For a long time I always tried to spend Christmas with people, because society says that’s what you do at Christmas and if you’re not doing this then you must be a sad, lonely bachelor eating beans on toast for Christmas lunch and wishing your life was a bit less depressing than the Eastenders Christmas Special.
Eventually, though, after a few years of intolerable winter travelling and holiday stress, I decided: I was in my thirties, single, childless and every one of my neighbours was away; I was going to own Christmas for a change. The only way I was going to succeed in wishing goodwill to all was by staying the fuck away from all for the duration. This would be my Christmas tradition: I was going to sit down and watch films from Christmas Eve all the way to the end of Boxing Day, alone and with enough scheduled entertainment to distract myself from the soul-deadening reality that this was a pretty depressing thing to be doing, all things considered.
I don’t just watch films at random, though, I keep each of the three days vaguely themed to help give me some structure and focus. Christmas Eve always begins with The Muppet Christmas Carol, the one entry in the canon that won’t be changed, a bit like how Alan Davies is always on QI, but obviously much, much funnier. The annual watching of The Muppet Christmas Carol is made slightly complicated by the fact that every available release of the film has cut out Belle’s song When Love Is Gone, which means at a key point I have to pause the film, switch to YouTube and watch the VHS-ripped song there, then continue with the film. It’s a pivotal song! It’s the moment that Scrooge’s fate is sealed, the moment at which his true love heartbreakingly leaves him because she can see that he’s withered away inside, etc. etc.
The song’s absence makes me cross every time, but the theme for Christmas Eve is not ‘films that have been butchered and leave me raging impotently against the TV’, but simply ‘Christmas’. Anything with a Christmas theme or setting is a candidate to being viewed on Christmas Eve, to get me as much into the Christmas spirit as I dare without getting weird about it. Thus Bad Santa, Gremlins, Die Hard, Rise of the Guardians, Arthur Christmas. An appreciation of Shane Black films is useful here, allowing for Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and even Iron Man 3. I’m flexible, though; last year included The Company of Wolves which has nothing to do with Christmas but has a wintery feel to it that counted for a lot.
For Christmas Day, the theme is essentially just ‘Pulp’. This is even more flexible than the ‘Christmas’ theme because the only guiding principle is ‘could this be plausibly shown as part of a Saturday matinée double bill?’, e.g. Indiana Jones, The Rocketeer, Dick Tracy, Bugsy Malone, Cocoon, *batteries not included, Flight of the Navigator; this is the point at which it should be obvious that I’m a child of the ‘80s. Christmas Day is ideally for Spielberg, Zemeckis and Dante, but anyone’s welcome if they can show good intentions and a bit of animated Disney doesn’t go amiss as well, particularly with no distracting children running around trying to make the day all about them.
Finally, Boxing Day is dedicated to the theme of ‘old films, especially David Lean epics’. The Great Escape, Bridge Over the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago, The Guns of Navarone, A Passage to India, The Dam Busters with the hilarious racist dog. The key here is long and slow, but not long and slow in a contemporary way where the story is stretched transparently-thin across a fat special effect stomach. The epics of the ‘50s earned every frame, and the vibe of Boxing Day becomes ‘quietly eat leftovers and fall into films that you never want to end’.
With a bit of discipline and an occasional stretch to keep off the deep vein thrombosis I usually get through 12 to 15 films over three days. I keep a longlist of films handy and start whittling down to a shortlist when December hits, making sure there isn’t too much repetition of tone or genre, trying to get a good mixture of films I’ve seen and films I haven’t, trying to get at least one James Bond film in the mix even though most Bond films are terrible, and I regret watching most of them in the same way that I regret a filthy deep-fried takeaway about halfway through. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the one Bond film that fits into the ‘Christmas’, ‘Pulp’ and ‘Old’ themes, but Roger Moore has no business appearing on Christmas Eve and Dalton and Brosnan only really fit in on Christmas Day. I’ve no time for either the smug misogyny of Sean Connery nor the joyless slogs of Daniel Craig.
The rules get more complicated the closer I get to Christmas and it all gets a bit High Fidelity towards the end, but that’s probably why I enjoy it so much, and I’m sure it’ll come in handy one day when I decide to run my own film festival. And why is ‘beans on toast for Christmas lunch’ the shorthand for a sad, lonely, bachelor existence anyway? Some good thick toast, decent salted butter, piping hot beans — who doesn’t love that?