In the run up to Christmas, much of the talk over the tv schedule has been about the sequel to The Snowman, entitled The Snowman And The Snowdog. The original is a classic. I am of the right age where I grew up watching The Snowman every single year; it was one of the markers that meant Christmas had arrived. Some families make a tradition of watching the Queen’s speech, but mine didn’t. It’s not that my parents are republicans, they’re not; it’s just ‘one of those things’.
Yet The Snowman, in spite of charming style, visual narrative and the famous theme song sung by Peter Audy (the Aled Jones version was a cover, released 3 years later), it is a story about the death of a grandfather figure. The relationship that develops between the boy and the snowman has many features of that between a grandfather and a grandson. I always recognised my own granddad in that cartoon, at least.
For all its joy and beauty, it ends in inevitable tragedy, with the boy having to come to terms with the death of this figure who was in his life for all but the briefest of moments and who came to mean so much to him.
At the same time, one of the most popular ‘Christmas’ films is Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Again, this is one of my favourite films of all time, but not because I think it is some simple, optimistic tale. The film has a huge reputation, yet I never saw it until I was in my early 20s. It seemed to be ingrained in some sort of collective consciousness, yet I don’t recall it ever being aired on television. Maybe it was on when my family & I were all playing Trivial Pursuit – another hallmark of it being Christmas.
It’s A Wonderful Life is the story of a man who is driven to suicide by events overtaking him. The alternative reality he encounters in a world without him is nightmarish and ghastly, making for some very uncomfortable viewing. I think particularly of Jimmy Stewart’s panic-stricken face in close up as the shock of the alternative world hits him. It’s not a cheery film at all, although I would regard it (along with One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) as one of the best films to deal with the normality of mental health issues.
I don’t have space here to go into some of the darker passages of A Christmas Carol, an equally influential work of fiction in the modern mindset.
So why is it that such tragic films are entwined with the modern notion of Christmas? I couldn’t hope to answer that fully, but I will venture a few thoughts.
I don’t think it’s going beyond the realm of reason to state that Christmas is seen by many as a time for being with, and celebrating family. Whether that be a “holy family” or one’s own (or both), when I hear people asked questions such as “What does Christmas mean to you?” then family is a noticeably recurring theme in the answers.
Yet Christmas is (incorrectly*) noticeable for being perceived as a time with a high suicide rate. That is not to downplay the suicides that do occur. For those, I would conjecture that part of the cause may be to do with those who either have no family or are estranged from them feeling isolated. It may even be that they are envious of those who they see being part of a family, which only exaggerates feelings of loneliness.
Conversely, for families who have lost members during the year, or who have in the past lost members around Christmas time, then there can be a gap in their togetherness, an empty seat at the Christmas dining table. How we react differs greatly from person to person and from family to family. One of these reactions is to hold on that little bit tighter to what we have. When we experience loss, or witness it in others close to us, then we may treasure a little bit more those who we love, embracing them a little more to keep them safe.
Suicides are not the only cause of death. We think especially of the families in Newtown, Connecticut who are facing a Christmas devoid of their children, their lives ripped from them. In the cold winter months, those who are elderly, homeless and those who cannot afford to heat the homes they have are especially vulnerable. Lord, please show us how we may show practical compassion for those who are in need and grant us the strength of resolution to aid those who are at the sharp end of winter. For those whose loss is keenly felt at this time of year, we ask that you will bring comfort to their family and friends. We may struggle to find the right words or find it hard to be physically present in a time of need, but we ask that you will facilitate the right person to say and do the right things at the right time.
If this has chimed with you, the phone number for the Samaritans is 08457 90 90 90 who are always willing to listen.
*When I investigated this, it turns out that the statistical evidence doesn’t support the popular opinion. Suicides in December are lower than the year average, with the peak occurring around late spring & early summer. Still, one suicide is one too many. Each is a tragedy to be mourned, leaving holes in the lives of many.