Yes, Virginia, ‘Die Hard’ is a Christmas Movie

My latest piece is up at The Federalist, and it’s all about the Christmas classic Die Hard and what makes it a Christmas movie.

Since the question hinges on there being a difference between a Christmas movie proper and a movie set around Christmas, it seems that a Christmas movie proper is a film that has some thematic element of Christmas as a central part of its story, while also linking this theme with the Christmas holiday itself. For instance, generosity and kindness are Christmas themes, but a film is not a Christmas movie for featuring them, only if they are linked with the Christmas season (otherwise something like “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” would be considered a Christmas movie).

So a Christmas movie is a movie specifically about Christmas and the related ideas of love, generosity, family, and so on. “Miracle on 34th Street” is a Christmas movie, not only because it is set during Christmas and features Santa Claus, but because it is all about putting innocence, generosity, and kindness ahead of modern cynicism and consumerism.  

It would be going too far to say that “Die Hard” has the same moral premise as “Miracle on 34th Street,” but it wouldn’t be wholly inaccurate either, because “Die Hard” is all about the clash between love and materialism.

Read the rest here.

The End of Multiculturalism

Gods-Light

The Pagan religions were, in many ways, fine things. Though far more prone to cruelty and depravity than our squeamishly tolerant modern minds like to admit, there was a nobility to them. They were the fumbling, crude efforts of man to render worship to the unknown and hidden powers that govern the universe. From before his earliest known records, probably from before man was man, he had been haunted by the sense, the knowledge that there were things over and above him, to which he stood in the relation of a servant or even an animal, and which commanded his awe and respect. In every corner of the globe, there grew up means of rendering this due respect, of entering pleas and making restitution for offenses. The Romans had their own notions of it, making obeisance to dozens of different deities and deified figures from the past. It was a point of pride for them to be the most pious of all people, and they certainly reaped rich rewards. Everywhere they went, they found more gods, or perhaps their own under different names. Generally the Roman deities were enforced, though those masters of mankind were wise enough to be tolerant of most local cults.

But there was a general undercurrent of thought among the great minds of the era, including the Philosopher himself, that such things were speculative only. The truth of these mysteries was far too high for man to reach. So, whatever local superstitions or cults there might be were more or less to left to themselves. After all, they probably all amounted to much the same thing, and no one was ever going to figure out the truth.

It’s been said before that the ancient and modern worlds are remarkably similar in many ways. Perhaps this is simply the natural bent of the human mind when it’s had too much civilization for too long. The great issues seem less great and tolerance and open-mindedness replace piety and courage as the favored virtues. The Roman world was what we would call supremely multicultural: as long as you made a little obeisance to the official cult, it didn’t really matter too much what or who you worshiped. After all, as the wise men said, it wasn’t like anyone actually knew the truth: any or none of the cults could be true, so let people do what they liked, provided they didn’t upset the status quo.

What none of them realized was that one people did have the truth. They hadn’t ‘figured it out:’ Aristotle had been right to say it was too high for man to discover. Instead, God – the one, true God, the reality of which all pagan deities were, at best dim reflections of – had revealed Himself to them. The Lord whom man had felt an uneasy awareness of since the beginning, the light the enlightens every heart had made Himself known to a small, insular nation that had spent the last few thousand years tenaciously guarding its religion while being kicked back and forth by the various Mediterranean powers. In a little, violent, unstable backwater of the Roman Empire, man had had direct contact with the Divine, and the secret of secrets was jealously kept.

For the Jews, though they held knowledge of God, were not a proselytizing people. They sought no converts and made few. They kept their religion, not hidden, but their own, just as they kept some of the greatest works of ancient literature hoarded within their sacred scriptures. It was, apparently, God’s will that they should do this. Their history as a people hard largely consisted of a struggle to maintain doctrinal purity among the innumerable pagan cults that surrounded and sometimes ruled over them. Their God, the God whose name was a declaration of His supreme reality and was never spoken save in secret in the most solemn ritual, and who forbade any image to be made of Himself, would permit no other idol and no other deity to be worshipped by His people, nor would the Jews permit the likening of their God to any other. So zealous were they that they had proved they would fight to the death rather than abandon a single tenant of their faith.

So this strange nation in the corner of the Roman empire bore this knowledge within as a mother bears a child in her womb: hidden, yet manifest, quietly nurtured and zealously protected, waiting until the right time to come forth.

As it happened, during the reign of Caesar Augustus, there was a woman among these Jews who bore a son. As the Jews had received knowledge of their God from no human mind, but direct from Heaven, so her child had no human father. As God worked to preserve His people from error and apostasy for long centuries, so she was preserved in virginity even in childbirth. And the birth of her child marked the manifestation of God before the nations of man.

