Don't Mess with Christmas: Tradition, Holidays, and the Generational Divide
Philosopher George Santayana is attributed with the quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”—a saying which has, in one form or another, perhaps been on many people’s minds throughout this past year, especially considering America’s political outcomes.
But what 2016 has proven is that the reverse of Santayana’s memorable observation is also true, and perhaps even more accurate in today’s world: those who can remember the past are condemned to repeat it. And it’s this form of condemnation that is even more misleading, even more deceitful, because it stems from nostalgia—a desire to return to some happy place that has only ever existed in our memories.
On Christmas day, after a morning of exchanging gifts with my immediate family, we traditionally gather at my grandfather’s house for further gift-giving and a glazed ham dinner (or at least that’s what the meal is typically referred to as, despite it being served around the un-dinner-like hour of 4pm).
Christmas itself is a holiday dependent on nostalgia, steeped in long-established traditions, and an internalized need to try to feel happy. One such tradition at my grandfather’s house is to watch a movie while gorging on food. This year, in an act of charming consideration, my younger cousin had rented the 2002 made-for-TV-movie It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, knowing that both my sister and I have a soft spot for Jim Henson’s strange and loveable creations.
My sister and I are well-versed in A Muppet Christmas Carol, and would often break out into singing along whenever the Ghost of Christmas Present’s cheerful song started up. But neither of us were very familiar with this newer Muppets Christmas tale. I was fairly eager to give it a shot… and somewhat flattered by my cousin’s thoughtfulness. Since there was still some time before the ham would be ready to consume, I decided to start the movie.
It was awful.
Out of sheer love and devotion to the Muppets, however, my sister and I stuck it out for as long as we could—longer than any of the other family members had lasted.
During the approximately 40-45 minutes the movie was running, my 90-year-old grandfather muttered numerous utterances of annoyance at the TV screen, complaining about all the grating sounds and noises. And although I never spoke my own discomfort, I had to admit that I agreed with him. The movie was a mess: very noisy and irritating. At this point, the rest of the family—my dad, mom, aunt, uncle, and cousins—had either escaped to other rooms throughout the house, or tried to tune the movie out by getting lost in their phones.
Unable to endure any more, I stopped the movie and began to browse through the selection of free On Demand offerings, hoping to find a better option. I could have chosen a “classic” Christmas movie, one I knew the family had seen time and time again. There was Miracle on 34th Street (both versions!) and numerous adaptations of A Christmas Carol. Elf, released way back in 2003, is perhaps the most recent movie to generally be accepted as a Christmas classic, and shows just how discriminating we are when it comes to canonization. The doorman at club Nostalgia is a very shrewd character.
Any of those selections would have been a safe choice. Our family wouldn’t necessarily be happy, but we’d be content; satiated by the opiate of nostalgia, comforted by the familiar.
But I was feeling optimistic. Perhaps it was time for something different. Stupid, really, now that I think about it. Try something different on a day so dependent on tradition?
One of the free On Demand options available was the computer animated movie from 2011, Arthur Christmas, which I had initially seen upon its theatrical release, having been persuaded by the overwhelmingly positive critic reviews, and the fact that it was made by Aardman, the animation studio responsible for Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit. I had thoroughly enjoyed it in the theater. It wasn’t the most amazing movie ever made, but it was smart, funny, beautifully animated, with universal themes related to generational politics, and what it means to have the “Christmas spirit.” Surely, my family would enjoy it.
I was wrong.
Nobody had ever heard of it, so they didn’t want to bother giving it a chance.
My grandfather, still rankled by the horrors of the previous attempt at watching something new, immediately considered Arthur Christmas to be more of the same. He grunted his way out of the recliner and retired to the dining room table, sitting at the chair furthest away, so he couldn’t see the confusing images shining colorfully on the TV screen.
Once the ham was ready, the family members who had fled to other areas of the house returned to the living room to eat their meal, and settled down to watch the movie as they did so since it was what currently happened to be on. Between the forkfuls of food being shoved into faces, welcome moments of laughter and engagement filled the air. Those who were watching the movie seemed to be enjoying it, at least in the moment.
My grandfather, meanwhile, could be heard from the dining room table, reminiscing about the past, and how he just didn’t understand these new Christmas stories. My dad was sitting next to him, listening intently. Grandpa reflected on how things used to be, in “better times,” as my dad so helpfully pointed out.
Once the other family members finished eating, they immediately returned to the rooms from whence they came. Their enjoyment of Arthur Christmas was fleeting. Soon, only myself and my sister, God bless her, were the only family members left engaged in the warm-hearted spirit of the movie. In the dining room, my mom and dad’s attention was trapped in memories of the past, with my grandfather telling stories of people he once knew: Bobs and Joannes and other acquaintances lost to time.
I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself as I saw the generational politics play out onscreen, with Arthur’s grandfather, the former Santa Claus, convinced that the old ways were better than the new, while Arthur’s older brother, Steve, was heavily dependent on new technologies and had no use for the ways things used to be. The generational divides were as evident on the TV screen as they were within the walls of my grandfather’s house.
Those who were sitting around the dining room table—one a member of “the Greatest Generation,” and the others all Baby Boomers—had become lost in the past; or perhaps lost to the past. My sister and I, elderly Millennials, occupied a different space just 50 feet away, but further separated by time. Our cousins were elsewhere entirely. My uncle was asleep on the couch.
Eventually, my grandpa’s reminiscences led him to pull out his (non-electronic) address book, and try to call up some of the people he had been remembering. The stories he had weaved around them were elaborate and whimsical, full of the fantastic flourishes only memory can provide. When he got them on the phone, however, the conversations were more subdued. After the obligatory wishes of “Merry Christmas,” the exchanges continued along the expected pathways of “How are you?” and similar small talk. After a few calls in this manner, my grandfather hung up the phone.
The movie was over. It was safe now to return to the present.
Before getting ready to go, I sat down across from my grandpa and asked him about the last person he had called. It wasn’t long before he started telling me all about them, where they lived, what they did for a living, who their children were, and so on. This was something familiar to him, and it gave him pleasure to talk about it.
And it pleased me to listen to him. He is my grandfather after all, and I love him dearly.
He is happiest in the past. It’s the place where he feels most comfortable. And although nostalgia might make it better than how it actually was, for him it’s real. By remembering, he willfully condemns himself to repeating the past inside his mind. It is a welcome condemnation, but a condemnation nonetheless.
The fear I have is that if we become so nostalgic about the past, we forget about the present, and stop looking towards the future. We trap ourselves in a time that was only better in our minds, and convince ourselves that what we once had was great, oblivious to things in the present that have the potential for greatness if only we were able to give them our time, here, in the now.
Yet even as I write this, I long for that day again, spending Christmas with my family, and the memory is already changing shape in my mind, becoming something it never was.