Every year, my in-laws have a Christmas tradition: they all sit down and watch Love Actually together. I will usually be in the kitchen doing something less painful, like removing my own fingernails. I am not sure they really love it that much either, actually. It’s just a thing they do that feels a lot like Christmas. They are by no means the only ones: Christmas is the only time of year that we will actively rewatch movies. Even terrible movies.
This is great news for the film industry. The same old festive films are dusted off and put out every year: It’s a Wonderful Life, Meet Me in St Louis, White Christmas, any number of Christmas Carols (I’ll take the Muppet version), Home Alone, Elf; you know the drill. It takes a lot to get into this hallowed canon but if you do, you can coin it in year after year. It’s the movie equivalent of having written Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody, or All I Want for Christmas Is You (which had apparently made Mariah Carey more than $60m by 2017; no wonder she doesn’t want anything else for Christmas).
The current pre-Christmas window presents an opportunity to get a new bauble into the decoration box; it is also a time of year when quality thresholds are at their lowest. Audiences are mulled-wined up and sentimental, and will happily consume stuff they would never go near at other times. Earlier this month, for example, despite the critics’ best efforts, the top film at the UK box office was Last Christmas, a romcom in the classical, Richard Curtis tradition. The ingredients are all there: fable-like romance, absurdly over-festive setting (Emilia Clarke works in a year-round Christmas shop), broad comedy, cheesy sentiment, and a pitch for repeat-watch status baked into the title (it was “inspired by” George Michael’s hit – in a thuddingly literal way).
It is turning into an arms race of niceness. Just look at Netflix’s festive carpet-bombing this year: for the youngsters, there is the animated movie Klaus; for tweens, fairytale romcom The Knight Before Christmas; for teens, the small-town ensemble Let It Snow; for all the family, the Dennis Quaid sitcom Merry Happy Whatever; for the “I’ve drunk so much mulled wine, I’ll watch anything with Christmas in the title” market, A Christmas Prince 3: The Royal Baby. Meanwhile, alongside Frozen II, Disney has its own streaming Christmas cash-in: Noelle, starring Anna Kendrick as Santa’s dutiful daughter.
If all of these sound dispiritingly unoriginal, that’s kind of the point. Comfort viewing is a secular tradition. For some, it takes the place of church: sitting through familiar stories, even not very good ones, if only to come together, rejoice in leisure, and remember previous times we watched them. It’s the true meaning of Christmas.