Concerning 'holiday movies,' 'Christmas movies' and the civil religion found in shopping malls

It was one of quieter moments in the Christmas classic "Home Alone," tucked in between the church-pew chat with the scary next door neighbor and the open warfare between young Kevin McCallister and the "wet bandits." Do you remember the line?

Bless this highly nutritious microwavable macaroni and cheese dinner and the people who sold it on sale. Amen.

As prayers go, it wasn't much. However, this iconic moment also featured an heroic America child making the sign of the cross as he blessed his food. That's not your typical Hollywood gesture, either.

It caught my attention and it also intrigued the conservative Jewish film critic Michael Medved, especially when the film became a (surprise!) runaway hit with a US box-office gross the came close to $300,000,000.

I talked to Medved about the film back in 1991 -- pre-WWW, so no URL to that full column -- and he told me that "Home Alone" was a perfect example of a typical "holiday movie" that, with just a few nods of respect for faith and family, turned into a box-office smash that is also known as a true "Christmas movie."

I've been interested in this phenomenon ever since and, this week, that served as the hook for the latest GetReligion "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Now, there is much that can be said about that "holiday movie" tag. You know, as in the phrase, or variations on it, that you've heard in TV ads a few million times since Halloween -- "It's the perfect holiday movie for the whole family!" That phrase is attached to pretty much everything that comes out during The Holidays that is considered either wholesome, non-threatening, tame, lame or all of the above.

The "Christmas movie" tag seems to go, generation after generation, to classic films that seem to have something to say about family life, reconciliation, service who humankind and even, on rare occasions, faith. These are the movies that come close to grabbing the "It's A Wonderful Life" brass ring.

In a recent "On Religion" column, I had a chance to talk with one of my favorite pop-culture writers -- Hank Stuever of The Washington Post -- about the role of the generic "holiday" movies in television, shopping and American life. He is also the author of the snarky, but awesome, "Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present." Click here for an earlier column on that book.

Stuever offered a genuinely radical take on "The Holidays," arguing that this season of pilgrimage to the shopping mall has become a kind of civil ritual, a secular season of Advent in which Americans prepare for an explosion of joy and wonder -- defined in terms of gifts and cheer -- on Christmas morning. It's as close to transcendence as the mall can get.

And what do the movies on TV and at the local cinema have to do with the actual Christian season known as the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?

That misses the point, said Stuever. The rites depicted in these movies are not about Christmas, as much as they are evidence of how most Americans actually celebrate Christmas.
Take the classic "A Christmas Story," with its tale of young Ralphie and his life-and-death quest for an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. This may be "the least religious Christmas movie ever made," he said.
Instead, it tracks the preparatory rites for an American Christmas, such as worrying over the perfect Santa letter, struggling with tree decorations, facing the store Santa, preparing an epic meal and, of course, endless litanies of hints about must-have toys. Everything must be perfect in order to produce the explosion of joy and wonder that is supposed to surround the Christmas-morning extravaganza.
For centuries, Christians prepared for the 12-day Christmas season – which begins on Dec. 25 – with four solemn weeks of Advent. "What we have now is a kind of secular Advent. ... That's what we see in 'A Christmas Story,' " noted Stuever. While believers used to fast and pray during Advent, now "we shop and watch television."

Yes, that makes me want to shout, "Bah! Humbug!" However, it is impossible to argue against his logic, in light of the evidence at ground level.

So here is my final question: Is it realistic for religious believers to expect Hollywood, or local newspapers, to produce anything that is linked to the spiritual meaning of Christmas, Hanukkah or any other holy season? What do you see in newspapers and at the multiplex?

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