Christmas, in Four Movies

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By D.L. Mayfield

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A Charlie Brown Christmas

Christmas in middle class America in the 90s was comprised of sparse evergreens and cookies with food dye in them, crushed velvet dresses, and church choirs. It was shuffling off to the Christmas eve service, holding candles and feeling the dark and hushed holy, the excitement of presents always hovering on the outside edges. It was me, asking my mom when I was six if Santa Claus really existed. No, she replied, uninterested in lying to her children. I absorbed that truth, while my eyes still spotted evidences of him everywhere.

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The years that we had a TV, we would come together to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas as it was broadcasted. My parents, visibly excited by the chance to point out something explicitly religious, made us all hush for that pivotal scene when Linus stepped into the spotlight. My sister Lindsay could do a spot-on impersonation of his lisp “and the angel of the Lord spoke to them, and they were sore afraid”. See, we would all say to each other, that’s what Christmas was all about. I was young and aware that I was proud of the Gospel going forth into the living rooms across America. In a world of holiday specials prattling on about vague and mysterious “Christmas magic,” a little bald-headed boy who tried to find his way through the morass of commercialism in order to understand advent spoke to my little, serious heart.

It was me, nine and ten and eleven years old, and Charlie Brown seeping into my bones. Was I missing it too? Was I caught up in the twinkling lights, the fake plastic trees, the music, the dancing, the cookies and cakes and presents? I feared that I was. At night, waiting for my family to go to bed, I would creep silently out of my room and sit on the couch and stare at our homely and precious tree, begging for time to slow down, for me to really grasp how special this time really was.

In hindsight, I should have just enjoyed it. Christmas day is for the children, after all.

Advent, the hard wait for light to come after a very long night, is for the rest of us.

A Claymation Christmas

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When I am 12 I volunteer to put up the Christmas lights on the outside of our house. My dad got out the ancient multi-colored bulbs, thick and seemingly unbreakable. He showed me the basics of using a staple gun, gave me a ladder, and went on his way. I hung the lights up with care, pleased with my work. I did it every year thereafter, proud and serious about my work, my dad visibly relieved that the task had been co-opted from him.

When I am 13 I take the old VHS tape of holiday specials that my dad carefully recorded and curated and I watch it in the middle of July. It was a hard year for me: few friends, an awkward body, terrible hair, my sisters drifting away from me, the isolation of adolescence closing in like a blanket that summer. I sit on the carpet of our basement, alone, and watch the cartoons I have watched every December for as long as I can remember: A Garfield Christmas, Earnest Saves Christmas, Frosty the Snowman, and my personal favorite, A Claymation Christmas. The funny stop-motion dinosaurs, the California Raisins, the gentle puns–it is all from a different, kinder world. I was 13 years old, watching cartoons in the middle of July, as lonely as I could be. I took the cassette out of the player and put it back on the shelf. I will watch it again in 5 months. I am certain things will be better by then, because it will be Christmas.

I am learning at a young age to chase nostalgia down, to grasp it tight in my fingers, to turn away from my present and instead stare longingly into a screen which I mistake for my past. Even as a child, I sensed what lurked behind every animated special, every blockbuster movie, every tinny song on the radio: this is the happiest time of all. And once it’s over, it’s never coming back.

Home Alone and Home Alone 2: Lost In New York

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In my early 20s, I start volunteering with recently arrived refugee families, helping them with homework, grocery shopping, navigating the wilds of America. They are East African, Muslim, tribal, rural, non-literate, traumatized. The parents are struggling to survive yet another bend in their road, while the kids, resilient and bouncy, soak up popular culture like sponges. I try and steer them away from horror movies and explicit rap and instead towards more familiar terrain: Disney movies, Veggie Tales, and—when Christmas time rolls around—Home Alone.

It is this last one that is a hit; kids giggling and falling all over themselves as the young and whipsmart Kevin outsmarts the bad guys. Slapstick, it turns out, translates well across cultural barriers. A kid getting the best of grownups, people slipping and sliding and falling down, a man getting hit in the crotch—all universal comedic points for the under-ten set. I watch, amused, as they go into hysterics over the movie, pleased to have found something that translates well.

Sitting on the couch, I think about my own sheltered, safe childhood. Every December I watched movies about wealthy, privileged white people enduring a series of comical mishaps, and I savored every minute. For the first time I realize that Kevin McAllister, the cunning little hero of the Home Alone movies, lived in a mansion-like house in the suburbs of Chicago; his family went to Paris for Christmas vacation, he had access to all the cutting edge technology of the 90s. It never crossed my mind that I didn’t know anyone like Kevin and his family. Everyone I knew lived like we did–in modular homes and run down rural farmhouses, modest split levels and apartment complexes. We didn’t have vacations in Paris, or Florida, and New York was nothing but an exotic local in the movies to me and my friends. But the families we all knew got together and ate ham and mashed potatoes, we got E-Z Bake Ovens on Christmas morning, we ate the homemade candies that our grandmas carefully wrapped in wax paper. We wore sweatshirts with kittens on them, covered up with glittery puffy paints, crammed into musty-smelling vans and traveled to visit our far-flung relatives. We watched Home Alone with our families, all smashed onto the same couch, and we didn’t know that we were not rich.

