Since we are isolated and stuck inside during this Christmas season, I decided this year I was going to put together a list of of my favorite Christmas stories. The angle I took in putting this together is Christmas “pairings”, be it in book form or film. These are stories that seem to me to have a connection in spirit and focus, and which have inspired me over the years.
I have come up with 15 pairings of films/books in total, and my plan is to present those films one a day along with a brief reflection on why these stories resonated for me, how I see them fitting together, and what I think they can say to us in a more difficult Christmas season.
Here is my fourth pairing 🙂
THE GRINCH (2018) AND A CHRISTMAS VACATION (1989)
If Christmas can be described as a season full of hope, joy and togetherness, it is also true that not everyone experiences these things in the same way. For those who are struggling, isolated, facing loss, dealing with illness or depression or economic struggle, the season’s joy filled celebrations can often be experienced more as a weight and a burden, a reminder that life is not always filled with joy and togetherness.
The recent adaptation of The Grinch might seem like an odd choice as one of my favorite Christmas films, but it has quickly became a new holiday tradition over the last few years since its release. It is an inspired take on a classic tale and it is filled with so much beauty and love, from the gorgeous animation to the resonant themes and the creative approach to the character arcs. Structurally speaking, I really love how it chooses to expand on the source material, paralleling the two storylines with the Grinch and the little girl from Whoville as a fun, caper type of narrative. Some smartly constructed scenes help us to narrow in on who these characters are, helping to flesh out a strong, visual and redemptive arc, while at the same time keeping a highly entertaining pace and some excellent comic timing. It’s quite shocking just how good these technicals are purely on the level of the film’s construction.
Even more so though, and pertinant to this reflection, is a memorable message about the crippling power of depression and lonilness. The film sheds light on how a season about togetherness and joy can also make someone who is experiencing emotions that are different than these things feel like they are somehow lesser or broken. Or in the case of The Grinch, not wanted. Which is why it is so important to recognize that all of us encounter the season’s celebrations differently. As the film suggests, there is probably no other holiday that has the power to evoke such polarized emotions all at the same time, and as we see The Grinch responding to his own inner struggles, which have been masked by this grinch like persona, we also see the real need for empathy. The kind of empathy that can be gained from learning to see the world from a childlike perspective, something the season tries to foster and develop.
Similarly, in Christmas Vacation one of the things that really stood out for me on my recent rewatch is just how how earnest and innocent the character of Clark (Chevy Chase) is as he deals with his own inner struggles. Formed by memories of his childhood and feelings of loss and regret, all he wants is to create a memorable celebration for his own family. But of course everything that can go wrong goes wrong, no matter how good and earnest his intentions are. This is a part of the joy of the film and what has made it a favorite for many over the years.
This is more than just comic fluff though. What we come to discover is that the stuff he is carrying into the season shapes how he responds to the season’s expectations, expectations that he places on himself as a weight and a burden. And for us much as it is easy to laugh at Clark’s escapades and mess ups throughout this film, it’s equally easy to find the necessary empathy. It is near impossible not to feel for his situation, even with his very first world problems, especially as we come to see the context for these expectations.
In both The Grinch’s story and Clark’s story we are offered a somber reminder of the season’s darker edges, be it in the Grinch’s desire to resist the trappings of the season altogether (and subsequently steal them so that everyone else can partake in his misery) or Clark’s need to go overboard with Christmas in an effort to make it the perfect celebration. It is by making space for the fact their experience of Christmas is not the joy filled experience it is supposed to be that Clark and The Grinch are able to then accept that their experience of the season is valid. Likewise, it is when the people around them, be it familiar friend and family or unsuspecting stranger, are able to see their struggle and likewise make space for it by growing empathy for that struggle, that the joy and togetherness of the season was able to be truly realized, not as a manufactured idea but as a wonderful embrace of these different perspectives and experiences. This empathy becomes the bridge in which these polarized experiences of Christmas are able to then co-exist in relationship, informing the other and bringing the experiences together.
This is the image we find in the final scene of The Grinch, with everyone gathered a table big enough to hold all of these experiences together in community, the most powerful part being that child like perspective that holds it together. It’s a beautiful reminder of what the season is really all about.