Gathering the family to go to the movie theater or park in front of the TV to munch on treats and watch Christmas movies has been a popular holiday tradition for decades.
It goes back to 1897, well before TV or movie houses were popular, but the cinema concept was new and exciting. The first peek at the wonders of Christmas appeared in a series of Santa visuals that year, one called “Santa Claus Filling Stockings.”
“It showed Santa coming down a chimney, placing toys in stockings and then going back up the chimney,” said the Rev. William Beckmann, a Lutheran school accreditor for the Northern Illinois District of Lutheran Churches Missouri Synod. “The film did not have much plot, but in those early days of cinema, the big deal was the visual. People wanted to see it, even though there was no sound.”
The Rev. William Beckmann recently addressed the topic of holiday movies during his annual Christmas lore presentation to the Tri-Cities Exchange Club. – Courtesy of Dave Heun, 2022
Beckmann of St. Charles, a retired pastor at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Aurora, recently addressed the topic of holiday movies during his annual Christmas lore presentation to the Tri-Cities Exchange Club. The presentation at the St. Charles Veterans Center marked the 27th year Beckmann has shared his knowledge and research of all things Christmas. I have had the honor and pleasure of reporting on each one.
The Dickens role
By the early 20th century, Christmas movies were becoming “longer and with fairly well-developed storylines,” Beckmann said.
But over the coming decades, they rarely focused on the birth of Christ.
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Other than a few Nativity scenes in movies like “Ben-Hur” in 1959, “King of Kings” in 1961 and “Jesus of Nazareth” in 1977, the birth of Christ hasn’t been featured in holiday movies.
Instead, much of what people learned about the Christmas holiday, and incorporated traditions, came from English author Charles Dickens of “A Christmas Carol” fame, Beckmann noted.
“So much about Christmas comes from Dickens’ stories,” he said. “He mentions the exchanging of Christmas cards, the Christmas bonus for workers and having Christmas Day off work. Prior to that, most people just worked on Christmas Day.”
Dickens grew up in a poor family, so he was able to focus on poverty and despair as a central theme of his writing.
“In September of 1843, a visit to one of London’s schools that educated some of the city’s poorest children, Dickens got to thinking about the plight of these children,” Beckmann said. “The next month, he began writing ‘A Christmas Carol,’ finishing it in six weeks.”
With the book becoming a popular success, it was a natural to become a holiday film favorite, which it has been for generations. The first known adaptation of the book to film was in 1901.
In addition to the Dickens classic, Beckmann cited a few other films he feels stand out as holiday treasures.
Slow start for Capra classic
Even though it is easy to find “It’s a Wonderful Life” on TV during the holidays, the film didn’t get rave reviews or much audience when it hit theaters in 1946.
Frank Capra developed the film from the 1943 short story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern.
The film delivers the message of the importance of a person’s life through star Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey and the help of his bumbling guardian angel Clarence.
“Capra thought the story would be a great role for Cary Grant, but Grant wasn’t satisfied with how the screenwriters reworked the short story into a movie script,” Beckmann said.
The fact that the movie “didn’t inspire rave reviews” turned out to be a benefit to those who look forward to seeing it every year, Beckmann explained.
“Have you ever wondered why this film is shown continuously on some TV stations?” Beckmann asked. “When the film’s copyright ran out in 1974, no one bothered to renew it. So, stations across the country began showing it because they didn’t have to pay for it.”
Kringle’s ‘Miracle’ story
Another post-World War II classic was “Miracle on 34th Street.” It’s the story of a Macy’s Santa Claus in New York City named Kriss Kringle convincing an unbelieving young Natalie Wood, playing Susan Walker, that he was the real Santa.
“The film stresses the importance of faith and the necessity for miracles in the Christmas season,” Beckmann said.
“Natalie Wood was a natural in front of the camera, and she gave the film its appeal and made her a child star,” he added.
The movie carried a different twist than some previous holiday fare, throwing in a romantic angle as actress Maureen O’Hara, playing Doris Walker, eventually falls for her helpful neighbor Fred Gailey, played by actor John Payne. Payne’s character ultimately proves Kriss Kringle is the real Santa Claus in a court of law.
“When the film came out in 1947, reviews played up the romantic side of the story, rather than its connection to Christmas,” Beckmann said. “It was also different in that it was a holiday movie that came out in the summer of that year.”
A scene from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” – Courtesy of United Feature Syndicate Inc. Charlie and the gang
Charles Schulz created hundreds of thousands of drawings for his beloved comic strip “Peanuts,” but he left his mark on the holiday season by debuting Charlie Brown on TV in 1965.
Ever since “A Charlie Brown Christmas” has been a favorite of young and old alike.
It also did not lose sight of the true meaning of Christmas, a point made by the character Linus reading from the Bible to remind all of his friends what the holiday was all about, Beckmann noted.
“Coca-Cola was looking for a Christmas special at that time and was interested in the Peanuts characters,” he said. “Schulz was interested in the project and created the storyline with an animator, producer and cartoonist.”
Jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi was hired to create new music for the film, and animators created 10,000 drawings for the half-hour show.”
Broadcast on Dec. 9, 1965, the animated TV special remained Schulz’s favorite after a lifetime that included nearly 45 animated specials, he added.
A big dose of nostalgia
Beckmann admitted one of his favorites is “A Christmas Story,” the tale of a young boy named Ralphie and his obsession with having Santa bring him a Red Ryder air rifle.
“The story shows family values and eccentric behaviors of his family and friends,” Beckmann said. “It is something many of us can relate to.”
“A Christmas Story” has become somewhat of a phenomenon since it first aired in the early 1980s.
“Every Christmas season since 1997, TV has aired the film in a 24-hour marathon beginning on Christmas Eve,” Beckmann noted. “Fans of the movie gather yearly for a convention or take tours to locations where the movie was filmed.”
The air rifle Ralphie wanted? Beckmann provided the proper name for this coveted toy: a Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two Hundred Shot Lightning Loader Range Model Air Rifle with a Shock-Proof High Adventure Combination Trail Compass and Sundial.
What young boy wouldn’t want that in the 1940s or ’50s?
The real messages
Considering Beckmann got the idea for the holiday movie topic from spotting a T-shirt in a catalog that stated, “I want to bake stuff and watch Christmas movies,” he notes these films generally have a few things in common.
“The movies are all commodities, commercially produced for the Christmas season to make money,” he said. “Most of them, with the exception of ‘White Christmas, ‘ feature gift-giving as an important part of Christmas.”
Beckmann added that all of the films “are heartwarming while affirming values that American society appreciates.
“It’s a time to share love in the family but also to take note that we should keep doing charitable things all year long.”