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Review by Joshua Gibbs
Having spent the last several days reading reviews of Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, and now sitting down to write my own take, I am reminded of the 2000 presidential election in which both Bush and Gore hired teams of lawyers to sue one another over the results before the votes were even cast. Saving Christmas is not so much a movie you like or dislike. It is more of a movie you defend or attack, and I’m yet to find a review which really takes into account the substance or quality of the film. Those who find the film preachy and dull are apt to get dismissed as snobs, but those who find the film inspiring and thoughtful merely like to have their prejudices paroted back to them for ten bucks a pop.
A film review really shouldn’t be about the reviewer, though arguments over the merits of this film seem to invariably turn personal quite quickly, so for the sake of putting my hat into the proper ring, let me begin by saying I’m on Kirk Cameron’s team. A man cannot be dismissed as an idiot simply because he appeals to the common person as opposed to the intellectual. A24 was never going to distribute Saving Christmas, but that’s not really a damning fact. I am content to say there is a secularist war on Christmas and that the front on which Christians have taken the most casualties is that of historical research. Very fine historians of late antique Christianity have shown over and again that the December 25th date of Christ’s birth was staked in philosophy and theology, not in easily-forged Bethlehem hotel guest books, and that accusations Christmas was a co-opting of Saturnalia or Sol Invictus lack serious scholarship. I have always been a little baffled at Christians who are upset at the idea Christmas rituals are pagan in origin (especially if you believe that human beings, let alone their rituals, are mired in original sin), though I’m yet to hear anyone talk about the “pagan roots” of trees or wreaths or whatever who genuinely seemed to know much about paganism. Unfortunately, a good many Christian kids are growing up today believing Christmas was first pagan because they saw some meme to that end. I will happily submit myself to Saving Christmas inasmuch as the film aims to throw a little light on shoddy, iconoclastic history work. To his credit, Kirk Cameron has done his reading. Or, rather, the writers of the film have done their reading. Or they’ve done some of it.
The honest reviewer will have a hard time discussing this film as a film, because unlike, say, Howard the Duck, Saving Christmas doesn’t exactly have characters or themes or an arc or mounting tension. One of the main characters is a white Christian named Christian White, and I would suggest that any writer who names his characters after their raw demographic data is not exactly aiming for creativity. Saving Christmas begins with Cameron sitting in an armchair beside a fire, enumerating all the things he loves about Christmas and offering a précis of the arguments for and against celebrating Christmas. Having sat through a host of fiction writing classes in college, I’m tempted to say such an exposition might have the tendency to take people out of the story, but what follows is not really a story so much as a very long public service announcement. One doesn’t expect Le Fin to appear at the end, but a shooting star trailed by a rainbow underlining the words The More You Know. What plot there is consists of Christian White (director Darren Doane) playing a humbug while his wife tries to throw a Christmas party. Sick of Christmas, Christian retires to his car to pout, and he is here met by brother-in-law Kirk, who explains the venerable origins of the crèche, the Christmas tree and Santa Claus. Persuaded, Christian returns to the party and does a hip-hop dance, then eats ham, then roll credits.
The conversation between Kirk and Christian contains three interludes wherein a different Christmas tradition is explained. When an interlude begins, we shift from Doane and Cameron in the front seat of the car to the cave in which Christ was born, or a Christmas tree lot, or the Council of Nicea. Cameron narrates each interlude, though his narration is nearly continuous throughout the rest of the film. The information the filmmakers want to get across resists a dialogical format, and so after hearing Christian complain that trees are pagan or Santa Claus is the devil, Cameron takes over and delivers a lengthy explanation of how this is not the case. I would wager that lines of voiceover outnumber lines of dialog by a good four to one ratio, and for this reason, Saving Christmas becomes painfully tedious after twenty minutes. Towards the end of the film, Cameron exhorts the audience to enjoy material things at Christmas because the Incarnation was the Word taking on materiality. Had the filmmakers taken this advice to heart at the beginning of the film, they might have produced something which appealed to the senses and the emotions instead of a bloodless lecture largely devoid of real people. For all its talk about the meaning of the Incarnation, Saving Christmas isn’t very incarnational.
I would leave it at that, but the exposition of the film sets up for itself a high standard for the importance of genuine storytelling, and so the film’s own colossal failure to meet this standard (or even attempt it) is owed some discussion. After the fireside chat, we are shown a figure later revealed to be Nicholas of Myra, and Cameron bemoans the way many parents anesthetize old heroes and old stories for the children until all their truly remarkable characteristics are lost. We need to restore life to those heroes, Cameron teaches. When counseling Christian on the historical St. Nicholas, Kirk tells the oft-repeated story of Nicholas slapping Arius in the face at the Council of Nicea. As Kirk narrates the slap, director Doane takes over and shows a hulking, caveman-like Nicholas slam Arius’ face into a table, drag him outside by the scruff of his neck, and, in slow-motion, beat the hell out of him with his crosier. The original score to the scene sounds like Skrillex. I am not making this up. But then comes the rub. Cameron states that Nicholas was defrocked by the other bishops, but then, “because everyone loved Nicholas so much,” they let him be a bishop again. Cameron strips the original story of its supernatural element. Go read any article about that defrocking and you’ll find that the other bishops received a vision of the Lord Jesus and the Virgin Mary returning the Gospel book and Nicholas’s omophorion to him, and this was the reason they reinstated Nicholas. Honest moviegoers should feel a little unclear as to why this single event granted Nicholas everlasting renowned, because it didn’t. The fame of Nicholas far more depended on his charity and his miracles, which included raising the dead and multiplying food just as the Lord did, not to mention the bizarre story of how he became the youngest bishop to serve in the Church- none of which the film touches on.
I suspect that the same reasons which prompted Cameron to leave out this part of St. Nicholas’s story also led to a few other glaring omissions. Much of the historical research Kirk provides is valuable and true, but Christian White’s problem with Christmas is never dealt with directly. He feels Christmas is materialistic, gluttonous, selfish. While the origins of every Christmas tradition might be holy and right, we should by no means conclude that every celebration of those traditions is equally holy. It is wrong, after all, to get drunk on communion wine, even if that drunkenness is attended by laughing and feasting and smiling. When 16th century Protestants put bans on Christmas, they did so, at least in part, because Catholic celebrations of Christmas had obtained a reputation for raucousness. Given that Christmas is now almost universally celebrated by Protestants, it seems a good way of keeping a lid on the potential for raucousness would be by also reinstating some kind of Nativity fast prior to the feast. I could be wrong, but I’d wager that if the same 16th century Catholics responsible for Scottish squeamishness over Christmas celebrations saw Americans of Scottish descent begin the Christmas feast in November and carry it all the way through the coming October, they’d enjoy a hearty laugh about claims to tradition. While Kirk Cameron ought to be commended for trying to wrestle historical ignorance from contemporary Christians, his claim to love “everything about Christmas” carefully cuts around anything somber. Herod is name checked, but a sober commemoration of the Massacre of the Holy Innocents is remanded, in the closing moments of the film, to thoughtfully looking at a nutcracker doll. It is wholly unsurprising that Christian White’s realization that Christmas is actually good is celebrated with a four minute long dance number set to a hip-hop version of “Angels We Have Heard on High.”
When Cameron finally commends his audience to give “new meaning to old things,” he seems a good man who lacks the confidence to wholly return to the old meaning of old things. In a few years perhaps he’ll return with a more dignified, pious understanding of how Christmas can be saved. Perhaps he’ll give St. Nicholas his miracles back and all that comes with it.