Why is singing in Christmas movies so sad?

According to one of the many often-cited lines of the modern vacation classic Elf, the best way to spread the joy of Christmas is to sing loudly so that everyone can hear it. It’s also, for some reason, one of the best ways to reduce me to tears.

I am not, in general, a great cinema crier. Personally, I prefer to keep my irrational tears to cry drunk on the floor of club toilets or to cry quietly in the subway. But give me a bunch of characters in a Christmas movie who come together to sing in unison at a climax of the movie, and tears flow freely.

This trope is relatively common, appearing in a handful of notable Christmas classics. It is present in Elf, when Zooey Deschanel’s character conducts “spontaneous Christmas carols” in Central Park, but this particular brand of Christmas movie carol has a precedent in much older holiday classics like the original How the Grinch stole Christmas, released in 1966, and that of the previous year A Charlie Brown Christmas.

It’s important to note that the trope I’m talking about – and its ability to melt my cold, icy heart as Kris Kringle serenades the Winter Warlock in Santa Claus is coming to town – not only applicable all song that happens in a Christmas movie. In fact, that doesn’t even apply to Kris Kringle serenading the Winter Warlock, so forget what I just said. Christmas movies are full of carols; if every musical number of every Rankin & Bass holiday movie in Hallmark made me cry, I would just be an exceptionally moved person. Christmas music.

It turns out that the particular brand of Christmas movie carol I’m talking about and its tear-tear ability has a lot less to do with song or singing than with the song or song. the context in which the song takes place. The songs themselves are often banal Christmas carols with repetitive and sometimes even meaningless lyrics; the song is almost inevitably of poor quality, interpreted by a band of amateurs gathered at random. But these are fans who have all been moved by the true meaning of Christmas itself, and it’s both heartwarming and, in my opinion, very sad.

There are few specific criteria that separate this trope from the rest of the singing that tends to occur in Christmas movies:

1. Singing should take place in a group

No solo acts. Buddy the elf sings screaming “I am in a store and I sing, although spontaneous, does not count.

2. The characters should be aware that they are singing

This excludes most of the group acts that take place in your standard musical, in which the songs are typically a storytelling device rather than a plot point occurring in the narrative itself. In the sad song of a Christmas movie as I defined it, the audience and the characters are aware that the song is occurring. These characters know they sing (like everyone around them), and they sing for a raison – usually one that has something to do with the Christmas spirit.

3. Singing must be spontaneous

No Christmas pageant scenes or otherwise planned performances count. This kind of song must be inspired by a divine act of the Christmas Spirit. An exception is the Grumpy, in which we are told that the Whos’ Christmas morning salute is an annual event. But while this particular musical display may not technically being spontaneous, the Grinch certainly wasn’t expecting it, and it always feels more like an outpouring of common emotion than a planned performance.

4. The vocals occur around the climax of the film (and often play a vital role in the resolution)

Not only does singing exist in the world of storytelling, rather than just as a structure for storytelling, but it often functions as a crucial plot device that drives the resolution (and generally the true meaning of Christmas) home. The singing that takes place in these films is often found to possess magical qualities, making believers the Christmas cynics and generally saving the holidays in the process, which leads us to …

5. There is a cynical stranger who resists first, then joins in spontaneous singing

For context, here are some notable examples of the trope at work:

Elf (2003)

Who sings ? Everyone in Central Park, in particular – and, it seems, most important – Walter Hobbs. We’re led to believe that almost everyone who watches NY1 is joining us as well.

The song: Santa Claus is coming to town

Why? Buddy the Elf’s Human Lover Jovie, played by a very blonde Zooey Deschanel, takes a page from Buddy’s Elven Wisdom Book and leads a brave mass Christmas carol in an effort to spark enough Christmas cheer for take off Santa’s sleigh.

What does this accomplish? A resurgence of Christmas cheer fueled by songwriting helps Santa’s sleigh take to the skies to narrowly escape the Central Park Rangers, but only after Buddy’s workaholic father embraces the Christmas spirit and pulls himself away. attached to him.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

Who sings ? All the Who in Whoville, young and old.

The song: Welcome Christmas (aka Fahoo Fores)

Why? Because that’s what the Whos do on Christmas, and despite the Grinch’s best efforts to stop it, Christmas has arrived, just the same.

What does this accomplish? The Whos’ collective outburst of merry chants in the face of their stolen vacation makes the Grinch’s tiny heart three sizes bigger, giving him both the physical and moral courage to save Christmas and join the Whos in a celebratory song.


A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Who sings ? Lucy, Linus, and the rest of the Christmas Pageant cast, who spent most of the movie bullying Charlie Brown.

The song: Listen ! The herald angels sing

Why? Not clear, honestly. After quickly revamping the branch of Charlie Brown, the group begins to buzz for no apparent reason. When a bewildered Chuck arrives on the scene to demand answers, his bullies simply shout a warm Christmas greeting at him before they begin to sing along.

What does this accomplish? Also unclear, and to be fair, this might be the weakest example of the trope (although perhaps the The saddest?). The vocals itself doesn’t seem to do much other than lead to the credits, and while the tree’s transformation is simply miraculous, it seems to be the result of the magic of the cartoon, rather than the song-induced Christmas magic. That said, the gesture seems to win Charlie Brown, and he ends up joining us, signaling that all has been forgiven and that Chuck has now been accepted by his peers – until the next holiday special, of course.

Obviously, the writers who chose to use this trope knew it had narrative power, and they had the formula thoroughly. But what makes him so sad? Why can’t I watch a group of characters sing together in a spontaneous Christmas spirit surge without crying? What loose thread of my broken soul does this trope pull and why?

As someone who doesn’t do well in groups and often actively resists identification within a community, my heartbreaking affection for those musical bonding moments on screen has always been a subject of confusion. At times in my life, I even imagined myself more as a Grinch. As a depressed student, I remember staring out of my single dorm window at all of my classmates as they invariably flooded the green campus on the unusually warm first day of late winter, lying in shorts and trying to sunbathe under a distant sun still. Sometimes I imagined myself as some sort of Spring Grinch, despising my peers from my lonely perch like, “These idiots, don’t they know that life is meaningless and that they should be depressed out there. inside? “

As the writer of the recent Christmas film Karen Schaler Recount the Washington post, screenwriters know audiences crave emotions that are denied to them in real life. Am I drawn to these on-screen moments of togetherness because I identify with the stranger and yearn for its ultimate acceptance in the cult of Christmas cheer? Do I cry on these stages because spontaneous and simultaneous singing demands a level of communion with one’s neighbor that I have rarely allowed myself?

Interestingly, the lone stranger who ends up joining the spontaneous Christmas carols in the examples above is still an ultimately likable character – he’s often even the protagonist. We are generally called to identify with him more than with his effortless and blissful fellow singers. Perhaps, on some level, we are all cynical strangers desperate to be welcomed into the musical embrace of mass Christmas cheer.

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