What Christmas carols are to pop music, Christmas movies are to cinema. You don’t see hide nor hair of them outside of the holiday season, and, much like Christmas itself, they’re so ubiquitous and unavoidable that even if you’ve never seen all of, say, A Christmas Story, or It’s a Wonderful Life, or Miracle on 34th Street, chances are you’ve caught enough on cable TV and in department store windows to piece them together. (I’ve never actually sat down and listened to “Jingle Bell Rock” or “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” but I can sing both of them word for word.) If you grew up in a Christmas-obsessed family like mine, though, these films are forever burned into your memory, and it’s sort of awful. This is mostly due to the stringent nature of the Christmas movie canon: There are probably thousands of Christmas movies out there, but only a dozen or so seem to get any significant play, and very few contemporary efforts make their way into the upper tier (the most recent of which being, for whatever reason, Elf), so as much as people love watching Christmas movies on Christmas, or in the weeks leading up to Christmas, or even the weeks following Christmas, they are—quite stubbornly—picking from an extremely limited bunch.
At first thought, it seems strange and somewhat masochistic that people would willingly sit down at a specific time each year and watch a film they’ve seen dozens of times before, but when you remember that movies are—among other things—traditions, it makes a lot more sense. More important than the movies themselves are the memories and feelings associated with them. Individual people can ascribe unique emotions to a film seen by millions of people, a powerful notion that points to the value of cinema and art. It’s easy for me to scoff at someone for watching Home Alone or The Nightmare Before Christmas for the umpteenth time because I hate Christmas, but I can’t say I don’t the same thing for other movies at different times of the year. For instance, I love watching All That Heaven Allows and Rushmore during the fall; at Halloween, chances are I’ll watch Suspiria, Night of the Living Dead, or, yes, Halloween; when the weather is hot, I’ll cool down with The Shining or The Gold Rush; when it’s cold, Wake in Fright and Rear Window warm me up; when I come down with a bug and need to rest, I like to see how far I can make it through Satantango; and for whatever reason, I like to watch Punch-Drunk Love on or around my birthday.
So in a way, I admire Christmas movies for reminding me that watching a movie is never passive act. It always serves an immediate function, one that’s sometimes irrelevant to what’s actually being watched. At this point, I can tune out National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and simply enjoy being around people who are having a really good time watching a movie, even if it’s a movie they can—and do—quote line for line. And for the record, if I’m choosing the Christmas movie, it’s always Gremlins.