Parents dying horribly, orphaned siblings tormented by malevolent relatives, catastrophes that, we are assured, won't turn into anything like a happy ending -- this is a Christmas movie? In a holiday season where the hyped "Polar Express" crashed and the dreary "Christmas With the Kranks" is declared a classic by the "700 Club," the film adaptation of Lemony Snicket's best-selling "Series of Unfortunate Events" gleams promisingly -- for some of us, anyway.
Holiday moviegoing has become a modern ritual that all Americans can indulge in, no matter our age or race or religious belief. For the last three years, I've gone with a group of 20-odd friends and our children to attend opening night of each "Lord of the Rings" film, an event marked by hours of waiting in the frigid Maine cold (and, once, a genuine blizzard) outside a little Depression-era theater, as we take turns running to the pub next door for various forms of sustenance.
This year, the Lemony Snicket movie will stand in for Peter Jackson's opus. In lieu of battlr-ax wielding orcs, slavering wolves and spectral Ringwraiths, we'll have the ghastly Count Olaf and various hench-people. My family and friends are delighted: For us, much of the appeal of J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy onscreen came from being scared for Christmas. We're promised more of the same, but different, this year, too.
This isn't a cynical, postmodern take. Raising gooseflesh as the solstice nears is a tradition that goes back hundreds, even thousands, of years, with winter festivals that arose around killing time in Europe (November, Blod-monath, blood-month) with the annual slaughter of livestock to prepare for the harsh months ahead. Modern yuletide's rampant secularization and commercialization has brought about, instead, the seasonal tyranny of goodwill and sugarplum shock that is so feebly satirized in "Christmas With the Kranks." Something powerful has been lost in the process, though: the knowledge that the Christmas season is a temporary triumph over the darkness of winter, rather than a surrender to false bonhomie or commerce.
The result is a reversal of C.S. Lewis's "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," where the evil White Witch casts a terrible spell so that it is "Always winter and never Christmas." For Americans, once September arrives we're subjected to months and months where it's always Christmas and never winter, despite the fact that the days are short and frequently dark, the weather often terrible, and the pressure of pretending that this is the-most-wonderful-time-of-the-year relentless. Is it any wonder that living through the season exhausts, not to mention depresses, so many people? What's the point of raging against the dying of the light when we refuse to acknowledge that the light does sometimes go out?
Our ancestors understood this need to face down the darkness at the turning of the year. By the Middle Ages, improved agricultural practices made it possible to provide fodder and thus keep stall-bound animals alive, but the ancient feasts held on into the Christian era, with their pagan subtext of misrule and masked revelry, storytelling and revenants still intact.
The English Puritans outlawed Christmas revels, declaring the day an occasion for fasting and humiliation. On Christmas Day, 1644, Mr. Edmund Calamy preached before the House of Lords, "And truly I think that the superstition and profanation of this day is so rooted into it, as that there is no way to reform it, but by dealing with it as Hezekiah did with the brazen serpent. This year God, by his Providence, has buried this Feast in a Fast, and I hope it will never rise again."
It was not until the early 19th century that Sir Walter Scott and Washington Irving popularized a vision of an idealized medieval English Christmas, full of charming merriment; the fact that such a scene may never have existed was beside the point. Inadvertently, their vision of "Old Christmas" gave people a chance to look back to earlier rituals that were dying out due to the rapid industrialization of a rural countryside. They included the ancient Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, whose silent dancers bear reindeer antlers as they weave back and forth amongst strangely costumed figures; or the Welsh rites involving the Mari Lywd, where masked mummers carry a horse's skull that snaps its jaw at unwary revelers.
The sense of mystery has survived in other parts of Europe, too. In Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands, St. Nicholas would visit households on his feast day, accompanied by the demonic figure known as Krampus (or Black Peter or Knecht Ruprecht). Krampus carried a whip and stuffed naughty children into his sack. As recently as the 1940s, Belsnickel -- a pelt-wearing variant of St. Nick -- would make the rounds of German American communities in the United States, bearing sticks for beating bad children and a book into which their names would be recorded. Krampus and his kin are still alive in parts of Austria and Switzerland, but it's doubtful that they'll ever catch on again here.
Americans seem to have lost their stomach for the darker aspects of Christmas. We'd rather gorge on manufactured sweets than experience the bittersweet -- even bitter -- cold bite that may be the season's greatest gift.
Still, the ancient, darker impulses remain in literature, film, theater and the visual arts. By now your ears are probably ringing from a thousand Muzak renditions of "The Nutcracker"; but Carroll Ballard filmed a slightly sinister version of the ballet, with Maurice Sendak's fabulous design, that restores the grand gothic glory of E.T.A. Hoffmann's original tale. The theatrical adaptation of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials," a fantasy inspired in part by "Paradise Lost," was a hit last Christmas at London's National Theater and is being revived again this season.
One of the most familiar phrases of the season, Tennyson's "Ring out, wild bells . . . Ring out the old, ring in the new," is excerpted from his beautiful, heartbreaking poem "In Memoriam A.H.H.," written for a beloved friend who died young. This long poem provides a moving evocation of a man who eventually overcomes terrible grief and loss. In so doing, Tennyson unforgettably celebrates both his friend and the Christmas season.
Just as Tennyson's words have grown banal through overuse, Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" (about to appear at a TV screen near you) is now often trivialized as sentimental mush. But strip away the angel in a nightshirt and the crowd singing "Auld Lang Syne" at the end, and you're left with a husband and father in despair, preparing to kill himself on Christmas Eve.