A Nontraditional Christmas Pop Culture Calendar to Break Your Christmas Culture Rut
It’s become a trope at this point that Christmas comes earlier and earlier every year, but it is truly astonishing that it’s only December 1st and it already feels like we’ve been celebrating it for a month — which I suppose some of you have. For some of us, two months of sappiness disguised under the moniker of “Christmas spirit”, can become quite unbearable, especially when the movies and songs that are sung are the exact same ones that came the year before and the year before that, etc… It’s not all bad, I mean I think A Christmas Story and It’s a Wonderful Life are objectively good movies, but to watch them with that much repetition is a bit of a stretch. I don’t even watch Ocean’s Eleven every year and I think its the most re-watchable movie of all time. These movies and songs just don’t hold up after that many listens.
So what I’m doing is giving you an out. I’m giving you a way to celebrate this holiday season with nontraditional pieces of Christmas adjacent culture. You can participate and not be bored! Every day of the month I have something “Christmasy” for you.
Some of these will actually fit the mold of that holly and jolly feeling people look for, others will actually be quite the opposite of that, feeding into an counter cultural Christmas that will allow you to say humbug with the utmost satisfaction.
Dec. 1 – Sufjan Stevens Songs for Christmas / Silver & Gold
Obviously for many people this is already a staple, but one could spend an entire day diving into Stevens’ Christmas opus. Stevens has an aversion/obsession with the holiday and its all encompassing … over our culture. This may be the truest representation of Christmas — a beautifully cheesy and difficult time that emphasizes giving while simultaneously teaching our children to be greedy while manipulating them into good behavior. Santa Claus and Jesus share equal time as we give more than ever while buying more than we ever needed. The box set features comic strips, short stories, and fun drawings and is worth purchasing for the full experience. Listen to “The Christmas Unicorn”, a new Christmas character that Sufjan created that represents all the tension Christmas has wrapped up in itself, it’s a 12-minute grandiose track that ends with a shout out to Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, because why not?
Dec. 2 – Children of Men
A shocking pregnancy turns the world upside down, birthing a savior into a world that was desperate for one. This is the Christmas story and also a pretty accurate descriptor of Alfonso Cuaron’s take on PD James’ novel. It’s a dystopian thriller starring Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, and Michael Caine, known for its stunning tracking shots that have steadily grown it into the discussion of modern masterpieces. Children hammers home the themes of Christmas in a way that most explicit pieces of Christmas culture never could.
Dec. 3 – A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Another classic in the Christmas canon, but one that 97% of you reading this right now likely haven’t read. The source material for countless movies and TV specials is actually worth checking out. It’s not too difficult a read and Dickens is a really clever writer. Pick it up at your local library and read it throughout the month.
Dec. 4 – Chance the Rapper + Jeremih Merry Christmas Lil’ Mama
Chance and Jeremih released this mixtape late last year and while it does feel a little thrown together, it’s a fun breath of fresh air when it comes to Christmas music. It’s all original music with fun takes on holiday themes. Apparently it’s going to be released as a full album later, but for now enjoy the mixtape. Listen to it here.
Dec. 5 – Happy Christmas
This movie was so anti-traditional Christmas that despite its title, it was released mid-July in 2014. It stars Anna Kendrick, Lena Dunham, Melanie Lynskey, Joe Swanberg, and Joe’s son Jude, who gives what might be the best performance by a baby of all time. It’s a good low-key slice of life film that has Christmas themes without bashing you over the head.
Dec. 6 – Crazy Ex-Girlfriend “California Christmas Time” from “My Mom, Greg’s Mom, and Josh’s Sweet Dance Moves!”
The whole episode is great, but just watching the video will give you a taste of Rachel Bloom’s musical comedy series about a boy obsessed “crazy” woman who moves to West Covina after running into a high school crush. “California Christmastime” nails the sentiment of living in Southern California a place where winter does not exist.
Dec. 7 – In Bruges
Martin McDonagh’s directorial debut is a very dark and violent comedy about two hitmen spending time in Bruges after a failed assassination attempt. It’s Christmas there and they grapple with their lives while stuck in a place they don’t want to be. McDonagh’s latest feature, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is getting Oscar buzz, so watching his debut will give you the opportunity to tell your friends and family, “yes, but have you seen his old stuff?”
Dec. 8 – David Bazan Dark Sacred Night / Christmas Bonus Ep
Bazan has been releasing Christmas songs ever since he was under his moniker Pedro the Lion, Dark Sacred Night is his collection of those recordings, some covers and some originals. Bazan’s tumultuous relationship with faith and, well, happiness in general adds a world weariness to the holiday, which, like the album title states, can be both dark and sacred.
Dec. 9 – Community Christmas episodes: “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” / “Regional Holiday Music”
“Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” might be the best Christmas TV episode of all time. Released at the height of Dan Harmon’s brilliant show and focusing on its best character, its clever, heartfelt, and gives all the Christmas vibes with its take on a claymation special. Community was doing truly innovative commentary on pop culture during its second and third seasons. “Regional Holiday Music” is their take on musicals and is worth a watch too.
Dec. 10 – Carol
Carol takes place during Christmas time, displaying a snowy Manhattan, with circling toy train sets beautifully shot and capturing the essence of the season. The rest of the film is an emotional telling of an affair between the young and lost Therese and the woman who awakens her to the world, the titular Carol. There’s probably no better film out there that captures the beauty of New York at Christmastime, thus its place here.
