The day after Christmas. Dishes lie in piles by the sink, the fridge is full of leftovers packed in Tetris-like, diets are discarded along with wrapping paper, and most family and friends have left, leaving behind a lonely, quiet sense in the house. The season feels deflated; even with New Year’s Eve around the corner, it’s as if the holiday is over, but without a dénouement.
For some, the holidays are still in full swing; after all, there’s still plenty of time for good cheer and merriment to make another round. For others though, it’s a slippery slope from feeling like Christmas is over to feeling like the time for joy is over; the post-holiday blues come carried along by the cold winter air.
Like many of you, I have a tradition of watching Christmas movies leading up to December 25th. As a child, I would be enraptured by the claymation of “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer,” the cathartic wish fulfillment of “Home Alone,” the silliness of “The Muppet Christmas Carol,” and the overblown antics of “Jingle All The Way.” Simple, fun movies which felt exciting and magical.
But I’ve discovered that several of my favorite Christmas movies cut deeper to the quick than the traditional tales decked in the silver and gold garb of wonder and excitement. While Christmas is a time for families to celebrate love and peace—especially for fellow Christians who see that same love and peace incarnate in the cry of a tiny babe: Jesus—for many others it’s a season of deep sadness and emptiness.
I’ve often found that the reality of this creeps up in the days after Christmas, but find these three films: “The Apartment” (1960), “The Shop Around the Corner” (1940) and, of course, “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), as a source of comfort. They’re Christmas movies I grew up watching as well, and joyous and funny and romantic as they are, they are also rooted in sadness, loneliness, depression, and the alienation of the self from neighbors, family and friends. None of them are expressly religious—barring the angelus ex machina of “It’s a Wonderful Life”—but they are still rooted in the same fears and hopes that Christians share with the rest of the world, the same gnawing hunger in the soul.
While two of them end on Christmas Eve, they are still my ideal post-Christmas films. While many other Christmas movies revolve around the day or season specifically, these three have a more holistic approach to the lives of their characters, allowing us to see the context of their lives and live with them. If the Incarnation runs deeper than a single event, if it’s a sliver of eternity, a promise of the cross, then Christmas has a meaning more significant than celebrating a single day or season.
The gift of cinema is an art that similarly contextualizes time; in this case, these three films culminate in the love at Christmastime, but their nets are cast wider than that. “The Apartment,” one of Billy Wilder’s best films, may be a romantic comedy full of running jokes and visual gags, but it’s also a quietly earnest and sentimental film, tenderly cradling heartbreak and loneliness with rays of hope streaming through in the New Year.
“The Shop Around the Corner” is another romantic comedy (you may be more familiar with one of its remakes, “You’ve Got Mail”) directed with all the warmth Ernst Lubitsch could muster, about the unexpected twists and turns of relationships; but it’s also rooted in financial uncertainty, the pain of unrequited love and the joy of human connection.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” likely needs no introduction. Frank Capra’s Christmas classic is unabashedly sentimental, rooted as it is in the expressive face of Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey. We see his life reflected in his face, his boundless optimism of youth and the creeping resentment of dreams passing him by, the horror of seeing his life erased and the joy of reuniting with his family. The very embodiment of grace seen through the context of ourselves as individuals and as part of a community.
I turn to these films again and again because they have the balance of joy and despair. They allow you to feel both, to know pain but to remember that there is redemption in the end. It’s no coincidence that each of these three films in some way hinges on the act of suicide, but in each film the act is interrupted or staved off by the love of another person. They’re films anchored by Christmas, including the depression and sadness in the wake of the holiday, but in the midst of tears falling down my face as I watch these films, I recognize that they are tears of sadness but also of joy.
They’re reminders of the sentimental epiphany of the human experience, pointing towards a Christian sense of contentment—”it is well with my soul”—and of our conceptions of self and time, rooted in God’s promise and that promise, the Word, made flesh at Christmas. It’s easy to forget after the 25th is over and done with, to let our liturgical calendars lie fallow until Easter, but it’s vital that we take heart that Christmas is not a single event, but an unfolding of time, and the meaning of the season continues to unfurl long after our own celebrations are over.