Has it ever occurred to you how few Australian Christmas movies there are and why our lives are so permeated by American culture (such as it is)? This week’s theme came to mind whilst seated in a front row pew at St Mark’s Anglican church in Warwick. We were participating in a Christmas service with our new choir, the East Street Singers.
It’s a magnificent 151-year-old sandstone kirk with a landmark tower, stained glass windows and distinctive bells which ring out over the town. The church has been much renovated and added to over the years and now is raising funds for sandstone restoration work costing $1 million. (see photo below)
The choir performed at various points during the evening church service, so there was time to sit and reflect. In my case, this amounted to thinking back many years to my childhood, raised in the Methodist faith by devout parents. Should I say this was my first time in a church since a funeral several years ago? I listened quite avidly to the ‘message’ by St Mark’s new Rector, the Rev Lizzie Gaitskell. I told her afterwards that her message was far removed from the fire and brimstone sermons of my childhood.
Her self-penned message compared the humble origins of the Christmas story with the commercial, chocolate-box version of the festive season. In saying so she confessed that she and her children has been indulging in a slightly saccharine diet of Christmas movies, courtesy of Netflix. The formulaic movies feature “picture-perfect, drought-free, carefree towns and villages in a festively snow-clad America, or a delightfully chocolate-box looking kingdom in Europe.”
“Is Christmas really to be found in this chocolate box escape hatch of our own contriving?” she asked.
There’s a lot we don’t know about the first Christmas, she added – was there even a donkey and a stable as such? Rev Gaitskill names Mary’s husband, Joseph, as the under-rated character in the Christmas story.
“In all likelihood Mary was little more than a teenager; carrying a child that was not her husband Joseph’s – though his readiness to marry her, guaranteed both hers and the baby’s safety.
“A young, first time Mother, giving birth outside her home town after a long journey. It’s as far from chocolate box as you can get.”
I ought not to confess to a wandering mind while listening to Lizzie deliver a message she had clearly put much time and thought into. But I was latching on the kernel of an idea for today’s FOMM, which I realised at that moment would be my 2019 Christmas message.
So the topic this week is Christmas movies, of which there are so many that websites dedicated to cinema can easily rattle off a ‘top 50’ or ‘top 100’ movies.
Two observations to be made here: the majority of movies have been generated by Hollywood, typically covering all of the traditional bases − Santa, snow, snowmen, reindeer, sleighs, plum pudding, Christmas bells, mistletoe, carols, Christmas trees and gift-giving.
The second point is that so few Christmas movies can stand repeated viewings, and even then, only once a year.
First of all there are feel-good movies which have no real bearing on Christmas other than that they are set at that time of year (Home Alone*, Love Actually*) or Christmas-setting action dramas (Diehard, Beverly Hills Cop*).
Some are (depending on your sense of humour and ideas about taste and relevance), quite appalling. I cite Bad Santa I and II, Gremlins and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation *. This third movie in a series about the hapless Griswold family is as tacky as the other two, raising the point made by a critic “One of the wonder s of Hollywood is how Chevy Chase still manages to get work.”
How crass is crass? Try this dialogue (from the 55 top Christmas movies review by Rotten Tomatoes).
Todd Chester: Hey Griswold! Where do you think you’re gonna put a tree that big?
Clark W. Griswold Jr. Bend over and I’ll show you!
Some of the movies mentioned can be seen on free-to-air TV in the coming week (those with an asterisk and also, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, Fred Klaus, Christmas with the Kranks and the (execrable) Office Christmas Party.
So what rings my Christmas bell, you may ask?
As you may know from my song ‘Burning Father’s Letters’, I am something of a Dickens fan. So most of the 30+ versions of A Christmas Carol sum up the Christmas message for me.
The classic story of Scrooge, a bitter miser who is beset by ghosts of Christmas past and persuaded to mend his ways, has been re-told dozens of times in wildly different ways.
I have seen maybe 6 versions, but movie websites rottentomatoes.com and cinemablend.com will tell you more than you ever needed to know about the others.
Starting with the silent version in 1901, A Christmas Carol keeps getting retold because it is a classic case of humanity prevailing over capitalism.
As it happens, the FX made-for-TV mini-series, starring Australia’s Guy Pierce as Ebenezer Scrooge, was released just yesterday.
It has already gleaned some scathing reviews, primarily for turning Scrooge into a scheming psychopath rather than a habitual curmudgeon. I will probably watch it anyway, as it is directed by Peaky Blinders director Steve Knight (who has a reputation for gothic ultra-violence).
The critics unanimously picked the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol starring Alistair Sim as a stand-out. I did like the 2009 CGI-laden version starring Jim Carrey. While it did stray from the Dickens story, I liked Bill Murray’s Scrooged. Some years back I recall seeing George C Scott and Edward Woodward in a British version which stuck authentically to the Dickens story.
Meanwhile in Australia, with our upside down version of Christmas, there have been only a half-dozen Christmas films worth mention.
They include the 1947 Chips Rafferty classic, Bush Christmas, remade in 1983 with Nicole Kidman, making her screen debut at 16. Now that we have a smart TV with access to a vast database of movies, I might track down this Jane Campion-directed movie (Ed: he always had a thing about Nicole, who I call ‘the stick insect’).
The Guardian’s Travis Johnston had a stab at making sense of Australia’s unwillingness to come to the Christmas movie party. He put it down to ‘simple visual iconography’.
“We celebrate Christmas in Australia, for sure, but we’re a desert island that experiences a seemingly endless summer, and the traditional trappings of the northern hemisphere holiday look a bit ludicrous against the bright, cloudless skies and blistering heat of an Australian December.”
I shall round out this FOMM with a few links to my Christmases-past. Thank you for supporting this weekly essay, now in its sixth year. I wrote this one on a fast-dying Toshiba laptop on a keyboard with two missing keys and the letters worn off five or six of the characters through relentless typing.
As my French travelling companion Marcel said in his tiny Paris apartment, circa 1978: “Merde – you write like a machine!”
Merry Christmas. Take care out there.