Christmas stories

30 November 2007

Last Saturday, the Guardian ran their Books of the Year feature, and it had a slightly different slant from the rest of these supplements. Instead of naming their favourite books of 2007, the contributors were asked for their favourite Christmas reads, past, present and future.

If you google 'Dickens invented Christmas', as I just have, you'll be taken to a vast number of websites discussing the theory that Christmas in its idyllic and nostalgic sense has very little to do with the nativity, and everything to do with Charles Dickens. And the book responsible for this of course is A Christmas Carol - the original and the best Christmas story, and a story now unfairly considered to be more sappy and sentimental than it actually is thanks to a preponderance of film and TV adaptations featuring a variety of songs, cartoon characters and muppets.

But the story is actually bleaker and scarier than you'd think if you'd never read it and only seen the muppets' film version. There's another type of muppet - of the non-Jim Henson variety - who thinks that Dickens was a simpleton whose writing lacked any moral complexity, and I don't have time to deal with these muppets and their full range of misguided anti-Dickens arguments now.

Yes, A Christmas Carol is ultimately redemptive. It features a character who comes to see the error of his ways, and reform those ways, and it's not without sentimentality; some may find the figure of Tiny Tim too much to take. But at the end of the story, Scrooge has still wasted the majority of his life in the pursuit of wealth but has nothing to spend it on, and he has driven away the only woman he ever loved. He hasn't got the perfect life, but he's come to accept the life that he has and make the most of it: 

Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him

There's nothing excessively corny about that.
 
So to return to Jonathan Coe's point about Christmas films, I don't think that The Apartment deserves any special prize for tackling difficult themes at Christmas. It's a Wonderful Life is really just a twisted-around version of A Christmas Carol, in which a man is given the opportunity to see what life would be like without him. George Bailey is not a perfectly happy man; he hasn't achieved what he wants in his life, and he's stuck in the same town he grew up in, doing a job he never wanted to do. There's a line in the film at which everyone laughs when you see it in the cinema - where George comes home from work depressed and shouts at his wife 'You call this a happy family? Why do we have to have all these kids?' - and delivered as it is in his charming Jimmy Stewart way, it is funny. But it's also not funny. And much of the film isn't funny despite the fact that it's now marketed as (reading off the back of DVD box) 'the ultimate feel-good film'. Its message - and the message of the best Christmas stories from Dickens onwards - is one of trying to be as happy as we can despite the bad things. Because as Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class, says: 'Remember George, no man is a failure who has friends'.  And quite right too.   
 
I considered a final paragraph here in which I tried to persuade you all that even Raymond Briggs's The Snowman is a misunderstood dark masterpiece. Perhaps that's pushing it. But, you know, after all, the snowman has disappeared the next day hasn't he? It's teaching children everywhere a valuable lesson about learning to cope with the absence of people (snowmen) you love. Possibly.

In his selection for 'Christmas past' Jonathan Coe selects:   

'Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond's script for The Apartment (Faber). People tend to forget that it's a great Christmas film. You have to admire the courage of a director who, in a mainstream comedy made in 1960, had one of the main characters attempt suicide on Christmas day; you've also got to love a film in which an alcoholic Santa Claus is kicked out of a bar with the line "Drink up, Pop, it's closing time".'

He's right, you have got to love it, and I do - it's a great script, a great Christmas film, and one of my all-time favourite films. But what interested me about Coe's comment was the implication that Christmas films, and Christmas stories, are usually wholeheartedly cheery and cheesy, and that Wilder was doing something unusual and brave in The Apartment. Whereas in fact possibly the most famous Christmas film ever features a character contemplating suicide at Christmas. But I'll come back to that.