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Brian Bird: So this is Christmas

Commentary

In Canada’s 2021 census, more than one in three Canadians—12.6 million—reported having no religious affiliation. This figure has more than doubled in the span of twenty years. In British Columbia alone, more than half of the population reported having no religious affiliation. 

It stands to reason from these statistics that many Canadians are largely unaware of the religious meaning of major faith celebrations and occasions throughout the year: Ramadan, Hanukkah, Diwali, and more. 

This situation may also apply to Christmas. Many of us who are either not religious or who belong to faiths other than Christianity mark Christmas in some form or fashion. Although Christmas is widely celebrated in Canada, its origins as a religious holiday may no longer be fully understood. 

So what is the religious meaning—and dare I say, as a Christian myself, the true meaning—of Christmas? 

On Christmas, Christians recall the birth of a child in present-day Israel about 2000 years ago. The child’s name was Jesus, born to a Jewish woman named Mary in a stable in the town of Bethlehem. 

Historians have never seriously doubted that this child in fact was born and walked upon the Earth, but Christians believe that Jesus is no ordinary child. Christians profess Jesus as God the Son sent by God the Father with the help of God the Holy Spirit. The Bible, the holy book of Christianity, says that Jesus’s conception occurred not by natural causes but by the intervention of the Holy Spirit after Mary accepted God’s invitation to bear this child. 

But why was Jesus sent to dwell among us? In a nutshell, Christians believe that Jesus came to repair the relationship between God and humanity. This relationship had been broken when humanity rejected God after God created this world. This turning away from God, depicted in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, blocked our access to communion with God after death: in other words, our access to Heaven. 

In the millennia between this turning away from God and the birth of Jesus, the people to whom the Bible says God first revealed himself—the Jewish people, the nation of Israel—came to expect that someone would eventually come to undo their separation from God. The prophet Isaiah, writing about 700 years before Jesus’s birth, predicted that “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel”. The word “Immanuel” is Hebrew for “God with us”. 

As for “Christ”, this is not Jesus’s family name but a reference to his divine identity in the eyes of his followers. The word traces to the Greek word Christos, which means “anointed one”. It is thus more accurate to say he is Jesus the Christ rather than Jesus Christ. 

Jesus would grow up in obscurity in a town called Nazareth until he began his public ministry at around the age of 30. He preached about his mission, revealed his divine identity, and invited those whom he encountered to follow him. The Bible says Jesus performed many miracles to relieve suffering, manifest his divinity, and exemplify the true characteristics of love.  

And love is indeed the hallmark of Jesus’s teaching: the commandment to love God and to love one another. Love, in the Christian tradition, is epitomized by denying oneself and serving others. Paul of Tarsus, a follower of Jesus whose writing appears in the Bible, authored what might be the most famous description of love: 

“Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” 

Christians say that Jesus’s greatest act of love is also how he fulfilled his mission of reuniting Heaven and Earth. For claiming to be God incarnate and the redeemer of the world, Jesus would be condemned to death in Jerusalem. He was tortured and nailed to a wooden cross on which he would perish. But Christians believe that, three days later, Jesus conquered death and came back to life. 

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Christians profess that Jesus, through his death and resurrection, reopened the gates of Heaven to humanity. They believe that Jesus took the guilt of every person who has ever lived and ever will live—a guilt stemming from our rejection of God—and bore it upon his shoulders as he carried his cross to the site of his execution.

Christians proclaim that the child born in the humblest of circumstances on the first Christmas not only changed but saved the world. In a season that is now largely defined by the giving and receiving of gifts among family and friends, Christians celebrate on Christmas Day what they believe is the greatest gift ever to have been given: a gift given not just to one person, but to all of us. That gift is Jesus. 

A close friend of Jesus described this gift this way: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” 

I wish you and your loved ones a merry Christmas and the very best for the year to come.

Howard Anglin: The top 10 non-Christmassy Christmas movies

Commentary

There are two kinds of Christmas movies: movies about Christmas qua Christmas—the Christian feast celebrated on the 25th of December—and movies that happen to take place at Christmas. Only the former are, strictly speaking, Christmas movies, but what fun would life be if we always spoke strictly? 

If you want to insist that a movie cannot be a true Christmas movie if its central theme is about something other than redemption through divine intervention, that’s fine. I’ll even concede that you have the better of the argument, as long as you promise to go away and enjoy the warm seasonal glow of sanctimonious rectitude alone and leave the rest of us to enjoy a more eclectic selection of holiday movies. 

My list of the top 10 non-Christmassy Christmas movies is inspired by Jeet Heer. Unless you waste a lot of time on Twitter, or are one of the few remaining readers of The Nation—a venerable New York magazine that has never fully moved on from its earlier Stalinist apologetics and now reads like the splenetic propaganda organ of a particularly paranoid progressive cult—you are unlikely to have encountered Mr. Heer. If not, imagine Cliff Clavin … if he’d spent too many years marinating in the cultural studies department at Canada’s loopiest grad school, York University. 

To give Heer his due, he is a gifted writer, albeit one with a special talent for self-parodic contrarianism. Case in point, two years ago, he tweeted the following list of the five best Christmas movies: 

1. Fanny and Alexander 

2. Eyes Wide Shut 

3. Metropolitan 

4. The Dead 

5. Brazil 

It’s such a preposterous list, so self-consciously over-the-top in its pompous provocation, that one can only applaud the conceit. And the funniest part is, he’s not wrong. Well, perhaps Eyes Wide Shut is a stretch, but Heer seems to have a thing for the movie. In the last four years, he’s tweeted more than a dozen times about it being either Kubrick’s best movie, which is absurd, or the best Christmas movie, which is both absurd and unnecessarily revealing. 