Dec. 11 – Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie
You should be done reading A Christmas Carol by now, right? Let’s add a murder mystery to the mix, using a festive take on Agatha Christie’s famous Mr. Poirot. Dark winter nights are all about wrapping oneself up in a blanket and diving into a heart racing thriller, hopefully this Christmas murder mystery will do just the trick.
Dec. 12 – Thrilling Adventure Hour “Christmas on Mars”
Old time radio already has that kind of classic Christmas feel we like to have, so comedians Ben Blacker and Ben Acker loving tribute to old radio storytelling is another unique way to get into the spirit. Here is a Christmas special they did in 2011, starring a whole bunch of famous people, including Colin Hanks, Marc Evan Jackson, Chris Hardwick, and many more.
Dec. 13 – Fresh Off the Boat Christmas episodes
Fresh Off the Boat‘s holiday episodes are particularly great because they are told through the lens of Chinese immigrants, often offering unique perspectives on things that have become normalized in American culture. They bring about both critique and a new appreciation of traditions. “The Real Santa” has Jessica wanting to infuse Chinese culture into her son’s Christmas experience, dressing up as a Santa-like figure named Lao Ban Santa who is the one actually in charge of Christmas who does all the work on the 23rd for the other mythologized Santa. It beautifully portrays an immigrant sentiment and captures the love of a mother for her children.
Dec. 14 – Black Mirror Christmas special
The technology cautionary tale series released a Christmas special starring Jon Hamm a couple years back. What better way to spend the holiday season with your loved ones than to envision the horrors we are headed toward?
Dec. 15 – Stuff You Should Know “2015 Jolly Christmas Extravaganza”, “2016 Christmas Extravaganza in 3D”/ The Allusionist “Xmas Man”
Everyone hates that know-it-all person at the holiday party, but everyone wants to be that person, yeah? Listen to these podcast eps to give you a background on the origins of several Christmas things; be sure to tell everyone you see all the fun facts you heard.
Dec. 16 – The Apartment
Bill Wilder’s existential holiday comedy won best picture in 1960, it’s a funny and twisted film about two coworkers and cheating couples, it’s equally sad and touching with great performances by Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine.
Dec. 17 – A Christmas Story: The Musical Live TV Special
There have been plenty of live musicals at this point, they’ve been hit or miss so far, but I’m excited for this adaptation of the classic holiday film. Fox is interestingly keeping the fact that it’s a musical under wraps and I wouldn’t be surprised if quite a few folks are surprised when they turn it on. The broadway version wasn’t a big hit, but Pasek and Paul, who wrote the music and lyrics, have seen recent success in their involvement in La La Land and Dear Evan Hansen so it should add some new spark to the original.
Dec. 18 – Kiss Kiss Bang Bang / The Long Kiss Goodnight
Writer/director Shane Black has a strange fascination with Christmas. In nearly every film he’s written Christmas serves as a background, a contrast to the action oriented films he typically creates (most prominently Lethal Weapon). Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Long Kiss Goodnight both fall into this category.
Dec. 19 – “Home For the Holidays” by Vicki Glembocki
Why do I stuff my family into a minivan and schlep across Pennsylvania every Christmas Eve? I’d rather not dwell on the answer.
Written for Philadelphia Magazine, Glembocki writes about holiday travel and home with humor and wit. Read it here.
Dec. 20 – Arthur Christmas
Another one that fits the traditional holiday mold, but hasn’t quite reached the level of a yearly holiday tradition, Arthur Christmas is a charming British animated film about the son of Santa, Arthur, a bumbling but genuine member of the Claus family. His brother Steve has taken over the logistics of Christmas, but a missed present delivery causes tension to rise between Steve, Santa, and Grandsanta, capturing a surprisingly realistic look at being a family and the difficulties of changing roles in one’s life. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s worth a watch.
Dec. 21 – Fanny and Alexander “The Ekdahl Family Celebrates Christmas”
Ingmar Bergman’s family drama was originally conceived as a four part television movie and has since been released in a wide range of versions, anywhere from a 188 minute cut, to the 312 minute opus. All we’re asking is for you to watch part one, which covers Fanny and Alexander as kids at Christmas. It’s a Bergman film, so things are not bound to end up happy–just a warning.
Dec. 22 – “Why I Hate Christmas” by James Henry
But I am now willing to say out loud what I suspect many Americans are muttering all across the country at this time of year: Christmas has become a net loss as a socioeconomic institution.
After watching Bergman, you’re going to need something to lift you up, unfortunately, this is not the sort of Christmas schedule to provide that. Instead we have a realistic look at the holiday and the sort of problems our private celebrations can have on a global scale, especially when a capitalistic market gets ahold of them. Let out a quick humbug and dive in.
Dec. 23 – Mad Men “Christmas Comes But Once a Year”
Mad Men is one of the best shows of all time, its depiction of life in the 1960s calls out the deeply entrenched sexism of the era, while simultaneously designing the most gorgeous production design on television. A dose of realism in the midst of beautiful nostalgia is exactly what you need just days before Christmas.
Dec. 24 – A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All
Colbert has always been great at melding the line between satire and absurdity and sweet sincerity, the perfect tone for your Christmas eve. It’s an hour long mockery of traditional Christmas specials while also being a traditional Christmas special.
Dec. 25 – 30 Rock “Ludachristmas”
30 Rock is also a quick-witted absurd and zany show, the perfect balance to a morning of joy and lots and lots of interaction with other people. It’s the perfect recharge to build that wit back up and impress all your family members!