A Buddhist’s Guide to Christmas Movies

Deep down inside, I am just a sentimental softy. Emotional, too. And just like John Boehner, I cry. Movies can make me cry. Sentimental, emotional movies. It’s a guilty pleasure. Only I don’t feel guilty about it.

Worse than that, and despite the fact that I resent having this commercial extravaganza they call Christmas that seems to exist for no other reason than making a lot of money for people who are not me foisted upon us each year, and that I am less than thrilled about having to share my birthday with this Jesus dude especially since, unlike myself, it’s highly unlikely he was born on Dec. 25th, I enjoy Christmas movies. Why? Mainly because they make me cry.

Not all Christmas movies are created equal, so what follows is more or less my Top Five picks.

The King Daddy of Christmas movies is probably It’s A Wonderful Life. But it wasn’t always like that. The movie was a flop when it was released in 1946 and forgotten until the mid-70’s when PBS discovered it was in the public domain and began showing it each holiday season. I think I watched that first year, and since I am a fan of both Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra, and because it’s a great film, I loved it. All of the sudden, so did everyone else. No one owned the rights, so anyone could show it. It became so popular that at one point in the mid-80’s I figured that if you lived in Los Angeles (this was pre-cable when we had 7 commercial and 2 PBS stations) and it was clear so you could get Channel 6 from San Diego and Channel 24 from Palm Springs, you could conceivably watch It’s A Wonderful Life 28 times during a 36-hour period. Of course, you would also need 3 TV sets because several stations could be airing it at the same time.

Now, the film is no longer in the public domain and you have to watch it whenever NBC wants you to watch it. Unless you rent a DVD or own one.

The moral of It’s A Wonderful Life is pretty obvious: have appreciation for your life. This is a message that gets lost sometimes in Buddhism, but I have always thought that dharma teaches us to be positive about life. That’s what being in the present moment is all about. As the Dalai Lama, once said:

Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to have woken up, I am alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it, I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others, to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others, I am going to benefit others as much as I can.

That’s the same message imparted to us in Frank Capra’s now classic film.

I’m not sure what the main message of A Christmas Story is, other than be careful with BB guns because you might shoot your eye out. If you haven’t seen it yet this year, don’t worry, you should have about 50 more chances, since they will be playing it to death in the next several day. It’s a great movie, though. Christmas through the eyes of a kid in the 1950’s.

Now, if you think that Miracle on 34th Street is just about some old guy who thinks he’s Kris Kringle, you couldn’t be more mistaken. This film conveys several important messages. One is summed up in this line spoken by Fred Gailey, the character played by John Payne, “Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to.” I probably wouldn’t put it exactly that way, but to me that means you can’t live by your rational mind 100% of the time. Common sense often tells us we can’t do something but then we take a “leap of faith” in ourselves and find out we can. Common sense says that sitting in contemplation is just a passive approach to life that accomplishes nothing. But we try it anyway, maybe because of the recommendations and experiences of others, and whaddya know? It works. Based on that we develop some confidence, some faith.

This kind of faith is really trust. Trusting in the way that you follow, trusting in yourself and in others. We often lead ourselves astray, so it’s helpful to have some faith in your capacity to win over yourself.

Another message you’ll find in Miracle on 34th Street concerns social justice. In the same scene in which the line quoted above appears, Doris (Maureen Ohara) accuses lawyer Fred of going on an “idealistic binge” because he’s decided to represent Kris Kringle who’s on trial for being “crazy” and it has cost him his job. Fred says he’ll open his own law office if he has to, and Doris asks what kind of clients he’ll get. He replies. “Oh, probably a lot of people like Kris who are being pushed around.” Well, Doris doesn’t buy it. Payne’s character says, “Don’t you see it’s not just Kris that’s on trial, it’s everything he stands for, it’s kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles-”

Kris Kringle, or Santa Claus, here is a metaphor for those intangibles, as well as lost causes and all the people pushed around who never have the resources to fight back and that covers most of the people on the planet. Here, Kris Kringle is not focused only on bringing gifts. He’s concerned with something bigger: “Oh, Christmas isn’t just a day, it’s a frame of mind.” Kris believes in the true spirit of giving which is based on compassion and is, in the end, the best way to achieve real peace on earth.  In other words, Santa is a Bodhisattva.

