Christmas Special 2020

“Camille understood that people often wanted to erase the pain of what they’d been through, to reinvent the past and their part in it.”
-Alice Hoffman, The Marriage of Opposites

Around this time of year, we are frantically trying to buy and wrap all the perfect presents, decorate for the benefit of ourselves and guests, prepare for long-distance travel or hosting the perfect holiday party. For all the hardships and weirdness 2020 has brought, one potential silver lining is that it has served to cut through all the usual hustle and bustle and given us a moment to pause and reflect even more than we might otherwise during the twilight of the year. Case in point, we here at Superman and God have turned our thoughts to Christmas films which focus on missed opportunities and what might have been by giving their characters a chance to view or live a different life for a short while.

In early November, we were working on our time travel chapter, and we decided to start a blog both as a way to vent some of our stray creative thoughts as well as to help us better structure some of the ones that relate to the prominent themes that will appear in our upcoming book. One of these major themes is time travel, and so it's no wonder that when we started talking about Christmas movies this season, we quickly found ourselves veering in the direction of writing about ones that involve time travel or alternate dimensions. Rachel, who was actually looking for a fluffy escapist Christmas rom com, instead stumbled on a movie currently available on Netflix called A New York Christmas Wedding (Otoja Abit, 2020). It was not at all what she was expecting based on the movie poster and plot description, but she quickly became intrigued and immediately suggested to Jon that he watch it, because it touched on many of the same dilemmas and plot devices as the films we were analyzing for our book chapter.

Abit’s film involves a woman's chance to live out a life she might have had, had she made a different decision at a pivotal moment in her past. As this is a theme that has made the rounds in a number of other Christmas movies we have enjoyed, we quickly decided to write a Christmas special post, in which we will discuss that movie in some depth, and compare and contrast it to some others that have similar plot elements and lessons learned.

A New York Christmas Wedding is a recent addition to a long-standing subgenre of stories about characters who get the opportunity to see what life might have been like under different circumstances. Sometimes they live out this alternate life for a period of time, and sometimes they just watch as invisible observers.1 Usually, the experience teaches the protagonist something about how they should either take responsibility for the mistakes they've made or better appreciate experiences that they have taken for granted. In each case, it typically leads to a change in attitude and behavior for the better. And significantly, this type of film is often set around Christmastime, perhaps even specifically calling on the character to better understand the spirit of the holiday season. These stories normally do not offer the character the chance to change their past, but to better their present and future by way of reflection on the hypothetical consequences that they are allowed to witness or experience.

If this storyline sounds incredibly familiar, it's probably because - in addition to several other less widely-known stories that we'll touch on in this post - it describes Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, a story that just about everybody will know at least vaguely. The story has been adapted to stage and film countless times, and has been retold in versions ranging from The Muppet Christmas Carol to Scrooged, a movie starring Bill Murray in a contemporary adaptation of the story to a modern-day corporate setting. The list of adaptations is so long that IMDB takes three pages to catalog 234 of them. Beyond these direct adaptations of the story itself, there are a number of stories which similarly present us with characters who are offered the chance to see how their life could have unfolded differently - or in at least one case, how life might have looked for the rest of the world if he had never existed, as we see in It's a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946). The other movie that we'll analyze in depth for comparison purposes is The Family Man (Brett Ratner, 2000), but our readers will certainly recall other examples that follow a similar pattern. Spoiler alert: this article will reveal the film's endings and key plot twists, so you may wish to take a break and watch any that you haven't seen before (hopefully!) returning to read the rest of the post.

In some ways, A New York Christmas Wedding falls neatly into the formula of this film genre, but in others, it offers a thought-provoking contrast instead of merely being yet another variation on the theme. One thing all four of these movies have in common is a supernatural guide or guides of some sort, such as an angel or ghost, often one who shows up after the audience is introduced to the unhappy circumstances of the protagonist. Frequently, the film’s main character has a near-death experience which precipitates the arrival of a spirit, who offers the character the opportunity to see a hypothetical alternate life. When we try to come up with examples of films that follow an analogous storyline, but which are not set at Christmas - e.g. - Groundhog Day - they tend not to attribute to an overt outside force the fictional ability to revisit the past or otherwise alter time. An interesting question is whether this has merely become a convention as a convenient way to explain the fictional premise of the story, or if it has some greater spiritual significance linked to Christmas as a reminder of revelation and salvation. What do you think? Let us know on Twitter! This is a topic we will be exploring in more detail in future writings.

