A Year in Recommendations: The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Park, by Jeanne Theoharis

51PbJr7C-TL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_Rosa Parks is an iconic figure in the Civil Rights movement as well as American history, and yet she is also the most misunderstood. While in the collective imagination she is the little old lady who, tired after a long day of work, refused to leave a bus seat when ordered to by a bus driver in Birmingham, Alabama, she was in fact a dedicated and forward thinking revolutionary for social and economic justice. Long a member of the NAACP, Parks fought against racial segregation, often quietly, but no less importantly in the years prior to the bus boycott. She was also an indefatigable supporter of Malcolm X and did not turn her back, as other civil rights activists were forced to do, on Marxist and socialist activists. This side of Mrs. Parks rarely makes it to the mainstream, but earlier this year, Jeanne Theoharis’s biography The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Park, corrects that oversight. The Mrs. Parks who emerges from Theoharis’s document is still the quiet, shy, and unassuming woman of the public imagination, but underneath that is someone of great intelligence, steely reserve, and tenacity. The biography covers Parks’ life from childhood to death, revealing aspects of her work as a social and political activist that was new to me. For instance, Parks continued with her work long after the boycott, often in the shadow of civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, working with Marxists and Black Panther activists toward social and economic justice. She would do this work well into the 1980s and 1990s, until her death. Parks also bristled at the persona that was created of her in public as well as the sexism she and other women in the movement faced. Theoharis’s well-written and exhaustively researched biography is a testament to a women who deserves far more credit for her role in the civil rights struggle and her commitment to justice.


A Year in Recommendations: Round House, by Louise Erdrich


Source: goodreads.com

Few books startle me, but Louise Erdrich’s Round House was one of those few. This 2013 National Book Award winner is a gripping tale of mystery surrounding the rape of an Objiwe woman outside her Minnesota reservation. The story takes place in the 1980s, before laws concerning sovereignty and jurisdiction were changed only recently by the Obama administration, allowing the prosecution of crimes against Native Indians outside their reservations. So the mystery in Round House revolves not only on the who, but the where. The novel is also a coming-of-age tale since it’s POV is told through young Joe, whose mother Geraldine is the victim of the vicious crime. As he and his friends uncover clues about who raped his mother and where the crime actually took place, Joe’s innocence quietly flakes away as he begins to see the world in its totality: his mother’s depression, his father’s powerlessness to protect their family, the injustices and minor cruelties Indians face on and off the reservation. I was captivated from beginning to end. The novel is brimming with subtle insights and quiet, but seething outrage at the wrongs, both minor and major, committed against her people. But there is beauty and love and the resilient power of forgiveness there as well, creating a novel that is as complex as it is simple in its demands for justice.

Christmas Is for Rejects: How Your Favorite Christmas Specials Are Really About Outsiders

The holidays have always been a special time for television. It’s the time when TV series break out the Christmas carols and tell holiday-themed stories of redemption and togetherness. But the TV studios also produced a number of Christmas-themed, animated specials they rolled out every year and marketed toward kids. Growing up in the 1970s, I loved curling up in front of the TV set in the living room to watch such Rankin Bass specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and The Year Without Santa Claus (1974), featuring the funky Heat and Snow Misers.

One thing I’ve noticed in many of these cartoons, even as a child, was how each of these animated specials tended to be about outsiders. Every single special seemed to find endless ways to approach this theme. The more popular and famous of these specials was A Charlie Brown Christmas (1964). Written by Peanuts creator Charles Schulz and directed by Bill Melendez, A Charlie Brown Christmas was the first Charlie Brown special to be produced for television. It cleverly attacked the crass commercialism of the holiday. But one theme that unites A Charlie Brown Christmas with many of its genre is how Charlie Brown, the lonely little outsider among the Peanuts cast, is chosen to question how Christmas has been turned over to marketing. Throughout the episode, Charlie is disturbed by how his friends so easily give in to crass consumerism. When Charlie is chosen to direct the Christmas pageant, he is given the task of finding a Christmas tree. Instead of picking out one of the garish plastic trees so popular with his friends, he chooses a little, sickly plant. The little tree, like Charlie himself, is unwanted and unwelcome by the other children, and Charlie is mocked for his efforts. Demoralized, Charlie wonders what the real meaning of Christmas is. He knows instinctively that it has nothing to do with the commercialization of the holiday, but he is lost as to its real meaning. Charlie’s cry for meaning and depth also becomes a cry against how the holiday has strayed from its true religious meaning. The fact that Charlie is given this search for real meaning is the true outsider of the group is significant. If Charlie had been more assimilated within the clique of school friends, would he have been just as blinded by the commercialism? Since Charlie was unable to enjoy the perks of belonging to the group, his ability to see them from the outside and what they stood for allowed him the chance to attempt asking the questions which brings the episode to its epiphany.

Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer (1964), like Charlie Brown, is the ultimate outsider. Born with a glowing red proboscis, Rudolph isn’t, as the song goes, allowed to play any reindeer games. His red nose marks him as an “other,” one whose difference puts him outside the homogeneity of the group. The “mainstream” attitudes in this group sets Rudolph up to be discriminated by the others. His father disguises his nose with mud and teaches him that to be accepted by the group he must conceal his true identity. The ruse helps for a little while when Rudolph joins his reindeer friends, but when his true nose is revealed he is summarily rejected. Even Santa Claus, who ought to have known better, shares the same biases as the group. Rudolph’s rejection forces him into exile. He finds solidarity with an elf, Herbie, who is likewise marked as an “other” for his unwillingness to follow expectations. Herbie wants to be a dentist, not a toymaker, but unlike Rudolph, who is made to feel ashamed of his otherness, Herbie embraces it even in spite of social disapproval. Herbie embraces it so much he convinces Rudolph to do the same. The two decide to strike it out on their own to seek a place where they can be accepted for who they are. During their travels, they come across a Yukon who accepts them without question and land on the Island of Misfits, where unwanted and unloved toys are banished. Throughout their adventures, they come to realize how the world divides itself between those who are loved for “fitting in” and those who are not. But Herbie and Rudolph’s willingness to reject this paradigm forces others to recognize their prejudices after the two rescue Rudolph’s family from the Bumble, a snow beast that terrorizes Rudolph and his friends. After a fierce snowstorm nearly cancels Christmas, Rudolph’s nose comes to good use when he helps guide Santa through the blizzard. Here, Rudolph’s “otherness” is accepted through the pragmatic purpose it poses; but more than that, Santa and the other reindeers come to recognize that their own biases blinded them from seeing Rudolph’s potential and true value and the contributions he makes to society. Even the Bumble, once feared by the residents of Christmastown, is accepted and assimilated into the group, suggesting just how far they’ve come along. Here, the theme of acceptance becomes a part of the values associated with Christmas.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), narrated by Boris Karloff, also deals with themes about outsiders, but with differing results. In How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the Grinch is determined to ruin Christmas for the Whos of Whoville by stealing everything associated with the holiday. But the Grinch’s efforts are thwarted only when the Whos continue to be deeply devoted to the day’s spirit. Based on the Dr. Seuss book, How the Grinch Stole Christmas is ostensibly a tale about the true meaning of Christmas. But an argument can also be made that perhaps the Grinch’s willingness to ruin the holiday for others has as much to do with his outsider status in Whoville. The Grinch lives in a mountainous cave with a long-suffering dog as companion. He is completely unassimilated from the group. But unlike Charlie Brown and Rudolph, the Grinch’s “otherness” is more by choice than by forced exile. In fact, the Whos gladly welcome him into their group after he learns the errors of his ways. The Grinch becomes a member of humanity when he realizes the spiritual meaning of the holiday and is thus able to embrace that humanity within himself. In this case, How the Grinch Stole Christmas is an argument against misanthropy and isolation. The Little Drummer Boy (1968), unlike most Christmas specials, took its themes directly from biblical sources. Based on the classic Christmas carol, The Little Drummer Boy is about a young boy whose drumming pleases the young Jesus Christ. Like other Christmas specials, this stop-motion animated special dealt with issues of outsiderness, as the little boy is ostracized by others in his group after his parents are killed. His skill as a drummer and his belief in Christ are what unites him to the Christian community. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town (1970), featuring the vocal talents of Fred Astaire and Mickey Rooney, recounts the story of Santa Claus’s beginnings. Again, like other animated specials, Claus is shown as an outsider living among elves in the North Pole. But Claus, like Herbie in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, embraces his outsiderness with a rebellious streak. He breaks the laws of the Burghermeister Meisterburgher, a tyrant who bans toys in the town he governs, when he delivers toys to the towns’ children and thus develop his legend. The special shows the various ways in which Claus breaks the rules, making Santa a revolutionary figure against authoritarianism.

