OK, I get that we’re supposed to appreciate this most Festive of Seasons for its deeply personal spiritual foundations — Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and New Year’s Eve.
And I really do understand those meanings — the promise of new beginnings; hope for this sad, sad, world; the appraisal of our lives and our connections to those around us.
I suppose that’s what the Season of Advent is about — preparing our hearts and minds for the miracles that are at the core of existence. I try, really try, to appreciate the wonders that are the birthright of each of us.
But regardless of my circumstance, regardless of my earnestness, all too often my beliefs are shaken by the vagaries of 21st century life. I approach the holidays with a vague sense of unease, a hint of irritation at the demands that accumulate as the days grow shorter and the night stretches out forever.
That’s why I’m grateful for a quintet of movies that manage to pull me back from the abyss every time, that never fail to remind me of the goodness and gentle decency that lies at the heart of this season.
I hope you find time during your busy holiday season to bask in the glow of “”How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “Disney’s A Christmas Carol,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “A Christmas Story,” and
“A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Each weaves a powerful spell and each captures the bedrock message of these glorious days.
“How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (the animated version, not the Jim Carrey jab in the eye) marries the timeless words of Dr. Seuss with the Looney Tunes-honed animation style of Chuck Jones. Delivered with the extraordinary vocal talents of Boris Karloff and Thurl Ravenscroft (who sings the irresistible “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”), this is one for the ages. If you’re not touched by the scene when the Grinch finally, finally, learns why the Whos down in Whoville aren’t crushed by the removal of their presents and feasts, well, maybe your heart is two sizes too small.
A different form of animation, “Disney’s A Christmas Carol” finally captures the glory and dread at the heart of Dickens’ strange and marvelous tale. All too often adaptations jettison the truly macabre images that Dickens has scattered throughout.
Take, for instance, that grotesque moment when The Ghost of Christmas Present opens his cloak to reveal the emaciated children named Ignorance and Want. This frisson of revulsion and horror is critical to the tone of Scrooge’s journey and his ultimate salvation, yet it’s seldom given its due in TV or movie adaptations. Here, the scene plays out as it Dickens intended and is the richer for it. It’s astonishing that Disney, of all the studios, gave it the green light.
Not even this version’s refusal to sugar-coat the awful truth’s revealed on Mr. Scrooge’s amazing night can match the terrifying shock of recognition found at the heart of George Bailey’s trip into darkness.
In 2006 I was watching the annual broadcast of “It’s a Wonderful Life” at the same time my life was crumbling in the same spectacular fashion as Jimmy Stewart’s Building and Loan president. When that terrified, broken man prays for something, anything, to pull him back from the abyss – that’s me. And I’m guessing a lot of other adults, too. The entire movie is a testament to the uneasy path we all take on this tightrope strung between heaven and hell.
Holy Cow, I hope I haven’t ruined the holidays for you with these encounters with these sad characters at the center of these tales.
Let’s consider another journey, which while also fraught with obstacles, never descends into bitterness or peril.
Young Ralphie’s indefatigable quest to snare a Red Ryder carbine action 200 shot range model air rifle takes him through terrain trod by every kid. The frustrations, perils, setbacks and close calls that are a part of everyday existence for children, that adults ignore or choose to forget, are delivered in a series of vignettes that ache with authenticity.
In the world of “A Christmas Story,” grown-ups are incomprehensible and rarely aware of the little dramas that are constantly unspooling around them.
There are no adults present in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” a program that strips away the commercialism and cynical gamesmanship of the American holiday experience to reveal the sweet, simple Gospel account at the heart of Christmas.
The fact that every line in the show is delivered by a child gives the story its bite and heart-warming tenderness.
All of these are available in the Fontana Regional Library. I hope that during the frantic days and evenings leading up to the holidays, you’ll carve out a bit of time for yourself and watch one or all of these titles. See them alone or with your loved ones. See if, on balance, it really is a wonderful life after all.
And please know that I’m wishing you a joyous season.