Every year there are moviegoers who gaze up at the screen wondering why their family get-togethers never live up to Hollywood’s glossy tales of deception, resentment, and discontent. The feel-bad family holiday movie has ascended and it makes a cozy celebration among people who love each other into a grueling sweater-clad examination of human misery. After a few of these movies, even Die Hard is a relief. Yes, they’re trying to kill each other but at least Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman aren’t trying to hurt each other’s feelings. Why did this happen, and how does someone with a healthy family life appreciate it?
Holiday films are a more eclectic lot than people give them credit for. The subject spans genres. The movie title Jack Frost alone refers to a stop-motion children’s fantasy film, a treacly message movie, and a campy horror film, the last two released one year apart from each other. But overshadowing the genre films are the mainstream holiday movies that are meant to be watched by general audiences, meant to be talked about, meant to be seen every year, meant to become classics. Over the past few decades these movies have, if not become dark themselves, then at least shown us a darker picture of the family.
Early holiday films aren’t free from unhappiness. It’s a Wonderful Life, which came out in 1946, is not the syrupy story some make it out to be. George Bailey sacrifices his hopes of career advancement, his honeymoon savings, and his chance at glory to keep open his small Building and Loan, only to be swindled out of it anyway by the rich, unscrupulous Henry Potter. While the business is saved at the last minute, Potter gets away with the theft. There is no justice in the world; just kindness.
Miracle on 34tth Street (1947), in which the real Kris Kringle subs in for a department store Santa and gets himself first fired and then nearly carted off to an asylum, also displays the unending malevolence of the rich with a side helping of the cold venality of bureaucracy. The world can be cruel, even to Santa. Human connection, however, is always sacrosanct. It’s the people who know George Bailey who save him. It’s the letters from children all over the world that save Santa from electroshock therapy and soap whittling. Everyone ends up in the arms of their loved ones.
Families got more complicated by the 1980s. High-minded social idealism receded and the family comedy came in. In A Christmas Story (1983) Ralphie Parker is a 9-year-old growing up in the fifties whose observations of his family make them look like aliens stranded on Earth with no instruction book. His mother coos over Ralphie when he sullenly comes down the stairs the pink bunny suit an aunt made for him, no more concerned that he hates it than a pet owner is concerned that their pug hates a sweater. His father worships a lamp made to look like a woman’s leg in fishnet stockings, seemingly oblivious to both its tackiness and sexual nature. Both parents are freaks who make the world an incomprehensible place to Ralphie, and both love him entirely. The film ends with the family peaceful and content on Christmas night, worn out by each other’s follies. Nobody understands anyone else, or even themselves, but they love each other.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is a film in which Clark Griswold strives to make his family’s holiday a joy to everyone despite a tight budget and a deluge of relatives with bad attitudes. While the relatives are an annoyance, the film, which came out in 1989, shares 1940s values in that the only true threat to Christmas is Clark’s boss deciding not to hand out Christmas bonuses. It’s resolved in a sweetie-sweet way no 1940s movie would stoop to, but it knows who the enemy is. It’s not your jerk father-in-law, or your irresponsible cousin; it’s the uncaring boss.
WIth all of these examples, it’s hard not to receive the message that the enemy is inside the house. Families are no longer the characters that holiday stress happens to, they themselves are the sources of stress, misery, and horror.
Thanksgiving movies were the gateway drug. The 1990s brought with them an onslaught of small Thanksgiving movies that gave up on any pretense of family unity. One of the first was Home for the Holidays. The 1995 film featured Claudia, a woman recently laid-off from her job, turned down romantically by her former boss, and having a deeply-felt but respectful disagreement with her teenage daughter about whether the daughter should lose her virginity. Claudia flies home to her parents’ house, unable to talk with equanimity about any aspect of her life.
Reuniting with her there is her brother, Tommy, whose homosexuality is known but never mentioned, and her poisonous sister Joanne. In most family movies a family’s sniping is overcome by the holiday spirit. In this film, it’s the other way around. Tommy teases Joanne. Joanne spits homophobic insults at Tommy. Claudia’s father hides in the basement, watching films of happier times. When Claudia tries to broker some kind of peace with Joanne, Joanne says, “If I just met you on the street, if you gave me your phone number, I’d throw it away.” Claudia’s retort could be the movie’s tagline; “We don’t have to like each other. We’re family.”
The Myth of Fingerprints came out just two years later. An upper class New England family that has been estranged for three years meet back at the parental homestead for Thanksgiving. The list of names and circumstances is too extensive for an accurate summary but the siblings, their significant others, and their parents take turns being the most unlikeable at the dinner table. The movie makes the case that the family should have prolonged their estrangement.
