Merry equals money

Or the anti-capitalist Christmas-movie critique you were expecting

Why do we spend so much time watching Christmas movies that ultimately remind us what we’re supposed to have and all too often lack? Perhaps the “true meaning of Christmas” is not that real peace on Earth comes from love for our fellows. Perhaps, as the movies would have it, it’s that we should struggle to acquire more stuff and pretend we want to give it to our fellows. Sure, Christmas “lives in our hearts”—if our hearts are in our wallets, snuggled in there between all the maxed-out, interest-magnet credit cards.

Any veteran watcher of Christmas movies—especially those of us who celebrate only a secularized, “whoopee, I’ve got days off!” version of the holiday—knows that the movies suffer because they have to be about the meaning of Christmas in some vague way. The vaguer the better, actually; that’s a Christmas-movie rule. Go ahead and touch on religious sentiment, but don’t get overtly religious! Avoid offense at all costs, thereby gathering the widest possible audience! Which is to say, the highest possible revenue.

And so each year’s crop of utterly disposable Christmas movies asks us to pay (again) for the privilege of being informed (again) that Christmas spirit means abandoning materialism in favor of altruism and personal relationships.

But the most honest—and disturbing—Christmas movies tell the truth about Christmas. Take A Christmas Story, with its childish obsession with a BB gun; or Deck the Halls, so aptly demonstrating the competitive, conspicuous consumption of a public Christmas; or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, with its floundering acknowledgement that most people struggle against themselves to produce an ideal Christmas in less-than-ideal families.

The good ones show us how reliant we are on access to wealth for the “merry” part of “Merry Christmas.” One reason Dickens’ A Christmas Carol endures endless remakes is because it so deftly links the holiday season with a defining moment of introspection about the sorry state of a selfish life—and because ol’ Ebenezer has the wherewithal to really create change.

Then there’s the Christmas-movie special case: Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (showing at the Crest Theatre December 19-23). Maybe the reason this film became a seasonal classic is because, once you scrape away the holiday-themed veneer, it’s not a Christmas movie at all. It’s a dissection of the class system—but one that works in the most delectably evil, capitalist way to convince the worker bees they’re really better off than the demonstrably well-off.

Capra’s real subject is the legacy of inherited family wealth. Maybe the bright, energetic and hardworking George Bailey could have pulled himself up by his bootstraps, but he’s got a whole family on his shoulders. Just like a goodly chunk of the working class: They might be able to make it on their own, but without inherited wealth to provide a safety net, any big life change can leave them permanently in the lurch. Poor George, like a lot of us, is just one paycheck ahead of disaster.

And just when you think there’s a Marxist critique lurking here, the Christmas spirit steps in—the opiate of the people, in the form of an angel. Clarence helps George discover that having those loved ones weighing him down is worth more than any wealth he might have accrued if he’d had access to affordable public education, free single-payer health care, and all the other things that create a genuine level playing field.

That villainous Mr. Potter must be pleased. Not only does he get to keep the money he’s swiped, but everyone else thinks that mutual goodwill is worth more than a living wage and a secure retirement.

So much for the meaning of Christmas. Now, go shopping.