Pop culture librarian Rob Weiner discusses the history of joy and wonderment in popular Christmas films.
Take a moment and picture this scene: there's only a few days left until Christmas; all of your gifts have been wrapped and the stocking hung by the fire; your Christmas tree sparkles brightly in a corner and the house is quiet. With these spare moments you have to yourself, you decide to pop in one of your favorite Christmas films.
This scene might sound all too familiar as watching Christmas films is a holiday tradition shared by many. In fact, the presence of Christmas films can be traced back to the silent film era, says Texas Tech pop culture librarian Rob Weiner, with many of them being home movies starring popular actors at the time.
However, it wasn't until the late 1930s and early 1940s that these films began to shift toward presenting positive messages about Christmas rather than strictly religious connotations. It became more than that, focusing on goodwill, charity, giving, and beyond. This could especially be seen in classics such as "It's A Wonderful Life" and "Miracle on 34th Street."
"With movies like "It's A Wonderful Life" and "Miracle on 34th Street," you find Christmas being presented in a way some might say is saccharine now," Weiner said. "They are, I think, about the joy of living, the joy of being kind, and the joy of going beyond who you are to think about someone else."
Another shift came in the sixties, not in message, but in presentation. This was the decade that films like "A Charlie Brown Christmas," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Frosty the Snowman" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" began their tenure as classic animated favorites. These would be joined in later years by memorable titles such as "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" and "The Year Without A Santa Claus."
These films continue to remain popular, Weiner said, because of their role in our culture's collective consciousness. These characters have become part of our folklore and continue to bring a sense of wonderment to the season. Yet, there is one tale with a popularity that has withstood the test of time far longer than its predecessors: Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."
Dickens' short story has been adapted to film countless times over in every cinematic universe from The Muppets to Disney and beyond. It is a tale that remains so popular and continues to be reinvented, Weiner believes, because of how audiences connect with its message of redemption and goodwill. That, and the notion that everyone knows an Ebenezer Scrooge.
"We all know someone who is like Ebenezer Scrooge: Greedy, selfish, narcissistic," Weiner said. "What that story does is show that it's possible for even the worst person to have redemption and be able to share in what it means to be generous and kind. I think that Ebenezer Scrooge shows both the worst of humanity and the best possibility for active change. I can't really see that story going out of style."
While each of these films may present different characters in varying storylines, they are all connected by their ability to revive magic not only in the holiday season, but in the minds of both children and adults alike. Even with the rising commercialization of the season, Christmas films still have the power to break through the noise and present something more pure and tangible, even if society itself has lost its sense of wonder along the way.
"We've lost our sense of wonder. We've lost our ability to find joy in simple things, and I think that's what these stories are about," Weiner said. "I think it's been lost in the commercialization and in the technological culture we live in. In these films, wonder becomes tangible because what's good and kind in the world should be that real, is that real, and can be that real."