The greatest pleasure of Christmas is retreating from your loved ones and escaping into festive fantasy says Sophie White, sometimes the escapism can even be surprisingly enlightening
I've been working on a theory about why we love Christmas movies so much. Even the terrible ones have a place in our Christmas-loving hearts. Even The Family Stone, which is widely, roundly hated – the San Francisco Chronicle dubbed it a feel-bad holiday film and it's practically scored in the minus in Rotten Tomatoes. Yet year after year I return to give it its seasonal viewing. And it's not just because it is eminently satisfying to watch Diane Keaton be mean to Carrie Bradshaw, though my god it is. I think it stems from the same reason we engage in the time-honoured, often time-frayed but still somehow essential family traditions this time of year.
For example every Christmas Eve of my life I have gone into town with my mother, seemingly for no purpose greater than to navigate the tsunami of extremely stressed people on Grafton Street and try not to manslaughter someone in the gift-wrapping queue who has skipped in front of you.
Somehow no matter what we wear we will be sweating and overheated before we even made it across the beauty counters of Brown Thomas. Nothing of any significance will be purchased and we will shortly be regurgitated back out of Grafton St looking like two people who've survived a harrowing ordeal. I would say neither of us enjoy the experience but doggedly we do it year after year, never seeming to take on board that it's not even that fun. And that is why I think I persist with watching the Family Stone as well.
It's totally sh*t but it's a kind of familiar comforting sh*t that we all enjoy at this time of year.
Things like re-watching the Christmas movies and running the Christmas Eve Grafton street gauntlet is our only way of inuring ourselves against the inevitable difficulties that the passing years wrecks on every family. We cannot keep our families safe and we cannot stop the march of change but we can still sit down and watch National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation and marvel at how many of us won't even remember the first time we saw it, we've just been watching it forever.
A very human impulse beats at the core of the truly timeless classic Christmas movies and it is the same impulse that drives us every year to make a memorable holiday for our families and friends even in the face of their obstinance – I'm talking here about my 3-year-old laughing in the face of my efforts to make magical Christmas memories for him. However, we cling to these traditions because that seems to be the best thing we've come up with to halt the passage of time.
The central question of virtually all the best Christmas movies is 'what is the true meaning of Christmas?' Those of us who are lucky enough to have people to share it with know the answer:
Presents. Food. Diane Keaton being mean to Carrie Bradshaw.
Christmas FM. A Christmassy Ted.
Okay, okay.... it's.... drumroll (pah rapa pam pam).... FAMILY.
(And great Christmas movies to use as a barrier between you and your family when they all get a bit too much.)
What we learned from Love Actually is that Emma Thompson could act her way out of anything. Love Actually has been meticulously annihilated in recent years for being largely terrible and extremely problematic but I'm hanging on to it as a guilty little yuletide pleasure.
DO. A. HEAD. COUNT.
The Family Stone
The most useful lesson to be gleaned from The Family Stone is that there are definitely worse families than yours. I recommend a viewing post Christmas dinner when the tensions are likely at their height. However, TFS goes down well at any point in the festive proceedings. A good sign that it's time to whack it on is any time the thought "I've never hated you more" crosses your mind while glaring at a family member.
Die Hard helps us keeps things in perspective: There are worse hell-pits to be trapped in on Christmas Eve than Grafton Street. You could be stuck at your estranged wife's Christmas party that has gone terribly awry.
From Scrooged we learned that Bill Murray is god. And also that it's never too late to stop being an assh*le, my Uncle Brendan could do with taking note of this.
The Holiday's main message seemed to be leave the Hot People off to shift each other and the Uggos can find happiness with their own kind. And frankly, I'm willing to forgive it that if only for Jude Law's unexpectedly excellent turn as Mr. Napkinhead.
Read the instructions on your gift carefully. CAREFULLY, guys.
The Muppet Christmas Carol
From the Muppet Christmas Carol we learned that humans and puppets do look kind of weird on screen together. And also there need never be another adaptation of A Christmas Carol until the end of time because this gem NAILED IT.
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation
My most valuable takeaway from NLCV is this:
"Mele Kalikimaka is the thing to say on a bright Hawaiian Christmas day."
Thank you for that, Bing. Also a lot of stuff would fly in the 80s that would not go down well these days. The sheer awkwardness of watching the pervy dad scene with my family haunts me to this day.