In Pieces of April (2003), the estranged family comes to the child’s home. April, the daughter, frantically tries to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner for her family despite a broken oven in the kitchen and a vicious ex-boyfriend in the wings. The combination of her desperate need to please and the odds being stacked against her make her family seem like a group of people who, when they hear one more straw can break a camel’s back, show up with a bale of hay.
This notion of familial discord spread to Christmas films. The irritations that showed up in the 1980s gave way to deep, insoluble problems. A family coming together for the holidays became something to be endured. It was rare for any character, about to walk through the door to the family homestead, not to pause and take a deep calming breath first.
The Family Stone (2005), while nominally a comedy, revealed how miserable an ideal family can be. The parents have loving relationships with their five children, even their youngest daughter, Amy, who is a brat. They do their best to welcome their son’s soon-to-be fiancee, Meredith, into their home for Christmas. They fail. If anything, trying to do things “right” makes things worse, and it’s hard to figure out who is aggravating the situation more. Meredith is being hypocritically old-fashioned when she demands a bed separate from the boyfriend she knows is going to be her fiance before Christmas is over.
But when the family kicks Amy out of her room because their sense of hospitality won’t abide Meredith sleeping on the couch (as she requested), they’re knowingly adding to the tension. Then there’s the fact that the mother of the family, Sybil, is sick enough that she won’t see another Christmas, and her son, Everett, wants the family ring to propose to Meredith. Sybil is progressively less inclined to give it to him.
Everett decides not to propose to Meredith. She doesn’t know that. She thinks she got drunk and slept with his brother. She didn’t. When it all comes out on Christmas day, Meredith sobs in front of the family, and Sybil and Amy comfort her while Everett and his brother fight. This is framed as a wacky scene that leaches the poison out of the situation and allows everyone to reconnect. To some it will play that way. To others its more like a family steadily humiliating an outsider until she breaks down. Either way, most people would pause and take a breath before walking into that house.
The hits keep coming. Everybody’s Fine (2009) is about a widower who, after making careful plans for his adult children to visit him on Christmas, has them simultaneously cancel on him. He takes to the air to visit them, learning their secrets, from their real sexuality to their broken marriages, finally discovering that one of his sons overdosed and died. Four Christmases (2008) features a couple miserably visiting their divorced parents one by one. Love the Coopers (2015), centers on an older married couple who are getting divorced after forty-year marriage and want one perfect Christmas before they tell their adult children. Guess how that goes. In Krampus, also released in 2015, a family is so horrible to each other that they release a goblin to torment them.
At the end of 2020, a year full of trauma, the film Happiest Season was meant as an escape into holiday coziness. Harper takes her girlfriend Abby to her family home for Christmas, only springing on Abby at the last minute that her parents do not know Harper is gay. This movie is as low-stakes as it is possible to get. No viewer could possibly think that the parents will reject their daughter.
No one could think that Abby and Harper will break up. But the emotional beating that Abby takes throughout, being framed for shoplifting by Harper’s sister’s kids, being denied by the person she loves most, and watching what she hopes will be the first joyous holiday of a happy life crash down around her, was so harrowing that many viewers took to social media to demand just that. It didn’t help that Harper’s ex-girlfriend, Riley, is played by the immensely likeable Aubrey Plaza and that the characters of Abby and Riley have great chemistry.
Happiest Season had a heartwarming ending with Abby and Harper reuniting, as everyone knew it would. It also possibly marked a tipping point. When people could respond to the emotional toll of a feel-bad family film in real time, they seemed less patient with the toll that dysfunctional families take on the characters and the audience. The film was immensely popular, but people “felt” the journey it took differently. After a year of misery, this looked less like hijinks and more like ongoing misery. The sweet ending was enjoyable, but arguably not enough.
Feel-bad family holiday films took over the market because they fulfilled a need. Families are infinitely more complicated than early Christmas films allowed them to be, and not acknowledging the people can feel love and anger, gratitude and resentment was, to many viewers, like pressing on a bruise without admitting it’s there. As they became more prominent, audiences noticed both an escalating emotional toll and a lack of balance. At least some people no longer want to see the worst aspects of their relationships rehashed to the sound of sleigh bells. Some are wondering if they are the only people on earth who actually…like their family. What’s a person with an emotionally healthy and honest relationship with their family to do? Watch Die Hard again?
Films are constantly finding new stories and new angles. They are also constantly borrowing from the past. With the rise in popularity of media like Parasite (2019) or Squid Game (2021), films are once again addressing the systemic problems that humans endure, rather than squabbles between the humans themselves. Stories like It’s a Wonderful Life could come back into fashion. It might be time to stop framing the uncle, the sister, or the parents as the villain of a holiday story and go back to that evil Henry Potter.