Like the old song says, Christmas is the most wonderful time of they year…not. Things have changed around the yule log. Modern times means modern Christmas celebrations. The youth of today do not have the glowing memories of yesteryear to remind them that Christmas was once a time of huge family get togethers filled with good will; instead with today’s rising dependence on technology and consumerism, Christmas has lost the It’s a Wonderful Life glow and turned into a stressful, strained celebration. Family fights; drunken brawls around the turkey; old family upsets and childish disappointment at not getting the latest gaming console all threaten to ruin the season of goodwill toward one’s fellow-man.
Worldly denizens over the age of 50 may have fond recollections of tearfully watching Jimmy Stewart help an angel become a star in It’s a Wonderful Life. The homespun 1946 classic film of a man who only finds his true self-worth after discovering what the world would have been like without him was standard Christmas entertainment.
In this new millennium, Jurassic Park, Toy Story and other more modern films have taken the place of Jimmy Stewart and most of these seasonal replacements have no “Christmas theme” at all. Of course Frank Capra’s Christmas classic probably would not be made in these modern times. Even Santa Claus himself is in danger of being made redundant.
The “fat jolly old elf” would be considered politically incorrect. While that may seem a tad unfair to those good people who wish to offend no one, Santa loses his specialness when one takes away the descriptive words fat and old. One would be prejudicial to “weight challenged” people and the other ageist. Even taking away the more obviously unpleasant words from the description of the present delivering magician would leave jolly elf. As little people of the world may find the term elf derogatory, that leaves us the one word to describe the Christmas loving chimney crawler; jolly.
Unfortunately, that is not a word that can be used at a lot of familial gatherings around the fireplace that the old gentleman covered in red will come down Christmas Eve. The meaning of the day that began life as a pagan holiday, or at least as a pagan observance, has gotten lost over the years. Christians have always celebrated the birth of Christ on Christmas day and Santa Claus, who is a real “Johnny-come-lately,” compared to the other two instances of Christmas meanings, gave presents to the good children of the world and lumps of coal, or switches, to the naughty ones.
Since the advent of more shiny exciting technology and the increase of media consumption worldwide, the Christmas holiday has become all about who-has-what and what-did-you-get-me. Families, who years ago would have stayed in the same town or village their entire lives, get together this one time of the year to exchange presents, eat, drink and be merry, as well as dig up old grievances and start new ones. They usually do so from spots all over the globe and if they cannot make it home there is always Skype.
Even Christmas shopping is full of a sort of frustrated rage. Stores ring not with the sounds of happy holiday music but with the cries of tired children and mother’s own cries of desperation as they search for bigger and better gifts. Heading back to Santa Claus, for one more brief moment, it seems these days that more people are interested in what color the old fellow is.
The newer “nuclear family” unit has replaced the old traditional one based upon the directive that the more kids you had, the more hands to help at harvest time and the better chance you had of having more than one or two survive. Times changed and farmers and their ilk have been replaced with a more commercial way of living that does not require gathering eggs, herding cattle or milking the family cow. Medical improvements, along with dietary ones, rendered the huge family of yesteryear obsolete.
Families that used to get together at the drop of a hat now only meet up at Christmas. Then they go through a ritual that is not unlike the dreaded class reunion. The group gathering by the groaning table of food and the Christmas tree in the corner starts by everyone looking for visible signs of ageing, weight gain, tooth loss, hair loss, and a loss of finances.
The urge to gloat over that cousin that remained stick-thin while eating everything in sight who suddenly has tripled in size is just one danger faced by the modern family Christmas get together. The mistletoe and wine season has turned into the mistletoe and whine one. Christmas, the most wonderful time of the year is not. Families do not really interact as they used to and have evolved into a bunch of grown up kids who want to complain that, “Mommy, he’s on my side of the room, or he’s touching me!”
This reunion of virtual family strangers evokes just enough stress to put everyone on edge and on the lookout for imagined slights. As the day progresses and enough champagne is consumed to go past pleasantly tipsy to belligerent, arguments will break out over what football game should be watched and does anyone want the last of this stuffing.
The old days are gone. The days where all the women of the family rush to the kitchen to help mom and grandmother to prepare the Christmas feast. The men of the family retired to the front porch, or the front room, to smoke, drink coffee or beer and tell stories as well as lies. Amusement was the catchword and laughter, whether real or put-on, rang through the house.
The little kids would be put in a room to play, or to watch television, watched over by the bigger kids who did not smoke yet or could not be trusted in the kitchen. Neither fish nor fowl, these in-between children would soon become fully fledged teenagers and be the first of the family unit to drift away from this yearly tradition.
Now, no one smokes, or at least no one is allowed to smoke in the house, or on the porch, no family in the world would dare to separate the women and push them into the kitchen. Kids would be included in every step of the long process and none of them would play in the traditional sense of the phrase. Video games, Blu-Ray movies and Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and cell phone texting rule the young now. No pulling out ancient toys or playing a board game these days. Interaction electronically is the rule; preferably with someone who is not at the family Christmas party.
Because families have been scattered to the four corners, the tradition of Christmas, if observed at all, is a strained, unfamiliar affair. Working mothers who seldom cook anything from scratch can fly into a rage if the traditionally cooked turkey is dry and tough. The modern family is not equipped to be so “hands on” in the kitchen or the dining table.
The tendency for the old-fashioned Christmas family get together to become an unpleasant event is more in keeping with the modern secular version of Santa Claus and the birth of baby Jesus, reenacted in Churches across America, but, not in schools as they do in Britain. While the increase of consumerism and the availability of newer fancier electronic gizmos, that not only change television channels but tells the user how cold it is outside, means that the feeling of the holiday has changed, families have not.
In the 2004 seasonal film Christmas with the Kranks, Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis starred as the Kranks; an example of white-collar America. Their nuclear family disbanded at Christmas and their only child went to Peru for the holidays. They decide to “skip Christmas” and when their darling daughter decides to come back for the family’s traditional “block Christmas party” hilarity ensues.
At least it was supposed to. With neighbours only found in Hollywood versions of reality, the Kranks get enough help to have the cancelled party. The message that the film illuminated was not one of family togetherness, nor was it about the season of giving. It was, inadvertently, about the consumerization of Christmas and how the little family had changed its meaning to become an automated soul-less celebration.
The 1996 Arnold Schwarzenegger film Jingle all the Way is another example of Christmas as consumer nightmare. It tell the comical story of a forgetful father who waits too long to get his son a much wanted action figure. Neither film got rave reviews and audience reactions were mixed to poor. Both films, however, show that the old fashioned type of Christmas has been watered down and replaced with smaller family reunions.
The old days are gone, and despite the English statistics that state the average family will have their first fight by 10:30 a.m. Christmas, the most wonderful time of the year…not, can still be a time for celebration. Sure, the It’s a Wonderful Life Jimmy Stewart and Clarence the angel feeling is gone, but, it is still family time. It may help to cut down on the mulled wine…or conversely, increase your intake. Merry Christmas.
By Michael Smith