New York Times film critic Glenn Kenny recently observed that there are innumerable Christmas-themed movies, but most of them "aren't very good." Though many movies perennially televised in December or released theatrically each calendar year are well thought of—even treasured—there exists a noticeable dearth of high-quality, acclaimed masterpieces. As Kenny contends, "Holiday Classic almost never equals Actual Classic."
Critics are often unkind to the holiday cheer of the Christmas movie; indeed, many titles today considered classics received mixed or negative reviews upon release. Kenny suggests that "conventionally beloved," when used to describe Holiday Classics, is a euphemism for "widely disparaged." It's A Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story were considered artistic failures and underperformed at the box office; more recent titles like Scrooged and Love, Actually were popular amongst fans but garnered mixed, predominantly negative reviews. It's too soon to tell, but this year's crop of Almost Christmas, Office Christmas Party, Bad Santa 2, Collateral Beauty, and Why Him? seems destined to suffer the same fate of consignment to the trash heap of cinematic history.
Despite this dim view, it's a mistake to see Christmas movies as little more than intentionally—one might say cynically—sentimental rubbish. Closer inspection reveals those beloved classics of the season to be quite ambivalent. Beyond mawkish sentiment, one more often finds a tension between a utopian wish—home, hearth, and community—and a fraught negotiation of life's challenges to have animated the genre's classics.
It's not that Christmas movies are inherently bad. It's that they are deliberately sentimental films about experiencing sentimentality.
Consider that the holiday film is a product of the mid-1940s, which saw the release of classics Holiday Inn, It's A Wonderful Life, Christmas in Connecticut, and Miracle on the 34th Street. At the start of the holiday film phenomenon, the collective national trauma of WWII cast a long and purposeful shadow over these films' optimistic message (derived from Dickens' A Christmas Carol) of goodwill towards all. What distinguishes these early texts is that sense of shadow, one in conflict with the idealistic desire for goodness and wholeness. It's a Wonderful Life is the prototype—a severe, surprisingly dark story is balanced by a narrative about the sanctity of the family and urgent necessity of tight knit community. But the line between optimism and pessimism is a permeable one—beneath every Bedford Falls lurks a Pottersville.
Similarly, Miracle on the 34th Street raises the issue of mental illness, while it also contrasts Santa Claus, the secular mystical figure of the season, with post-war American consumerism and loss of hope. Rather than blithely ignoring life's complexities, the artistically successful Christmas movie acknowledges and negotiates them before enacting a miraculous resolution to the dilemmas they pose. It is in that resolution where we find the source of the disparagement of holiday films, and the source of their proclivity towards awfulness: their relationship to sentimentality.
The question is not "why are there so few good Christmas movies," but rather, what leads to the perception that they are, generally speaking, so terrible? It's not that Christmas movies are inherently bad. It's that they are sentimental films about experiencing sentimentality. What seems to distinguish the contemporary Christmas film from the "classic" is an imbalance between severity and sentiment on the one hand, and the expectations of genre on the other. Audiences anticipate the feel-good ending, so films that liberally ladle the schmaltz over magical resolutions upend the delicate balance between drama and sentiment, producing an abundance of self-awareness. In other words, these films come off as transparently inauthentic, trite, and manipulative.
Philosopher Robert Solomon's influential work In Defense of Sentimentality provides a useful way of investigating the critical and popular understanding of Christmas films. Solomon (who makes a memorable appearance in Richard Linklater's Waking Life expounding upon the virtues of existentialism) observes that sentimentality is seen as a bad thing, as to be labeled a sentimentalist is to be derided as a hypocrite and fraud.
Those willing to see a Christmas movie know that it will recklessly exploit their nostalgic feelings towards home and hearth, and they savor the movie for that very reason.
Moreover, there is a correlation between sentimentality and bad taste—to respond emotionally is to exhibit bad taste. Sentimental literature, in Solomon's view, is "tasteless, cheap, superficial and manipulative," which can also be said of Christmas films. As one often finds with negative aesthetic judgments of popular culture, the audience is seen as equally culpable as the creative team. A sentimentalist is someone who doesn't just relish a good cry but is moved by that which is designed by entertainment conglomerates to evoke such a response. The sentimentalist enjoys their own manipulation, without irony, cynicism, or critique. Since this response implies self-indulgent shamelessness in enjoying being manipulated, it is not only objectionable on aesthetic grounds, but on moral ones as well. Those willing to see a Christmas movie know that it will recklessly exploit their nostalgic feelings towards home and hearth, and they savor the movie for that very reason.
One of the many defining characteristics of a bad movie is an overt manipulation of emotion. There's a nagging sense that today's Christmas films lack the authenticity of the classics—rather than obliquely acknowledging the challenges of life, recent works only introduce hardship for the sake of wishing it away through recourse to sentimentality itself. They may introduce plot devices that frustrate or endanger the characters but only for the purpose of getting to the tear-inducing result. Sentimentality, as Solomon observes, involves in giving oneself over to such manipulation; the criticism of consumers as complicit in this process implies that the emotions felt are not the person's own, real and authentic, but a product of the skillful manipulation of Hollywood. Cliché bleeds over into bad taste when evocation of emotion is perceived as being false or fake. In Home Alone, when Old Man Marley (a clear reference to A Christmas Carol) reunites with his family thanks to Kevin, we don't just partake in a good cry at the magical happy resolution, but appreciate the fact that the film allows us to enjoy a good cry, to be aware of our emotions and wallow in them. These feelings are seen as inauthentic. Solomon remarks, "The most common charge against sentimentality is that it involves false emotion" and displacement—we are moved not because of the movie before us, but for our own lost youth, lost connection, lost familial love.
Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that the stories that move us the most are the ones that are, ultimately, about ourselves, with Christmas as the impetus for accessing those tender feelings—the crux of sentimentality in Solomon's estimation—that we suppress all year long. The sweet embrace, the warm succor, of the Holiday Classic is difficult to resist. For in the immortal words of Clark W. Griswold in the "conventionally beloved" National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, "Nobody's leaving. Nobody's walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas. No, no. We're all in this together. This is a full-blown, four-alarm holiday emergency here. We're gonna press on, and we're gonna have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny fucking Kaye."
Dr. Julian Cornell is a professor whose research and teaching interests involve the politics of taste in American pop culture, with a focus on Hollywood genre movies. For 15 years, he has taught at NYU and Queens College. Prior to teaching, he was a programming executive at HBO from 1993 until 2001.