The Story of Christmas: The Darkness of Winter Solstice, the Light of Christmas, and My Top Favorite Christmas Films

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I am a considerate fan of Christmas. I used to be in that bombastic, over the top kind of way. Over the years I have come to enjoy it in a more reflective and introspective kind of way.

I always said, for all the struggles that life tends to hold, Christmas is the one time of year where it seems we can set that aside, if for a moment, and consider a more hopeful narrative. This is a big reason why it is always been so important for me. It is a time to celebrate what it means to reclaim the childhood wonder that adulthood often tries to steal. A chance to reclaim a childlike perspective on the darkness that comes with the dark days symbolized by the Winter Solstice, the celebration of the first day of the long winter and the shortest day of the year. There is a bit of a poetic rendering to the idea that the darkest day of the year only points towards the days getting brighter, even though it might not seem this way in the moment. This is precisely where the Christmas spirit and message is able to break through and shine the brightest. In fact, in purely astronomical terms, what today means (December 21st) is that we are tilted as far away from the Sun as possible, making the sun’s travels across the sky low and brief and ironically almost indistinguishable in terms of its trajectory from dawn to setting. This can evoke a feeling of being stuck in a never ending cycle of cold and darkness, and yet what both Christmas and Solistice can remind us of is that there is still light in the darkness despite the long shadow it casts this time of year.

As writer and Luthern minister Rachel Schwenke suggests on her page, the Salt Collective in an article title “Celebrating Winter Solstice as a Christian Family”,

“Christians have long wrestled with how to interact with culture and pagan heritage. Some pagan symbols, like the Christmas tree, have become fully embraced by the Church and reclaimed from their pagan origins. However, most Christians reject pagan practices of praying to celestial bodies or worshipping Mother Earth.
For me, the solstice falls into a different category. It’s not something that a culture has created or a feast that a specific tribal religion has mandated. We are not worshipping the star Sol or our planet that revolves around it. We are honoring the creation of the unknowable God revealed in Jesus Christ and the world God made.

I don’t want to replace the solstice. For me the seasons and turnings of our planet are spiritual and holy. God created this wonderful dance in the heavens. The winter solstice reminds me of death and rebirth. The candle in the darkness reminds me of the Light that is to come.”

One of my favorite things to do in these more introspective times is to spend time with a good Christmas story. These stories have the power to hold the darkness and the coming light in tension, evoking a sense that creation is being made anew through the promise of the sun (and in the Christian sense, the Son). With this spirit in mind, I thought this would be a good time to post my ranked Top 10 Favorite Christmas films and spotlight some titles I did not yet mention in my Stories of Christmas series to help welcome in the Winter Solstice and the coming Christmas season with wonder and expectation.

My Top 10 Favorite Christmas Films
10. Hector (2015)
9. A Christmas Story (1983)
8. Elf (2003)
7. J.T. (1969)
6. The Shop Around The Corner (1940)
5. The Grinch (2018)
4. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
3. The Holly and The Ivy (1952)
2. Arthur Christmas (2011)
1. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

*here is a link to my full top 40 list: http://Top 40 Favorite Christmas Films of All Time (Ranked)

In The Spotlight
Five additional Christmas films that deserve your attention

The Phantom Carriage (1921)
If I were to continue with my potential Christmas pairings in “The Stories of Christmas”, I would have included this one with your seasonal revisit of the classic A Christmas Carol (my personal preferences are 1951’s Scrooge, The Muppets Christmas Carol, or for the little ones the hand drawn 1971 animated version). There is a shared concern for the “spirits” and for themes of forgiveness and redemption. As a Swedish silent film, the film immerses us in the natural terrain while giving it a creative, cinematic presence. The visuals are truly breathtaking. There is a merging in the story of these two ideas, of the human will and want to change and the spirits work within us, bringing about this change. It’s a beautiful reminder that no one is beyond the reach of forgiveness, grace and reform.

