Thursday, December 1, 2011

Arthur Christmas & the Author of Christmas

Contemporary Christmas films always seem to lack something, it's as if they fall prey to the very same hustle and bustle they claim they want to banish from Christmas; since these films exist only to make money, they compound the problem instead of reminding us of something we all ready know, but forget, every year. It's easy for anyone to miss the meaning of the season, but what's even more challenging is to invoke the sacramental purpose of the season, and I am very pleased to say, that this little animated film called Arthur Christmas, actually does that.
Arthur Christmas, the younger of two sons of Santa Claus. The reason I was reluctant to see the film is one, contemporary Christmas films are just usually bad and, two, in Arthur's clumsiness, he seems to embody that "cult of mediocrity" which alarms me so much: it's better to be mediocre and make fun of it than to strive to be a hero and not make it. It's Arthur's clumsiness, however, that makes him human so he can exercise that heroic virtue of love. Because Arthur knows what it's like being left-out, he won't let that happen to Gwen, something his older brother Steve doesn't understand.
I enjoyed watching the film so much, I actually forgot to take notes. Here is a quick synopsis: there have been generations of Santas, beginning with St. Nicholas, and each had a son who carried on the tradition, coming to the current Santa. His father, Grandsanta, was "asked" to retire after he was seen flying during the Cuban Missile Crisis, nearly causing World War III. Santa has two sons, the efficient Steve who assumes he will become the new Santa after this "Mission: Christmas" is over, and the younger, awkward son, Arthur, who messes up everything and works in the letters department. After the big Christmas Eve is over, an elf in charge of clean-up, Byrony, finds a present that wasn't delivered, to little Gwen in Cornwall, England. Steve convinces Santa not to bother with it, but Arthur is devastated a child will be forgotten, so Arthur and Grandsanta take the old sleigh out and attempt to deliver the present to Gwen before Christmas morning.
Steve Christmas, the assumed successor to Santa and older brother to Arthur, in Mission Control. Steve created the S-1, the Star Trek-esque spaceship taking Santa and thousands of elves all over the world on Christmas Eve to deliver the presents. What Steve has in efficiency and organizing, he lacks in sentiment, emotion and, basically, humanity.
The most important characteristic of Arthur Christmas, that quality which sets it apart from other contemporary films is the "old sleigh" which is brought out to deliver the bike to Gwen. The sleigh is named "Eve," and that literally brings out the old meaning of Christmas: Eve is the vehicle of the birth of Christ, the reason for why we have Christmas; because of the sin of Eve and Adam, God took on the form of human flesh to lead us out of the darkness of sin and into the light of salvation. Eve is literally the vehicle of Christmas, and the reason for our joy; it's not just that Christ was born and walked amongst us, it's that he took on our flesh to pay our debt, it's that God loves us. Just as Arthur goes through all his mis-adventures for the sake of one child, so Jesus Christ went through his life-long suffering for you, for me.
Grandsanta, Byrony the elf and Arthur in the sleigh Eve as they discover they are lost in the Serengeti in Africa. It's interesting they should "get lost here," because according to science, this is the general area where the biological "Eve," the common DNA ancestor of all women, originated and lived. So, in effect, they are not lost, they are making a "round-trip" of Christmas history, the reason why Christmas exists and why we need it. They discover they are in a totally barren wilderness with man-eating lions who attack them and, without Christmas, that's exactly what the world would have become: the desert, as a symbol for our souls, would be barren, no life-giving grace anywhere, and the lions would be the evils of the world set upon our souls to devour us eternally.
There are two additional features making this sleigh special.
First, it's made from different types of wood and those different woods symbolize the wood of the Tree of Knowledge where the Forbidden Fruit was, the wood of Noah's Ark, the wood Isaac carried up the mountain to burn for the sacrifice to God, and the Wood of the Cross upon which Jesus Christ died. The other characteristic is that it can camouflage itself: as the sleigh flies through the night, it can wrap itself in the guise of a train, or house, or even a flying saucer. Throughout history, the mysterious Economy of Salvation has been pleased to wrap itself up in different symbols and messages, but just as Christ taught in parables so we might understand, so he gives us the different meanings by which we can come, each year, to a deeper and more fruitful understanding of what Christmas is and means. But it can also be "wrapped up" to the point that it becomes "alien" to us, and we no longer know what it means.
Inside Evie, the old sleigh.
The old sleigh Eve has suffered being packed away and the last time Grandsanta Claus flew it was during the Cuban Missile Crisis. What's interesting is, Arthur and GrandsantaArthur Christmas: radar sees the sled and attacks the sleigh. Some international agency in charge of protecting the skies blows up the sleigh and then announces, "We have saved Christmas," and they genuinely believe that by taking Eve, the debt of sin and Christ out of Christmas they have saved it for the retailers so that non-Christians can enjoy Christmas, too and that just happens to destroy it for Christians, which is the devil's intent. By destroying Eve, the sleigh and the evidence of Original Sin, we destroy Christmas because we have no real reason to understand the gift of Christ's birth and sacrifice.
Arthur delivering Gwen's bicycle Christmas morning.
Why can Eve be blown up? Why can we go on without that symbol?
Arthur now embodies the Love that Christ's birth brought into the world, so we no longer have the debt of Original Sin, only the debt of our individual sins and the wound left by Original Sin which prompts us to commit sins. Arthur wears a green sweater throughout most of the film: green symbolizes hope and a new birth, and Arthur's devotion to "saving Christmas" for Gwen is his own Christmas present, because his mission is the vehicle for overcoming himself and his own fears (and Arthur is basically afraid of everything) to put on "the new man." In the picture above, Arthur is close to getting the bike to Gwen and he now wears a red jacket, symbolizing that self-sacrificial love that means he, and not his brother Steve, will be the new Santa for a new generation. Eve symbolized our enslavement under the Law, but Christmas symbolizes our Freedom in Christ's Love.