The 1999 special Olive, the Other Reindeer, featuring the voice of Drew Barrymore in the title role, follows the same route as previous holiday specials. Based on the popular children’s book, Olive, the Other Reindeer plays not only on the notion of outsiderness (other characters think Olive crazy for thinking she’s a reindeer), but on the slippery nature of identity. Olive is a special little dog who thinks she is one of Santa’s reindeers. When she decides to go to the North Pole after mistakenly believing that Santa needs her help, her faith in herself and her identity never wavers and she soon finds herself heading Santa’s sleigh. Olive’s differences as a dog and the fact that she really can’t fly doesn’t stop her from following her heart.

Other animated specials like Frosty the Snowman (1969), Nestor the Long-eared Christmas Donkey (1977), A Fat Albert Christmas Special (1977) and others likewise deal with the same themes with varying results. Otherness, whether brought about by biology (Frosty and Nestor), or through poverty (A Fat Albert Christmas Special), become a familiar theme associated with Christmas and the ideals it represents to those who celebrate and observe it. Since Christmas is about togetherness, brotherhood, and acceptance, revolving stories around cultural or social ostracism is a natural way to approach these themes. These specials have an enduring quality with audiences precisely because, whether as children or adults, we recognize these themes and find something with which we can relate to in our own lives.


Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, you get used to a few things, namely that the weather can turn on a dime. A foggy, overcast day can turn warm and sunny by mid-noon but by sunset the fog rolls back in again. Temperatures can vary so wildly throughout the bay––or even in San Francisco itself!––that you have to dress for all kinds of weather if you’re commuting. I’ve lived here all my life and I ought to be used to it, but I’m still taken aback by how unpredictable the weather can be here. Still there are some things you can set your clock by. For instance, summers in Northern California appear during late spring, a few weeks before Memorial Day, scorching the area with a heatwave that can last for two or three days before the natural air conditioning we’ve been blessed with blows in and cools the temperatures down. Our actual summers tend to be mild, though they can be bitingly cold in San Francisco––Mark Twain wasn’t joking when he wrote that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. Julys are the coldest, with overcast days outnumbering warm ones (we always worry here whether fog or low cloud cover will ruin Fourth of July fireworks). By late August, however, the weather turns warm again, lasting well into October, with temperatures rising to the 70s or 80s, before, by Halloween, the weather cools down once more.

Ask any Californian and they’ll tell you that there are only two seasons here: dry and wet. Rain falls periodically for seven months, while the rest of the year is dry as a bone. Sometimes the rain doesn’t fall and we’re forced to rely on the melted snow packs that stream down from the Sierra Mountains. If the snow isn’t deep enough, well, then there’s drought, and from drought comes water conservation and wild fires.

Yet as predictable as the weather can be here, there are still moments of surprise. Occasionally we’ll have weird weather phenomenon: There was a twister once just outside my home! Sure, it was mild and certainly not big enough to merit even a mention on the local news, but it did rip some branches off the tree in the yard. Frost was more likely, and as close to snow as we ever got, with our yards glistening in the early morning sunlight. Yet there were times when it did snow in the bay, sometimes blanketing the peaks of Mts. Diablo and Tamalpais, or even, as recent as 2011, sprinkling light powder in parts of San Francisco. Yet I recall one time, many years ago, when it got so cold it started to snowflake!

I don’t live in San Francisco, but in Richmond, just along the edge of the bay, in the lowlands surrounded by hills dotted with homes. Except that one mild twister, we rarely get freak weather phenomenon here (or any major natural disasters, outside of earthquakes, for that matter), so that long-ago winter afternoon sticks out in my mind. I was walking home from school with my mom and younger brother, when, quite unexpectedly, snowflakes began to fall from the gunmetal sky. My brother shouted and pointed to them, while I gaped in awe. For a minute, it seemed unreal, like something out of a dream. The flakes were large and well-formed and drifted in their own pattern before falling to the ground where they melted.