It is worth noting as well that the supernatural guide character, while not overtly part of a religious system that is explained in detail, does typically embody the morality-testing function of a higher power. The angel in It’s a Wonderful Life, for instance, will get his wings by saving George Bailey’s life and soul. The undefined being played by Don Cheadle in The Family Man  appears to be some sort of afterlife caseworker, testing people’s character and helping them achieve what they "really need" if they pass. Even the "guardian angel" in A New York Christmas Wedding is able to achieve resolution - albeit an arguably tragic one - at the moment when Jennifer chooses to rewrite her past and transfer to the alternate timeline (parallel universe?). The guide figure not only serves as a device to break the main character out of a downward spiral by introducing a perspective that would otherwise be unavailable, but it also gives the protagonist the opportunity to participate in an altruistic project, thus interrupting the self-centered mindset they have at the film's outset.

In each of these movies, the main characters learn to reject certain notions about their own lives and decisions, and embrace new ideals and priorities. One particular thing that we noticed about all four of the films was that the priorities of status, wealth and consumerism were replaced by those of generosity, kindness and relationships. In the case of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, or Jack in The Family Man, the main characters are personally very obsessed with business success and prioritize earning as much money as possible over showing compassion to those around them. In A New York Christmas Wedding, the importance of wealth and status is being projected onto her by the family she's marrying into, so it's less about her own opinions on the matter, and more about her willingness to give in to these pressures. In It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey lies somewhere in between these extremes, in that he feels he's personally and financially ruined by a business failure, but isn't necessarily personally obsessed with money and success. In fact, simply showing him others' sadness and misfortune as a result of his absence from the world has a significant impact on his own self-image.

Through these mechanisms of divine intervention, the protagonists in each of our films learn a lesson that contributes to a happier (and perhaps morally preferable) life going forward. The lessons they learn align fairly well across all four movies, even if realized in different ways, but the changes that they must put into action afterwards are more varied.

In A Christmas Carol, upon being given the revelation that, as things stand, he will be neither missed nor mourned after his death, Ebenezer Scrooge embraces the Christmas spirit of kindness and generosity: providing for his employee’s family, donating to an orphanage, and finally accepting his nephew’s offer to bond with his relatives over Christmas dinner. George Bailey is considering ending his life because he is facing financial ruin and the prospect of imprisonment. After he is given a chance to see what the world would be like without him, he realizes that It's a Wonderful Life after all. Instead of killing himself, he returns home to his family in time to celebrate Christmas Eve, and is even saved from dire consequences in the last few minutes of the film by a Deus ex Machina device. In The Family Man, Jack Campbell, a corporate success, is given the opportunity to have a "glimpse" of what life would have been like if he had stayed with his college girlfriend Kate instead of leaving for an internship in London years ago, despite her pleas to stay and focus on their relationship. In a slightly more tragic twist than in the other stories we discuss here, Jack still does suffer some degree of loss despite the lesson learned: the children that he had come to love in this alternate timeline will presumably never be born, even if he does rekindle a relationship with his ex-girlfriend after 13 years.2 He doesn't salvage everything, but still learns a clear lesson about the importance of relationships and compassion: he lets his staff go home for Christmas after all.

At first, A New York Christmas Wedding develops similarly, but adds a number of complexities. Vet tech Jennifer Ortiz had abandoned a friendship with Gabrielle Vernacci after a big blowout on the phone one Christmas, and had continued without her on a life path in which Gabi had died. Her tragic death at a young age is revealed to have been due in large part to a sequence of events that follow their falling out. After caring for a biker who is hit by a car, Jennifer learns that he is a guardian angel named Azrael, and he is giving her the chance to briefly experience an alternate timeline in which she had remained friends with Gabi and cultivated a romantic relationship with her instead of telling her she never wanted to see her again. When the angel shows back up to return Jennifer to her original timeline, she is given the choice between the two realities. She chooses true love over the life of privilege that she had become accustomed to in her original timeline, and uses this opportunity to return to the day of the phone call, react differently, and salvage her friendship with Gabi to set things on the "right" course. 

While each of the other stories varies somewhat in the nature of the change involved and how it is ultimately carried out, we found that A New York Christmas Wedding diverged even further from the mold in several key ways. Despite the fact that the production value and budget (this is a Netflix original and not a Hollywood blockbuster) affect the quality relative to the other films we’ve discussed, we really think that it's worth a watch precisely because of how it stands out from the crowd. (Sorry we spoiled so much of it! We're about to spoil it just a liiiiiiiittle bit more.)

