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Everything you need to know you can learn from a Christmas movie


Perhaps the headline on my column is somewhat of an overstatement. I don’t think you can watch a Christmas movie and learn how to perform brain surgery, change the oil in your car, or make a souffle. I do, however, think you can either learn invaluable life lessons from holiday films or reaffirm your existing beliefs. Some of these lessons may be trivial, and others may be profound. It depends on the film you are watching.
I will never forget the first time I saw “A Christmas Story,” one of my favorite Christmas movies. I almost fell out of my chair because I was laughing so hard. How could a movie so comical and entertaining teach anyone anything? If you are paying careful attention, it can teach you a lot, as Ralphie, the narrator and central figure, clearly shows us.
While watching this zany masterpiece, we learn that a boy who uses the word “fudge” (only it isn’t “fudge” but another F-word) in front of his dad may end up with a bar of soap in his mouth. We learn that it is probably a bad idea to plug a dozen or more electric cords into one outlet unless you want a power failure or a house fire. We learn when a mother dresses her son in so many layers of winter clothing that he looks like the Michelin Man, he cannot run away from the bullies chasing him home from school, and he must lie “like a slug” on the ground.
We also learn that not all department store Santas are nice and that aunts frequently make gifts for their nephews — like pink bunny pajamas — that boys are embarrassed to wear or even own. We are reminded that, in case the neighbors’ dogs eat your holiday turkey when it falls on the floor, there is always a Chinese restaurant open on Christmas Day for your dining pleasure.
The most important lesson of all might be that sticking your tongue on an ice-covered flagpole because your friends issue a “triple dog dare” will probably not end well for you.
I am embarrassed to admit that I did not discover another of my favorite Christmas movies, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” until I was in my 30s. The first time I saw it, I cried at the end, as everyone who had seen it told me I would.
This holiday masterpiece offers audiences a lot more than a sentimental ending. One of the first things we learn is that Frank Capra, who co-wrote the screenplay and directed the film, has a stubbornly optimistic outlook on life. Who else could take the bleakest of circumstances — a man contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve — and turn it into a celebration of love, friendship and personal integrity?
We learn that Capra manages to find humor in even the most serious situations. Any filmmaker who can take a thwarted suicide attempt or a tender love scene and make the audience laugh has quite a funny bone.
When Clarence, the angel sent to save George Bailey, prevents him from killing himself, he expresses his dismay that George’s motive for trying to end his life is money, and he tells George, “We don’t use money in Heaven.” George informs him that money “comes in pretty handy down here, bub.”
This scene teaches us two things about Capra: He thinks that no matter how bad things are, there is always something we can laugh about; he also thinks even angels can learn a thing or two from human beings.
Capra takes a passionate love scene between George and his future wife, Mary, and turns it into a comical observation about eavesdropping. George and Mary are on the telephone with a friend when, no longer able to resist each other, they begin kissing and expressing their feelings for one another. Realizing that Mary’s mother is probably listening on another phone, they accuse her of eavesdropping. She immediately says, “I am not,” in an indignant tone of voice that confirms their suspicions.
For me, one of the joys of watching Christmas movies is that they never grow old and that their messages resonate more intensely from year to year. In a season when our lives can become frantic, it’s comforting to visit with old friends, even the ones who stick their tongues on ice-covered flagpoles.