My mom hustled us home as soon as she could. Being a natural-born Californian, she has a deep distrust of winter. She sees the cold weather as a burden she must endure, however begrudgingly. Even now she’ll fret over thunder storms or any of her kids, however grown, stepping inappropriately dressed into the cold weather. So that afternoon she wasn’t about to let my brother and me stay outside to enjoy this unexpected meteorological treat. Once inside, my brother and I raced to the den and watched the snowflakes from the big patio window. They were so beautiful and fragile and elusive. I felt a little sad when they disappeared into the ground. In Richmond, the bad news sometimes overwhelm the good ones, and something as magical and exciting as snowflakes rarely if ever happen, so I wanted to hold onto that moment as long as I could. I didn’t simply want to believe such things were possible, but that they could happen. I suppose the reasons why I love the cold weather is because a part of me still hopes one day it will happen again, that it will get so cold snowflakes will drift delicately and wondrously down from the sky.

Reporting the Zeitgeist: Journalism, Literature, and Social Movements

In a review of The Unwinding by George Packer, Thomas Frank laments the failure of journalism to affect reforms to help a middle class that is in the throes of economic decline. As he writes, that failure “should perhaps call into question the utility of journalism and argument and maybe even prose itself.” His is an age-old complaint. In the years following 9/11, critics decried the failure of the novel to adequately voice how much this event changed and affected American lives. Since then, there have also been cries that novelists fail to capture the zeitgeist in a post-economic decline. That’s all well and good. It certainly speaks to the hope that the novel still has relevance in our social media-besotted world.

Frank’s complaints however speak to a far deeper concern. More than ever America is facing problems associated with social and economic inequality. The middle class is disappearing before our very eyes while poverty rates are soaring. And yet, in spite of this, no one seems able to address these problems. Congress has been ground to a standstill with Republican obstructionism, forcing Democrats and President Obama to take inadequate, halfhearted steps to ameliorate the damage. The American public likewise has been muted. A few years ago, Occupy Wall Street rose to the challenge and called out the financial institutions that have plundered the economy and have been allowed to continue with business as usual. And while OWS continues in some form (they’ve been particularly successful with their Rolling Jubilee campaign by buying off debts in bulk from banking institutions), they have yet to form a massive coalition with their bold ideas on attacking debt and inequality. The U.S. debt incurred by outrageous spending during the Bush years have gone down. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s due to the austerity measures imposed by Congress because of the Sequester. So the economy has been allowed to grind its heels, growing at a slow pace while Wall Street continues to reap financial benefits.

Frank correctly points out the dilemma of journalism and prose to address these deep inequities: Does prose still have the power to influence and effect change as it did over a century ago? In his review, Frank points out the plethora of books on the economy alone that have been published in the past decade, each one with titles that scream of an impending economic doomsday, and each one bearing very little social and political impact. There is an alarming and almost comical (if it weren’t so depressing) effect to the titles that were published––Age of Greed, The Age of Austerity, The Age of Turbulence; The Betrayal of the American Dream, The Looting of America, Why America Failed. They recall a time, so long ago, when I used to read books by the dozens with such titles, books including Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine and Frank’s own What’s the Matter with Kansas?, which answer questions about who controls what and who benefits from our current state of affairs. They were eye-opening and informative, particularly The Shock Doctrine, which had predicted the austerity measures now taking place in developed nations through the neoliberal policies that wrecked the economies in South America. They helped me to shape my own politics, which, very briefly, led me to the Green party. Unfortunately they were also repetitive and didn’t offer much in the way of real world solutions.

I should note here that I have yet to read Packer’s The Unwinding, though I’ve heard much about it and would like to read it soon. I’m far more interested in Frank’s overall argument about the usefulness of journalism because, as I’ve written previously, it is one that has been argued before. The arts in general has been accused of failing to rouse the masses out of their stupor to foment revolutions or, at the very least, political reforms. Where have all the protest music gone? a cry went up following the war in Iraq, even though such criers took time to mention artists like Neil Young, the Dixie Chicks, the Coup, and others that have written searing indictments against that foolish invasion. Where are the great novels or movies about that war or the economic downturn, others have said, while yet again, pointing out such examples, like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Incredibly Fast and Extremely Loud or John Updike’s The Terrorist, that did just that. Still others cried that there was no definitive novel released in the past ten years which had sharp and incisive insights about that day on the measure of The Great Gatsby several generations ago. Anis Shivani was perhaps pointing this out in a blistering attack against the mediocrity of contemporary writers when he wrote:  “On the great issues of the day, they are silent…they desire to be politically irrelevant, and they have succeeded.” Or, in other words, the failure of literature to boldly embrace political ideologies is due in no small part to the fact that contemporary writers, those denizens of MFA programs, have turned literature into navel-gazing, creating work about domestic, mundane, first-world problems to be read and critically analyzed by academics. “We like to remember the muckraking era,” as Frank writes of journalism’s similar failures, “because of the amazing real-world transformation journalism was able to bring; our grandchildren will remember our era because of the big future naught accomplished by our prose.”