First of all, the choice that is made at the end of the movie involves changing the past, and this is drastically different from all three of the other stories, in which the characters have been able to use their observations of the past and hypothetical experiences of the present and future to make better choices moving forward. This was one of the key reasons that this movie caught our attention in the first place - there is a strong focus on time travel in the book we're writing, and this is a good example of a dynamic timeline, or one in which past events can be changed in order to alter the present. This contrasts significantly with the fixed timelines posited by the other films, and that fact lends more urgency to Jennifer's actions.

There is also more intricacy in the decision. While watching the movie, it wasn't as easy to see that there was a clear best choice or moral lesson to learn. This is further complicated when the angel Azrael3 Gabison reveals himself to be the stillborn child of Gabrielle (Azrael "Gabi's son") when he talks to Jennifer about the choice she's allowed to make at the end: if she chooses to go back and change Gabi's destiny, then Azrael will never have existed. He seems content with this, suggesting that he knows it is her true path. It's true that none of these fantastic stories are realistic to begin with - unless, as some have suggested, we want to read the bulk of each as an extended dream sequence - but A New York Christmas Wedding is even less so in that it offers the character the agency to literally alter past events.

Furthermore, unlike in the other three films, in which the moral of the story focuses more on the character's relationship to worldly goods vs. people, A New York Christmas Wedding presents us with a character who already seems equipped from the very beginning with the value set the other protagonists strive their entire story arcs to attain. Thus, her ultimate lesson learned is the importance of being true to her authentic self: in acting vulnerably and coming out as a lesbian, she stakes a claim on the life that she really wanted instead of conforming to societal norms to live a fundamental lie. The movie supports this through a subplot involving a priest (played by Chris Noth of Sex and the City fame) who gradually changes his mind about doctrine and practices in large part because of Gabi and Jennifer's relationship. Interestingly, A New York Christmas Wedding is the only one of the four films we examine that is overtly political; it concludes by sending a clear message about the Catholic Church's evolving stances on issues like homosexuality, gay marriage and teen pregnancy. The diversity of the cast further reinforces the inclusive message conveyed by the above-mentioned subplot and by the nature of Jennifer's happy ending. As a result, the film becomes simultaneously more topical than the others we've examined and also less likely to be included in a yearly ritual viewing at Christmas (albeit, in our humble opinions, a better choice than The Family Man!)

By choosing to essentially overwrite what in other films would be the fairytale ending - marrying a wealthy, successful, handsome man and living in comfort and affluence - our heroine instead ends up with a very different set of circumstances in which her real Christmas wish comes true.  But while it's pleasurable in a melancholic - or perhaps even cathartic way to revel in these fantasies that we can go back and revisit - and maybe even change - our past, we can't really do that, so what might be our take-aways as we go forward in our real lives? After all, without the intervention of a supernatural being, you can apologize for your actions, and you can try to atone for them, but you can't undo them. All you can do is examine the past to better understand the present and help guide your actions in the future. In this vein, be on the lookout for next week’s New Year’s posts, in which we will provide a retrospective on the year that was and look forward to the year to come.

And on that note, we would like to leave you with a clever poem that was posted on Facebook on the 19th of November by Shawna Hickling:

T'was a few weeks before Christmas,
And all through the town,
People wore masks,
That covered their frown.
The frown had begun
Way back in the Spring,
When a global pandemic
Changed everything.
They called it corona,
But unlike the beer,
It didn’t bring good times,
It didn’t bring cheer.
Airplanes were grounded,
Travel was banned.
Borders were closed
Across air, sea and land.
As the world entered lockdown
To flatten the curve,
The economy halted,
And folks lost their nerve.
From March to July
We rode the first wave,
People stayed home,
They tried to behave.
When summer emerged
The lockdown was lifted.
But away from caution,
Many folks drifted.
Now it’s December
And cases are spiking,
Wave two has arrived,
Much to our disliking.
It’s true that this year
Has had sadness a plenty,
We’ll never forget
The year 2020.
And just ‘round the corner -
The holiday season,
But why be merry?
Is there even one reason?
To decorate the house
And put up the tree,
Who will see it,
No one but me.
But outside my window
The snow gently falls,
And I think to myself,
Let’s deck the halls!
So, I gather the ribbon,
The garland and bows,
As I play those old carols,
My happiness grows.
Christmas is not cancelled
And neither is hope.
If we lean on each other,
I know we can cope

1Interestingly, while it seems like it should make a difference to the extent to which the lesson is internalized depending on whether or not the protagonist is an active participant in the alternate timeline, it instead appears to be more of a stylistic choice than anything else.

2We could write an entire article on just how selfish Jack's decisions are, even at the end of this movie.

3Azrael is the angel of death in some religious traditions, and it is interesting to note that the name translates from Hebrew as 'Help from God'.