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The Chronic Capitalism of Christmas Movies

The way Christmas movies tell it, the generosity of individual tycoons is sufficient to mitigate the harms of class inequality.
Alastair Sim in Scrooge, 1951.

Alastair Sim in Scrooge, 1951.

Since the first Christmas movie, Santa Claus, debuted in 1898, hundreds of entries in the genre have appeared on screens big and small, making Christmas films a central part of the holiday's modern observance. Christmas is still a religious holy day for many who celebrate it, but December 25th has largely been co-opted by the ever-powerful force of consumerism, and capitalism more broadly. Popular Christmas movies, too, tend to deal with money, including classics such as It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol (based on the novel by Charles Dickens), as well as low-budget flicks such as Netflix's new Christmas movies: The Christmas Prince and Christmas Inheritance.

In Christmas movies, audiences can bank on heartwarming plots where grouches become kind and misers become charitable. But Christmas movies also tend to reinforce the myth of the "good capitalist," favoring stories about individual virtue over any real social change. The way Christmas movies tell it, the generosity of individuals is sufficient to mitigate the harms of class inequality.

Money is at the heart of Netflix's 2017 Christmas offerings. The Christmas Prince, as the title indicates, is about a royal family in the fictional nation of Aldovia. The plot is only casually related to the Christmas holiday, but it's replete with Christmas movie tropes about stuffy rich people becoming soft-hearted. The equally unsubtly titled Christmas Inheritance tells the tale of a clueless heiress who must prove to her rich parents that she's not helpless at Christmastime. In each movie, as is typical for the genre, the wealthy main characters learn an unexpected lesson about themselves and become more generous people. These new movies also borrow liberally from Dickens' A Christmas Carol, in the true December spirit.

A Christmas Carol—the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his encounters with the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future—on one level appears to contain a critique of class inequality. At the start of the story (which has been made into a film numerous times), Scrooge, a name that is now synonymous with miserliness, is visited by the terrifying ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, who warns Scrooge that, if he remains cruel and ungiving on Earth, he will be fittingly tormented in the afterlife. After being frightened practically to death by a supernatural tour through his past, Scrooge softens up and decides to provide a Christmas goose for his impoverished employee, Bob Cratchit, and his family.

The story critically depicts an evil boss and the effects of low wages on poor families, and contains an argument against greed. Still, the narrative does nothing to call the source of all this inequality into question. The hierarchy between Cratchit and Scrooge (the poor and the rich) remains through the end, and the audience is meant to believe that bosses and other capitalists can be rendered "good" merely by providing an adequate meal and a day off for Christmas. The true message of A Christmas Carol is that misers, such as Scrooge, can easily be transformed into virtuous capitalists merely by showing a shred of generosity.

Examples of the fabled good capitalist abound in the real world, and they're usually called philanthropists. Microsoft founder Bill Gates, perhaps the ultimate philanthropist, is worth over $90 billion, and, between 1994 and 2016, he and his wife Melinda gave $31.1 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But before he transformed into the "Philanthropy King," Gates was widely loathed and seen as evil. Now, even though Gates is one of the richest people in the world, making exponentially more money than the workers who create the products that have made him rich, he's propped up as a model citizen for having parted with some of his wealth. While the charity of the very wealthy can help meet some needs of the poor, charity does not address the larger system that allows a fortunate few to amass billions of dollars while others are homeless and can't afford health care. Gates remains king while others starve, and so it is with Scrooge and his gift goose.

Still, the message of individual virtue among the wealthy, divorced from the larger systems that contribute to economic inequality, has proven an enduring Christmas movie motif. Stories of cruel and greedy bosses are particularly common. Consider the 1989 comedy National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. Set in the Chicago suburbs, Christmas Vacation tells the story of Clark Griswold (played by Chevy Chase), a middle-class family man who is anxiously awaiting the arrival of his Christmas bonus check. Clark doesn't need the extra cash to pay bills; rather, he's eager to install a swimming pool–not coincidentally a marker of class status in the Midwest. Little does Clark know that his check isn't coming: His boss canceled Christmas bonuses.

The audience is supposed to hate the greedy boss and empathize with Clark, but Griswold is hardly a sympathetic working-class hero. A few weeks out from Christmas, the Griswolds' home is crashed by Eddie, the crass, oblivious, and unemployed cousin of Clark's wife. Eddie's family is broke and lives in a ramshackle RV, and while Clark offers to buy Christmas presents for Eddie's kids, he is judgmental and standoffish, barely masking his disdain for Eddie. The unequal relationships between Clark and his boss, and further between Clark and Eddie, illustrate several layers of class conflict. Clark's boss unfairly chops Clark's bonus (which Clark doesn't really need but wants so that he can afford additional luxuries), while Eddie doesn't have any income or a stable home. Middle-class Clark gets his bonus in the end, but Eddie must return to his RV, still broke and without a job.

Still, there are some movies in the genre that explicitly address the ills of capitalism, even if there's no workers' revolution by the end. Take the 1996 Christmas comedy Jingle All the Way, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as the workaholic businessman, dad, and husband Howard Langston, and Sinbad as a postal worker and dad named Myron Larabee. The movie centers around Howard and Myron's pursuit of an impossible-to-find toy for their sons for Christmas—a typical consumer-driven plot, and an illustration of the competition between the middle and working classes. Beyond the antagonistic relationship between the white- and blue-collar workers, there is at least one moment of class enlightenment in Jingle All the Way that points to both class inequalities and the perils of Christmastime consumerism.

When the two men first meet in line outside a busy toy store on Christmas Eve, Myron tells Howard: "We are being set up by rich and powerful toy cartels. You got these big fat cats sit[ting] there using working-class [people] just like me and you!" Even though the two are waiting in the freezing cold with a frenzied crowd of last-minute shoppers, it's Myron's comment that's made to seem hysterical. Myron's point about corporations manufacturing consumer desire and taking advantage of working-class people is spot-on, but the message is lost in the men's over-the-top competition over the coveted toy.

There's also the story of George Bailey and his family in Frank Capra's 1946 It's a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart as George. The Bailey family seems to straddle the lower and middle classes, struggling to make ends meet. George, who runs his dad's building and loan that services the town's poor, is pitted against Mr. Potter, a villainous housing developer who sells shoddy housing in the town of Bedford Falls. Running into serious money troubles at work, George becomes desperate and nearly kills himself on Christmas Eve, but is saved by an angel. After George is given the supernatural ability to see the positive contributions he has made in his family and community, George's friends come to his aid, pooling together enough money to bail out George's business, and the townspeople who depend on him.

George and his working-class friends don't exactly overthrow Potter's housing empire, but they do team up to keep George's business and family afloat. Like many Christmas films, It's a Wonderful Life centers around the personal development of an individual man, but at the end it's a caring and close-knit community that saves the day in Bedford Falls—not a lone, wealthy hero.

Of course, nobody expects a movie about Christmas to depict workers unionizing, overthrowing their bosses, and taking on capitalism through righteous struggle. Most people aren't necessarily looking for that in real life, either. The general population is only recently growing critical of capitalism in large numbers. There's a growing sense of unease about gaping economic equality, but most Christmas movies still attempt to soothe our fears and reinforce belief in the system.

In this way, the tales of Ebenezer Scrooge, Clark Griswold, Howard Langston, and George Bailey are an approximate reflection of our society's view of capitalism: a general acknowledgment that the system is harmful to many, alongside the magical belief that those who benefit most can and will render society more equal by bestowing the occasional trinket.