I always think of Connie Willis at Christmas time. One of my favourite of her books is a collection of short fiction, Miracle and Other Christmas Stories, many of which were written for Asimov’s December issues over a decade or so. The title story feels like quintessential Willis short stories, because it is a romantic comedy with speculative elements, and includes references classic pop culture of some kind. In this case, it is a debate between which Christmas film is superior, Miracle on 42nd Street (the original) or It’s a Wonderful Life. At the time I first read this story, I hadn’t seen either film. They occasionally screen in Australia, more often now than when I was growing up, but they’re not as pervasive as they apparently are in the US at this time of year!
I went out and watched both movies, as I usually do when Connie Willis structures a story around a piece of Classic Hollywood. They’re both very good movies. But neither of them, for me, has a patch on the personal resonance of, say, Bernard and the Genie, which I adore beyond all reason, or even the resonance of “Miracle” itself.
It’s all personal, though. Christmas cultural texts come from our childhood, from happy moments in our lives, or they just happen like lightning – like anything else that becomes a new, instant favourite. But really, I didn’t start thinking about Christmas texts until I read “Miracle.” So it’s rather meta that, at Christmas time, I start getting the urge to re-read that story.
In my teens, Christmas became a form of rebellion. My Mum had been putting on Christmas festivities for me for my whole childhood and frankly, she was done. Stockings, tree, meh. It wasn’t really her thing at all. So I took over. I filled the damn stockings and decorated the tree, and while I never went to far as roasting a beast (we weren’t really roast kinds of people, the two of us preferring cold seafood picnics on the day) I took on a lot of the energy and work of making Christmas feel Christmassy (the work which now I perform as a mum of small children) because the alternative was not having it at all.
I had a much-worn VHS of Christmas UK shows that I watched over each year while wrapping presents and doing all that festive stuff. I barely remember now what was on it – Blackadder’s Christmas Carol, yes, and a pretendy family video by Smith and Jones, and a Lenny Henry Christmas special, I think. That sort of thing. A bunch of things that had all been on at the same time one year and were now preserved in video tape amber. We probably still have the tape somewhere, but I no longer have a working video (SAD) and a lot of those old tapes are pretty stretched and crackly now.
Then there was Bernard and the Genie. Which, to my dismay, I have still not managed to get hold of on DVD. I must hunt it down. It really is my favourite Christmas movie of all time, and I hope desperately that it holds up. It has Lenny Henry in it, right? And Alan Cummings? And Rowan Atkinson? It holds up, right? (already my inner Galactic Suburbanite is pointing out the minor role of women in the movie, damn it)
Maybe I’d better not watch it again. But… I always think of it when I hear that supermarket favourite, “It’ll be lonely this Christmas.” Also whenever I see pictures of Bob Geldof, because this movie was the first time I ever became aware of his existence. Him and Gary Lineker. True story.
What other Christmas texts resonate with me? More versions of A Christmas Carol, actually. I enjoy the Muppets one, though it’s not a patch on Blackadder. I read the actual book about eight years ago, and was surprised at how good it was, all sleek tight prose and clever bits. Dickens had one good story in him, as far as I’m concerned, and it was this one – a near-perfect structure, and it’s hardly surprising that new, different versions get told over and over again.
(Did I mention, though? Blackadder did it better)
Old movies generally, too. I associate High Society with Christmas because I first saw it (thanks to John Hinde) on Boxing Day. Also I have an annual tradition of noticing that one of the handful of Fred Astaire movies I’ve never seen is scheduled on TV, being delighted, and then missing it entirely. Not all traditions are about what you actually do…
Then there’s the Doctor Who Christmas Specials, which feels like a tradition that has been with us forever, but it really hasn’t. I’m pretty sure last year was the first time that Australia actually got the special on terrestrial TV at Christmas (which for us means Boxing Day, thanks to living in the future), and back in 1996 when David Tennant’s Doctor rang in the tradition, we had to wait something like 4-6 months. That was before I learned how to magically view things that weren’t technically on the telly yet, too! Didn’t figure that one out until… The Next Doctor, maybe? So Doctor Who Christmas Specials weren’t actually a Christmas thing for our family until recently. I am rather chuffed about them now, though. Even if, away from the festivities, they’re rarely as good as an everyday episode. They are CERTAINLY MORE CHRISTMASSY.
It may also be why last year’s Doctor Who Christmas special is my favourite so far. And not because it’s yet another version of A Christmas Carol…
The British tradition of Christmas specials is one that doesn’t quite work in Australia. We try our best, but generally if we do get Christmas TV it’s from a year or two ago. A few of the light entertainment shows do a half-hearted stab at the holiday, but mostly this is the period when our actors all fly to Britain to do panto, and there’s nothing new on the TV at all apart from cricket, so the idea of having event TV scheduled now pretty much baffles us. Having said that, I’m not sure what I’m more excited about this year – Doctor Who or Downton Abbey. Or MAYBE BOTH.
There’s the EastEnders Christmas special, too, which I don’t watch, because the ABC deprived Australians of EastEnders somewhere around the late 80’s. But I got addicted again back in 2002 and followed the damn show through episode synopses for about 5 years afterwards, and I even now I do enjoy hearing about the EastEnders Christmas Doom of Kitchen Sink DOOM every year, in the Guardian.
Hogfather isn’t my favourite Pratchett novel or even my favourite Susan novel but oh, it’s Christmassy! I’ve read that at Christmas a few times. Back when I actually had leisure time at Christmas, HA. These days even getting around to rereading one Connie Willis short story will be a stretch… I have picked up the DVD of the movie, though, and will finally get around to watching it.
There is a clutch of cultural artefacts that remind me deeply of that Christmas we were in London, and had been travelling for five weeks, and couldn’t take it any more, and just bought BOOKS, PRECIOUS BOOKS, even though they were far too heavy. The Last Hero, then, is a Pratchett book of greater holiday significance to me than Hogfather, as is The Lord of the Rings, both book and the first film. Likewise the first Harry Potter film, in which Christmas is the best bit (there is this argument actually for nearly every Harry Potter book or film ever. Christmas is ALWAYS the best bit, because of the jumpers.)
The Futurama Xmas episodes are fun, though we accidentally put one on the other week after decorating the Christmas Tree, only for it to freak out Jem completely. Then I realised that might be her first remembered encounter with a pop culture Santa. OOOOPS. Maybe should have gone with one of the Buffy Christmas episodes instead…
Wow, there’s a lot more of this than I thought.
This year, if I choose to embrace one Christmas cultural text, I think it’s going to be from Big Finish land. Last year I listened to Relative Dimensions, a lovely (if not overly HAPPY) audio play featuring the Eighth Doctor, Lucie, Susan and Alex, and I plan to do so again. Listening to audio, after all, can be done WHILE wrapping presents instead of, well, instead of.
So, those of you who celebrate Christmas, what are your favourite bits of Christmas pop culture? What books, movies, short stories, music, TV specials, etc. do you like to embrace at this time of year, either alone or with your family? Which ones drive you up the wall? If you don’t celebrate Christmas at all (or if like many you celebrate it but don’t actually LIKE it) then are there any other times of year when you embark upon ritual reading, or watching, or listening?