While it is true that mainstream media does an atrocious job of informing the public, the truth is much more nuanced and not always terribly flattering toward the American public. While I’ll agree that literature, journalism especially, has a social responsibility to inform and engage, that responsibility can only go half-way. Little is said or written about the responsibilities of citizens. Perhaps the real problem here isn’t so much the failure of literature to engage in the public but in unrealistic expectations of what literature is able to do.

Like so many critics, Frank seems to think that journalism or prose itself created the revolutionary paradigmatic shifts that led to social and economic reforms of the 19th and 20th centuries and not the American people themselves. The muckraking era he speaks of was also a part of the Progressive Era, which arrived at the heels of the Populist Movement, both of which were brought into fruition by an engaged, involved, and, yes, informed citizenry. If journalism and literature influenced the masses, it was only because the masses influenced journalists and novelists. One is dependent on the other; one cannot exist without the other. And public alone determined how they engaged with the information available to them. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was based on his research about exploitative labor practices in Chicago meatpacking plants. Yet his depictions of the poor sanitary conditions in these plants, not to mention the various body parts that were ground up with the meat, outraged the public so much that it pushed for legislative reform. Out of this reform came the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Some forty years later, John Steinbeck, along with photographer Dorothea Lange, had far better success with a newspaper series he wrote for the San Francisco News called “Harvest Gypsies.” Again the public was so moved by the plight of the Okies in California during the 1930s Dust Bowl that it pushed the federal government to take action. Child labor laws were strengthened and food and economic relief was provided.

But these examples did not exist in a vacuum. They were part of social movements that sought reforms through the political process. Americans had far greater trust in the government as an efficient tool for these reforms and exercised their responsibilities as citizens by staying informed through newspapers and/or radio. These were hardly perfect times. Racial inequalities were still enormous and even the most liberal of organizations failed to fight for social justice for blacks and women. Some of the New Deal’s biggest supporters were Dixiecrats, while some of the country’s worst anti-immigration laws were passed during the Populist and Progressive eras. Yet these movements did build the foundation onto which future civil and political rights activists were able to fight. And this was all the doing of the American people.

The trap that Frank and so many others fall into is in believing that the people are without agency and are in need of an elite to prod them to action. But this is simply not the case. If prose fails to influence the masses, it is only because the masses refuse to be influenced or they are already influenced but fail to know what to do about our current dilemma. The latter seems to be the more likely answer, since polls have shown that Americans are not deaf, dumb, and blind to the social conditions around them. In a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, 44% of respondents polled that the government shouldn’t have bailed out the banks; 53% think that the banks haven’t been prosecuted enough, while only 30% believe that banks help economies grow and create jobs. A healthy majority also believe that the wealth gap created by bankers, traders, and financial executives is still too large. Clearly Americans get it. The real question we face is: What do we do about it?

If there is a failure of prose and journalism it is this: failing to provide Americans with that answer. As I wrote before, one of the reasons I stopped reading books about the economic and political conditions in this country was precisely because they were more diagnosis than cure. But that should not be the responsibility of writers, pundits, and journalists. Rather, we should be paying more attention to what people are doing in the trenches, the people out there who are fighting back often under the radar of the media spotlight. These are the activists who are fighting against the assault on women’s reproductive rights, against voter suppression laws and civil liberties, against the attacks on labor and unions, and against corporate money in politics. The American people do not need to be educated or lectured to about their social condition. They are living it every day of their lives. Rather what they need are game plans: a way out of our current situation and a way toward building a sustainable consensus toward social, political and economic justice. This is not, nor has it ever been, the work of writers. Our job is to observe, record, sympathize with, and illuminate the people, mood and events that shape our zeitgeist. In the end, it is ultimately up to the American people to decide on what to do next.

