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There’s a reason why Christmas movies always work. All is forgiven in the holiday season

Ever wondered why Home Alone, Dr Seuss, Scrooged, and even 'bad' ones work? Because they give us hope like nothing else.

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It’s that time of the year again when our spirits fly high and daily dopamine is on a spike owing to the holiday season. Popular culture heralds the season way earlier — think Christmas lights, shopping sprees for presents, Santa figurines, carols, and most importantly, movies.

A guilty pleasure for many, Christmas movies have been an intrinsic part of the season, and the latest ones are only adapting to the times. But have you ever stopped to wonder why the same formulaic script of family reunions, celebrations with loved ones, or the classic romantic pursuit with some mystery and magic repeatedly run over somehow always work? Such movies are made in droves around this time; while few are good, a lot of them aren’t. Then why do we love-hate them?

In case of most Indian audiences, for whom Christmas isn’t the main religious or cultural festival, the genre nonetheless amasses a large viewership. More often than not, it’s the 80s and the 90s generations that would agree. The popularity of these movies owes much to the pre-OTT era in Indian television where channels like HBO, Star Movies, Movies Now, Romedy Now streamed them exclusively. More often than not, you had to be sitting in an urban home with a somewhat decent knowledge of English and sublingually sharing ‘smarter’ jokes.

Can we then say celebrating Christmas is considered ‘modern’? Is it the bandwagon of Westernisation that the Indian millennials have hopped onto? I believe what is primarily at work here is our voyeuristic consumption of Western popular culture. Celebrating the season by gifting your loved ones or the idea of a scrumptious Christmas dinner spread is something that we — as Indian kids — have only seen on the screen while growing up. Watching these movies somehow makes us believe that we are celebrating Christmas itself, much like the characters. For adults, there’s a reward in place, for these movies become a safe haven from winter blues. So while the cold gets unforgiving and we refuse to toe outside, even the most cringe-worthy movies are watched with excitement.


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Neuroscience of ‘Christmas cheer’

According to Olly Robertson, Doctoral Researcher in Psychology at Keele University, evidence for ‘Christmas cheer’ was found inside the human brain during a study conducted at the University of Denmark in 2015. It found out that Christmas stimulants led to a network of brain regions lighting up, leading researchers to conclude that they had found the hub of Christmas cheer. “Every time we encounter items or ideas that we relate to Christmas because of our past, our brains create the emotion of ‘Christmas cheer’,” writes Robertson. While scientists have not been able to pinpoint a definition of this phenomenon, Christmas cheer can be understood as an instinctual reaction or emotion in basic terms.

The holiday genre is built successful

The holiday genre, usually set within the traditional iconography of the season, is one of the highest box-office-earners and that too consistently. While classics such as It’s a Wonderful Life, the Home Alone series, Scrooged, or Elf have remained seasonal staples, new ones continue to pull audiences from across ages every year.

A typical Christmas movie must have some degree of a festive setting—Christmas lights, decorations, and of course, your perfect Christmas tree. It must also be peppered with some quintessential elements — be it the entertaining heroics of Kevin McCallister in Home Alone, the childish shenanigans of Buddy in Elf, or the home-swapping adventures of the two girls in The Holiday, all tip-off feelings of joy and pleasant emotions. A crucial sentiment that runs throughout these movies is that of nostalgia. It often gives adults a window ‘to be kids again’ and is deeply steeped in it. In movies like A Christmas Story or Home Alone, we see the world through the eyes of the child protagonists, thereby going back to our experiences of childhood with shared memories.

Another potent ingredient is magic. Whether you accept it or not, there is some part in each one of us that seeks to believe ‘anything is possible’ — this is a tempting belief and one which the spirit of Christmas catalyses. As we grew up and the charade of the great white-bearded jolly man handing you gifts was lost, there remained an element of belief and hope tied to the holiday season. The adult viewer, for whom the world of practicality and responsibility looms large, watching these Christmas movies is a reminder of uncritical, non-cynical faith in the grand scheme of things.

Themes of hope and the possibility of change and redemption, spearheaded in the name of the Christmas spirit, is prototypical for this genre. A Christmas Carol serves as the perfect example, as the cold-hearted, stern, and miserly Ebenezer Scrooge softens on Christmas Eve. Even the Grinch, finally making merry on Christmas with the rest of Whoville in Dr Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, is someone we have held onto. Truth is, we innately believe or would like to believe that we can do better than who we are, and it’s humane for us to simply hope for a better world.


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A lot is forgiven in the name of Christmas

Unlike most other genres, tropes and cliché are welcome in holiday movies. There is a comfort in familiarity, and this is precisely why formulaic and repetitive themes work.

A lot is also forgiven in the name of Christmas. Over-the-top acting coupled with jumbled plotlines and the predictability of characters serve as ingredients to concoct a poor holiday movie. However, our judgement doesn’t give much credence to the actual movie as long as it falls under the umbrella of Christmas. The Christmas celebration in Love the Coopers inflates humour in an otherwise average movie. Today, with the advent of OTT platforms, reaching an audience is easier than ever, and filmmakers with a money-minting bonanza scheme are pushing out movies in flocks, which are awful for the most part. The Princess Switch series comes to mind.

Not every Christmas movie is ‘cheerful’ 

While Christmas is primarily associated with positive emotions, for many, it spells regret and loneliness. A time for family reunions and cheer turns into intense contemplation, and one takes stock of where they see themselves in life. Family gatherings become a source of stress, as most of us would relate to deteriorating relations among our own families. This lack of Christmas cheer is what psychologists have termed the “bah humbug” syndrome. The Grinch in numerous movies depicts the syndrome perfectly. The words “bah humbug”, expressing disgust and contempt, were originally spoken by the miser Ebenezer Scrooge in the novella A Christmas Carol (1843) by English author Charles Dickens. A person with bah humbug either detests or resents the celebratory mood of the season.

There are many Christmas movies that reflect and deal with these universal themes of the family — the longing for one, celebrating one, the famous trope of searching for a home, and what home means during the holiday season. In Stepmom, Jackie’s children’s realisation of their mother being terminally ill is as hard-hitting as the joyous reunion of the two sisters in Frozen. Despite the mellow undertones, and while critical and hard realities are being dealt with, restoration is always made available to keep the Christmas sentiment afloat.


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All’s well that ends well 

Simply put, no Christmas movie will have a sad ending. Consider this as a rule of thumb that has long been adopted into the algorithm of holiday film-making. Christmas is viewed as an opportunity for people to resolve their tiffs and strengthen their relations, and this is reflected in the movies too. Kevin from Home Alone gets more attached to his family as he learns about the folly in his ways, and the latter realise how poorly they had treated him.

The Christmas spirit is all-encompassing, and everything magically works out in the end. Reconciliation comes to mind, and if there’s one thing that the audience takes away, it is that even if life seems bleak and unpredictable right now, it’ll all turn out well in the end.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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