Anne Gordon

Watching Christmas movies in Jerusalem

The feel-good predictability on screen provides an interlude of comfort that soothes the searing reality of current events
Watching a movie during the Christmas season, with popcorn. (iStock)
Watching a movie during the Christmas season, with popcorn. (iStock)

It’s 1:32 a.m. I should go to sleep. Or use my waking hours well, once I’m awake anyway. On October 8th, my job became miles more intense than usual, and I worked nearly every day that wasn’t Shabbat until I’d nod off, unable to keep my eyes open, usually far later than this hour. Then I’d put myself to bed, ready to drop right back into sleep, and instead lie awake, alert, pondering whether to use my wakefulness more productively (I nearly never did). But tonight, I’m not falling asleep at the computer. Work has abated somewhat, these 12 weeks into the war, and it’s late enough that, instead of pushing myself to do more, I can go to sleep. The idea is appealing; I should do it — go to bed at an almost reasonable hour. Instead, I watch a Christmas movie.

You know Christmas movies. They come out in bulk on Hallmark and Netflix and Amazon, soon after pumpkin spice lattes are back on the Starbucks menu. Their plotline is vaguely as follows: Very attractive woman who left a small hometown to make her way in the big city goes home to her family of origin for the holidays after (fill in the blank): being dumped, being fired, being at a loss of what to do next in her life. While there, she discovers (or rekindles) a hithertofore unknown (or forgotten) love of the simpler things in life and for a very attractive old flame (or very attractive new guy who has moved to town since she left). Sometimes, admittedly, the couple-to-be find each other in the same vacation location, instead of the small hometown. Sometimes, the guy is dashingly rich. Sometimes, her salon hair is red. Always, sweet romance ensues, conquering a few stumbling blocks and misunderstandings (some of which seem avoidable, but who knows), and the movie ends with the modern equivalent of “and they lived happily ever after,” without quite saying so: Cheers, eggnog in hand; presents under the tree; and a smile on your face, as it all comes to a pleasing close. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

(PS: “One year later” epilogues may confirm the couple’s happy ever after, in the form of a wedding, a baby, a visit to the beloved family members, or a revisiting of the complicated twists and turns of the previous year that we know from the movie, showing no lasting harm).

In my defense, it IS December. In my defense, I watch very little, as a rule. In my defense, I don’t have access to the services that host the handful of Hanukkah movies (and I doubt they’d count as a break anyway, as I’d surely be on guard for errors and worried about misrepresentation). And in my defense, Christmas movies of this ilk are not really about Christianity, even as they revolve around one of its most important holidays. If I were Christian, I might be as dismayed by the watering down of the season into “good holiday cheer” movies as by the commercialism decried by many religious Christians for having taken over what should be a most spiritual, holy day. But for this Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem, the absence of too much overt Christianity in these Christmas movies is part of what allows them to be a welcome breather from these traumatic times.

Let’s acknowledge that the formulaic can become bland, and the predictable is not exciting. But feel-good formulaic predictability has its place in a world that has been shot and burned and taken hostage to hell. It’s quintessential escapism for an hour-and-less-than-a-half (part of the formula), and that can be rejuvenating — also far less costly than a day at the spa.

(Should I feel guilty for the temporary, moderate respite from my 24/7 focus on the deep travails of current events? It’s a good question. I think the psychotherapists among us would say no. I think that if my own daily reality were worse, the escape might be more essential and less possible. And if my own daily reality were more removed from all that has happened in Israel and the Jewish world in the past 12 weeks, I might not find Christmas movies to be the balm (and relax-into-sleep-aid) that they have demonstrated themselves to be. So no, not guilty; I can’t help being perpetually aware of the contrast to “the real world.” Of course, that is also the point.)

Plus, I’m not the only Orthodox woman in Israel I know who has been watching Christmas movies in the wee hours. Some of the most serious women I know, people who have been dedicating their time to the needs of others all the day long — making sandwiches for soldiers; teaching Torah classes that probe for meaning in light of current events; organizing assistance for displaced Israelis — some of these women are also finding refuge in the same light, reliable cinematic fare. Perhaps it’s the American heritage (I haven’t polled to determine whether Israelis and non-American ex-pats do the same) — some nostalgia bred into us before aliyah, in the form of tinsel, carols, and Christmas Eve smiles at the mall that make us think of the holiday season as a nicer time, one where we put our conflicts to bed, at least for a while. Nobody expects the IDF or Hamas to call it quits for Christmas, but a fairly simpatico hour-and-less-than-a-half of virtual chestnuts roasting on an open fire is a welcome opportunity to pretend that all is right in the world.

One friend acknowledged to me that she and her family have been watching Christmas movies since October 7th. They had to stop a Harry Potter marathon — so much good vs. evil in so little time — and numbed themselves to the upheaval in the news with the cushiony certainty of these shows. The illusion of a softer life when the one we know turned hard alleviated some measure of anxiety, and enabled them to emerge from it. I don’t think the creators of Christmas movies envision them as a coping tool in this way, but when this same friend’s family stopped gravitating to them, she knew the kids were all right. The movies had become a barometer of the family’s resilience with regard to the war.

