts on the fly from the goodness of their own souls. That's his inspiring energy. He could look like Dumbledore or Gandalf. He could be a little bit frightening even in his goodness, which mix has been a staple of childhood fiction from Hans Christian Andersen to the Brothers Grimm to Charles Perrault.
I don't know about you. But I miss the old guy. Maybe, like Lazarus, he too can rise from the dead. If we could just stop thinking that Christmas is about us and our memories rather than the kids we pretend to adore.