But everyone gets his own gout, or whatever it is the French say, so I’ll refrain from further comment and instead provide my own definitive contrarian-but-correct top 10 list. You won’t find much recent Hollywood fare, and you definitely won’t find Richard Curtis’s smarmy creep-fest, Love Actually, so inexplicably beloved by people who wouldn’t recognise love, actually, if Socrates dropped by dressed as Cupid and read them the Symposium underscored by the overture to Tristan und Isolde.

Instead, these are the movies to watch after the mandatory viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Scrooge (the 1951 version with Alistair Sim, still the best of all Christmas movies), while there is still sherry in the decanter and dishes or guests to avoid. Here they are, in no particular order, beginning with the ones Heer got right:

Fanny and Alexander (1982)

A five-hour epic about an unhappy home life in early 1900s Uppsala might sound like a bit of a slog, and it is, but it is also one of the most beautiful movies ever shot, and the first hour, which shows the family in happier times, captures a postcard-perfect Swedish Christmas celebration, including snowy streets, a nativity play, real candles flickering on the tree, and a Christmas party from an age when adults still dressed like grown-ups.

Metropolitan (1990)

Imagine if Fitzgerald wrote a John Hughes movie. Whit Stillman’s debut follows a group of college-age UHBs (“urban haute bourgeoisie”) as they navigate the Manhattan Christmas party season at the fag end of the 1980s. Stillman (drawing on personal experience) is probably too sympathetic to a decadent class out of time in a world undergoing revolutionary change beyond the ballrooms of the Plaza and the Pierre and their parents’ Upper East Side parlours. Then again, the cultural elite that has replaced them is coarser and uglier in every way. 

The Dead (1987)

The dying John Huston directed his daughter Angelica Huston, who is luminous as the female lead, in this adaptation of James Joyce’s story of the same name—to my mind the greatest of short stories. Mostly faithful to the original text, the movie captures cinematically the melancholy of Joyce’s meditation on love and marriage, ending with his sublime lyrical description of snow falling “all over Ireland.”

Brazil (1985)

Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece gets better with each passing year as it feels less premonitory and more like prophecy. The futuristic world in which ordinary lives are smothered (sometimes literally) by technology and bureaucracy, subject to constant surveillance by a government marked equally by incompetence and corruption, and sustained by recycled entertainment and the grotesque surgical pursuit of perpetual youth doesn’t look so fantastical in 2022. A work of unique genius: Orwell as translated by Monty Python.

The Thin Man (1934)

Finally, something lighter. A champagne cocktail of a movie from Hollywood’s Golden Age. A detective caper featuring the wittiest, prettiest couple trading top-shelf banter as they chase the titular villain around New York, dog in tow, sustained by a cataract of cocktails (someone once counted how many Nick drinks in the movie: 21). This pre-Hays Code gem is, alas, almost impossible to find today (the last time I saw it was projected on the brick wall of a Washington DC bar), but it’s worth the effort. 

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Trading Places (1983)

Dan Ackroyd, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Lee Curtis. What more do I need to say? Oh, and it’s directed by John Landis at the height of his zany powers. A topsy-turvy morality tale whose ending gives us a taste of the justice that Wall Street’s titans deserved after the Global Financial Crisis, but never got. 

The Lion in Winter (1968)

And you think you have a dysfunctional family for the holidays. It’s Christmas 1183 and Henry II (Peter O’Toole) must decide which of his three flawed sons will inherit the kingdoms of England and Aquitaine. His decision is complicated by his waspish wife, Eleanor (Katherine Hepburn, who shared the Oscar for Best Actress), a plotting King of France (Timothy Dalton), and the King of France’s half-sister, who has been promised to whichever son will inherit the throne and also happens to be Henry’s mistress. As the overlooked son, Geoffrey, says, “Ah, Christmas, warm and rosy time, the wine steams, the Yule log roars, and we’re the fat that’s in the fire.”

In Bruges (2008)

A mordant, talkative, and blood-soaked gangster movie set in Bruges, the picturesque limbo for two Irish hired guns waiting for their fate to be decided by a viciously smarmy English crime boss. If it doesn’t sound like Christmas fare, that’s probably because you are the normal, well-adjusted sort. For the rest of us, it’s a profound, and at times profoundly funny, reflection on the pitiless logic of vengeance and the possibility of redemption.

Das Boot (1981)

The alternating tension and tedium of a German U-Boat mission on the eve of Christmas 1941 is unrelenting and exhausting. Shot with fanatical devotion to detail in an authentic reproduction of the cramped corridors of a World War II submarine, it may be a stretch to call it a Christmas movie, but it is one of the very best war movies, and one of the best movies, period, of the last fifty years. 

Die Hard (1988)

I was tempted to leave it off and include Lethal Weapon (a better movie) instead, just to see how many people cancelled their subscriptions in protest. But in the end I couldn’t leave out a movie that includes the late Alan Rickman (whose best Christmas-related line was delivered in another movie) AND Reginald VelJohnson. 

In the words of John McClane and Tiny Tim, Merry Christmas and Yippee-ki-yay, everyone.