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 fifteenth pairing 🙂
THE HOLLY AND THE IVY (1952) and HECTOR (2015)
In an article for the Huffington Post about the timeless nature of the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life, a film that never really caught on with critics and the general public until years after its release (apparently it was even declared the “worst” Christmas film ever made once upon a time), writer John Farr notes that one of the great things about these old films is that while the film’s never change, we and the world do. This is what makes revisiting these films in the seasons of our lives so valuable, as the messages we are able and even willing to hear from them will change with our perspective. He describes the themes in It’s a Wonderful Life in far reaching fashion, speaking to “the values of basic goodness and sacrifice, the gift of friendship, the pitfalls of greed and commercialism, the sense of community and belonging that helps us feel truly connected in a society.” He notes one of the defining marks of the holiday classic, which is found in the idea that, for reasons bound up in the nature of these seasonal celebrations, “there is no lonelier time for an already lonely person than in December“, and likewise there is no better time to reflect on the value of togetherness.
In both of the films represented above I found a deeply felt and resonant expression of this lonliness and reflecting on togetherness being held in necessary tension. In The Holly and the Ivy, the story revolves around an aging father, the local Priest in their hometown, and his largely estranged family. It follows one particular holiday season as the family, all separated by their lives and their experiences, decide to reunite at their old family village in their old family home thanks to the father’s wishes. As the film unfolds, we begin to learn about the reasons for the estrangement of these individuals, forcing the family to confront the demons that have kept them apart all these years together.
In Hector we get a similar story only from the opposite perspective. Hector is an aging, homeless man who has long since distanced himself from his family. A random call from a family member sets him off on a journey to reconnect with his relatives all living a good distance away. As he embarks on this journey we are gradually given the puzzle pieces to the story of how he ended up where he is, using the holiday setting as a way to peel back the layers of his past experiences and uncover why it is that he felt he could not reconnect with his family.
It is often the fear of what togetherness exposes that motivates these seasonal struggles. In The Holly and the Ivy it is the fear of their father’s rejection that kept this family apart. Each of the siblings arrives with a story that they have kept hidden because of how they think the father will respond. Behind these stories lies particular struggles that have caused these family member to question the faith that their father holds near and dear, and thus they have assumed that these struggles could never be understood by the limited perspective of their father’s Priestly duties. As they say, he would never understand their real life struggles, their questioning of their faith. Rather than face this potential rejection and assumed ignorance they feel it would be better to remain isolated and to bear their struggles alone. And for them, the threat of this togetherness and this wrestling with questions of faith go hand in hand. What coming together exposes though is that in their own feelings of isolation they very well may have misunderstood their father’s own faith and struggle. This leads to an opportunity for their baggage to be placed at the the common table of this seasonal celebration, finding togetherness in their differences, where their individual struggles can be shaped by what it is that they share in common.
In Hector, it is the baggage of this single, aging man that risks being exposed as the seasonal expectation draws him homeward. The family members have assumed certain things about his story, and as the pieces of this story come together what becomes clear is that they have misunderstood why he isolated himself from them. And in his own struggles Hector must come to terms with what it means to risk the kind of vulnerability that togetherness poses. The journey of this single individual broadens our perspective of what togetherness and family can mean, bringing people together from differing perspectives and circumstances while also binding us together by what it is that we share- the struggles that isolate us and the need for togetherness to heal those struggles.
And perhaps the beauty of seeing both of these films in their equally timeless nature is that in both seasons of struggle and seasons of togetherness the stories have the power to speak something necessary and unexpected into our ever changing perspectives. This is the same power that encountering the story of Christmas anew each and every year holds in a liturgical sense, helping to remind us that in the light of the eternal God-Human-Creation relationship, there is always someting new to uncover from the story of Christ’s birth in each and every season of our life. While the story might be familiar, our perspective is always changing, which is why the liturgy and Tradition of the season remains so vital and important.