Elf, and the case for Secular Christmas

For me, Christmas has always been entirely secular. And yes, I get that it has “Christ” right in the name. Most of the Christmas traditions I practice (tree decorating, gift giving) actually predate Christianity, but I’m not Pagan either. And although I have some pretty significant bones to pick with religion in general, I will tell you this: I love me some frickin’ Christmas. I firmly believe that every movie should end with saving Christmas, because I get choked up every single time (seriously, when they saved Christmas on Glee the other week, I damn near burst into tears). Clearly, there’s some powerful holiday juju at work here.

So where does my love of Christmas even come from? Popular culture, I suppose, and a steady diet of stop-motion animated specials at a young and impressionable age. And of course it’s all tied up with cherished memories of anticipation and presents and weeks off from school, but Christmas also genuinely taught me the joy of giving. The day may not be “holy” in the sense that I believe some all-powerful being harbors any particular opinion about it, but I revere it anyway. Because as a society we’ve come together to say that we value kindness, generosity and peace, and this is the time of year we’re going to celebrate those things. Sure, the world would be a better place if we cared about that stuff for more than about a week and a half in December, but pausing once a year to recognize it is better than nothing. And I for one am damn glad that we do.

All of this is kind of a roundabout way to explain what I came here to talk about today: My favorite Christmas movie is Elf. I love it unconditionally, and without the tiniest glimmer of irony.

If you’ve never seen it, Elf is the story of Buddy, a human being raised since infancy among the elves of Santa’s workshop, who has an existential crisis around the age of 30 when he realizes that his height, baritone and general toymaking ineptitude mean he really isn’t like the other elves. So he goes off to New York City to find his real father, and of course holiday hijinks ensue. The story isn’t meant to be profound here. In fact, most plot points consist if literally two beats. Santa’s sleigh runs on Christmas Spirit — oh no, there isn’t enough spirit to make the sleigh fly! I’d never sing in public — oh no, to save Christmas I have to sing in public! Even the main dramatic arc about Buddy’s father slowly accepting him and realizing that he’s been a douche is pretty much tacked on.

So if the all of that is just frosting, what’s even left to function as the movie’s cake? Will Farrell, my friends, running around New York in yellow tights loving the LIVING SHIT out of Christmas. I’m going to echo Alyx here (who recently scooped me and ftE’d my single favorite Will Farrell movie, Stranger Than Fiction), and say that whatever Farrell does, he absolutely SELLS it. The man is a national treasure. He manages to take Buddy the Elf and elevate him above the sight gag, into something truly hilarious and delightful. Elf is also the movie that introduced me to Zooey Deschanel, and she’s pretty freakin’ adorable — she had yet to settle into her manic pixie dreamgirl schtick, and it’s nice to see her play (early on, anyway) kind of a cynical hard ass. Plus, Ed Asner is my all-time favorite Santa Claus, not to mention one you wouldn’t want to run into in a dark alley with a tire iron.

In a way, Elf is the ultimate expression of Secular Christmas. It celebrates all the trappings of the holiday that don’t have anything to do with religion (in fact, I would argue that having non-denominational symbols like Santa and reindeer and trees to focus on are what has allowed Christmas to permeate our culture to the degree that it has, anyway). But more importantly, it’s a celebration of joy. This is kid-in-a-candy-store Christmas, and if you open up your heart to it (your religious, spiritual, or even shriveled little atheist heart), you’ll remember why it’s worth celebrating to begin with.

Peace out. And (you know, whatever) bless us, every one.

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Matt Youngmark is the author of Zombocalypse Now, a full-length zombie choose-your-own-ending novel (for grownups!) from Chooseomatic Books. Back in the day, he worked the newsprint mines at Tacoma Reporter and Pandemonium Magazine

5 Responses to “Elf, and the case for Secular Christmas”

  1. Melodie says:

    After my sister saw this for the first time, she re-enacted the moment when Buddy first sees that department store Santa, about 27,000,000 times. And she’s an adult, and she hadn’t been drinking.

    A classic, it is.

  2. kormantic says:

    Zooey has some set of pipes on her, I’ve got to say. Her little duet with Will is adorable.

    My favorite scene is where Buddy grabs the phone in his dad’s office, “Buddy the Elf speaking. What’s your favorite color?” His manic glee is totally genuine.

  3. Penni says:

    Don’t forget Bob Newhart as Papa Elf. He’s amazing and I just don’t see enough of him these days.

  4. Jenn Leonard says:

    Love this movie! Also, Zooey Deschanel, if you haven’t already, check her out in the Wizard of Oz remake. Maybe you can find it on Netflix or something. Anyway, it’s pretty awesome in a creepy, bad Sci-Fi sort of way.

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