Black Christmas (1974)
Forget the remake. If you are looking for something possibly unconventional (depending on your sensibilities), this classic horror take on the holiday film is a perfect example of how to shape conventions. It is easy to see the ways in which this quietly and humbly influenced an entire genre. Even more so, this is a great example of “smart” horror. Aside from the expertly drawn tone and the compelling mystery, what is most impressive about this Christmas “commentary” is the way it balances a cast of characters. Every single one of them plays an integral role in the crafting of the story, allowing this to have fun with the unfolding mystery while also building a real sense of dread and meaningful arcs.

Christmas, Again (2014)
Speaking of Christmas pairings, Christmas, Again would make a great viewing with the 2012 dramatic comedy All is Bright. The comedy might be decidedly less apparent in this small, unassuming indie Swiss gem, but it shares a love for the melancholy. It’s best to read this title with the comma in tow and an ensuing infliction of an exasperated question mark in its tone. Which is not to say there isn’t hope and beauty and light to find in the story. I never knew how absorbing a scene of sitting in the silence watching a flower bloom in a simple cup of water actually could be. Somehow this film manages to take an otherwise static scene and turn it into poetry. It’s a reminder that not everything is sunshine and roses when it comes to Christmas morning, and yet sometimes its worthwhile seeing the promise of the season more like that budding flower. It might seem like nothing is happening and that Christmas as come and gone without that expected and hoped for change, but in fact something is blooming.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

This undeniable classic deserves its chance in the limelight alonside the cherished It’s a Wonderful Life. It is the inspiration for the also wonderful You Got Mail, however this is the far superior version. It’s worth noting that while there are familiar scenes in both films, they are also quite different in their own ways. What struck me about The Shop Around the Corner is its deep rooted affection for a long lost art- letter writing, something it locates in story of these two main charcters, two opposites drawn together through quiet and undefined aspiraitons and anxieties. The dialogue is perfectly drawn, and there is a kind of lyrical dance to the whole affair that is simply a joy to watch as it moves back and forth and back again, pushing us towards what we believe is its inevitable conclusion. The chemistry is undeniable and endlessly watchable, affording this film a timless nature.

Remember The Night (1940)
Another undersold classic that released in the same year, Remember the Night is far more subtle in its approch than The Shop Around The Corner, a fact that gives it a startling complexity. The narrative and character arc is less of that crowd pleasing variety and more a desired study of the intracies of its moral backdrop. The court case at the beginning of the film that leads to this relationship between a defence lawyer and shoplifter looks to locate emotions like love and empathy in an unlikely place, navigating across the moral lines that define this percieved “criminal” and law maker attraction. It is almost like there are two cases being made along parallel lines, the court case announcing her judgment, and the love story announcing their verdict. And it makes for a wonderfully compelling watch.

Happiest Season/Fatman (2020)Figured I would highlight two of the better seasonal watches to come out in 2020, even though they could not be further apart. Happiest Season is perhaps a bit conventional, but the charisma of its leads (Levy is so good), the wit of the script, and a really well crafted relational drama that follows two young woman as they navigate Christmas with a family that does not know they are together or that their daughter is gay elevate this as a very worthwhile Christmas viewing. It’s very funny, quite moving at points, and chalk full of all the stuff you might want from a good, sweet holiday film.

Fatman on the other hand is likely one of the most unconventional takes on the traditional santa story you are likely to find. And for my money that reaps some great rewards. Love him or hate him, Gibson’s role as St. Nick is a wonderfully weathered, raw and grounded performance that takes the familiar character and imagines him in a real world context. Marianne Jean-Baptiste plays Ruth (Mrs. Claus) in an equally wonderful and studied take on the santa lore as Santa’s (or Chris) balanced half. Watching them having to deal with things like economic challenges, paying bills, relational struggle might feel odd at first, but then it ever so quietly sneaks up on you as the Christmas adaptation you never knew you needed. If the idea of santa wrestling with an under the table agreement with the government in order to help salvage Christmas (on a purely economical level… as Chris says, they need them as much as they need the government in this relationship. Christmas after all is one of the biggest economic generators of the year) doesn’t get you at least a bit giddy, then this might not be for you. If it does though, there is a whole lot of fun to be had here in a Santa that is represented as both jury and judge. It’s a compelling concept that actually ends up far more meaningful than you might think, in large part thanks to Gibson’s almost therapeutic performance.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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