But everything is comparative. With these beautiful, precious children in my home, these refugees from a far-away land, my own childhood is insanely privileged. I swallow hard, caught between anger and pity, and settling instead for a slow, ebbing guilt. The kids come over to my place, I cook them macaroni and cheese, we make sugar cookies that are both ugly and delicious. I try and fail miserably to explain the difference between cultural Christmas and a religious one. They look at me blankly, and then they go home to their apartments, filled with bills their parents can’t read and can’t pay, these little children who are being asked to grow up overnight, become the translators, the navigators of culture, the first ones to go to school, the first ones to have the weight of this new world on their shoulders.

They live in a new, dark, cold world, and they are giving me my first glimpses of it. I am lost in the sea of their need, of all the obstacle in their present path, of the traumas of the past. We watch Home Alone and all of us, for a few moments, forget everything except how good it feels to laugh.

Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer

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I am just shy of 30 and we live in a place where people either don’t celebrate Christmas (but they do celebrate Ramadan or Diwali) or they are just trying to survive it. A season where family, togetherness, peace, happiness, and cheer are aggressively marketed at every corner causes entire swaths of our neighborhood to hide indoors with an opioid of choice, hibernating until they are once again safe to venture back into the world.

We are newish to the neighborhood, and we moved far away from our families to live here. I am trying to love people, just as Jesus told me to do. I am lonely too, this time of year, thinking of my family half the country away, the movies we watched, the food we ate, the carols we sang. But I am older now, married, with my own small daughter, making new traditions.

I find the old Rudolph cartoon on Youtube and put it on the laptop for my daughter. She is transfixed, absorbed, greedy for screen time even though she is but three years old. I stand in the kitchen and wash dishes in the sink, wishing I could leave them till morning but knowing they will attract cockroaches. Everything is going good, I am singing along with Hermie the elf about being a misfit, and then the Abominable Snowman comes on the screen. My daughter looks at me from across the room, terror in her face. What’s his name, mom? she yells. I don’t like him! Her yells become louder, anguished. MAMA! I DON’T LIKE HIM!

My hands are covered in suds and I can’t do anything right this second. It’s ok baby, I tell her, watching as she can’t look away, watching as the fear envelopes her. Something funny is going to happen with him, I say, trying to remember if I was this scared as a child. She looks at me, and I can see that she trusts. Keep watching baby, two more minutes. Something funny will happen, and he turns out all nice. I promise baby, I promise.

She watches, she laughs, she sees how in the end he helps light the Christmas tree. We talk about it later, when she’s going to bed. What’s his name mama? I like him. I pat her back, and think about how scared I was when I first watched that cartoon. Was my mom in the room, reassuring me that it would all turn out well in the end? I can’t remember, but I eventually started to laugh at the abominable snowman, after all.

I read the Scriptures this Advent, this slow cold wait for redemption. The words mean more to me now than I could ever have thought possible. I no longer sit in front of silent lights, asking for stillness. I live in the chaotic loud mess of a world ever more spinning out of control, and I hear God With Us. I see the promise of redemption, of forgiveness of sins, of life eternal, of reconciliation with all. I see all things being made new; I see it so clear. But it is not fully here.

Our neighbors are drinking, our car is broken down, we are far from family. I pat my daughter’s back and say the words to her which I too long to know: everything is ok. Jesus is here, even though you can’t see Him.

We put up a pink Christmas tree, we decorate it with turquoise stars and little foxes and homemade cinnamon-applesauce ornaments. We point out the lights on the houses nearby, the blow-up Santa Clauses and Red-Nosed Rudolphs, and marvel at how even they pierce the darkness. When our daughter gets older and asks if these stories are true, we’ll be honest. They aren’t real, we’ll tell our daughter, but they are a part of the world in which we live. The truest, realest part of Christmas is the also the hardest to tell your children about. Why Jesus even needed to come down as a little baby, how the world is so very, very dark.

We keep looking and watching and waiting, because we know the end of our story, of the story of all of us. And it all started with a beginning, of a Savior come to earth.

We wait and we wait and we wait. And that’s what Christmas is all about.

D.L. Mayfield’s life is about 90% mundane and 10% cray-cray. She loves food and books and a good outsider perspective portrayed in pop culture. She gets very, very excitable when anyone mentions the phrases “kingdom of God”. You can find her blog here and on twitter as @d_l_mayfield.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.