I could go on about this movie, especially about the year Channel 5 showed the film the day after Natalie Wood died (just 9 when she appeared in the film) and just a few days after Jack Albertson’s death – I would have given cry-baby Boehner a run for his money that day . .  . let me just say that when it comes to Miracle on 34 th Street, I accept no substitutions. It’s the original 1947 version or nothing.

Now, here’s a film I just discovered a few years ago, thanks to Turner Classic Movies: Remember the Night with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. You can’t get much more sentimental or hokier than this one. Made in 1940, just four years before the two stars would team up to play illicit lovers who kill Stanwyck’s husband in the film noir classic, Double Indemnity, this movie, written by Preston Sturges, could be sub-titled Quadruple Smaltz.

Stanwyck gets arrested during the Christmas holidays for shoplifting and MacMurray, the Assistant District Attorney, prosecutes her. The trial starts just before Christmas, but is postponed and MacMurray posts Stanwyck’s bail so she won’t spend Christmas in jail. He’s going back home to Indiana for the holiday, and when he learns that she is a fellow Hoosier, he offers give her a lift . . . the rest pure 1940’s sentimental hockum at its best, mainly due to the watchability of the two stars. Also starring is Beulah Bondi, aka Ma Bailey, and Sterling Holloway. Do yourself a favor and catch this delightful warm-hearted movie when TCM airs it Dec. 24 at 12am Eastern.

I don’t think that Young at Heart is considered a “Christmas movie” but it comes to a climax on Christmas Eve so that qualifies it in my book. I absolutely love this movie and it’s good any time of year. Here’s just four of the reasons why: Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Gig Young and Ethel Barrymore. Based on an earlier film, Four Daughters, Sinatra plays the character originally played by John Garfield, and in my opinion, it’s Sinatra’s best role ever. Both Doris and Frankie Boy do some singing and best of all, the recordings used for Sinatra’s songs are of him with just a small combo (guitar, piano, bass and drums), with no big band to get in the way. I believe you will only find these recordings in this movie. When Sinatra bends a certain note in “Someone to Watch Over Me” and when he sings “Just One of Those Things” in an empty barroom as he’s waiting to leave town, it’ll tear your heart out.

Lots of smaltz in Young at Heart, too. The message is pretty much the same as the Capra film and it may seem corny and simplistic, but when you watch it consider this: the suicide rate is higher during December than any other month.

Honorable Mentions: Christmas in Connecticut (with the amazing Ms. Stanwyck), Holiday Affair (Robert Mitchum, Janet Leigh), The Lemon Drop Kid (Bob Hope), White Christmas (Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and that wonderful 1950’s Techicolor color), Bad Santa (Billy Bob Thornton and the Coen Brothers), and Die Hard 2 (terrorists taking over air traffic control at a Washington DC airport on Christmas eve, what more could you ask for?).

There are others, and perhaps some great Christmas movies I don’t know about, but that’s the cream of the crop for me.

Christmastime is not a universally happy time. There’s the above statistic and they also say it’s the most likely time of the year to experience depression. Some people truly enjoy the season, others feel like it’s something they have to endure or they just grin and bear it.

I say you don’t have to suffer through the season. The key to surviving the holidays is as follows: meditate regularly, watch some of these movies, and don’t be ashamed to enjoy them or to cry.


One thought on “A Buddhist’s Guide to Christmas Movies

  1. Fantastic, David. Thank you. Couldn’t agree more — nothing more sweet than the tears of a movie like these. We just watched 34th street — the message to me was that the joy of an open heart creates myths that feeds lives — and feeding lives is wonderful.

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