The History of Christmas Movies

Christmas has always been profitable time for Hollywood. Studios roll out their holiday-themed movies along with their Oscar-worthy contentions. Hollywood has been producing Christmas-related films since it began, producing many classic films, from traditional, family-oriented fare to twisted retellings of classic themes. Regardless, Hollywood’s history of the Christmas film has been a tradition that many filmgoers look forward to as they celebrate the holidays.

Ever since Charles Dickens published his novella A Christmas Carol in 1843, his tale of a miserly old man who learns the meaning of Christmas through the nightly visits of three ghosts has been retold on stage and in movies. Hollywood has revisited this classic tale a number of times. The earliest screen version was released in 1913 under the title Scrooge, written by Seymour Hicks, who also played Scrooge on screen, a role he would repeat in the 1935 talkie under the same name. Three other versions appeared in the 1920s, suggesting that Dickens’ classic became a popular holiday favorite for film treatment early on. Another version, A Christmas Carol, was released in 1938 and starred Reginald Owen in the lead role. But the version most film lovers know is the 1951 version starring Alistair Sims. Considered the most faithful screen adaptation, Sims’ Scrooge hits all the right notes as a man whose miserliness was the result of his sister’s death, but who believably converted his thinking after his ghostly encounters on Christmas Eve. While critics say that this version is faithful to the book, it in fact adds some details that take liberty with the storytelling, namely that of the death of Scrooge’s sister, which is not depicted in Dickens’ original version. Still, this scene provides motivational depth to the character and helps the viewers see the humanity beneath his greed. Other large screen versions of the classic include a 1970 musical starring Albert Finney, the 1988 comedy Scrooged, starring Bill Murray, and a 2009 CGI-animated movie starring Jim Carrey.

The E.T.A. Hoffman story The Nutcracker has served as a wonderful source for holiday-themed films. Turned into a famous ballet in 1891 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker tells the story of a young girl named Clara who steps into a magical fantasy world on Christmas Eve. Hollywood has turned to this timeless classic many times over its history. Versions include the 1968 film starring Rudolf Nureyev as Drosselmeyer/Prince, and a 1993 screen version starring Macauley Culkin.

While most Christmas-themed movies tended to be watered-down ideas of faith and belief, Hollywood did churn out biblical-themed films, though they were not necessarily released in time for the holiday season. Movies like The Robe (1953), King of Kings (1961), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and others represented a time when Hollywood released biblical epics on a regular basis. They approached the theme with epic reverence, though they rarely delved into Christ’s actual teachings. In 1964, Marxist atheist Pier Paolo Passolini released The Gospel According to St. Matthew, a far grittier version of Christ’s birth and teachings than the glossy epics Hollywood released before it. By the 1960s, the genre became passé, though Hollywood would on occasion release one every once in a while over the years. One such example was The Nativity Story (2006), starring Keisha Castle-Hughes, which returned to the story of Christ’s birth, this time delving into Joseph and Mary’s story with more depth and realism.

For the most part, Christmas movies dealt with family and faith. Though not necessarily a Christmas film, the 1944 Vincente Minnelli musical Meet Me in St. Louis, starring Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien, features scenes that take place over the Christmas holidays. These scenes alone make this movie a holiday classic, especially for Garland’s original rendition of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” The movie itself is about a family torn between moving to New York or staying behind in their beloved St. Louis. Like many holiday-themed movies, Meet Me in St. Louis is about family and unity in the face of social and economic change. Miracle of 34th Street (1947), starring Maureen O’Hara, Natalie Wood, and Edmund Gwenn, is about an old man who gets a job as Santa Claus at Macy’s Department store and insists he’s the real deal. After the man is institutionalized, a lawyer (John Payne) tries to prove in court that he really is Santa. Miracle of 34th Street deals with faith and belief as O’Hara’s character, the store manager, refuses to raise her daughter (Wood) to believe in fairy tales, but ends up believing in Gwenn. The notion of family and traditionalism plays heavily in the movie’s theme with a heartwarming touch. A remake of the movie was released in 1994, starring Mara Wilson in the Natalie Wood role. A contemporary example of this holiday-theme is the Chevy Chase-vehicle National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989). NationalLampoonsChristmasVacationPosterWritten by John Hughes, Christmas Vacation revisited the comical Griswolds as their plans for a big family Christmas dinner go awry. But the underlying themes in the film is similar to other movies as the Griswolds overlook family, work and neighborhood differences to create the kind of special Christmas memories Clark Griswold (Chase) remembers as a child.

