Walsh’s Wonderings — Movies and the meaning of Christmas

Robert F. Walsh

There are so many things working against us during the holidays. The days are shorter, the nights longer, and the list of gifts we need to buy can seem endless. Santa’s impossible standard of delivering gifts to every person on the planet in one night is a perfection prescription for inadequacy.

From as early as I can remember, I turned to movies to help me find meaning in all the chaos of this time of year. I’ve always had the nagging feeling that I was supposed to have a deeper understanding of Christmas ever since Linus took the stage to recite Luke 2:8-14 at the end of A Charlie Brown Christmas. I was no longer supposed to be afraid as angels now proclaimed peace and goodwill toward men, yet I rarely experienced any real peace amid the hectic pace of the holiday season.

Like many of my generation, I turned to Hollywood to help me create the curriculum of the true meaning of Christmas. The simple messages of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer or The Grinch never reasonated much. I was looking for George Bailey’s epiphany at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life even before I’d had my first kiss.

Reading Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, his seminal book chronicling his experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps, focused my burgeoning curriculum. It was a revelation to read his belief that “… success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue.” He believed real meaning is the result of connecting to something greater than ourselves, and the movies I gravitated to reflected this.

I began to compile a list of holiday movies that made me laugh, cry, and attempt to become a better person. While movies like Love Actually, Miracle on 34th Street, and the various remakes of A Christmas Carol scratched the itch, none were worthy of a Linus recital. However, two cloying movies eventually became my holiday staples, the first of which came out in 2000 and starred, of all people, Nicholas Cage. The Family Man is a modern take on It’s a Wonderful Life and a perfect summation of what it means to let the holidays transform us. Its story of a successful man allowed the gift of perspective hit a chord with me and almost made me forgive Cage for 1999’s Snake Eyes. Almost.

Jim Carrey’s 2008 comedy Yes Man was a revelation, helping shape what I feel the holiday season should embrace, even though it’s a not a holiday movie at all. A withdrawn misanthrope reluctantly agrees to say “yes” to any opportunity he’s presented as a result of a chance meeting with a motivational speaker. In the process, he learns that many of the things he fears most open doors to what he wants most. It’s the type of movie that could leave your children laughing while also providing the basis for a college course on realizing human potential.

If this time of year is tough for you (and statistics say it might be), I encourage you to create your own yuletide curriculum in the face of all the stress and needless worry that accompany the holidays. We can do worse than surrounding ourselves (and our families) with messages of love, community, and conquering the absurdities of modern life.

Oh, and if you doubt me on Yes Man, you might be surprised to learn the original title of Frankl’s book: Nevertheless, Say “Yes” to Life. Sometimes, coincidences are the greatest gifts we’ll get.

You can read more at RobertFWalsh.com, contact him at RobertFWalshMail@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @RobertFWalsh.