We celebrate a birth not because it is the start of a new life (that happens at conception), but because it is the appearance of the child who heretofore had been in community only with its mother into the community of mankind as a whole. God had manifested Himself to His chosen people, and remained hidden, as it were, within that nation. Now, though, He came forth to make Himself known to the nations. As the Christ child emerged from his mother’s womb, so the True God emerged from the Jewish nation and entered the communion of Man. The guarded and, as it were, secret knowledge of Jews was unleashed upon the world.

There is a story that, sometime during the reign of Tiberius Caesar, a message came to a sailor, which he spread through the land, that the great god Pan was dead. About the same time, according to one legend, the Oracle at Delphi stopped its prophecies. It was the herald of the end of the pagan world. Mankind’s struggle to find and to placate the unknown gods was over, because the true God had come among them. There was no going back.

In modern terms, it could be said that the Birth of Christ was the death of multiculturalism. The modern idea of the equality of all religions is not so much wrong as about two thousand years out of date. There was a time when it might be fair to say “we can’t know the truth, so let all worship as he sees fit,” but it’s a time long past. In ended on Christmas morning.

That is really what we celebrate on Christmas: the end of Paganism. Not because the pagan religions were necessarily bad in themselves, but because the need for them had passed, a fact which all men who truly loved the gods would celebrate. No more groping in the darkness; no more fumbling efforts to find the right way, or to comprehend the incomprehensible. The lights had been turned on, and a path made clear. That which man had always sought had appeared in their midst. That which they had wondered about and tried to glimpse through the fog had revealed itself. One of the ancient and perennial woes of mankind – his alienation from the Divine – had been removed.

The relation of paganism to Christianity was not of one system to another but of question to answer. That is why its advent meant a tectonic shift in human history. There is no parity between rumors and reality, or between hearing a man described and meeting him in person. Christmas was the dawn of certainty where previously there had been only doubt, of light where there had ever been darkness, and of the bridging of a gap that had seemed immeasurable.

The modern mind does not typically think through the consequences of its suppositions. So few people who say ‘all religions and all cultures are equal’ consider what it really means. If all religions, with their wide variety of doctrine, are equal, that is only to say that no one knows the truth, which is to say that God is too far removed from us to have any clear idea of Him. Christmas is the celebration of the fact that this isn’t true: that God has come among us, and our long isolation is over at last. Man’s search for God is over, for God has come to him. Our relationship to the world and to the Divine has been permanently altered.

In short, Christmas is the celebration of the moment when it ceased to be possible to say that all religions were equal. Those are its glad tiding of great joy: God is come to man, and the time of doubt is past.

 

My Little Pony Touches on the True Meaning of Christmas (Yes, THAT True Meaning)

I’m repeatedly amused at the thought that, this time last year, I’d barely given a thought to My Little Pony, and now it’s one of my all-time favorite animated shows and keeps compelling me to write about it. Among the many pleasures it’s brought is that I now have another favorite Christmas special to watch.

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MLP has had a few ‘holiday’ episodes centered around Hearthswarming: the Equestrian equivalent to Christmas. Typical of this show, they’re much smarter about it than the cutesy exterior would lead you to think and the best so far is A Hearthswarming Tale from Season Six, where they do a ponyfied version of A Christmas Carol (which a bit of the Grinch thrown in).

The episode opens with Twilight Sparkle hosting a Hearthswarming party at her castle. However, her friend Starlight – the recently-reformed ex-egalitarian dictator – reveals that she doesn’t celebrate. She complains that, though it’s supposedly about an important event in their culture, for most people it’s just an excuse for candy and presents (Spike: “And why would you deny yourself presents and candy?!”). In response, Twilight offers to read Starlight one of her favorite Hearthswarming stories to try to get her into the spirit of things.

The story tells of a powerful and dedicated wizard named Snowfall, who is annoyed that everyone is wasting time partying around Hearthswarming instead of working to make a better Equestria. She then decides to use a magic spell to remove the holiday entirely, including everyone’s memory of it. However, three ghosts – of the past, presents (sic), and future – show her why this would be the wrong decision. Of course, each character in the story is played by one of the established cast, with Starlight as Snowfall, Rainbow Dash as her put-upon assistant, etc. (which leads to a great joke about Twilight doing the voices as she narrates).

Obviously, it’s not the story of A Christmas Carol so much as a modified take on it to fit better in the setting, which actually works a lot better, both because it would be odd if they just did a straight version with the ponies, and also because the changed story allows for them (in typical MLP fashion) to touch on some very interesting ideas.

For instance, Snowfall’s reason for hating Hearthswarming is specifically that she thinks it wastes time and effort that could be better spent on creating a better world for everyone: just like many a Communist or political radical has objected to Christmas or any kind of fun and enjoyment because it wastes time and money that could be better spent solving the world’s problems.

