20 December 2012

More Christmas Shows and Documentaries

More Christmas Food for Thought Television
By Kristin Battestella

There haven’t been that many Christmas shows and religious documentaries on television in recent years, but here are a few fictional delights and debatable documentaries to help young and old work on the mistletoe mind and spiritual soul this holiday season.

A Charlie Brown Christmas – I’m not a serious Peanuts or Charlie Brown fan but fortunately, you don’t have to be to appreciate this quick, award winning 1965 cartoon classic. Now airing annually on ABC each December and available on video with features and treats, youth, young at heart, and families of any and all beliefs will delight in the pouty Charlie Brown, snotty Lucy, wise Linus, and of course, who doesn’t love Snoopy? The animation still looks great; it’s quirky, retro, and full of memories compared to the so often in your face, instant, and forgettable modern designs. The simplicity of a nickel for advice and adorning a broken little tree with love helps put the spirit of Christmas in perspective, “Deck them Halls and all that stuff.”  Unhappiness, commercialism, misunderstanding during the holidays- if Charlie Brown was so displeased then, imagine what he would think of our Christmas Creep and outrageous politically correct season now? Have we changed so much or so little in the last fifty years? This innocent look at Christmas and the birth of Christ is neither offensive nor preachy, and the dialogue affectionately lampoons some of the crazy aspects of the holiday season, such as obsessing over Christmas cards, seasonal plays, light displays, and letters to Santa. Capped off with famous carols, iconic Peanuts tunes, and that special Charles Shultz flavor, the surprisingly deep spiritual symbolism and childlike perspective can bring a tear to your eye year after year. 

A Christmas Carol – No, I never get tired of divulging in this perennial Dickens classic, and the 1951 Alastair Sim as Scrooge adaptation is perhaps the most faithful in atmosphere, structure, and melancholy compared to other happy, colorful, condensed editions.  Of course, there are still a few tweaks and character changes in Scrooge’s past and an iffy colorization, but all that’s forgivable thanks to the chilly Victorian frost, morbid silver screen flavor, and fun smoke and mirrors ghost effects.  The wailing and frightening music is mixed with perfectly period carols in this swift 90 minutes, but remember, there are some dang fine scares here that might be too much for super young kids. Sim – who also took part in the 1971 animated edition, which might better serve those young family audiences – is perfectly ugly and unlikeable to begin as Scrooge and yet the Christian undercurrent from Dickens comes across thanks to the mostly intact famed dialogue and near complete ghostly visits. Some of the cast may seem like uber Brit caricatures today because we are so familiar with the tale-and my goodness that Cockney, ear damaging “‘Pen my bunle ‘ext, Joe! Calico!” However, this version helped create the pattern we expect most A Christmas Carol adaptations to follow. It still tugs at our heartstrings- not because of the charming story, but because we’ve been the miser who will “weigh everything by gain” and sacrifice those around us in pursuit of the “golden idol.” In many ways, the economics haven’t change one bit, and this encapsulation reminds us that redemption is indeed possible at Christmas or year round.   

In Search of Christmas – This 2001 History Channel documentary takes its full 90 minute time to explore the entire scope of Jesus’ birth. From Mary’s virgin status, the tax collection and location of the nativity, the Star of Bethlehem, the Magi and astronomical clues to Biblical versus historical accounts, calendar significance, Joseph’s role, and more; scholars, clergy, theologians, and skeptics from a variety of religious schools, universities, and backgrounds provide point and counterpoint. The presentation is intelligent, with insightful depths that respect faith and the miraculous aspects of Christmas- unlike purely scientific programs that seem to mock or scoff at believing the sight unseen. The focus stays on the spiritual exploration and historical importance of Christ’s birth here - unlike other quickie History Channel shows such as Christmas Unwrapped. Those hours about Santa or secular holiday traditions are fine for their purpose, but such documentaries further push Christmas as synonymous with toys, reindeer, fruitcake, and all that is nonreligious. Fortunately available on DVD for a Sunday school discussion or reverent showing, I wish there were more programs like In Search of Christmas on television- and there is no reason why History should stop showing this and other religious centric Ancient Mysteries and Mysteries of the Bible programming.  There are decades worth of these traditional documentaries- so why are we stuck with more and more reality crap on their networks?

What Would Jesus Buy? – This 2007 docufilm about the increasing commerciality of the Christmas season is very weirdly filmed, with askew angles, jerky zooms, and fast-paced images.  The Zany host Reverend Billy does not help, either. He and his choir singing the anti-shopping theme is just a bit unappealing, padding what could have been an objective and intelligent look at how we pointlessly commercialize Christmas. Even the most interested viewer hesitates to support the cause here because of this juvenile presentation. Why almost parody the very religious atmosphere you are trying to turn folks back to? Obviously, this is not the right approach, but I am glad a full hour and a half was taken. Though I would have much preferred realistic, straight film making and the news and numbers are slightly dated; the statistics of people in debt and shopping excessiveness are still very telling. One little old grandma says, “Why do the CEOs earn 500% more than the one at the bottom?” (hey, Occupy people, what kept you?) The essential message here almost gets lost because of the dumb theme, but the examination of how the price tag became more important than the thought or the why is a critical one.  How did we come to have our entire economy depend on Christmas shopping? When did the financial black become more important than the light and love at earth’s darkest hour? Ironically, what sells this documentary most is that the commerciality and financial situations have gotten worse since its 2005 filming. How can we as intelligent folks trade our beliefs for this Buying = Love concept?  How effed up are we? What Would Jesus Buy? does its best when it puts the bologna away and shows people crying over the precious simplicity of a homespun lifestyle and how Christmas used to be.

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