- Words by Mr Alex Bilmes, Editor of British Esquire
Christmas gets a bad wrap. Sorry, terrible joke, dreadful start. But you know what I mean. The fabled festive season may once have been a time for maiden aunts baking mince pies for rosy-cheeked, carolling choristers; for portly clergymen bicycling home tipsily from midnight mass to find snow-covered presents from appreciative parishioners piled up in front of the parsonage porch; for the deserving poor to knock plaintively at the window of the indulgent rich, and be offered a place by the fire and a warm glass of gluhwein for their trouble.
And maybe somewhere in the world, in some quiet, cosy provincial backwater that you and I wouldn't even be able to locate with our SUV sat navs, Christmas still is like that.
But round my way Christmas comes with a harder edge. It's a time for professional cynics, for Grinches, Ebenezers, smug bah-humbuggers. People like me and - because you're a world-weary urbane sophisticate, too (aren't we all, Santa baby?) - quite possibly people like you, too. The jaded, partied-out, all-I-want-for-Christmas-is-for-it-to-be-January-already brigade.
You know what? I'm not too cool for yule, at all. I love Christmas... Most of all, though, I love a Hollywood Christmas: unearned sentiment, gaudy sets and Mr Bing Crosby in a cardigan
And the truth is that up until just a moment ago I was going to start this Christmas message in the old-fashioned, time-honoured way: I was going to be all Mr-Bill-Murray-in-Scrooged about it. I was going to write about in-laws roasting on an open fire and spoilt children getting up your nose. I was going to be way too cool for yule.
But then I looked at the photos that the helpful elves on the MR PORTER picture desk sent over for me, to prompt my animadversions on Christmas and Christmas movies and all the awful seasonal claptrap that makes December seem such a bore and I thought, "You know what? Actually, no. I'm not too cool for yule, at all." I love Christmas. I love the overindulgence of it. I love the exaggerated mawkishness. I love the terrible tunes, the appalling gluttony and dipsomaniacal overconsumption, the indefensible spending. I love the fact you have to go home from work just to sober up, before plunging back into the carnival.
Most of all, though, I love a Hollywood Christmas: unearned sentiment, gaudy sets and Mr Bing Crosby in a cardigan.
After all, the Christmas you and I know and love is essentially a Hollywood Christmas. Or a Dickens Christmas, adapted by Hollywood into something more toothsome. It's a hybrid festival made of one part pagan tradition, two parts religious observance, seven parts A Christmas Carol and 90 parts US marketing and merchandising. A Coca-Cola Christmas. And therein lies its genius.
And so to the films that you will watch, yet again, slumped and sated in front of your flatscreen, with crumbs on your trousers, booze in your belly and something sickly sweet in your glass.
There are, of course, many kinds of Hollywood Christmas. There's the gloopy kind: The Holiday, Love Actually. Which are just ghastly, actually.
The greatest festive film of them all? Mr James Stewart and
Ms Donna Reed (centre) in It's a Wonderful Life, 1946. Kobal Collection
There's the family kind: The Santa Clause, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, Elf, Home Alone. Mildly funny, in a smooth-edged sort of way.
There's the Grinchy kind: Bad Santa, Scrooged or, my favourite, more recent example, A Christmas Tale, a very French take on the festivities, in which Ms Catherine Deneuve's formidable materfamilias reveals she has leukaemia just in time for the turkey. Unintentionally funny (to me, anyway) but also way too pleased with itself.
There's the action-comedy Christmas movie, particularly popular in the 1980s: Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Trading Places. Genius, clearly.
There's the Christmas movie that isn't really about Christmas but becomes associated with Christmas because of a celebrated Christmassy scene or sequence or song: Meet Me in St. Louis, When Harry Met Sally... these are sublime, obviously.
There's the corny Christmassy classic: The Shop Around the Corner, Miracle on 34th Street, White Christmas. Yum.
So to the films that you will watch, yet again, slumped and sated in front of your flatscreen, with crumbs on your trousers, booze in your belly and something sickly sweet in your glass
And then there's the one that stands above all of these: not simply the greatest Hollywood Christmas film ever made - though it is certainly that - but one of the great Hollywood films of all time: It's a Wonderful Life.
As cleverer minds than mine (the great film writer Mr David Thomson, for one) have observed before, It's a Wonderful Life is much darker, tougher and less glowing than you remember it. In fact, at times it's about as cold and dark as it gets on Christmas night, which is why it still has the power to disturb. Think about it: Mr James Stewart's George Bailey, the cautious, conservative, small-town banker, is suicidal. He has lived without risk, without adventure, and he feels a failure. In many ways, he is a failure.
A trainee angel intercedes, shows him what will happen to the little town - Bedford Falls, if you remember - if he quits on it, shows him a nightmarish vision of provincial America fallen pray to big business. He can't kill himself, Bedford Falls needs him, Bedford Falls loves him. So the ending is sweet and heartwarming and Christmassy. But don't forget what you've seen: the coming of commerce, the end of the simple life, the triumph of cynicism.
In 1946 Mr Frank Capra foresaw the future, our present. It was mean and empty, controlled by heartless corporations. And it could still make you cry, both ways.
Merry Christmas, by the way.