Christmas films with Christmas characters are enjoyed by millions at Christmas. In a strange way, it is a subculture confined to one month of the year. There is a hallowed cultural cannon and a curious cultural consumption pattern. Songs, films and foods that are roundly ignored (or actively avoided) are devoured avariciously this time of year. Those that are accepted into this annual reiteration are not marked for quality or chosen from personal preference. Instead, they emerge like the bizarre winter nightmare of our collective unconscious.
Forced upon ourselves through the self-flagellating instrument of Christmas institutionalization. Those characters that enter the annual Pandora's Box speak to the undefinable essence of Christmasness, a message of hope and a dictatorial all-pervading theme for one twelfth of your life. I believe these five characters embody Christmas.
5. George Bailey, It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
It's been seventy years since It's a Wonderful Life, first screened in cinemas. But with the certainty of the passing of seasons, and the likelihood of continuing Western civilization (questionable at time of writing) we can assume it'll still be around in seventy years time; to be wheeled out in Ultimate Definitive Remastered editions annually. It's many people's favorite Christmas film and I believe there's one reason for that; George Bailey. James Stewart cemented himself in tradition, and no doubt secured a Christmas royalty cheque that only one eccentric old man's disturbing screaming could rival.
George is the OP, the Original Party man. He starts the film in dyer straights and is close to committing Christmas suicide. That is until he really hits the sauce. Bailey shows us the true meaning of Christmas, getting so ruined you hallucinate an unassuming man in a 40s suit is in fact an angel who affirms your life through time travel. Though Bailey's big night out takes him to some dark places, ultimately when the bell rings for final orders, the people of the town decide to give him loads of money for being such a top bloke. And Bailey can enjoy his fuggy hungover Christmas with his loving family.
4. The Gremlins, Gremlins (1984)
To many Gremlins, the prelude to Joe Dante's critically acclaimed masterpiece Gremlins 2: A New Batch, is the ultimate in Hipster Christmas movies. Its the sort of bizarre genre-bending magic the 80s so readily produced. It's simultaneous protagonist and antagonist, the Jekyll and Hyde-esque Furbies, became a staple in the CCC (The Christmas Cultural Canon). And far from suggesting that Christmas is a novelty driven, nonsensical over-bloated commercial enterprise where any movie with obvious enough merchandising opportunities, is a shoo in for success, Gremlins admission into the Festive Hall of Famers is a testament to its reflection of modern Christmas values. Reflect for a moment on the Mogwai's story. A mogwai is delivered to an unwitting teenager, by his father who recieved it from the hands of an exoticised stereotype.
The word mogwai is the transliteration of the Cantonese word 魔怪 (Jyutping: mo1 gwaai3; Standard Chinese: 魔鬼; pinyin: móguǐ) meaning "monster", "evil spirit", "devil" or "demon". Wikipedia
The Chinese symbol of evil is delivered like a Trojan horse, with the smiling face of a more marketable Christmas toy, and three simple rules;
- Don't expose to bright light
- Don't let it get wet
- Don't feed it after midnight
The hapless Billy American of course ignores 2 out of 3 these rules, and through a blinding blend of negligence and moronity, sets loose a rocket wielding army of reptilian terrors on his home town who kill and Christ-maim the civilians of Kingston Falls. Before being lured into a screening of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, where they're roundly exterminated, the remaining Mogwai eke out a slow final third of the film before being collected by their original owner, and taken away back where they came from, despite the deep bond between still-fluffy-gremlin Gizmo and Billy.
Gremlin's detractors mistakenly envision the whole plot line as a fascist propaganda-esque scare piece about welcoming other cultures into your home with a stark warning "there just might be a Gremlin in your house". Sure, 'is the gremlin's film racist?' is a phrase that will return 226,000 results including one list of the 'The 50 Most Racist Movies', but perhaps they've missed the real point.
In fact the titular Gremlins are our aspiration in this film. Embodying Christmas values of staying up late and eating past our bedtime, of drinking too much "'water'" and causing mayhem, with a chilling warning to avoid direct sunlight in the morning. Gremlins provides the horror element of Christmas, surely a joyful reflection on our ability to cause chaos that has been so well executed in Northern Europe. A way to terrify children and cause lasting psychological damage with cheery traditions like Austria's Krampus Night. When Gremlins entered the Christmas scene it brought the je ne sais quoi, the essence, of dressing up in terrifying costumes and intimidating children but now in the comfort of your home.