But the one film which set the standard of family and faith during the holidays is the Frank Capra classic It’s A Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. Ironically, when It’s A Wonderful Life was released in 1947, it bombed at the box office. It wasn’t until affiliate TV stations began airing the movie, often ad nauseum, that the movie became a classic to generations of film fans. It’s A Wonderful Life follows the story of George Bailey, the son of a small-town businessman who longs to leave his hometown and explore the world. But his dreams are constantly dashed by circumstances beyond his control and he is forced to remain in Bedford Falls to run his late father’s building and loan company. When Bailey’s uncle loses a bank deposit (actually the mean-spirited town miser Mr. Potter took the money), Bailey falls into a deep depression when he is threatened with imprisonment for fraud and contemplates suicide. During his darkest hour, he is visited by the angel Clarence who makes his wish to never have been born come true, helping him see what a blessing his life truly is with family and friends. It can rightly be argued that It’s A Wonderful Life is a screed against the big city and there is no doubt that the conservative Capra included his own biases in the film. Still, the movie’s message of family and friendship is a deeply touching one, and its willingness to explore the darker aspects of humanity gives it a depth that most Christmas movies lack. The scene where Bailey trashes his work station in his home after he learns about the missing deposit alone reveals Stewart’s range as an actor and is all the more effective because of his previous on- and off-screen reputation as a “nice guy.”

Christmas is the perfect vehicle for telling romantic love stories and Hollywood has supplied many classic films that followed in this vein. Ernst Lubistch’s A Shop Around the Corner, released in 1940, is about two Hungarian shop workers (Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan), who unknowingly fall in love through the letters they write one another. Unaware of the other’s identity, the two develop a hostile working relationship until they discover the truth and give in to their feelings. Though the film isn’t necessarily about the holidays, it does set a scene at Christmas as the shop prepares for the season. The holiday season gives the movie its romantic air as both Stewart and Sullivan slowly melt away from their hostility and begin to fall in love. A Shop Around the Corner was remade into the 1998 film You Got Mail, with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in the lead roles. Christmas in Connecticut (1945), starring Barbara Stanwyck, is a comedy about a food writer who lies about her reputation as a brilliant cook. When the magazine owner which publishes her work decides that she’ll host a WWII naval hero on her farm, the unmarried New Yorker who can’t cook scrambles to find a way to keep up her charade. In the end, she and the sailor fall in love after the truth is revealed. Christmas in Connecticut is a clever movie that questions our ideas of the traditional roles women played in family and home. The 1947 movie The Bishop’s Wife, starring Cary Grant, Loretta Young and David Niven, is another romantic holiday-themed movie, although one of a different feather; namely angel feathers. Grant plays Dudley, an angel who comes down to earth to help a bishop and his failing church, but winds up falling in love with the bishop’s wife (Young). The Bishop’s Wife is a tender love story about sacrifice and faith as Dudley sacrifices his feelings for the wife to complete his duties as an angel. Penny Marshall scored a hit with a 1996 remake 220px-ThePreachersWife-moviestarring Denzel Washington as Dudley and Whitney Houston as the wife in the aptly titled The Preacher’s Wife. Though the film follows the original, its setting within an African American community presents cultural differences that nonetheless are faithful to the movie’s themes. Other recent movies, such as the British entry Love Actually (2003), starring Bill Nighy, Colin Firth, Keira Knightly, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson and others, continues the tradition of romance and Christmas as a group of Londoners find, lose, then find love again during the holiday season.

