This is the third in a December series of Christmas film playlists, drawing on some popular – and less so – holiday movie tropes. In writing my new book, Analyzing Christmas in Film, I analysed close to 1000 of these films, examining what they reveal about gender, culture and society. Read the first post on queer Christmas films here, and the second on singers as actors in holiday films here. If you seek suggestions for my favourites, I nudge you towards my recommendations list. And if you’re after some Australian selections, click here.
In a scene from Die Hard (1988), terrorist Hans (Alan Rickman) tells his colleague (Clarence Gilyard Jr.), “It’s Christmas, Theo, it’s the time of miracles. So be of good cheer.” Hans is being facetious – as are most of us are when we speak of the “Christmas miracle” – but it’s nonetheless one of the most well-worn tropes of Christmas cinema.
Most of the clichés we associate with Christmas films can be traced back to three sources: 1) the Bible, 2) Clement Clark Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” and 3) Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s the latter – specifically the magical recovery of sickly Tiny Tim – that sets the scene for the medical miracles discussed in this post. Be it through divine intervention bestowed by Jesus (or his secular equivalent, Santa), or the “miracle” of modern medicine, in a range of films characters come back from the dead – sometimes literally – just in time to celebrate the season. In this post, I spotlight Christmas films with the miracles of resurrection, transplants and found voices.
I should note that the “miracles” discussed in this post constitute spoilers of the kind that are only such if you’re unfamiliar with the mandatory happy ending of the Christmas film.
The Back-from-the Dead Miracle
While arguably Easter is perhaps a more logical season to backdrop a resurrection story, nonetheless it’s a common presence in Christmas-themed tales too. Most commonly framed as a mere brush with death – think Mr Brady (Robert Reed) being stuck in a site collapse in A Very Brady Christmas (1988) – in some films, characters who actually seem dead get a chance to live again.
In no way a typical Christmas film, Frozen River is a depressing film about family desperation and dysfunction unfolding on the US/Canadian border. And yet, a baby assumed to be dead – that is for all intents and purposes dead – magically breaths again at Christmas, highlighting that even the most atypical Christmas film can manage to stir in some of the tropes.
Patriarch Jack (Gary Basaraba) is killed during a bank robbery. An angel (Harry Dean Stanton) gives him a second chance at life through a rewind. A distinctly heavy-handed lesson on the importance of family for curmudgeon mom, Ginny (Mary Steenburgen), highlighting that their are costs to inadequately honouring the values of the season on screen.
The rewind offered in One Magic Christmas is actually common in a range of films. In Three Days it’s presented as a do-over offered up to Andrew (Reed Diamond) to help spare his wife, Beth (Kristin Davis), from a fatal car accident.
No trailer, but at time of publishing you can watch it online in full.
George Costanza plays toy-preneur A.C. Gilbert in this supposedly biographical Christmas story.
It’s World War I and A.C.‘s brother, Frank (Ari Cohen), is sent off to war – at Christmas – and is killed soon after. On Christmas Day years later, guess who turns up for dinner? It’s a miracle!
Unfortunately I don’t have a trailer to offer, but I can offer up a link to an NPR story about the real A.C. Gilbert.
The Transplant Miracle
The greatest gift that the season could bestow is a new organ for someone who’ll die without. Better yet if, in the process, a bad character can be killed off and then redeemed by offering up a body part. In the following four films, the miracle is the just-in-time freeing up of a life-saving organ.
On the list of the worst films I’ve ever seen, The Elf Who Didn’t Believe is a gobsmackingly bad story of a faithless elf (Sean Donnelly) and a girl (Margo Harshman) with a dodgy ticker. The acting is abysmal as is every single thing about this travesty.
The second of a holiday trilogy – sandwiched between The Christmas Shoes (2002) and The Christmas Hope (2009) – The Christmas Blessing has young doctor, Nathan (Neil Patrick Harris), on the verge of finding love with the Meghan (Rebecca Gayheart). Will she get her Christmas blessing? Of course she will.
Teen Matt (Ty Wood) needs a new heart. Meanwhile, Jimmy (Adam Hurtig) is a thief. Could there be a Christmas miracle where bad Jimmy gets his comeuppance and Matt gets a heart? You bet your bottom dollar. An odd set of messages in a film putatively all about faith.
A quite lovely Australian film where dying Robert (David Wenham) gets his liver in the middle of Christmas dinner. Quite literally.
The Walks-Again Miracle
While Tiny Tim’s illness isn’t fully explained in A Christmas Carol, he is frequently depicted on crutches. When he walks again, unaided, by the end of the book, he provides a template for miraculous recoveries of other disabled children.
A weepie about the real life children’s rights campaigner, Edna (Greer Garson), that unfolds over several decade. In one scene Tony (Pat Barker) walks on his own – without a brace – for the first time on Christmas Eve.
The Speaks-Again Miracle
According to the lore of Christmas films, when a child has something horrible happen to them – generally the death of a parent – they go selectively mute and need heavy doses of love and festiveness to recover before the credits.
In a modern-day A Christmas Carol, the Tiny Tim is Calvin (Nicholas Phillips) who has been mute since the death of his father. Once Scrooge – Frank (Bill Murray) – learns the error of his ways, Tiny Calvin can get his voice and happiness back.
Young Holly (Josie Gallina) hasn’t spoken since the death of her mother. She’s being raised by her “three wise men” uncles. When one uncle finds love Holly can find her voice again.
I pretty much hate feature-length animation and Annabelle’s Wish is no exception. In a tale complete with talking barnyard animals, Billy hasn’t spoken since the death of his parents. Somehow, with the miracle of talking cows and whatnot, he finds his voice once again. Oh, and let me not forget the country music soundtrack. At present, you can watch it online here.
Almost as bad as animated Christmas films are ones where dogs save Christmas. In this one dogs play cupid and bring together two single parents and their respective broods including a mute, grief-stricken son.
A mute, grief-stricken child is one of the many in-spiritual-need characters in this British period drama about the importance of helping your neighbours at Christmastime.
Anna (Suzi Hofrichter) hasn’t spoken since she was abandoned by her father but she’ll find her voice at the end of this strange but highly enjoyable story largely centred around a nun’s special relationship with a tree. Directed by Sally Field.
No trailer, but at the moment you can watch online in full.