Getting in the Mood for Christmas

Christmas movies do a variety of things: get us in the mood for the season, connect us with family, and entertain us. Alongside the stockings, fir tree, and nativity set, A Charlie Brown Christmas was an annual viewing tradition in my childhood home. It evoked feelings of warmth, connectedness, nostalgia, and yuletide anticipation. Some of you may have similar seasonal rites of passage around Christmas films.   

Rotten Tomatoes compiled a list of the 100 Best Christmas movies. I was familiar with roughly half of them and had seen nearly a quarter of them. A number of the films on the list appeared to have little to do with Christmas, but because Christmas was their seasonal setting, they made the cut. Think Die Hard or Little Women⸺list-worthy films, but not really a Christmas list.  Some of you may very well beg to differ.

On the tabulation were the cringe-worthy, yet popular comical Christmas horror films like 2022’s Violent Night or 1984’s Gremlins and plenty of Christmas romance beyond the annual holiday fare of the Hallmark Channel. And a seasonal list would not be complete without the Christmas antics of Clark Griswold and Cousin Eddie, Ralphie Clark and his Red Ryder BB Gun, or Kevin McCallaster’s foiling the thievery of Harry and Marv (Fun Fact: Home Alone & The Nightmare Before Christmas are 2023 inductees into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress). 

But do these films really have anything to do with Christmas? 

The Meaning of the Season

When I think of Christmas movies, I think of those films that wrestle with the meaning of the season. Movies like Miracle on 34th Street and Elf tackle the themes of family and belief, not belief as we talk about it in the Church, but at the least, belief in something supernatural, Santa Claus and the magic of the season. 

A classic film like It’s a Wonderful Life sets a life of goodness next to a life without, when Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey gets his wish of never having been born when faced with a financial crisis at his building and loan. 2023 Christmas comedy, The Holdovers, plays on themes of loss, longing, friendship, and family which in many ways echo the yearnings found in the biblical story of Christmas. 

A family sits together, watching a movie, with Christmas decorations hanging behind them.

I recently heard an Advent sermon on Jesus’ parable of the lost son. I was struck afresh by the idea of longing to be home. The son, who found himself mired in a misery of his own making, desired simply to once again be under his father’s care.

At their best, Christmas films tap into our yearning for home, for a place of love and belonging. We may not know what home really is, but we often recognize that we are not there, that we live in places of destitution and want, loneliness and despair, that the world is not what it was meant to be.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol & the True Meaning of Christmas

As a child, my parents read to me Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Every December, we watched the 1951 film adaptation of Dickens’ novella with Scottish actor Alistair Sim in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge. Sim’s portrayal of misery and fright at the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future and his giddy portrayal of a life that was offered redemption are seared in my memory. Sim’s enactment of Scrooge’s thrill to discover he is alive and capable of repentance is delightful, “I am light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy, I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody! Happy New Year to all the world!” (Dickens, 150).

For the last five years, I have made it my annual ritual to read Dickens’ words anew during the month of December and to see the story embodied on the stage of the local theater. In my humble opinion, it gets far closer to the true meaning of Christmas than many of the Christmas movie offerings enumerated on the Rotten Tomatoes holiday list.

It is in some respect the story of the elder brother of Jesus’ parable in Luke 15, who, although he remains at home in care of the father’s estate, has failed to recognize both the generosity and love of the father. Ebenzer Scrooge is like the older brother of Jesus’ parable, “Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!” (Dickens, 17).

The older brother was as lost as his younger sibling. In the manner of Ebenzer Scrooge, he had failed to realize that his business was “the common welfare…charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence” (Dickens, 42). The elder brother in Jesus’ parable has no concern for his wayward brother. He is not his brother’s keeper. What is more insidious is that he is oblivious to his own culpability and need for redemption.

Arriving Home

We can only truly arrive at home when we recognize the immenseness of the Father’s love for us and for our fellow passengers on life’s journey. The curious message of the Christmas story in the Gospels, in which all our holiday film favorites fall short, is that home comes to us. It is not a journey that we embark on to find the emotional and spiritual warmth of home, but one that God takes to find us in the darkness and drear. He shows up in our mess, in the pigsties of the far off country in which we wallow. He brings the warmth and light of the Father’s love when he makes his home in our neighborhood.

This Christmas, our congregations will swell more than usual with people home for the holidays. Although many of them will have arrived home to be 

A decorated Christmas tree stands next to a door with a cross above it.

with parents, children, and siblings, there will be a share who have yet to find their true home, who are searching for its welcome, warmth, life, and love in places and ways that allude them. I encourage you to meet them in that longing, perhaps by using one of the many Christmas films that touch on the theme, but may you not leave them wanting. Lead them home to meet Emmanuel God who brings the hearth of heaven’s home to our doorstep, the light into our darkness. Just see what God might do with his people. Now, that will be a Christmas movie worth seeing!

Merry Christmas and Welcome Home!

—Scott Bullock  

Scott Bullock is a Board Member and Contributor with The Pastors Workshop. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has served churches in Illinois, New Jersey, and California. He holds an MA in New Testament Studies from Wheaton College, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a ThM in New Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary. Scott is married with three teen-aged children.

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