Cultural Christmas guide - Charles Dickens to Coldplay
If summoning up Christmas spirit is proving a struggle, then a good festive film usually does the trick. And there's no better place to start than It's a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra's 1946 masterpiece starring James Stewart. The premise initially appears rather grim - depressed businessman George Bailey (Stewart) is preparing to end his life by jumping into a freezing river on Christmas Eve. But in the nick of time, an angel (Henry Travers) appears, and the pair embark on a journey through Bailey's life, exploring how worthwhile, important and, yes, wonderful his existence truly is. Witty, moving and probably the archetypal Christmas movie.
And if that doesn't kick the festivities off, a proper, feel-good singalong (roaring log fire optional) is a sturdy back-up. White Christmas from 1954 is a home-banker, if only for the last 10 minutes, when Bing Crosby sings the perennial classic. An even better all-rounder is Meet Me in St Louis, the 1944 musical starring Judy Garland. The point at which she mournfully sings Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, as the family prepare to leave for New York, is unbearably sad... but don't worry, it all ends well.
Christmas films don't all have to be warm-hearted classics from the mid-20th century, though. For proper, slapstick fun, Home Alone is a perennial favourite - cute Macaulay Culkin is unwittingly left behind to deal with burglars as his family travels to celebrate Christmas in Paris. The follow-up, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, is just as entertaining. In fact, the director of Home Alone, Chris Columbus, also scripted Gremlins - and it's often forgotten that this hilariously funny fairy-tale horror featuring mischievous monsters is actually a Christmas movie, the plot revolving around a present given by a mad inventor to his son, which causes havoc in the streets.
If the pulse needs calming after all that action, then head for simpler charms: the gorgeous animated adaptation of Raymond Briggs' The Snowman. Wordless, except for the hugely redolent song Walking in the Air, it's just the most beautiful evocation of the season.
You know it's Christmas when... Wham's wholly depressing Last Christmas is piped through the public address system of seemingly every shop in the known world. Ditto Paul McCartney's Wonderful Christmas Time and The Jackson Five's I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus - the sheer ubiquity of these festive ditties makes them among the most irritating songs in pop's broad canon.
Still, there are some classics that don't incur Scrooge-like tendencies. We've discussed White Christmas's status as a classic film, but Bing Crosby's heartwarming 1942 single stands alone, too, the best-selling song ever. Another good year - for a rock'n'roll Christmas - was 1973 when Slade's glam-rock celebration Merry Christmas Everybody battled with Wizzard's raucous I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday for the top slot in the charts. Slade won, but you could say the real victor was any DJ ever since who has been desperate to fill the dance floor at the office Christmas party.
But generally, if you want to create your own soundtrack to the season, it's wise to head for interesting takes on classics, or evocative new songs with a festive spirit to them. Coldplay's new song, Christmas Lights, is a twinkly delight with a realist message. Elsewhere, The Killers record a Christmas song every year for charity, and this year's slightly melancholy effort, Boots, actually name-checks It's A Wonderful Life. But a song a year looks positively miserly compared with feted indie singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens. He likes Christmas so much, he released a - we kid you not - five-CD set of festive songs in 2006. The quality varies from the twee to the triumphant but there are songs here that make a worthy addition to any Christmas playlist. And for an under-the-radar treat, the London folk band 6 Day Riot's beautifully understated version of The Pretenders' festive hit 2000 Miles is available now as a free download from their website. Play this, and there won't be a dry eye in the house.
But it's the song that has cleverly straddled both the alternative and the mainstream that has become without a doubt the best Christmas tune. The Pogues' Fairytale of New York is, somehow, both sad and optimistic, ragged and lavish - a romantic folk ditty that is now a modern classic.
A literary Christmas begins and, in some ways, ends, with Charles Dickens's 1843 novella A Christmas Carol. This near-perfect tale of Ebenezer Scrooge's enlightenment essentially reinvented the festive season into the season of love, charity and goodwill to all men that we recognise today. Every seasonal opus since has in some way been indebted to A Christmas Carol, riffing on the same idea that Christmas should be a time for family and friends to gather and be merry.
Of course, it doesn't always work out that way, which is why, if you're looking for a more modern, acerbic view of Christmas, then Jonathan Franzen's brilliant novel from 2001, The Corrections, is a great place to start. It's not a book to cheer the heart at this time of year, but there is something incredibly poignant about its premise: a mother trying to get her strange, dysfunctional family back together for one last Christmas.
But Christmas is really about children. It certainly evokes nostalgia for the wide-eyed, excited kid in all of us. Which is why CS Lewis's 1949 classic The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is a lovely read for all ages at this time of year. When the White Witch icily pronounces, "Always winter and never Christmas; think of that!" it's difficult not to start your own chorus of disapproval.
On stage, Christmas is synonymous with The Nutcracker for ballet fans, and adaptations of A Christmas Carol are usually thought-provokingly entertaining. But essentially, it's all about the pantomime at this time of year. Which is why a trip to see Aladdin in Dubai is highly recommended. Oh yes it is.
Updated: December 23, 2010 04:00 AM