They show us, in the style of Ovid's Metamorphoses, that even in the Bleak midwinter we can bring about transformation. They of course calls forth symbols of fertility, of renewal and of hope for a life hereafter. A life where we live like Gremlins, indulging our every passion and avoiding at all costs following Walt Disney into the cinemas of our nightmares. An ever more relevant warning, of all the dangers of allowing Disney to claim every worthwhile franchise, given their ability to disappoint. We should fear their unavoidable ownership of Christmas. This year release your inner gremlin and avoid Disney films.
3. Kevin McCalister, Home Alone (1990)
I'm proud to say Macaulay Culkin taught me a lot. For instance that a Warhol inspired video tie in for your fast food themed Velvet Underground cover band could reasonably expect to amass over 3.5 million YouTube views. Further to this he has been imparting yuletide wisdom consistently throughout the entire, five film and three video game, Home Alone franchise. If Donald Trump had taken his own Home Alone advice and gone 'down the hall and to the left' the world might be a better place. And where George Bailey shows us drinking will solve all your problems, if you just drink enough, then Kevin McCalister teaches us that you can be teetotal and still have a wonderful festive period.
He reminds us that Christmas is about the joy of children, locking ill-meaning burglars inside your home and terrorizing them. Kevin doesn't need his family, who negligently abandon him once a year - no doubt for more adult enjoyments - he just needs household items and a delightfully Christmas themed sadism. Let's take a look at some of Kevin's most heart-warming Christmas traditions and revelries.
2. John McClane, Die Hard (1988)
He's the hero Christmas deserves, but not the one it needs right now. His right to rule is contested, his relevance to Christmas. So he'll be hunted. Because he can take it. Because he's not our hero. He's a silent guardian, a watchful protector, Bruce Willis is John McClane. I think sometimes in our comfortable homes and peaceful lives we sometimes forget the joy of terrorism. But not McClane - he fights terrorism with terrorism. He blows his way through a host of nameless, faceless carcasses and arrives just in time to kill the other character in the film, Severus Snape is Hans Gruber. Die Hard pairs back Christmas, it takes the bells and the bows off. Leaves only the smallest decoration; a Christmas tree in an early shot, a festive tape holster, a murdered human body with 'Now I have a Machine gun. Ho Ho Ho!' sprawled in blood across his chest and a Santa hat that's been dressed somewhat psychotically on his lifeless limp body.
It's not glitzy or glamorous, it's loud and murder-y. But McClane encapsulates Christmas, he's a deadbeat father who returns home only at Christmas to drunkenly attempt to revive his marriage and succeeds in doing so by murdering six highly trained German terrorists. It's the uplifting story of a man who makes a decision to change his life through heroic slaughter. McClane is Christmas unwrapped, raw. A character that has left the Christmas season, many on this list have not, and found some success. Being a disaffected alcoholic, borderline sociopath with no regard for his own well-being, is an easy thing to be at Christmas. Willis' astonishing performance in Die Hard 2: Die Harder shows us he's a character not just for Christmas but for any farfetched high stakes, back against the wall, scenario he can be the, shoot it with a machine gun, answer to.
1. Willie T Stokes, Bad Santa (2003)
The ultimate Christmas icon, has to be, you guessed it, the big man himself, who brings joy to millions... Billy Bob Thornton. Finally a depiction of Santa that doesn't insult Christmas. Willie T Stokes can now even claim the less-well-received sequel that every self-respecting super-commercial Christmas enterprise deserves. He redresses one of the greatest problems with Christmas today. Cheap imitations of Santa that simply don't attempt to live their role are an insult to our children. Willie T Stokes is a man, not a magic Santa man but at least he is willing to put his liver on the line to try and replicate Santa's ever increasing record of, 336 million glasses of brandy on his mince pie saturated annual drink-driveathon.
Willie T Stokes is a character that is not afraid to challenge inappropriate traditions, such as Santa giving presents. Santa in Bad Santa takes presents, he is a conman and a thief, a sex addict who's incapable of holding a job down and constantly breaks child protection protocols. When he's shot repeatedly on his porch in a robbery gone wrong, immediately after he makes a positive step as a character in caring for someone else, we're reminded not to change. Christmas is about stasis. Stasis in the way we celebrate. Stasis due to over consumption. And stasis in our personal growth and development. Because after all, new year gives us the hope for change even as the promise of a pocket-lining sequel ensure for dramatic purposes our forward progress as a human is minimal.