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Christmas Movies

Why Santa is Red, Why Scrooge is Blue

You say you’re a dispirited Democrat who just wants to put the recent unpleasantness behind you by watching a few holiday movies? That might not work this year. This year, in movies about Santa Claus and the North Pole and elves, you might hear unfortunate echoes of the 2004 presidential election.

Blame Ron Suskind. It was his cover story in the October 17th New York Times Magazine entitled “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” which helped define the political division in our country. In the week following publication, the mainstream media — which has a habit of missing the point — immediately focused on a Bush quote about privatizing social security, which the Bush camp quickly denied (“[Bush] has never used the word privatization”; he’s “never used the word privatized”; he’s “never used the word privatizing”); but Suskind’s real humdingers were earlier in the article. Two quotes. The first was attributed to an unnamed Bush aide in 2002 who accused Suskind of being part of the “reality-based community,” an Enlightenment construct which was apparently now irrelevant, since, as an empire, America – i.e., the Bush administration — could create its own reality wherever it went. The second quote, from Mark McKinnon, a senior media advisor to President Bush, accused Suskind of coastal attitudes about the President that middle Americans didn’t share. “They like the way he walks and the way he points,” McKinnon said, “the way he exudes confidence. They have faith in him.”

Reading this, the world suddenly made sense. I’d been banging my head all summer trying to fathom the President’s positive numbers despite certain incontestable facts against him. Things like, oh, not capturing Osama bin Laden, not finding weapons of mass destruction, not creating jobs. Yet somehow his numbers stayed up, and here was the answer. These facts didn’t matter. Facts didn’t matter. I was a member of the dwindling “reality-based community.” And in the end, or on November 2nd anyway, the faith-based community won.

True believers

Like I said, I was trying to put all this behind me, and, in late November, was working on an article about holiday movies, when the first unfortunate echo hit me.

It came from “Elf,” a 2003 comedy about Buddy the Elf (Will Ferrell), who travels from the North Pole to Manhattan to find his real father. The first two-thirds of the film are hilarious; the last third ignores Ferrell to focus on a derivative action sequence involving Santa (Ed Asner) crash-landing in Central Park because his sleigh flies on Christmas spirit and, well, there’s just none left. At one point, Buddy’s half-brother, Michael, confronted with the real Santa, gets the toy he’s always wanted, and his sudden burst of Christmas spirit causes the sleigh to jump. Sensibly, Michael suggests that Santa reveal himself to the world to spread more Christmas spirit and get the sleigh going, but Santa poo-poos the notion. “The Christmas spirit is about believing, not seeing,” he says. “If the whole world saw me all would be lost.”

Why would it be lost? The movie doesn’t say. Wasn’t Michael’s burst of Christmas spirit about seeing, not believing? The movie doesn’t care. Faith is what matters. In a sense, the movie is urging us all to join the faith-based community. I stared at that old lefty, Ed Asner, on the screen and shook my head. “Say it ain’t so, Ed. Say it ain’t so.”

Sharper admonitions to leave the reality-based community followed. In “The Santa Clause,” a little elf girl at the North Pole tells the new Santa Claus, Tim Allen, “Seeing isn’t believing. Believing is seeing.” The theme of the classic “Miracle on 34th Street” turns out to be: “Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to.” And in this year’s “The Polar Express,” the conductor tells a little boy, “Sometimes the most real things in this world are the things we can't see.” Like WMDs, I suppose.

All of these lines are, of course, variations of Hebrews 11:1 – “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” – and all of them appear in movies about Santa Claus. The irony here is two-fold.

Who’s Santa? A secular, consumerist replacement for Jesus. How does Hollywood dramatize him? By relying on the Bible. That’s a nice alley-oop.

Better: For years Hollywood has been the favorite punching bag of the religious right. From Murphy Brown’s single parenthood to Janet Jackson’s single breast, conservatives have gotten tons of press, and even more political mileage (country driving, mostly), from condemning that left-wing, coastal Gomorrah. Yet all this time, secretly, subversively, Hollywood has been pushing a Christian agenda. I think Pat Robertson owes somebody an apology.

Unfortunately, “believing in things when common sense tells you not to” is now part of the Republican agenda as well. What to make of the fact that words used to describe Jesus and Santa are helping elect the President of the United States? I don’t know, but it can’t be good.

Blue Christmas?

So — back to the important question — which Christmas movies can a nice liberal Democrat turn to without being reminded of recent tragic events?

First, avoid Santa movies. That suit’s red for a reason.

Second, take heart that the most famous Christmas story of all, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” is essentially a blue-state story. A cold-hearted, stingy bastard realizes, with the help of some spirits (or a guilty conscience and an undigested bit of beef), that, link by link, he’s forging chains in life that he’ll have to drag around throughout eternity. Its basic message is liberal: spreading wealth good; hoarding wealth, not so much. Plus it’s not hard — and kind of fun, actually — to imagine Vice-President Cheney, with his bald pate and perpetual scowl, as Ebenezer Scrooge. Or Jacob Marley? “In life, my spirit never rose beyond the limits of our money-changing holes! Now I am doomed to wander without rest or peace, incessant torture and REMORSE!” Yeah, Jacob Marley.

Finally, for Democrats everywhere, I’d recommend those Christmas movies whose message is more cynical than simply putting aside common sense to have faith in Santa Claus. In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey wishes he’d never been born; in “A Christmas Story,” Ralphie wishes for an official Red Ryder range-model air rifle; in “Home Alone,” Kevin wishes his family would just disappear. Each gets their wish. Each doesn’t like the results. You don’t have to leave the Christian faith to find the lesson here. It’s St. Teresa of Avila: More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered prayers. Hopefully, over the next four years, 51 percent of the country won’t have to realize the wisdom of her words.

—This piece was originally published 12/10/04 on MSNBC.com.