The holidays are all about tradition, and certain holiday movie traditions can almost come to mean more as you get older than the presents. Is it really Christmas Eve if you’re not watching It’s A Wonderful Life on broadcast television over the span of approximately six hours with commercials? I remember distinctly as a teen in upstate New York being the last one up at midnight every year when George Bailey & Co sing “Auld Lang Syne” and good old Clarence finally gets his wings.
Now, with Lifetime, Hallmark, Netflix, holiday movies are literally everywhere. They are happy little things, where love stories abound, a precedent set by 2003’s Love, Actually, where even the widower finds hope of a next chapter in, of all people, Claudia Schiffer.
Talk about holiday movie magic.
The reality, of course, is there is no Claudia Schiffer waiting around the corner to mend your broken heart. The holidays, despite all the perfect Christmas town and Christmas spirit and Christmas cookie eating and hot chocolate drinking seen on our televisions (so much hot chocolate!), is that this time of year can be especially difficult. That’s why Hallmark is taking the world by storm. You know you’ve reached peak Hallmark when even NPR is talking about these made-for-TV movies buoying spirits nationwide. People want to escape. They want to leave behind all the bad things and immerse themselves in a world where every good person, every widow or widower, gets their happy ending.
But there is one holiday movie in particular that doesn’t fit this mold, and it just so happens to be my favorite.
The first time I watched The Snowman I was about six. It was the 80’s and my parents and my older sister were all sitting in our living room watching it off a VHS my dad taped off PBS when it first aired 1982. The Snowman is based on the 1978 picture book by Raymond Briggs. It is silent, told entirely by the animation and beautiful score by Howard Blake. The story is about a young boy in the British countryside who makes a snowman. That snowman comes to life, and over the course of one night the two embark on an adventure that ultimately takes them to the North Pole to meet the big man himself, Santa. So far, holiday movie perfection. My sister and I and our little kid brains were already thinking about being extra diligent on that next snowman in case he happened to knock on our door later that night.
However, that’s where the good cheer ends. The next morning, ready for another day of excitement, the little boy runs downstairs, out the front door only to find himself blinded by the light. What is this? Sun? I remember looking over at my sister with a small amount of panic bubbling up from my stomach. No, my eyes pleaded, say it ain’t so! The boy adjusts his eyes, approaches ever hesitantly, and then, there it is. Destruction, death, the end of all that was happy and good. Our snowman is now nothing but a puddle, melted clumps of snow, his hat fallen askew on the ground.
It is sad, it is devastating, it is quintessentially British.
My sister and I cried, and I remember not really understanding how the snowman was suddenly, just, gone. The movie ends there. There is no moment that follows where the sky turns grey and a single snowflake falls giving us hope that perhaps our Snowman might rise again. Instead, the little boy falls to his knees, the scarf Santa had given him in his hand, and weeps as the credits roll.
At the time I felt confused – angry even – at my parents for letting us see this. This isn’t Christmas joy I’m feeling! Why would you do this to me? While that first viewing was a bit of a punch in the gut, the older I get, as our family continues to watch it again and again every year, I find it to be one of the most important movies I watch during the holidays.
As a society, it’s good that we’ve started to talk more openly about how it’s okay to be sad during the holidays. As our ages rise so too do the losses, and the season, with all its gatherings and memories of yesteryear becomes a time to reflect on those losses. On the people who should be here but are missing. Of the way things used to be but aren’t any longer.
Ten years ago, when I was 26, three years after my mother died, I wrote about a holiday concert my family had always talked about going to see but never did. Like many we waited, put it off every year saying we’d get to it one day, until one day was taken away from us. Those first few years the holidays changed, morphed into different things as the three of us tried to get through the end of the year without my mom. That Thanksgiving I cooked my first turkey in my tiny Manhattan apartment, and the three of us ate around my coffee table with our plates on our laps. At Christmas, we found ourselves at an empty Christmas day buffet at a Marriott in Albany until we gave up and went to see family.
Three years ago, my father remarried, and for a while, a new happiness was found. As the song says, through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow. This Christmas will be our first without her, after having lost her too soon to cancer. As I decorated my tree this year, I hung the keepsake porcelain snowflake ornaments she had given us starting in 2016. “I’ll give you both a new one each year,” she said to me and my sister. It breaks my heart that she was only ever able to give us three.
I don’t mean to be all bah humbug about Christmas, because I’m not. I have a lot to be thankful for. Mainly, the people who are in my life – my family, friends, my loving husband. Do I wish my mother could have met him? Of course. Is it impossibly unfair that my father is alone again? You bet. Are there sad moments continuously mixed in with the good? Always.
But now, when I watch The Snowman, I look at that boy a little differently. I’ve been, like so many, where he was, holding a piece of clothing that reminds me of someone who no longer exists, my heart broken, my mind reeling at the finality of it all. I like to think about the boy as a man now, married perhaps, with children of his own. Odds are he’s had to bury a parent by now. Maybe both. I like to think he learned as a boy what will come in handy now as an adult – the knowledge that we are more resilient than we think.
That and in moments of great joy, when the snow falls at Christmas and we’re gathered together and the air feels like magic, we ought to remember to take a moment to look around and be thankful. Enjoy it, embrace it, breathe it in deep because nothing lasts forever.
And if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve known from the start, from the very first flake of falling snow, that it was never meant to.