Arts·Anne-iversaries

In the 1990s, Christmas movies stared reality in its cold, dead eyes — and it was spectacular

Modern Christmas movies have come to be defined by their relentless cheeriness. But a few decades ago, it was a very different story.

The movies of Christmas past took a very different tone from the relentless cheeriness of today's

Arnold Schwarzenegger (left) and Robert Conrad in Jingle All the Way. (20th Century Fox)

Anne-iversaries is a bi-weekly column by writer Anne T. Donahue that explores and celebrates the pop culture that defined the '90s and 2000s and the way it affects us now (with, of course, a few personal anecdotes along the way).

Before we begin, here are a few important things you need to know. I've never seen Miracle on 34th Street because the trailer still makes me cry. I bail on The Santa Clause when Tim Allen's character is arrested because I find it emotionally overwhelming. And while the adult version of me has no interest in re-watching Jingle All the Way, it's also largely because I know that when the inspirational music begins accompanying the film's conclusion, I will be reduced to tears and be forced to admit that a movie about capitalism is responsible.

Of course, holiday movies have come a long way since 1994. This season alone, we're being treated to no less than 1436 Hallmark and Netflix films — and despite lacklustre reviews, I absolutely plan to see Paul Feig's Last Christmas one million times because I deserve joy in my heart and Henry Golding on a large screen. And we shouldn't be surprised: as the world burns down around us, we're overcompensating in the only way you can within a season defined by suspending one's belief, particularly when surrounded by garish (perfect) decor or music (anthems) about balsam fir.

But contrast that with the 1990s and their holiday films about the end of marriages, custody arrangements, and the profound sorrow that can accompany the happiest time of year. Magical as we may remember them to be, those movies were largely rooted in a tone that reflected the emotional intensity of the time — or at least the openness that the decade ushered in through all avenues of pop culture.

Uncredited reindeer in Miracle on 34th Street. (20th Century Fox)

Over the last few seasons in particular, Christmas movies have come to be defined exclusively by their romance, cuteness, and raging adorability. And in the worlds they take place in, no problems exist outside of meeting a royal and falling in love, learning what really matters in a small, made-up town, which festive sweater to wear, or needing help from a mysterious stranger whose assistance you do not need until you realize they have saved your life (literally or figuratively or sometimes both). Ultimately, holiday movies of this era are a temporary balm to ease the realities of our dark, cruel world. But in the 1990s, Christmas movies stared that reality in its cold, dead eyes — and it was spectacular.

In the 90s and 1994 in particular, holiday movies were especially dark: divorce, heartbreak, betrayal and tragedy defined stories like The Santa Clause (divorce), Jingle All the Way (buying a child's love), and Miracle on 34th Street (a courtroom procedural), and even comedies like Home Alone were bleak as hell thanks to the complex Kevin McAllister was given as a result of being abandoned by his family and then repeatedly attacked in his own home by robbers. (Robbers! Let's be honest: the leap from robbery to trying to kill a precocious eight-year-old is wild! And yet!) But how can you not love it? In these worlds, Christmas was a hallowed and exciting time, but it was still peppered with the type of grief that was becoming more and more mainstream in our actual lives. For some of us, the holidays were joyous at times, but those years were also followed by familial strife, being aware of parents' financial problems, death or the knowledge that when Christmas ends, not everything can or will be fixed. These films were rich in the lesson that a holiday will not fix a broken marriage and that adults tend to be disappointing. Hell, even in 1991's All I Want For Christmas, the parents may have gotten back together — but it was less about holiday magic and more about two kids forcing two stubborn grown-ups to have an adult conversation for once in their lives.

Jamey Sheridan (left) and Harley Jane Kozak in All I Want For Christmas. (Paramount Pictures)

But that makes sense for the era. The mid-90s saw an onslaught of culture defined by grunge-era predecessors who railed against the status quo because they'd watched the American dream collapse and vanish. Then, series like My So-Called Life and films like Reality Bites went on to challenge the myth of the perfect nuclear family, the perfect professional path, and the belief that anyone has anything figured out. Ultimately, 1994 was a year rich in cynicism, criticism, and the revelation that life can be unwaveringly cruel — which is reflected back to us in its offering of holiday films. Because, honestly, Jingle All the Way is less a comedy than it is a commentary on the greed and goods that have come to be mistaken for the love of one's family.

1994 was a year rich in cynicism, criticism, and the revelation that life can be unwaveringly cruel — which is reflected back to us in its offering of holiday films.- Anne T. Donahue

Which isn't to say I'm opposed to the resurgence of traditionally buoyant holiday tales we're seeing, nor do I think Christmas movies need to do anything outside of entertain us. Honestly, I don't love watching a movie and getting sad over the holidays, particularly since it's hardly a challenge to find something to be sad about right now. I like the escape into small-town kings and queens and warm knit sweaters, and I like that we've come to accept that sometimes life rafts come in streaming form. But there's also a special place in my heart for the buffet of Christmas movies that served cold, hard truths behind the facade of twinkle lights and garland. Especially because without them, we'd likely not embrace this latest incarnation of the genre so willingly. I mean, we grew up believing Tim Allen could be Santa Claus. Anything is possible.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Anne T. Donahue is a writer and person from Cambridge, Ontario. You can buy her first book, Nobody Cares, right now and wherever you typically buy them. She just asks that you read this piece first.

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