Pop Optics: The Unconventional Spirit of Christmas

I’m not traditional by nature. I won’t say I abhor tradition, but I’m a person of few. Call it contrarian, but there’s always been a need to remain independent at my core. How I present myself isn’t necessarily a representation of myself, so even if my wardrobe consists of an abundance of horror film shirts, it doesn’t mean that I exclusively watch horror films. It just means that I prefer to be unconventional.

As a child, I was always odd. Strange and unusual. It took me a while to figure out some things about myself (hell, even as an adult, that’s something I contend with daily). I was attracted to dark things, enticed by them. Even if I didn’t understand the allure at the time, I felt a sense of comfort. There was a charm to things with a jagged edge. Maybe it was all the times I watched Weekend At Bernie’s  as a child, or perhaps it was the depression that I didn’t realize until my twenties that I had been living with all my conscious life, but that dark streak manifested itself into a rejection of tradition. Especially Christmas. Specifically, our commercial representation of it.

I have a memory from my childhood of Edward Scissorhands airing on television and almost exclusively in the winter months. The film itself isn’t set in the winter, though the story eventually progresses through the seasons and it’s climax occurs in that period. It’s a grim story and its aesthetics definitely have more in common with bleak and cold climes than the cheery and sundrenched, but the change in seasons is a cue to the tonal shifts in the film. Of course, Tim Burton is an expert at crafting stories for the outcasts. With the seasonal airing of Edward Scissorhands, I always associated it with Christmas. Thus, to me (and others), it is a perfectly acceptable Christmas film.

Now, I have no qualms with Christmas itself nor for those who prefer more traditional, conventional things. It’s more that around this time of year, my brain is an asshole. Historically, it’s never liked me being genuinely happy and has been in constant battle with other aspects of my being to remind me of the crushing weight of reality and that hey, don’t get too comfortable. I like to think that I’ve come a long way over the years with managing my depression and other psychological deficiencies, but the truth is that for a long time I just got really clever at how to hide it. Once I realized what these feelings were actually doing to me and my relationships with others, I knew I couldn’t hide behind a mask and pretend to be normal in any means.

So it should come as no surprise that Batman Returns really resonates with me, especially around Christmas.

My Favorite Christmas Film

Tim Burton has a flair for blending bleak and gothic with a winter wonderland. Batman Returns is evocative of dark romanticism in the same way that Batman was of expressionism and noir. As a child, I read a bit of Poe and maybe I was too young to understand what his writings meant; Burton does well to visualize the world that literature depicts. Batman Returns is a celebration of both the grotesque and the demented; they go hand-in-hand with Christmas so well. The neo-gothic architecture gives way to smog-stained masonry dusted in pure white snow, the perfect metaphor for the film. The falling snow will be corrupted the moment it touches the filthy slime-coated pavement and its blank canvas painted in with darkness that spreads like a bruise. That’s the Christmas spirit, my friends.

The film also confronts the longing and desperation present in desolate winters. For those of us afflicted with depression, this is the time we seem to fall deeper into some sort of mental chasm. We’re sucked down a void and spat into a realm of dwindling light and dying hope. But also joy. There’s joy to be had. Look at how much fun The Penguin is having, especially when he’s controlling the Batmobile via remote and one of those cheap arcade rides.

Bruce Wayne’s inner conflict that arises from his duality, the struggle between his alter ego and secret identity, is powerful. When he’s called upon to combat another round of merry thugs, he does so with all the gusto one has when they must go grocery shopping. It’s routine and needs to be done, but where’s the thrill? He may not be considering hanging up the cape and cowl for good at this point, but you get the sense that he’s got better things to do with his time, especially when the days are shorter and darkness comes earlier.

I can sympathize with his attempts to reconcile the two parts of his identity that he knows cannot properly merge. Any attempt at doing so compromises the delicate balancing act he’s been performing nearly all his life. The slightest slip can prove fatal. How this relates to me is that I have two sides to myself, not always at odds with each other, but where I have to tread lightly with how and when to present either. Christmas means pushing back depression into a closet inside myself to wait it out until I can properly care for myself. Being around others means donning my own costume that conceals the true identity I would otherwise parade around. Now, I’m not living with heaviness daily. My depression has improved greatly but it’s taken me a long time to get to this point where when it’s nearing Christmas, I don’t feel like shit just because the sun’s gone by the time I’m done with work.

It has meant, however, that I’ve had to have some difficult conversations explaining why I don’t want to stay in a rented house for a night in a town where I lived the worst year of my life at the time. It means having to talk down people who feel like I’m blaming them but once they’re calm, they understand. It means I’d rather be around my closest friends because it’s easier to be myself with them. My friends are my Selina Kyle.

I mean, that doesn’t really make any sense, but I think you get where I’m going with this.

Unconventional Christmas movies make the holiday go down easier. They’re comfortable and challenge the assumed notions we have about the holiday. Tradition gets run over and you can avoid having your emotions played with like a harp from hell. A Christmas movie need not be cheerful to revel in the spirit of the holiday, nor need it be strictly about Christmas as a holiday. It can sometimes be an inconvenience or a painful reminder of traumas past and present.

But hey… it could be worse.

My nose could be gushing blood!

A Requiem For The Conventional

As means of reconciling my attitudes towards Christmas, I offer up a few more words on the holiday that show I’m not immersed in bleakness.

It’s a tragedy that come November 1st, radio stations and retail stores press “play” on their queued up holiday playlists. It’s oversaturation to the point of drowning and it is a shame as there’s any number of songs that are actually quite catchy that are subject to being overplayed and doomed to aversion. 

In the spirit of tradition, I do find myself fond of any songs as performed by the girl groups of the 60s (The Ronettes, The Crystals). Call it nostalgia for a time I wasn’t alive, but I grew up listening to the oldies at a time when that only covered the 50s through the 70s, from doo-wop to rock and/or roll to Motown. Soulful poppy renditions of holiday carols or jingles warm the cockles of my heart more than a hot mug of cider (but I won’t turn that down, nor a delicious toddy!).

That said, I’m pretty predictable with also my annual listens consistently mostly of two bands: Bad Religion and the Ramones. The former released an entire album consisting of covers of traditional (ie: religious) Christmas songs that are imbued with the right mix of power chords and harmony that even my mother can enjoy, while the latter has perhaps the most bittersweet tune about how fraught the holiday can be.

I’m not incapable of enjoying Christmas; I have greater fondness for the things that subvert the norms of the holiday.

What are your unconventional picks for Christmas? What is it that you do this time of year that wouldn’t be considered traditional?