This clip perfectly illustrates the "war-like" approach to Christmas that has been taken by us. Santa has ducked down to avoid being seen by a child and his head rests on a toy that makes loud noises. The elf at the right, holding some super smart-phone has texted Santa, "What should we do, Sir?" and it's Steve at Mission Control in the North Pole who orders an incision be made in the package, "Go in through the robin!" so the batteries can be removed and Santa will be safe.
The film starts with a little girl, Gwen, who asks for the bike that doesn't get delivered, stating she believes in Santa, but her faith has questions and wants answers. Arthur, who works in the letters department, responds to Gwen, telling her that Santa is the most caring man in the world. In the guises of Grandsanta, Santa and Steve, are different reasons for the season, different motivations for getting Gwen the gift. Grandsanta wants to take the sleigh out one last time and get a photo of him going down the chimney and getting the gift to the forgotten child, like the old days. Santa is compelled at first to deliver the forgotten package, but is convinced that it doesn't really matter, then is swayed by the elves. Steve wants to put on his Versace Santa suit and prove that he would be a good Santa so he can get his dad to retire and get promoted.
Little Gwen putting her letter to Santa in the mail.
Why does Arthur believe it's important to get the bike to Gwen?
It's like the elves asking Santa, if one child doesn't matter, do any of them matter? Arthur, being a klutz, knows what it is like to get left out. Is it just a bike that Arthur is getting to Gwen? No, it's much deeper than that: the letter she mails off is a prayer, and she includes a picture she drew of Santa going down the chimney and getting burned by the fire. That fire is the fire of destruction to her faith if her prayer isn't answered. She wants a bike because that's a vehicle of childhood, the faith of a child to believe and grow in their faith of Christ. Gwen needs that vehicle so she won't become Eve, so she can become the woman Christ destined her to become. That's the importance of gift-giving at Christmas: the gifts which Christ wants to give to us, but which we rarely want, and that's why Christmas can be so exhausting for us: we focus on what we need to give to others instead of what Christ is wanting to give us.
The S-1, the super-sleigh used to get around the world today.
The "operations" of Christmas, the thousands of elves trained in specialized missions and package delivery with high-tech gear and capabilities make them look like Navy Seals from Mission Impossible, while Santa sits back and observes, taking the credit. It takes real genius to understand how people today, especially Christians, approach Christmas like it's a war: I've got to drag out the decorations, I've got to get all these presents, I've got to get this meal prepared, I've got to get the presents wrapped, I've got to clean up the mess from the packages being opened, I've got to clean up the mess from the dinner, I've got to put all the decorations away... yes, this is the work of the devil, because no one in their right mind can manage all that and still meditate on the Christ Child in the manger, and that's what the Devil wants, for Christmas to get lost, because then the sacrament is lost to us, and then we ourselves become lost, and we're in that barren desert with the man-eating lions and we have no way to defend ourselves.
Santa on deck in the S-1. The beret and red leather invokes the World Wars and his medals suggest great acts of heroism, but in this new "arrangement" Santa is really just a figurehead. The elves perform tremendous feats of package delivery and logistical campaigns that would make your head spin. Why the references to Star Trek and Mission Impossible? We are that which we make, and in making films like that which glorify the technological, the human gets lost. I'm not criticizing it, but I am saying it's an important lesson for all of us to remember.
But the Mission Impossible theme is quite intentional and yields a deeper meaning.
Whereas Christmas has become a battleground, Christmas is actually supposed to be our greatest weapon in our spiritual battles: this is the meaning of the season that has been turned against us. Were not supposed to be caught up in the tinsel and the trimmings, the feasting and the unwrappings, rather, we are supposed to be focused on what our trials of the year have been and where we fell short, and how Christ can help us to do better, what it is that we are called to do. The great symbol of the Christmas tree is a metaphor for our soul: are we lit up with the Love of Christ, Grace, Hope and Peace, or are we shabby sorts that haven't been trimmed (no discipline) and our branches are dark because our sins kill the life of grace we are called to have? This is the spiritual battle Christmas is supposed to aid us in fighting so we can attain that blessed state, heaven. By aping Christmas as a "war zone" and a "mission" to be "accomplished," Arthur Christmas holds up a priceless mirror of meditation in which to see ourselves and how we "author" our own Christmas.
What about Arthur's obnoxious Christmas slippers?
As you know, the feet symbolize the will, and Arthur wearing his "Christmas slippers," causes him to slip and trip all over the place, and in our own lives, we should ask us, what part of our will causes us to trip up? The slippers clearly symbolize the kitschy aspect of Christmas which Arthur loves and embraces, but as he looses the slippers, literally, he's able to take a deeper part of himself and the meaning of Christmas as his guiding force.
You just have to love her.
In conclusion, if you want to see a holiday show at the theater this season, make it Arthur Christmas: at Rotten Tomatoes, 91% of critics and 81% of audience members enjoyed the show, and I know I certainly did, and so did the little girl and her father sitting nearby me.  It's not great because of the animation, or the mirror it holds up to us so we can see how we have turned the blessed holiday into a battleground or because we can identify with Arthur and his problems: it's a great Christmas film because it reminds us of the true Author of Christmas and what His Story is, and how we fit into it. It's not the magic of Christmas we want, it's the Love of Christmas we need.