By definition, the very notion of Santa Claus riding down from the toy workshop hidden in the frosty wasteland of the North Pole to deliver toys to all the good boys and girls of the world in a single nocturne is a feat of pure mythic fabulism. At some point in time, even the most gullible child will learn that Santa Claus isn’t real. Even afterwards, however, the myth and whimsy of the time spills out into a myriad of seasonal specials and stories that carry that element of the fantastic, and wink and nod to the magic and the imaginary. Many of the best Christmas specials are made even better by their embrace of the realms of fantasy, and the mysterious and numinous psychic energy that drives modern myth-making. For grown-ups disinterested in nostalgia, there are still enjoyable seasonal films. (The internet, of course, suggests that Die Hard is a Christmas film, but I am not even referring to the idea that the time of year, alone, is what makes it a Christmas film… I want the film to be actually about Christmas, not just happening around Christmas!)
My recommendation, for adults and fans of speculative, then is to look to films that seem to celebrate the mystery and strangeness of the mythologies of Christmas, either for comedic effect or for other story impacts. High on my, personal, list is a modern classic inspired by an excellent, little book from the recently departed master, Terry Pratchett, The Hogfather. The book is, of course, excellent for a reread on a dreary Winter day. It has one of the most interesting and unforgettable mashups wherein Death, the Grim Reaper, in full robe and scythe, steps in to fill the role of the missing Santa-equivalent, the titular Hogfather. Death dons the garbs of the Hogfather, and sits upon a chair, where children come and tell Death what they want for Christmas with all the love and mirth that… Well, he’s still the Grim Reaper, and love and mirth aren’t really possible for him, but his unique presence is a delightful look at what is, in fact, a supernatural encounter and a contract with a supernatural being. Behav
ing oneself in exchange for presents is a contractual thing, and exploring that idea of contracts with the supernatural made by children, who are too young to understand the risks is an important part of the whole thing, and the Tooth Fairy gets involved, as well, as one would imagine. The miniseries version is an excellent, much faster thing, starring Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery as Death’s daughter. It’s a delightful romp for all ages that is perfect for a night in when the weather outside is just not very delightful, at all.
If delightful isn’t exactly the goal, and something a bit more intense is desired, it is easy to forget that the classic comedy/horror mash-up from 1984, Gremlins, is a Christmas movie! The Mogwai is a Christmas Present, and the gremlins unleash their horror upon the most holy of nights, in the deep snow, in a very “small town America” sort of town
that only seems to exist in the movies. The magical creatures that become startling mayhem parody American consumer culture as the gremlin horde wrecks and consumes everything in their path, until they are lured into a movie theater for their ultimate demise, which is probably a commentary on American consumption of media. Note: Do not watch this holiday classic with children who still believe in Santa Clause. At one point, near the end of the film, characters in the scene reveal that they have discovered that Santa Clause isn’t real! This one is reserved for grown-ups and older kids, only!
There are many editions of the classic ghost story, A Christmas Carol, and everyone will have their own favorite. I’m partial to the Muppet edition if only because the music is great, and the spectacular and deadly serious performance of Michael Caine set against the whimsy of puppets really enhances my viewing experience. But, perhaps the best version for the modern, grown-up viewer is
Scrooged, starring Bill Murray. Not only is Bill Murray always a delight, but the format provided by the classic story is being staged by a greedy TV executive, played by Bill Murray, which provides ample opportunity for scene-stealing cameos by the many performers involved in both the play-within-a-play, and Mr. Cross’ journey through Christmas Past, Present, and Future. Be on the lookout for Bobcat Goldthwaite, David Johanson (of the New York Dolls), Alfre Woodard, Carol Kane, Buddy Hackett, and more. Half the fun of the film is trying to pick out and remember all the different familiar faces. It makes a classic Christmas story into something of a competition among friends, to point out and name and explain all the different performers that appear, and what else they’ve done. It’s a big reason why kids might not appreciate the film as much as the adults: kids won’t recognize many of the actors!
For fans of straight science-fiction, Christmas is often not a source of great film or television. The Doctor Who Christmas specials are really only for people who really like Doctor Who, and not everyone does. It’s a unique medium, like Star Wars, or Star Trek. As much fun as they can be, in my opinion, they really rely heavily not on Christmas lore, but on the zany world of Doctor Who, itself. No, I prefer a different sort of Christmas story, that imagines a future of Christmas, itself, similar but incredibly different, leaning heavily on the creepiest aspect of Santa Claus: He’s always watching…
Futurama imagines a future where Christmas has become a nightmare. Santa Claus is a murderous robot that brings death to all the naughty people. Homes must be armored and prepared to protect the inhabitants against the annual invasion of an evil robot Santa, hellbent on murder and destruction, who is always watching, listening, and keeping records of all the naughty things people have done. He will punish. There are, to date, three Christmas episodes that are each unique and amusing deconstructions of Christmas through the eyes of the protagonist, Fry, who carries happy memories of the consumerist Christmas of our generation into a future where Christmas is a night of fear and death wearing many of the symbols of our current iteration of the celebration. It’s a hilarious exploration of not only the holiday, itself, but the notion of an all-seeing deity-like figure who is keeping a list of sins and preparing to punish people. The rules that created the list are often archaic, after all, and dogmatic approaches to ancient traditions lead more often than not to more heartbreak and pain that joyful celebrations. Xmas is a reminder that our seasonal celebratory traditions should be disattached from any notions of cultural morals, and we should, instead, just gather together, and huddle against the terrifying cold and darkness, where death could swoop down upon us at any moment in the long, long night.