Christmas is for kids. So Hollywood has released holidays films that were targeted to children. The 1934 film Babes In Toyland (aka March of the Wooden Soldiers), starred comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy as characters in a Mother Goose rhyme come to life. In 1985, comedian Dudley Moore starred in Santa Claus: The Movie, which was a retelling of the classic Christmas character. Unfortunately, the movie was a critical and box office dud. In 1990, child star Macauley Culkin fared a better reception when he starred in the box office smash Home Alone. Also starring Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern, Home Alone told the story of a young boy who is left home by his family over the holidays and is forced to fend for himself against a pair of burglars. The film was a comic take on holiday themes, especially the idea of how the Christmas holidays can inspire loneliness in the absence of family, a theme many Americans certainly can relate to. The Arnold Schwartzenegger and Sinbad-vehicle Jingle All the Way (1996) isn’t a movie that will become a holiday classic anytime soon, but does deal with the way consumerism and commercialism has taken over the holiday. In this movie, Schwartzenegger plays a dad who will go to any lengths to get his son the hottest toy. Though the movie addresses adult themes, it was marketed as a family film.

But one movie that is targeted to kids and has become a contemporary classic since its release in 1983 is AACSCDSDTRK Christmas Story. Based on writer Jean Shepherd’s stories and starring Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon, and Darren McGavin, the film is about a little boy’s quest to get a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. What makes A Christmas Story special is its simple and nostalgic tone. The movie presents children in a believable way; they’re not interested in brotherhood, love of mankind and all that other jazz; they just want that perfect Christmas present. Director Bob Clark (who also directed the twisted slasher Black Christmas) brings all the right touches to the movie, from the dialogue and wardrobe to even the setting in Cleveland, Ohio, giving it a homespun, Mid-western appeal. Another movie destined to become a classic with kid audiences is the 2004 CGI-animated film Polar Express. Based on the popular children’s book, Polar Express tells the fantastic story of a young boy’s journey to the North Pole to meet Santa Claus. The film, which also stars Tom Hanks, is filled with the kind of magic and awe that makes Christmas such a magical and charming time for children and adults alike.

Movies about Christmas haven’t always been about magic and charm. Some have taken a decidedly twisted and bizarre turn. In the 1964 oddball Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, martians come down to earth to kidnap jolly St. Nick to cheer up their own children back home. Featuring a very young Pia Zadora, this is one movie that is so bad Mystery Science Theater 3000 eviscerated it in a holiday-themed episode. In 1974, Bob Clark directed the horror slasher Black Christmas. Starring Olivia Hussey, Black Christmas tells the story of female coeds who become victims of a serial killer over the holiday break.

In 2003, two holiday-themed movies were released featuring actors and directors not otherwise associated Elf_moviewith the genre. In fact, both movies have a fun time satirizing the conventions of Christmas movies. Elf, directed by Jon Favreau and starring Will Farrell as an oversized elf, is a funny and twisted take on Christmas themes. After discovering his true origins, Buddy the Elf (Farrell) leaves the North Pole for New York to find his father (James Caan), a publishing exec who is going through the motions in his personal and professional life. Elf’s humor plays on the audience’s recognition of familiar holiday themes while contrasting them with a nice dose of irony and cynicism as New Yorkers react to Buddy’s annoyingly holiday cheer. The movie concludes with a cheerful message as New Yorkers help Santa get his sleigh off the ground with a touch of holiday faith. Farrell, a rare comic actor who isn’t afraid of being silly, does a great job of playing the character’s child-like awe of all things Christmas.

The Terry Zwigoff-directed Bad Santa likewise takes familiar themes in holiday movies and turns them on their heads. Starring Billy Bob Thornton as a criminal named Willie who gets a job as a Santa at a department store to steal the store’s cash registers, the movie tells the story of Willie’s friendship with a young, friendless boy who lets him hide out in his Florida home. What makes the movie so twisted is its unrelenting pursuit in showing just how unredeemable Willie is, even after he befriends the young Christmas-loving and lonely kid. When Willie does finally learn a little something about the holiday, it’s done in a way that doesn’t betray the movie’s unwillingness to settle down into mushy sentimentalism.

Regardless of whether the movies honor Christmas’s traditions or prefers a twisted take on the holiday, Hollywood has offered film fans a wonderful variety of films to help you get into the holiday spirit.

Other Christmas Movies

White Christmas (1954)

Gremlins (1984)

Die Hard (1988)

Prancer (1989)

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Batman Returns (1992)

Santa Clause (1994)

Eye Wide Shut (1999)

The Best Man Holiday (2013)

Black Nativity (2013)