Episode 45: All We Want for Christmas is Class Warfare: We Talk Anti-Capitalist Christmas Movies
For those of you that didn’t KNOW, our understanding of Christmas celebration is a combination of pagan traditions like the Scandinavian Yule and Roman Saturnalia, and of course the birth of Christ (which probably happened in Spring, not winter), though the date of the birth of Christ was “moved” to 12/25 by Pope Julius I to absorb the Saturnalia traditions and Christianize those dirty pagans.
The original Christmas celebrations were based on an inversion of the social order. In the Middle Ages, this took on a Halloweeny type of mischief. “On Christmas, believers attended church, then celebrated raucously in a drunken, carnival-like atmosphere similar to today’s Mardi Gras. Each year, a beggar or student would be crowned the “lord of misrule” and eager celebrants played the part of his subjects.”
“The poor would go to the houses of the rich and demand their best food and drink. If owners failed to comply, their visitors would most likely terrorize them with mischief. Christmas became the time of year when the upper classes could repay their real or imagined “debt” to society by entertaining less fortunate citizens.”
When did Christmas become so intertwined with capitalist consumption?
Historians look at the 1840’s as the beginning of the American commercialization of Christmas. There was a merging of Dickens’ wildly popular A Christmas Carol (1843) with the German tradition of celebrating St. Nicholas’ gift giving that resulted in marketing efforts in the Northeast to sell shit during Christmas. Essentially, without capitalism and marketing, the very American idea of Christmas as we know it would not exist. No Santa Claus, no tree with a bunch of gifts under it.
There is a second period of Capitalist Christmas that Historians cite as instrumental to our understanding of the season. This is from an article called “Is Christmas too commercial, well that’s the reason it became popular” by Arthur Takahashi: “We get the first mass advertising in the 1920s and ’30s with professionals who are using some of the new psychological theories about advertising to drive these very sophisticated campaigns,” McClelland-Nugent said. “They were marketing a Christmas experience in which your children will love you and your family will be happy together. All you need to do is buy their stuff.”
So I think it speaks to a larger dissatisfaction with consumption and capitalism that we continue to pursue Christmas content that fights the very notions of what makes Christmas popular. Christmas in America has pretty much always been about buying and selling, not hanging out with your family and being charitable to others. Which is why it’s interesting that we grasp for meaning during this season of consumption, because we aren’t particularly fulfilled by it. It has the trappings of tradition, indeed it is a tradition, but that tradition sometimes feels hollow, especially when you’re buying shit compulsively.
It’s a wonderful life:
IMDB 1 Sentence synopsis: An angel is sent from Heaven to help a desperately frustrated businessman by showing him what life would have been like if he had never existed.
It’s a Wonderful Life is basically A Christmas Carol but without the ghosts and the main character’s will to LIVE (even if that living was completely unsatisfactory). Instead, it has angels and a main character who wants to kill himself.
Pottersville is a capitalist hell
Mr Potter is the perfect apathetic capitalist missile. Vulture capitalist slumlord. And he hates that there are people who are much more moral and ethical than he is.
George is not anti-capitalist. We can’t say that about him. He’s basically just a worker stuck in the trappings of this capitalist hell hole we live in. He’s definitely at the end of his rope, though, and he’s starts to realize he’ll never get out of the rat race, hence why he attempts suicide in the first place. At the end, he realizes that having love in your life is what makes you truly rich.
BUT THE PROBLEM IS that it’s not like Mr. Potter is ever held accountable for stealing money in the first place. It’s a Wonderful Life is not so much an anti-capitalist movie as it as “Capitalism does suck, that’s true, but what else have we got?” movie.
A Christmas Carol/Scrooged
IMDB 1 Sentence Synopsis: A bitter old miser who rationalizes his uncaring nature learns real compassion when three spirits visit him on Christmas Eve.
Set in England, so you immediately know the atmosphere is MISERABLE.
A Christmas Carol is answering the question, “What if rich people actually were redeemable?” and you know what, I don’t usually think of Dickens as optimistic but this is pretty damn hopeful!
Is it anti-capitalist, though? I don’t know…I’m on the fence. There are certainly anti-capitalist elements but I don’t know if it’s all in. It’s certainly more IN than the stories inspired by it like It’s a Wonderful Life.
Jingle All the Way
IMDB 1 Sentence Synopsis: A father vows to get his son a Turbo Man action figure for Christmas. However, every store is sold out, and he must travel all over town and compete with everybody else in order to find one.
We don’t need notes for this.
Eyes Wide Shut
IMDB 1 Sentence Synopsis:A Manhattan doctor embarks on a bizarre, night-long odyssey after his wife's admission of unfulfilled longing.
Weirdly, this might be the most anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist one on the list here. This movie is literally about consuming and consuming and consuming until your consumption becomes dangerous and deadly to other people. Of course, in this case, Kubrick is talking about SEX and interpersonal relationships but I think the setting at Christmas is meant to force us to make that connection…that capitalism has spilled over from consumption of things to consumption of each other. And that shit sucks!!!
IMDB 1 Sentence Synopsis: The Griswold family's plans for a big family Christmas predictably turn into a big disaster.
Obviously, all of the National Lampoon’s Vacation movies are in the Dad Ruins Everything category of filmmaking, along with Jingle All the Way.
What’s good about Christmas Vacation is that it shows what a farce we’ve turned this time of year into. Like everything Clark does sucks and he just can’t get shit right. I’m sure a lot of people feel this way around this time of year. And I know a lot of people have trouble making their holidays exactly the way they want them or think they have to be.
That’s part of the big thing with this movie…it’s all about keeping up with some societal expectation for a perfect Christmas and then failing miserably at it. It shows how NOT WORTH IT it is to try to “keep up with the Joneses”.
IMDB 1 Sentence Synopsis:A young man inadvertently breaks three important rules concerning his new pet and unleashes a horde of malevolently mischievous monsters on a small town.
I love Gremlins because it’s like…what if consumerism was a little monster that threatened to destroy an entire town?? And then IT DID THAT.