Meredith Baxter, afternoon movie staple, in A Christmas Visitor

Since they’re bombarding us with the same old repeats of these truly nauseating feelgood films, I thought I’d update and reblog my thoughts on same. Soaked in saccharin sentiment, you either lap it all up like a Five scheduler on an aspartame high or vomit it up like a sick dog after too many burritos.

Every year at this time, I’m subjected to this sappy afternoon festive fare, usually on Five at about 3 pm (in case you wanted to know). Sister insists on videoing them. You can recognise them instantly by the inclusion of the word ‘Christmas’ in the title, as in A Christmas Visitor, A Christmas Gift. ‘Angel’, as in Angel in the Family, is another dead giveaway.

Just the word ‘Christmas’ is enough to indicate that the movie will involve plenty of trite, hackneyed, banal sentiment; an idealised American small town where everyone knows each other’s name (small towns are full of cheery, middle-aged folk who like to bake things for others); and someone transformed by the Christmas spirit (sometimes this is sickeningly literally a spirit – the ghost of a loved one, etc.). Often a cynical, materialistic Scrooge from the Big City will somehow be stranded in the boring but absurdly friendly milieu of one of the picture postcard perfect small towns.

For the main part a US phenomenon, you know exactly what to expect from the wholesome image of the type of star featured – Meredith Baxter Birney is a favourite but John Denver is also good value – anodyne fables designed to instil optimism in the viewer. Being family films, the emphasis is on family and appreciating the one you’ve got.

In the US your ability to enjoy the yuletide is roughly equated to the size of your tree, which must be real (to hell with the environment, this is Christmas, this is America) and the amount of Crimbo lights festooned around your cosy yet enormous home (generally enough to drain the national grid of a small country).

Those unable to enjoy the season in the true spirit evidently have something seriously awry in their psyches, only to be cured by a dose of mystical Christmas intervention. A precociously cute child teaches a grumpy old curmudgeon how to have fun. A mysterious stranger imposes on the hospitality of a troubled family (good thing the cosy houses are so enormous), making them realise how lucky they actually are. Or a merry old person reintroduces seasonal spirit by subtly dispensing some homespun wisdom. At some point gazillions of traditional Christmas tree ornaments will be produced in box after box from the obligatory attic or cellar.

Oh, Andrew McCarthy, from bratpack to The National Tree, with Evan Williams, another fixture in the Thanksgiving/Christmas schedule.

The heavily moral message tends to be delivered with a sledgehammer, with glaringly obvious schmaltzy symbolism guiding the way – cue characters transfixed by the star on top of the tree or reacting with childlike delight to the magical wonder that is snow, a favourite finale.

Because the endings are always joyous and uplifting, once the strange, flawed creatures who dared not to appreciate the season have undergone a metamorphosis into lobotomised relentless perkiness. Whether it’s renewal, redemption, reunion or happy homecoming, endings also often feature an outing to a church for hopeful carol singing, to testify to the fact that the filmmakers have remembered that it’s got something or other to do with religion too.


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