As a person unaffiliated with any kind of religion or spiritualism, at Christmas time I am left contemplating the question that millions of other human beings in today’s secular society must be pondering at the same time –what am I celebrating? Why is this day still meaningful to me?
The easiest answers reside in notions of togetherness, family, and “good will to all men”. 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 poorly 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 elevated (perhaps ‘transformed’ is a more appropriate term?) the holiday into something else. But what? A humanist celebration? And why the moving image?
If I think of Christmas in years gone by, especially during my childhood, one of the defining elements in framing my experiences was the 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 meet the iconographic expectations that the moving image has placed on Christmas.
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!