“Do you have holiday plans?”
“Yes. We’re having a Lord of the Rings marathon.”
“All fourteen hours?!”
While the commitment is impressive, I find the activity unsurprising. For as long as I can remember there have been cinematic marathons that run on television during the Christmas holidays. All three original Star Wars movies play back to back. All three Indiana Jones movies play as well. (As far as I’m concerned, there are only three.) I didn’t see it this year, but in the past there have been Back to the Future marathons as well.
We might presume that the reason for the marathons is that people have a lot of discretionary time on their hands during the holidays, but I think that would be incorrect. There are other ways to fill large gaps of time with media—HGTV or Duck Dynasty marathons and the like. No, there is something else, something deeper, which heightens the appeal of these stories at Christmas, and I think it comes down to a unique blend of nostalgia and metanarrative. We turn to these lengthy stories, we seek to enter into these alternative worlds, because they answer a deeper longing in the human heart.
In fact, repetition of story is a hallmark of the Christmas season. Consider briefly the significant number of television shows and specials which get repeated each year—It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and, of course, that magnum opus of Christmas stories, Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (the Muppet version is my favorite). Each of these (and many others), are shown repeatedly each year. Watching them yearly is part of a cinematic rite of passage; Christmas hasn’t come until we’ve seen many, if not all, of these films at least once. As an aside, even Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies—a manufactured trilogy if ever there was one—are timed to be released during the holiday season, piggybacking on this sense of both repetition and nostalgia. No one can argue that nostalgia has not been tapped by marketing agencies to great effect.
The critical moment in Charlie Brown’s Christmas Special is especially illuminating because the characters seem to speak through the screen to us. In that moment it ceases to be a cartoon special and becomes something else entirely, almost like social commentary, or perhaps prophecy. And it is especially significant that when Linus informs the crew of the real meaning of Christmas he tells them a story. Doubtless, the abiding wholesomeness of A Charlie Brown Christmas Special is precisely because in stopping to tell us a story it taps us in, however momentarily, to the truth about Christmas. The story of Jesus is the greatest story in the history of the world, the story that makes sense of all other stories. It is, in fact, so powerful a story that even the corrupted vestiges of the Christmas story which remain in our frenzied, materialistic attempts to “keep Christmas” have the power to awaken our hearts to the longing for metanarrative—that is, to a story that makes sense of each of our stories.
Metanarrative is the term used to describe the over-story, an overarching ‘narrative’ which makes sense of and allows the interpretation of each of our individual stories. But while it is an essential ingredient of any theological worldview, in a materialistic worldview it cannot exist. If the sensible universe is all there is, and if there is by virtue of that assessment no possibility of God (since He is by definition outside the sensible universe), then there can be no overarching Being governing or superintending the earth. Far less can there be a Being Who is invested in telling a particular kind of story (a narrative, that is) through human history. If materialism is true, then Christianity is absurd.
Materialism has been the dominant cultural philosophy for some time now, and the consequences of this have been vast. Practically for our purposes here, in rejecting metanarrative, we have lost a sense of our place in the universe. We no longer inhabit a story that is going somewhere and doing something. We are profoundly purposeless. Combined with this, we have trenchantly relinquished our religious heritage, so that when Christmas comes around, a host of people seek to restore the feelings of religion without any of its content. On the radio every Tom, Dick, and Harry sings a rendition of “O Holy Night” without any personal conviction of the words being sung. Religion, and especially the unique religious expression attached Christmas, has become a thing entirely sentimentalized. Everyone is searching for a certain feeling, but nobody seems to be finding it.
Practically speaking, both of these losses—the loss of metanarrative generally and of religion specifically—have created feelings of nostalgia, which is linked to loss. When we pause to reflect on life and consider the things long gone, the emotional experience attendant to those memories is one of nostalgia. Our culture longs for the religion it has relinquished, longs for the metanarrative it is no longer allowed to believe in.
The atmosphere of Christmas magnifies these longings, and experiencing these gaps we seek to fill them. Consider the powerfully nostalgic quality of the primary themes of Christmas as an emotion: home, food, light, the “golden days.” Consider also 24 hour Christmas music stations, sentimental cards, decorations, shopping, and a host of expectations. Indeed, in the middle of each of these, and often as an expression of them, movies and movie marathons loom large.
This is the reason why these grand, epic stories carry such appeal at Christmastime. They fill a gap in our collective human hearts by enabling us to make sense, however momentarily, of the business of living life. They present to us other worlds which are unlike our own, sorry, materialistic one, cut off from ultimate meaning. They offer an invitation to enter in to their reality, to spend an hour, or two, or fourteen, living in its sensible and sense-making universe. The worlds of Lord of the Rings, of Star Wars, and even of Indiana Jones maintain their metanarratives; their individual stories take place in world which have strong and defined over-stories. Even if we’ve discarded our own metanarratives, for the two or fourteen hours while we inhabit these stories, our own world makes just a little more sense.
“I wish it could be Christmas all year!” I don’t mind this sentiment, but I want to press it deeper. What is it you are after? What is the heart of this desire? Are you wishing for the story to go on? For the world to make a kind of sense more often? Do you wish that the story could be more immersive—one, indeed, in which you could even participate? And what if these losses—the sources of Christmas-magnified nostalgia—are not actually irreparable? What if we only have to turn and invest ourselves in a story? What if that story was true? Such a story would change everything.
“Long ago, in a land far away, a baby was born who would be king.”