The show succinctly deconstructs this position. When some of the other characters are discussing Snowfall’s argument, they ask, “what does she think a better world would look like?” If it’s people being kind and generous to each other, enjoying one another’s company, and coming together for a common purpose, then, well, that’s what they’re doing. It hardly makes sense, when trying to make a better world, to seek to remove something that actually makes people better.

Likewise, Snowfall’s dismissal of gift-giving as silly and wasteful is also deconstructed: the point’s not the gift itself, but the thought behind it. The gifts, parties, and so on are only ways to express love and goodwill. Again, what does she think a better world looks like if not that?

Then comes probably the most interesting and startling part (which I didn’t even catch until my most recent viewing): Snowfall gets shown the future that will come to pass if she casts her spell to destroy Hearthswarming and finds it to be a frozen wasteland. You see, in the MLP mythos there are creatures called Windigos: ghostly frost monsters that feed off of strife and hatred. Hearthswarming celebrates the defeat of these monsters when ponies first came together in Friendship, and the love and goodwill borne of the annual celebration keeps them at bay.

Leaving aside the fantasy setting, note what’s happening here: Snowfall, the hardheaded would-be realist, scoffs at this quasi-religious origin of the holiday. Then, when she sees the future, she discovers that what she dismissed as a myth or a story for children is not just true but vitally important to her and everyone else.

Now, obviously they don’t come within a mile of the actual Birth of Christ, but, in their oblique way they actually make the point that the ‘mythic’ element of a holiday may be the most important thing about it, and that all the other trappings might just be a means to celebrate what it’s really all about.

Have you ever wondered, in all those stories about ‘saving Christmas’ (which, frankly, mostly amount to saving presents), what would happen if they didn’t save Christmas? What if, somehow, the Grinch actually could steal Christmas? What would that mean?

Well, through the lens of its fantasy world, My Little Pony actually becomes possibly the first Christmas special to not only ask this question but to give a pretty good answer. Here the result is an endless winter born of strife and hatred. On a more fundamental level, the answer is that it would be a world without hope. If, somehow, you could destroy Christmas – that is, remove the coming of Jesus – you would be left with a hopeless world still mired in sin. Again, it’s done obliquely in a fantasy setting, but the storyline and imagery are certainly applicable to the real meaning of Christmas.

So, in other words, My Little Pony MY LITTLE PONY – actually has a pretty good idea of what ‘no Christmas’ would actually mean. This show gives a better image of the true meaning of Christmas than the whole Hallmark channel.

Plus the humor is spot-on, the music is some of the best of Season Six (Luna gets a solo: what else needs to be said?), we get to see everyone in Victorian-style dress, and the evocations of the holiday both positive (“Growing like a seedling / and playing is like dreaming”) and negative (“Finally set free from your forced celebration / no need to reply to your trite invitations”) are so apt that I found myself repeatedly quoting the episode as I went about my Christmas shopping.

So, I’m left asking the same question I’ve been asking all year: why is this show so darn good?

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Christmas Carol at Catholic Match

In my latest CatholicMatch essay, I talk about love and A Christmas Carol:

Coming from the master of the caricature himself, Charles Dickens, the story takes one of Dickens’s typical villains—a loveless, greedy old man—and casts him as the protagonist, while Dickens’s typical heroes—the honest, cheerful young gentleman and the hardworking family man—are relegated to supporting roles. The story then proceeds to invite the audience to sympathize with Scrooge; to ask what made him what he is now and what fate he has to look forward to.

What emerges from the ministrations of the three ghosts, especially the Ghost of Christmas Past, is that what Scrooge truly despises is less Christmas itself than love. Crushed in early life by the double blow of a sister who died young and a romance that failed through his own over-caution, Scrooge has become convinced that love is a lie: whatever people say, sooner or later they will all abandon you in the end. Hence his response to anyone wishing him a Merry Christmas: ‘humbug,’ meaning a trick or pose.

Scrooge sees love in general, and Christmas in particular, as a cheat: an attempt to bilk him by people who, whatever they profess, are really just as selfish as he is. When his nephew informs him that he got married because he fell in love, Scrooge considers that to be the only thing in the world more ridiculous than a Merry Christmas.

Read the rest here

The Star Wars Holiday Special

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One of my personal holiday traditions is to open the season with a viewing of The Star Wars Holiday Special, courtesy of Rifftrax (I’m not insane enough to watch it ‘pure’. People have died that way). In case you haven’t heard of it, the year after the first Star Wars became a sleeper hit, someone had the idea that the way to keep the Star Wars interest alive was…to put on a holiday variety show, including musical numbers and a line of guest stars. It’s a charming, low-key family-friendly program that includes such delightful scenes as a musical number by Jefferson Starship, a holographic acrobatics show by dancers in bizarre costumes, and Chewbacca’s aged father watching a porno film given to him by Art Carney.

