So here’s a Christmas miracle story for you from my real life. Back in 1989, our family was living in a creaky New England house in a creaky New England town. I was working for a magazine publishing company in Peterborough, NH, and we had four kids ranging in age from 5 ½ years to 6 months. My wife was from Serbia, and had grown up in a thoroughly secular family and really wasn’t much for sentimentality or celebrating holidays in an old-fashioned American way.
This may have been Currier & Ives country, but we weren’t a Currier & Ives family. In fact, it took me several years to even convince her to get a Christmas tree. Then one year I came home on December 26th and a tree was up in the house.
“Where did that come from?” I asked.
“The neighbors threw it out,” she said. “So I grabbed it”
Fair enough, I thought. They didn’t want their tree anymore, and besides we’re Orthodox Christian and we don’t celebrate Christmas until January 7… so I guess it’s okay. In a non-Christmasy way that’s sort of criminal and vaguely depressing. And forget about the whole Santa Claus thing. That wasn’t gonna happen. If it took five years to get a stolen Christmas tree, there was no way we were going to organize something as complicated as Santa Claus.
Our own private marital war on Christmas, however, did not stop my older three daughters from inventing “Christmas Man.” Christmas Man, according to them, was basically Santa Claus (who didn’t exist—they knew that much thanks to their mother). The three of them were constantly talking about Christmas Man coming on Christmas Eve. I didn’t know quite how I was going to handle this one, but somehow Christmas itself took care of it for me.
Heavy, calm snow had been falling all day one Christmas Eve. As dusk settled, we were all in the kitchen talking when the doorbell rang. The girls shrieked and shouted with delight. “Christmas Man! Christmas Man! Christmas Man is here!”
I went over to the door to see who could possibly be visiting at this time of day on this wintry night. I turned on the porch light and opened the door and there they were: a stack of UPS boxes. My daughters joined me on the porch, squealing in delight, and we saw the brown UPS truck disappear into the snowy darkness.
“That’s Christmas Man!” my oldest daughter shouted. I brought the boxes in and opened them, and they were full of Christmas presents neatly wrapped with bows and pretty wrapping paper, sent from my parents in Minneapolis.
Christmas Man had come after all. In a brown UPS truck. Despite our Grinchiest of efforts.
After that, we always had a tree and celebrated Christmas as heartily as any other family… on January 7th, of course.
So, from a family whose spirit of Christmas was embodied by a UPS driver, here are my picks for the best movies about Grinches, Scrooges, and Humbuggery.
This is an utterly delightful—and very British—musical retelling of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens. Albert Finney is just great as Ebeneezer Scrooge. Just for fun, compare his Scrooge in this movie with his Ed Masry in Erin Brockovich, which was made 30 years later. Alec Guinness plays Marley’s Ghost. The movie has an enormously appealing show-stopping number: “Thank You Very Much.” Get the kids, sit down, and just revel in the good cheer that practically explodes off the screen in this perfect Christmas movie.
Though it might not have been necessary, this is an updated remake of It’s A Wonderful Life, but with a different take. This time, the lead is a successful, single Wall Street shark who is given the opportunity to see what his life would have been like had he married his college sweetheart (Téa Leoni) 13 years prior. It would have been a life that was filled with financial struggles, kids, and love. The most impressive thing about this movie—beyond its message—is that Nicolas Cage is actually appealing.
Really? I’m suggesting this as a Christmas movie? Yes. For one, it is set on Christmas Eve. And Hans Gruber, the evil German gangster who takes over the Nakatomi Building in Los Angeles, is about as Grinchy a character as you can get when it comes to ruining a Christmas party. Seriously, though, the screenplay to this movie by Jeb Stuart and Stephen E. de Souza is, I think, the best action movie screenplay ever written. Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Alexander Godunov and Bonnie Bedelia round out a wonderful cast. And if anyone you might be married to complains that you are watching an action film on Christmas, just respond by quoting John McClain: “Yippee Kay-Yay... “ You know what? On second thought, maybe don’t quote John McClain.
Here’s something you probably didn’t know about this movie: it was a box office disaster when it was first released. And the assessment by studio executives after the film’s failure was this: Frank Capra was over. Despite being nominated for five Academy Awards, Capra’s career was in huge trouble after this movie, and he made only a few more films over the rest of his life. Just shows you that studio executives make some questionable decisions sometimes. This movie has one of the best villains ever: Mr. Potter, Lionel Barrymore’s mean-spirited banker who tries to take over the Bailey Building & Loan. Boo, bankers!
Marv (Daniel Stern) and Harry (Joe Pesci) are burglars whose business plan is robbing wealthy homes that are empty on Christmas. What a rotten business. And they get their comeuppance when they try to break into the McCallister home, which is occupied by an inadvertently-abandoned but highly-inventive 8 year-old, Kevin (Macaulay Culkin). This movie never gets old. It really is a lot of fun and worth watching every Christmas.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.