I have an incredible sweet tooth for Christmas movies. And from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, I am treated to a Viennese table of options to satisfy my cravings. The selections run the gamut from the classics such as A Christmas Carol (1938) which spawned well over 100 iterations when you count remakes, televised theatrical productions, contemporary interpretations and animated programs, Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and of course my all-time favorite, It is a Wonderful Life (1946), to all the contemporary, greeting card like programming.
Christmas to me is all about reflection and renewal. There is something emotionally filling about feasting on a film where the primary character experiences an epiphany which restores his faith in mankind. I have probably seen It’s a Wonderful Life 100 times, but every time I watch George Bailey’s (Jimmy Stewart), expression when all of Bedford Falls comes to his rescue to save him from bankruptcy and prison, I walk away with the same feeling of renewed faith and gratitude for my personal blessings that I experienced with my first viewing.
Easter is also about a reflection and renewal. It is the day that we celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead which is the complimentary miracle to Christmas, the immaculate conception of the Savior born in a manger. Like Christmas, Easter also has popular culture manifestations. Christmas has Santa Claus while Easter has the Easter Bunny. Both holidays involve gifts: Christmas presents represent the gifts of the magi and Easter baskets include candied eggs which symbolize life. Despite all of the ways in which Christmas and Easter are companion holidays, Christmas has been the inspiration or the backdrop for hundreds of films, the Easter holiday is rarely and infrequently integrated into a film’s plot sequence.
While there are a number of biblical films depicting the life and death of Jesus Christ such as The Robe (1953), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and modern day musical renditions such as Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) and Godspell (1973), there are only a handful of modern or contemporary films which even include an Easter day scene let alone a story line where a life changing experience happens to the primary character in the Easter season.
There is of course, Easter Parade (1948) a boy meets girl musical romance starring Judy Garland and Fred Astaire which culminates with an Easter Parade in Manhattan. My personal favorite is Steel Magnolias (1989), an ensemble film starring Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis, Dolly Parton, Sally Field, Darryl Hannah and Julia Roberts (just before she experienced runaway fame with Pretty Woman), which concludes with an Easter egg hunt where the character dressed as the Easter Bunny rides off on a motor cycle when his pregnant wife’s (Darryl Hannah) water breaks. Viewers walk away from the film reassured that the cycle of life will always continue.
Interestingly enough, Rebel without a Cause (1955) is also considered an Easter film because the film opens with the character Jim Stark, played by James Dean, drunk and stumbling down the street in his Easter suit. Those who analyze film have tried to describe the film as about renewal and redemption in that Stark tries to change his ways to impress Judy, played by Natalie Wood. However, he ultimately becomes mired in situations which lead to the tragic death of other characters in the film. And of course, the fact that Rebel was Dean’s last film before his untimely death the same year as the film’s release, adds credence to the idea that the character and the actor would find the ultimate redemption in heaven.
I have often wondered why there are so few films where the renewal associated with the Easter holiday is integrated into the film’s message and the primary character’s experience. I have come to the conclusion that the paucity of “Easter” films has two primary causes. First of all, the federal government does not treat Easter as holiday like they do Christmas. Yes, I know that some businesses and schools close for Good Friday but most remain open on Easter Monday.
While it is easy for a family with young children to celebrate Easter together, when the children go off to college or move away, it becomes more difficult to gather together if they do not have time off from work or school. Consequently, individuals tend to prioritize Christmas and Thanksgiving for family gatherings as they are recognized holidays where classes go into recess and offices close. Given this situation, individuals feel compelled to have somewhere to go at Christmas, a need to be part of a community. By contrast, Easter does not create the same obligation. After all, it is understandable if you don’t fly home for Easter Sunday, if you have to go to work or attend classes on Monday. If Christmas were to fall on a Sunday, we are given Monday off. Since Easter gatherings are less frequent than Christmas gatherings in the real world, Easter themes and backdrops are also less frequent in the reel world.
The second reason is the different meaning of the holidays. Christmas is something easy to
Conceptualize both from a religious and secular viewpoint. There is something magical about a star that guided the wise men to the baby savior in the manger. We also easily accept the concept of angels who proclaim good news and protect us against harm. And of course, the most famous secular manifestation of Christmas, the jolly old elf Santa Clause delivering toys to all the good children, is an image which makes us feel good. If it didn’t, parents would stop buying toys for their children at Christmas.
Easter, by definition, is in many ways an uncomfortable holiday. It is a lot easier to embrace the story of a little baby then it is to engross oneself in a narrative where a man is betrayed for thirty pieces of silver and put to death on a cross. While many of us wear crosses to display our Christian faith, we don’t like to dwell on their actual significance. While we are inspired by the miracle of Jesus’s resurrection, we don’t always fully appreciate that he sacrificed himself and forgave those who betrayed him in order to give us everlasting life in heaven.
Now I am not recommending that we turn Easter into a federal holiday or that film-makers suddenly launch a crop of films set at Easter. However, I am asking that we think about why the crucifixion makes us so uneasy. I believe it is because we don’t like admitting that we all have at one time or another betrayed the people who we love. We all also have at one time or another put our needs before those of our loved ones and neighbors. We need to accept that we have done these things for our own 30 pieces of silver. We need to ask forgiveness for “our trespasses and forgive those who have trespassed against us.” It is only when we are able to get past our own egos to acknowledge the truth about our failings and to forgive the failings of others that we can move forward to truly love others as Jesus loved us.