Another friend finds relief in the movies, but critiques them too. She notes that their placidness can mask a uniformity that isn’t all comfort and joy. Her quick take is that the default is shiny and beautiful white people (it happens that I’ve seen a shift to more colorful casting, but shiny and beautiful colorful casting, to be sure). A world without racism or really any of the deep prejudices that plague the real world. Very little whiff of poverty. Rarely a handicap in view. In a world of reliable happy endings, diversity would complicate the yuletide cheer. But her reviews go to show that getting away from reality, even when it means no more than suspending one’s disbelief for a movie, is not always easy, not even when you know — and she does — that it helps her fall asleep.

The movie I watched that night gives the nod to the differences out there, and, ironically, it’s true, I liked it the better for breaking the mold. The “small hometown” is New York City, the journey home is taken by a black man (a widower with a daughter, no less). He and his co-leading lady are a little older than the usual — and she is Jewish (with a black… and gay… and quirky best friend). The departure from the formula was pleasing to me, but you can rest assured that there was no discussion of what it means to create an interfaith household or the challenges of being a good stepmother to a tween — or not beyond a brief postscript nod to all that (watch the movie if you want to know; I wouldn’t want to give away the ending, ahem). That is, for all that effort was clearly made by the folks behind Amazon’s movies, they aren’t hoisting a drama out of cotton candy. Even these best of the best are not in contention for Oscar nominations.

And that’s just as I — and my late-night peers — want it. For drama, I don’t need a movie; I have the news. It includes pathos and romance and misery and heroism. Just read the heartbreaking stories of those we lost on October 7th and the people who love them. Remember the 156 soldiers (at the time of this writing) who have been killed since Israel’s ground invasion into Gaza. Or stop and pray (except that nobody has stopped praying) for the immediate release and please-God-as-healthy-as-possible return of the many who remain held captive by Hamas. And sign petitions against the rising incidence and virulence of global antisemitism — on college campuses, yes, but not only. It’s no wonder that everyone is on edge. So much importance of things, all the things, all the time. It seems miraculous (though not on 34th Street) that a Christmas movie can blanket our searing reality with an interlude of cozy-calm at all.

For all that I sound like I’m touting the advantages of escapism, I’m not really a big fan. More, I find these films to be an opportunity for the equivalent of a deep breath that fortifies me for whatever comes next. The part of me that rails against theodicy, the part that can’t bear it when bad things happen to good people, or to the Jewish people as a whole, is strengthened by the pretty, glossy, air-brushed world, where the just deserts for the reasonably good people in it are exactly the way we want the real world to function. Before the opening credits roll, we know a happy ending is coming — by definition. And when the real world does not comply with the definition, the movies’ given that things will be okay because they simply have to be okay provides comfort and fortitude in the real world too. The digital piece of peace on earth helps me believe it will come — even in the face of all newsworthy evidence to the contrary.

At the end of the day, my favorite Christmas movie this year isn’t formulaic (well, fine, the couple gets together by the end, of course they do, but a happy ending doesn’t have to beggar disbelief). If it weren’t set in December, with a frequent countdown to Christmas, and the unfortunate title, “This Is Christmas” (truly the worst thing about the film), I would say it’s not a Christmas movie at all. The people aren’t all shiny and beautiful. They hail from different demographics. And they have plenty that is sad or painful or just wrong in their respective lives. It’s also two hours long — and I didn’t watch it after the day was done, but for a family movie night. The feel-good refreshment of “This Is Christmas” is that the leading man (black, if you must know) has an idea about how to forge connections among strangers that would improve things for everyone, and, by the end of the movie, he has run with it, and it works (despite the hurdles along the way that you surely expect). That’s not giving away the ending either. The reminder that we can all connect with each other just a little better is inspiring because we know it to be true. 

Consider the rallying of basically all Israelis from contradictory segments of the population in the multiple fronts of the war effort. Consider the support for Israel from the Jews of the Diaspora, even as they have their own Jewish battles to fight like none they remember. Those connections we forge yield scaffolding that supports us through these times (if you’re not sure about that, listen to soldiers, home from reserve duty, who speak of the high morale in service, where they are forthright and eager to get the job done, uplifted also by the networks of kindness and energy on the home front, albeit served by a population (largely women) that is riddled with mourning and good old-fashioned worry — about everything).

Today is Christmas. Israel is 80 days into its war against Hamas. It remains to be seen whether the Christmas movie season is over for me. But as the days are slightly longer, as we have acclimated to this brave new horizon, with its devastation and renewal, I can imagine the light shining over the destruction of so many tunnels. I can imagine all the beautiful people (whatever they look like) who are persevering, as I listen to the Carol of the Bells and sip mulled wine. I can dream of the happily ever after, and I breathe easier.

About the Author
Anne Gordon is the deputy editor of Ops & Blogs at The Times of Israel and a co-founder of Chochmat Nashim. She has taught Judaic Studies widely, in the US and Israel, and studied in the various women's batei midrash for nearly a decade. She is a graduate of Drisha Institute's Scholars Circle and holds a BA in History & Philosophy and an MA in Judaic Studies from Harvard University, and is ABD in her pursuit of a PhD in Jewish Education.
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