You think I’m making that up? How could I make that up? How could any sane person not drugged out of their minds have possibly made that up? In their defense, that seems to be exactly the explanation behind the special: everyone was high as a kite. Carrie Fisher in particular is visibly unsteady on her feet, while Mark Hamill is buried under tons of makeup to cover up injuries from a recent car crash and Harrison Ford can be seen loosing interest in the special as it goes on. Interestingly, the established Star Wars characters actually have very little screen time: Art Carney has a much bigger role than any of them, and it’s mostly just Chewy’s family hanging around their house growling at each other in un-subtitled gibberish (and, again, watching porno films). The whole thing is just…strange. It’s worth watching at least once just to gawk at the sheer madness of it all.

All that said, I will say it has one or two good points. Most notably, of course, is Bea Arthur’s surprisingly effective sequence as the owner of the Cantina bar. She gets a few laughs from her deadpan delivery and actually decent material. I really liked her reaction when the Empire’s curfew forces her to shut down her bar early: it creates a real headache for her and she has to exercise some tact to follow the rule without alienating her customers. She also lends some real emotional weight to the scene where she bids her staff goodnight. The whole sequence feels remarkably honest and human considering all the insanity going on around it.

On a related note, I like that we actually get a view of how the Empire looked from the point of view of the ordinary people in the galaxy. There is a real sense of the characters having to tiptoe around the Imperial troops and maintain a low profile or pay the price. Incompetent as the special is, it really does create a sense of people living under an oppressive government and making the best of it. In other words, it does a better job of conveying a sense of danger and consequence than the prequel films did, which never convinced us that there would be anything lost if the villains triumphed.

I also rather enjoyed the commercials included in the Rifftrax version, including a few short newsbreaks. I find that sort of thing fascinating; like going back in time.

You will note that I’m citing the commercials as one of the highlights of this special, which gives you an idea of how painful it is. Of course, Mike, Kevin, and Bill turn all that pain into sheer entertainment (“Finally, the humans are gone and the twisted, depraved rituals of Life Day can begin!”), and I think it’ll remain a staple of my holiday viewing for a long time to come.

Happy Life Day, everybody!

A Christmas Concert

Merry Christmas to you all!

I beg leave to present for your enjoyment a brief Christmas concert made up of some of my favorite Christmas songs. Most of these are classics, but a few are more on the quirky side.

With that said, let us open with one of those classics: the great Bing Crosby sings Good King Wenceslas. What more needs to be said?

For our second number, we have a light-hearted romantic classic going out to all of you who are either spending Christmas with your loved ones or who may be secretly pining for someone who warms your heart. I present Let it Snow, delightfully performed by the super cute Isabella Garcia-Shapiro:

I think we need a bit of comedy to brush off all the warm-fuzzies that we got from that number. With that in mind, I offer a nice little song for all those who are spending tonight in public houses and other liquor-serving establishments: A Patrick Swayze Christmas, performed by Crow T. Robot, Joel Robinson, and Tom Servo.

That seems like a good segway into the darker side of Christmas: the people who simply can’t get into the mood. With that in mind, here is You’re A Mean One Mr. Grinch, performed by Thurl Ravenscroft:

Building on that jolly number is a chilling little song offering warning and opportunity for the Grinch-like sinner. I present Marley and Marley, performed by Statler and Waldorf:

Returning a bit more to the serious side of things, here’s a melancholy number by a man who needs no introduction. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you A Blue Christmas by Elvis Presley!

Staying on the melancholy note, but striking a more hopeful strain is Burl Ives singing Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s defiant song of hope in the midst of tragedy, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, reminding all of us who are suffering, lonely, and without hope that “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.”

I think that’s enough doom and gloom: let’s move into the glory of Christmas with a memorable rendition of Silent Night from the 1999 version of A Christmas Carol. The visuals are a little distracting, but the point they convey remains powerful, as we see poor men all across Christendom lift their voices in joy on this night of nights:

Our penultimate number is a gorgeous rendition of the triumphant Hark the Herald Angels Sing, performed by a flash mob (I couldn’t find out where or when, but it hardly matters).

Finally, let’s close out with my personal favorite: O Come All Ye Faithful, performed during Christmas Eve services at Westminster Abbey in 2013. Let the sounds of hundreds of faithful voices singing in one of the most beautiful churches in Christendom and the wellspring of the British Crown fill your hearts with the joy and love that comes from God as we welcome Him this Christmas night:

A Merry Christmas everyone!