Scott: The first inkling that Christmas was not a holiday for Hebrews came from a neighbor kid, the fine Aryan specimen Timothy Murphy: “My Uncle Roy says Jews celebrate Christmas by staying home and counting their money.” In truth, if I had Roy’s money — at least the chunk that wasn’t deposited at Foremost Liquors — I’d have thrown my own stash away.
Matthew: So much for peace on Earth — them’s fighting words, Mr. Marks. How can you call a Murphy an Aryan? Don’t you remember The Commitments? “The Irish are the blacks of Europe.” That’s pretty much the opposite of Ayran. But perhaps you were being facetious, in which case I’ll adopt a more conciliatory approach. You can’t really blame Kid Murphy: your encounter came years before Saturday Night Live gave us the lovely holiday jingle “Christmastime for the Jews,” which finally shed some light on what all you unbaptized folk did with your December 25: They can finally see King Kong without waiting in line / They can eat in Chinatown and drink their sweet-ass wine!
Movies and Chinese food! Of course, a reference like that sends the memory train roaring back to 1983’s A Christmas Story, wherein the (presumably but not evidently) Christian family is forced to abandon the traditional turkey dinner in favor of “Chinese turkey” (i.e., duck) at the Chop Suey Palace Company, complete with caroling waiters who sing “Deck the Halls With Boughs of Horry.” It’s an odd but lovely moment, and it gives the lie to your claim that Christmas is not a holiday for Hebrews. I say that Christmas is for everyone — a truly human holiday. And if you want to lay out a few of your favorite Christmas movies for inspection, I’ll make my case.
Scott: Fine. Though I will admit at the outset that my perspective here is not entirely that of an outsider. My family’s hands-off approach to Christmas was further hammered home when Mom was asked to erect a colorfully decorated dead tree in our living room, similar to the one parked in Aunt Mimi and Uncle Andy’s picture window. (The livid look that crossed Mom’s face indicated she would rather pay retail for my Hanukkah gifts.) Dad’s sister Mimi married outside the faith, and along with her husband Andy Galuzzi, turned their home into a veritable Christmas wonderland. Her intermarrying afforded me the best of both worlds: eight days of unparalleled Hanukkah gelt, and Christmas presents around the Galuzzis’ tree!
Matthew: See? You’re already tracking with me! The sweet purity of your childhood desire for loot, to be lavished with love from all sides, to have your every wish come true. It’s the hope for heaven. A grump sees A Christmas Story and thinks, Wow, they make it all the way through without mentioning Jesus or even going to church — some Christmas movie. But that’s not what the film is about, because it’s a child’s story, and Christmas for a child is about what is tangible. A child’s heart longs not for heaven, but a Red Ryder air rifle, the very gift that it would take a miracle to obtain.
Scott: Sounds like you’ve been hitting the eggnog early this year. But let’s continue. Having long since become an Easter staple, the first movie I came to associate with Christmas was 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. Between 1959 and 1962, and in 1964 (they sat 1963 out, fearing that a nation mourning a presidential assassination was not yet ready for Munchkins), CBS aired the impervious curiosity every year on a Sunday evening sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Grandma Eva and Bill “Pa” Marks shared a spacious Oak Park home, and one Sunday a month we’d make the 20-mile trek for a visit.
The appearance of those accursed flying monkeys on Pa’s ancient black-and-white Philco forced little Scooter (I’d like to hear what your grandparents nicknamed you) to take shelter either behind Grandma’s enormous wingback chair, or amid the rows of sequential bubble lights — later found lethal when curious tots ingested their toxic content — strung ’round the welcoming tree.
Matthew: Gonna make me work for this one, aren’t you? But I’m ready for you: The great magic of Oz is the promise of a brighter, more vivid reality than our everyday lives: the Tin Man, Scarecrow, etc. are all people in Dorothy’s drab Kansas life, but gussied up and made wonderful and significant. “A brighter, more vivid reality” is a pretty good description of Christmas morning — all the bright wrapping paper and gift-giving and goodwill and time off and God himself taking flesh and dwelling among us. That last bit, the Incarnation — well, that’s what makes every drab person on Earth gussied up and more significant. Now that God has become Man, we can become adopted sons and daughters of God!
While I’m at it, isn’t the Wizard a pretty good image of the Old Testament God — terrifying, all-powerful, full of bizarre commandments? And isn’t the Man Behind the Curtain a pretty good image of the New Testament Christ — loving, humanly scaled, full of encouragement and gift-giving? Speaking of gift-giving, isn’t that what Christmas is all about? Hey, how about the Wizard as Santa? Not quite what you believed him to be, but still a powerful force for gladness and joy.
Scott: The one film that religiously finds a home in my DVD tray come Christmas morn is 1980’s Raging Bull, directed by Martin Scorsese. I first saw it at the Willow Creek Theatre on December 24, 1980. It appeared like an angel, in black-and-white, alone, on a single screen. In the words of a certain taxi driver, “They cannot touch it.”
The Willow Creek was one of those futuristic-looking ’60s showplaces, a black box with an expansive curved CinemaScope screen and pitch-perfect acoustics; the flashbulbs popping in the rear-surround channels never sounded better. It appeared to have been designed by the same architectural team responsible for Mission Valley’s late, lamented Cinema 21. My fellow Scorsese-acolyte Rick and I had just finished gorging ourselves on one of his mother’s annual 90-course festival meals. Every year, my adoptive mother, Audrey, saw to it that her “boys” ate like the commies were in the driveway. Rick’s sports-addicted brother, Ron — the movie gene apparently skipped a generation — decided to favor us with a rare in-theater appearance, (as did six other paying customers).