By S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate, Hamilton College
With the pandemic restricting travel during the holiday season, many Americans will settle down in front of the television watching their favorite vacation movies along with their favorite drink – a cup of hot cider or glass of wine – for some joy.
Vacation movies have become an integral part of America’s winter celebrations, and are more likely to be for those quarantined this year. The entertainment site Vulture reports 82 new vacation movie releases in 2020. But even before the lockdown, it was reported that annual Christmas movie production on a single cable network has increased by at least 20% since 2017.
Vacation films are popular not just because they are “escapes,” as my research on the relationship between religion and cinema argues. Rather, these films offer viewers a glimpse into the world as it could be.
Christmas films as a reflection
This is especially true for Christmas movies.
In his book “Christmas as Religion”, published in 2016, the religious scholar Christopher Deacy states that Christmas films serve as “a barometer for how we want to live and how we can see and measure ourselves”.
These films offer a variety of portraits of everyday life, affirming ethical values and social mores.
The 1946 classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” – a fantasy film about a man named George Bailey who, despite all its troubles, touched the lives of many people – represents visions of a community in which every citizen is an integral part.
Another movie that is frequently rerun at this time of year is “The Family Stone” from 2005, which depicts the clashes of a mostly average family but shows viewers that disputes can be worked through and harmony is possible.
The 2003 British vacation film Love Actually, which follows the lives of eight couples in London, brings viewers closer to the perennial theme of romance and the testing of relationships.
Watching films as a ritual practice
While vacation films take viewers into a fictional world, people can work through their own fears and desires regarding self-worth and relationships. Such films can offer comfort, reassurance, and sometimes even courage to keep working in difficult situations. The films give hope that everything might turn out fine in the end.
When people watch a part of their own life unfold on screen, the act of viewing works in a strikingly similar way to how a religious ritual works.
As the anthropologist Bobby Alexander explains, rituals are actions that change people’s everyday lives. Rituals can “open ordinary life to the ultimate reality or a transcendent being or force,” he writes in the Anthropology of Religion collection.
For Jews and Christians, for example, the ritual observance of the Sabbath by sharing meals with the family rather than working connects them with the creation of the world. Prayer rituals in Muslim, Christian, and Jewish traditions connect those who pray with both their God and their fellow believers.
Vacation movies do something similar, except that the “transcendent force” viewers feel does not affect God or any other supreme being. Instead, that power is more worldly: it is the power of family, true love, the importance of home, or the reconciliation of relationships.
Films create an idealized world
Take the case of the 1942 musical “Holiday Inn”. It was one of the first films – after the various versions of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” from the silence – in which the plot used Christmas as a backdrop and the Story of a group of entertainers who have gathered in a country inn.
In reality, it was a deeply secular film about romantic interests that had the desire to sing and dance. When it was released, the United States had been fully involved in World War II for a year, and the national sentiment was not high.
The film does not endure as a classic. But Bing Crosby’s song “White Christmas” that appeared in it quickly became engraved on the vacation consciousness of many Americans, and a 1954 film called “White Christmas” became better known.
As historian Penne Restad puts it in her 1995 book “Christmas in America”, Crosby’s crooning is the “epitome” of the holidays, a world that “has no dark side” – one where “war is forgotten”.
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In the Christmas films that follow, the main plot has not been set in the context of war, yet there is often a struggle: overcoming a materialistic, giving and giving kind of holiday.
Films like “Jingle all the Way”, “Deck the Halls” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” Revolve around the idea that the real meaning of Christmas is not in rampant consumerism, but in goodwill and family love.
Dr. Seuss’ famously grumpy Grinch thinks he can ruin Christmas by taking away all the presents. But when the people gather without a present, they close hands and sing while the narrator tells the audience, “Christmas came anyway.”
“All right with the world”
Although Christmas is a Christian holiday, most vacation movies are not religious in the traditional sense. There is little mention of Jesus or the biblical setting of his birth.
As media scholar John Mundy wrote in an essay “Christmas and the Films” in 2008, “Hollywood films continue to construct Christmas as an alternative reality.”
These films create worlds on screen that evoke positive emotions while also offering a few laughs.
1983 “A Christmas Story” gets nostalgic for the childhood holidays when life seemed simpler and the desire for a Red Ryder air rifle was the most important thing in the world. The 2003 plot of “Elf” focuses on the quest to reunite a lost father.
In the end, as the narrator says late in “A Christmas Story” – after the family overcame a series of serious mishaps, the presents were unwrapped and they gathered for the Christmas goose – these are times when “everything is fine with the world. “
At the end of a difficult 2020, and with so many families physically isolated from their loved ones, people need to believe in worlds where everything is fine. Vacation films provide a glimpse of such a place.
This is an updated version of an article that was first published on December 6, 2019.
S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate, Professor of Religious Studies and Cinema and Media Studies, after a special appointment at Hamilton College
This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.