The A.V. Club loves the holiday season, and we also love opening small doors in paintings of Santa Claus and pulling out stale chocolate the manufacturer couldn’t sell four years ago, then eating it and pretending we’re having a good time. We’ve found a way to combine those things with our love of pop culture, and we’re hoping you’ll join us through the holiday to open one of our virtual doors and find out which holiday-themed entertainment we’re covering that day. We’ve got the usual suspects, some of the worst specials, and some surprises for you, and we’re hoping you’ll join us every day to get in the holiday spirit. This week’s theme: the holidays where you least expect them.
I don’t celebrate Christmas anymore. But when I was around 10, I was insane about Christmas, although I am not Christian in the slightest. There is no Hindu holiday even remotely close to Christmas, either—Diwali is a lot like it, but few other kids at my private, Episcopalian elementary school in Florida knew what that was about. (I came into school with the traditional red dot on my forehead, and one of the other kids in my class asked if it was a ritual application of blood.) I took that alienation hard, especially because around Christmas time we would spend school days making gingerbread houses with milk cartons or practicing carols to sing in the winter concert. It wasn’t quite clear to me how gingerbread houses were part of the story of Jesus or how they weren’t somehow part of my religion. I reasoned that not only were these activities fun, everyone else partook, so why couldn’t we?
I learned how to make Christmas cookies. I decorated with tinsel and ornaments. I got a new topper for the Christmas tree. I relegated ornaments that looked “ugly”—the old plastic ornaments that came from daycare, with a picture of me in a Santa hat when I was two—to a box. There would be no ugliness or mismatching in my Christmas and no feeling left out and confused—not this year.
When I was in high school, I gave up on the idea of Christmas, bitter at my discovery that going through the motions doesn’t actually result in initiation into the dominant culture. Yet Christmas remained an unavoidable holiday, and I found it was best spent watching movies and ignoring one’s parents for as long as possible. That’s when Love Actually came into my life.
Every time it ends, I wish it wouldn’t. I want the music to keep playing. I want the stories to keep unfolding. I want to live inside the warm, loving, and occasionally tragic world of the film, where not everyone gets a happy ending. Love Actually is the only film that brings me Christmas spirit—a modern, urban kind of festivity, but one that makes my heart warm like no stories of Santa or nutcrackers really can.
The ensemble piece was written and directed by British romantic-comedy veteran Richard Curtis, who was behind Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’ Diary, and Four Weddings And A Funeral—three films notable for their humor and for pairing their settings well with their romantic plotlines. Curtis loves light, funny romances, but he also pays enough attention to the details of his films that even if they’re superficial, they’re consistently fun.
Other filmmakers have attempted to make the big holiday-ensemble movie work after the success of Love, Actually, with both Valentine’s Day and New Years’ Eve trying to lock down a piece of the same territory. Both are atrocious, which only underscores Love Actually’s achievement. Curtis’ movie might look like a film that was successful because of a huge cast of well-known actors and the focus on a central holiday. But if anything, those two elements are nearly irrelevant to its success. There are so many characters that the film veers toward the unwieldy. And what’s remarkable about Love Actually is that it’s barely about Christmas. The holiday itself is mostly just the backdrop for the characters, who are all performing holiday rituals without seeming to be that invested in them. There’s the kids’ nativity play, and the office party, and all that shopping for presents. But more than anything, there is a certain mood in the air. It’s chilly, and the lights are twinkling in the early evenings, and everyone has a little more time on their hands. Curtis is making a warm, sweet comedy in which a bunch of people briefly feel that they are the stars of their own romantic dramas, in the midst of a London bustling with life and energy as it trips toward Christmas. In Love Actually, Christmas is something celebrated in airport terminals and cold sidewalks. It’s an urban, all-encompassing holiday that touches everyone.
If that sounds cheesy, it’s because it is. The plot is pure sap, from 11-year-old Sam’s declaration of love to the bilingual, lost-in-translation romance between Colin Firth’s character, Jamie, and his Portuguese-speaking maid. The score is so optimistic and sweeping that it’s easy to get lost in the undiluted soaring triumph of it all. There’s a stubborn cheer to the film that is at times maddening, coupled with some frustrating assumptions about women and an extremely white cast. This is a film that focuses on the Christmases that only a few people in the world can comfortably afford and enjoy, and it makes no effort to get into that at all.
But it still feels like magic. Part of that is the generous lighting, which bathes everything in a festive, warm glow. Part of that is the musical direction, which alternates that rich score with charming covers of pop Christmas carols. It’s a fantasy of warmth, togetherness, humor, and drama, precipitated by this huge, shared national hallucination called a “holiday” that gives people a few days off of work. There’s a sense of potential and joy that comes out of the movie—even in moments of betrayal or disappointment. Emma Thompson’s turn as Alan Rickman’s cheated-upon wife is masterful, especially with Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” threaded into the plot. She somehow manages to make even her despair a source of love, and her story is a needed grace note of sadness to set against the many other happy couples in the film.
Love Actually endures for me as a Christmas classic because it’s not really about Christmas—and my Christmas isn’t really about Christmas, either. It’s about the world I live in being lit up with color and joy and music for a month or so, as we all eat cookies and make Amazon wish lists. But just because I don’t have a connection to the religious elements of the holiday doesn’t mean I can’t have a little piece of the Christmas in Love Actually. It’s secular, but not self-importantly so. Instead, it’s just excited. The film overflows with a spirit of joy that arises equally from gags with porn stand-ins and political meetings with the prime minister. And its form of festive cheer is broad and cosmopolitan in its odd way. If Christmas finds a horny delivery man, a washed-out rock star, a 10-year-old professional singer, Claudia Schiffer, and a cubicle worker with a crush that has consumed her life—then why not me?
Monday: When a ’90s pop icon got together with friends for an arch TV special.