On the first day of Christmas: Cinema IS Christmas

It is a common misconception in many countries that Christmas Day is the last of the twelve days of Christmas – in actual fact it is traditionally the first day. It’s quite likely that this general misunderstanding has largely been fostered by retailers who have little use for a twelve day Christmas campaign that commences the day after people have completed their festive shopping. And so, in the spirit of Christmas confusion, CURNBLOG is commencing its ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ article series nineteen days before Christmas. Why? Well… why not? 

And so, to celebrate, we’re kicking off the first day of CURNBLOG Christmas with the republication of last year’s most popular Christmas piece – “Cinema is Christmas”.


White ChristmasAs a person unaffiliated with any particular kind of religion or spiritualism, at Christmas time I am left contemplating the question that millions of other human beings in today’s more secular society must be pondering at the same time –what am I celebrating? Why is this day meaningful to me?

The easiest answers reside in notions of togetherness, family, and “good will to all men” (excuse the archaic gender specificity). In other words, we are taking a brief moment to recognise the importance of our families, friends and a connection to our fellow humans. Others might say that Christmas has been taken over by the parallel mythology of Santa Claus, the old man whose paternal embrace is closer to young children’s hearts than the religious ideals to which he has been haphazardly aligned. Meanwhile, cynics will argue that the day (and Santa himself) is now simply a conduit for the encouragement of hysterical consumer behaviours. All these points are (in their own way) true.

And of course, many would be appalled at the reduction of this sacred holiday to anything other than its origins, the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the locus of Christianity’s beginnings (although it has been postulated that both the date and the use of a tree might be remnants from either pagan rites or earlier Christian “tree of life” ceremonies).

However, I wish to boldly claim that the reason Christmas still beats in the hearts of those who have long since abandoned (or simply never recognised) its intended meaning, is that the moving image has slowly transformed the holiday into something else. But what? A humanist celebration? And why the moving image?

Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer (1964)

Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer (1964)

If I think of Christmas in years gone by, especially during my childhood, one of the defining elements in framing my experiences was that little box of moving images that populates almost every living room in the Western world. Christmas movies, Christmas cartoons, the live presentation of our dear city’s Carols by Candlelight celebrations – these were the markers that confirmed it was Christmas. It wouldn’t be enough to know that my family were celebrating on this day. What defined the experience was that television seemed to literally be celebrating as well – and if TV was celebrating, that meant that EVERY house was celebrating (please excuse the simple mind of a young boy, unaware that the entire world was not a part of this religious rite).

That little box flooded our home with the iconographic power of Santa Claus, reindeer, elves, baby Jesus, Frosty the snowman, mistletoe, Bing Crosby, Christmas carols and SNOW SNOW SNOW! Indeed, here in Melbourne, Australia where Christmas Day falls in summer and averages a temperature of around 25 degrees Celsius (77F), you will still see countless shop windows all over the city sprayed with a kind of snow-in-a-bottle concoction designed to (quite absurdly) meet the iconographic expectations that the moving image has placed on Christmas.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

And what are my favourite early memories of Christmas? Die Hard (1988), Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer(1964), Jack Frost (1979), Bush Christmas (1947), Santa Claus (1985), a hundred washed-out black-and-white American classics, endless TV Christmas specials, some awful telemovie with Olivia Newton-John, and every single adaptation of A Christmas Carol I ever saw. Yeah, I can remember family dinners, Christmas trees and big piles of presents, but I’m not entirely sure these haven’t been filtered and enhanced by the iconography that film and television have implanted in my mind.

And I know what you’re thinking – this guy sees cinema in everything, he’s totally biased. Well you’re probably right. But today, right here and now, I’m happy to declare – Cinema IS Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

6 thoughts on “On the first day of Christmas: Cinema IS Christmas

  1. An interesting idea, to be sure! I also have vivid memories of that stop-motion version of Rudolph.

    I think that Christmas cinema, and Christmas photographs and elaborately decorated storefronts and huge Christmas trees and decorations everywhere are all motivated by the same desire to make this a “perfect” time if year, regardless of whether that perfection has to be achieved artificially. The moving image, because it translates so well, is certainly very influential and helps to spread ideas about what a perfect Christmas season looks like. This also perhaps explains why many people become depressed during the holidays, knowing they can never measure up to the perfection as presented on screen and elsewhere. The pressure to have a traditionally perfect Christmas is enormous these days. But that’s the pessimistic view. The optimistic one would be the one you have outlined so nicely above, about how cinema, because it is highly accessible, allows everyone to participate in Christmas to some degree.

  2. This is something that I’ve never really considered. I
    gather up the memories of family and the TV specials all together
    in my mind, I guess. Fortunately, my parents considered these TV
    specials “Family Time” and we all made popcorn (Jiffy Pop, on the
    stove in the expanding aluminum foil) and sat together, two parents
    and four kids, and watched the shows. Some of the best times of my
    life. Buy you are right, the “spirit” of Christmas was so strongly
    tied to these specials, that I don’t think I can separate them.
    Still, I CHERISH these memories. Thanks for the post!

  3. It’s one of the first years I’ve really loved Christmas–it was always such a sad holiday for me. I’d have to agree that as an American of 35 years of age, I connect Christmas to its TV specials: (Rudolph–LOVED that special & still do + the Snowman one) & a city TV Christmas program that was utterly brilliant when I was young. I lived for the happiness that program projected.
    Perhaps it is this happiness that is a sort of ‘moth to a flame’ for many people out there–religious or otherwise at this time of year–that is so attractive? It’s really a message of harmony inner and outer, & celebrating+ practicing all the good things people are capable of. It’s a very uplifting message in a culture that is about enforcing the opposite.
    I’m also a recent transplant to a beach town & it was in the 80s yesterday–you really have to “force” the Christmas, i.e. decorations, reminding yourself it’s December. Oh, don’t forget the Nutcracker–to me it IS Christmas. It’s really my celebration of Christmas outside of decorating, meals, cookies, & Christmas morning. I think it’s a lovely holiday that I would welcome any person to celebrate on those merits alone. I don’t think you need the religious aspect of Christmas to fully enjoy it’s message or be a part of it… of course, if you’re out on “gray Thursday” or “Black Friday” & you’re still making enormous lists of things you “need” & are emotionally attached to–you probably have no idea what I’m talking about. Just sit back and enjoy the fake snow, IMO.

    • Great points. And in a way, your comments here carry over from the points you made on the ‘Gravity’ piece. There is a unifying element to the Christmas television experience that points to something greater than the individual. A rare sense of unification and higher ideals that, as you say, are counter to the general tone of modern day life.

  4. Good call James. For the younger generation, you are no doubt correct.
    I can just remember Christmas without TV specials, or replays of old films. It was about Family. Big parties, all the relatives, everyone congregating at my Grandmother’s house, over two days. Later, it became, for many people, the Morecambe and Wise TV spectacular, and endless film re-runs. As for those films, I don’t reckon you can beat Edmund Gwenn in the original ’34th Street’.
    Let’s not forget as well, all the religious films, bringing a short dose of televisual worship, to believers who could no longer be bothered to venture out into the cold! This time of year normally sees ‘The Robe’, and ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ trotted out obligingly by the networks.

    Regards from England, and someone else not feeling the full Christmas spirit! Pete.

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