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Culture Warrior: Towards a More Thanksgiving-Friendly Cinema

By  · Published on November 26th, 2009

I don’t know about your family, but in mine Thanksgiving is viewed largely as a warm-up drill for the Christmas season, a Christmas prequel if you will. At Thanksgiving I see, for the most part, the same extended family I end up seeing at Christmas, but for a far shorter duration of time. Whatever conversation I don’t have time to catch up on with my family over Thanksgiving I promise to continue over Christmas. Thanksgiving is when Christmas decorations are put up, when holiday shopping begins in full force, and when Christmas wish-lists are collected. Thanksgiving used to be the time when the first Christmas-themed movies of the year were released, but now movies like A Christmas Carol are released the first weekend in November in hopes of capitalizing over two months of manufactured Christmas spirit. Department stores and retail outlets have begun moving in unison with the trends of Christmas-themed Hollywood fare, putting up their decorations and blasting Christmas music immediately after Halloween costumes are returned, thus potentially giving almost one-sixth of the year a thematic devotion to December 25.

Thsanksgiving in American culture can be summed up with Miracle on 34th St. (both versions), a movie that takes place at and around Thanksgiving but has always been deemed a Christmas movie, for Thanksgiving is structured in the narrative as little more than a catalyst for Christmas anticipation rather than a significant holiday in its own right. Thanksgiving lies in the shadow of Christmas, forming the first act of the holiday season while Christmas occupies the second and third (New Year’s following as the holiday season’s denouement).

It’s surprising that Thanksgiving on its own, without the context of Christmas, isn’t used more often as a setting or context for films. With Christmas we have a smorgasbord of iconic films to choose from, which often get repeat play on television each year: A Christmas Story, Home Alone, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Bad Santa, Elf, Scrooged, The Muppet Christmas Carol, The Shop Around the Corner, and Love Actually are just the obvious, canonical titles that come to mind. But the few movies that do take place in and around Thanksgiving are hardly remembered as Thanksgiving movies, like Grumpy Old Men, The Ice Storm, or Hannah and Her Sisters (the only exception I’ve seen is Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, a rare example of the perfect Thanksgiving movie). It is perhaps to the credit of these films that they aren’t remembered in a way framed by a holiday theme, that they are instead good movies on their autonomous merit which can be enjoyed year-round without being attached to the often gimmicky ways in which films often capitalize on the holiday season.

But it still remains curious to me that Thanksgiving films pretty much don’t exist, because it seems to be one of the most accessible of American holidays. It isn’t a religious holiday, and despite its ties to American history it isn’t celebrated in an overtly patriotic way in the same fashion as our July 4th or Veterans’ Day. And while Thanksgiving is an American holiday, its message and purpose is profoundly universal: give thanks for the things you have, especially your family. One would think this theme would be more easily adaptable to any conventional filmic narrative.

Christmas is America’s biggest holiday. It’s inescapable. And the fact that a religious holiday is the most wide-ranging, permeating to-do in a country that ascribes, in writing, freedom of religion to its citizens (which also, of course, implies freedom from religion), the presence of Christmas everywhere you turn has become problematic for some. In the effort to make Christmas acceptable in the secular realm, it has been loosely tied to the theme of giving featured in the birth of Christ story, thus making the reformulating the significance of Christmas in the universal theme of “the spirit of giving” to justify its significance for those not ascribing to the beliefs behind it. As well-meaning as this effort is, the inescapably vague ideal of the spirit of giving – the holiday no longer tied to its original intended significance – has been consumed by the intents of American capitalism, rendering a holiday of sacrament into an annual economy-booster and promoting a take-no-prisoners competitiveness not only between manufacturers but between fellow consumers as well. As a result, Christmas has become a holiday of shameless materialism and consumerism, a worship of free-market capitalism rather than a religious celebration or universal reflection on the boundary-free but indefinite “spirit of giving.”

On a personal level, Christmas can mean a great deal for a great many people, religious or not (I still find myself enamored with Christmas’s ability to break old tensions and bring family and friends together), but on a broader cultural and national level, Christmas is often an astoundingly vapid holiday, and its ability to turn American citizens into fanatical consumers of the free market arguably makes Christmas the most patriotic holiday of all. I’ve found each year that the ability to get into the Christmas spirit – not in a religious sense, but in the sense of being able to celebrate family, community, love, peace, and selflessness – requires me to actively avoid all the dominant signifiers of the holiday around me.

Christmas movies are just as complicit in the problems of Christmas as a product for mass consumption not unlike the newest holiday toy. The worst of the bunch transparently promote holiday consumerism (Jungle All the Way) while even the most enjoyable recent Christmas movies fall flat as they try to attach a sincere Christmas theme at the film’s end (Elf and Christmas Vacation come to mind). Only in the world of Frank Capra and the cheery genuine do-good ethos of his brand of classical Hollywood Cinema does the secular theme of Christmas make sense, which is why It’s a Wonderful Life has endured as a holiday classic.

But this is exactly why there should be more movies about Thanksgiving. It’s not a consumerist holiday. It doesn’t require its partakers to bestow or expect competing gifts to participate (unless, of course, you count casserole). Despite originating with the Puritans, Thanksgiving in its modern form is not a religious holiday, so its meaning requires no altering to contain worth for a mass citizenship. And its themes are just as strong, if not stronger, than the themes surrounding Christmas, celebrating family and community, and selflessness and humility in the form of saying thanks for what you have rather than through giving or expecting gifts. These themes are profound and hardly problematic, rarely appropriated by dominant economic or political ideologies. More so than any American holiday, it has the least potential to offend or alienate. These factors and themes would make the subject, setting, or context of the holiday seemingly accessible to a wide audience without problem, and I for one would one day like to see the It’s a Wonderful Life of Thanksgiving.

Culture Warrior is our weekly walk on the wild side with actual film school graduate Landon Palmer. To read more from Landon, you can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/landon_speak

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