I had a lot of expectations for Saving Christmas, the 2014 Kirk Cameron vehicle about reclaiming the holiday spirit. I thought I knew what it would be–a trite, sappy tale where secular nerds get owned by a Christian Gary Stu then everyone goes to an Evangelical rock concert. You know, basically a
holiday Christmas themed God’s Not Dead. It’s not. Saving Christmas is something so much worse. It’s a film that makes the Atlas Shrugged trilogy look in comparison like a masterpiece of filmmaking and, maybe, even ideology.
Saving Christmas is not the film promised by this poorly-photoshopped poster. For example, nothing on this poster would indicate that the entire movie takes place at a single Christmas party–with the majority of it spent in a car parked outside said party. This poster shows a ton of action and movement, perhaps suggesting that Kirk Cameron will take drastic steps to save Christmas, like beating a teacher who says “Happy Holidays” with an oversized candy cane, but fails to demonstrate that the film is actually an entry in the My Dinner With Andre genre. Which is to say, it’s almost entirely a dialog between two middle-aged men.
But enough dancing around the candy-striped elephant in the room. Lets get this thing started.
Saving Christmas opens in Kirk Cameron’s living room, where he’s sitting in front of a Christmas tree, sipping on a mug of hot chocolate.
Notice that I wrote that this is “Kirk Cameron’s living room” and not the name of his character. That’s because this film–which runs a little over seventy minutes total, a fact I’ll return to multiple times–begins with a lengthy introduction explaining the point of the film.
I’ll admit that I was never told in film school that it was a bad idea to start your script with an actor from the film explaining the themes, but that’s because I think we all accepted that as a given. This isn’t breaking the cardinal rule of storytelling so much as it’s shattering the mitochondrial DNA of storytelling, but whatever. This intro is actually the best part of Saving Christmas.
How can this be? Well, two reasons. First, Cameron’s pitch isn’t so bad. He talks about how much he loves every part of Christmas–the food, the tree, spirit of kindness in the air. It’s an aggressively positive message and let me hope, for just a moment, that the film would end up with a good heart. I was wrong, but we’ll get to that. Second, the pitch is the most tolerable part of the film because Cameron is the only actor in it. Throughout the rest of Saving Christmas, he is joined by his brother-in-law and foil, played by Darren Doane (who wrote and directed this shitshow) His character, named (not making this up) Christian, is basically Jar Jar Binks stuffed into a WASP-y neurotic evangelical suit.
The fact he’s not in the opening makes it somewhat tolerable.
Cameron’s opening pitch is followed by the credits, then unbelievably a second lengthy narration by Cameron. This time, he talks over long, lingering shots of a man dressed like he’s from the dark ages. Cameron tells us that stories change and that we’re all part of our own stories and we can decide how they will proceed. It’s all nonsense and it’s lengthy nonsense. The actual meat of the film–if you can call it that–doesn’t start until eight minutes in.
And remember, Saving Christmas is a little over seventy minutes long.
Once the second opening is over, we join Kirk Cameron–whose name in the film is Kirk if you want to know just how much effort was put into both the writing and subsequent casting–at his sister’s holiday party. And what a fucking holiday party it is.
We never learn what Kirk’s sister and her husband do, but they’re filthy rich. Ignore the massive tree and the lights and just look at the open space in this fucking foyer. They must hire an accountant just to handle the heating bill. Not pictured is the catering, DJ set up, and a hired Santa Claus. We later learn that the man they hired to play Santa is their unemployed uncle, Bill. Because nothing says Christmas like making your own family work at the Christmas party just because he’s poor.
Everybody is having a great time at the party except Kirk’s brother-in-law, Christian. He’s sulking in another room and when Kirk goes looking for him, he hides in his car outside. This prompts narration #3, in which Kirk (or Kirk Cameron) explains that when someone isn’t having fun at Christmas they need an intervention.
Kirk goes outside to find Christian and gets into the car to talk to him. Most of the rest of the film occurs inside this car.
“What’s wrong, dear step-brother?” Kirk asks and, up until this point, I still think I have this film figured out. Christian, despite his name, is going to confess that he’s losing his faith or that the mean people at his college campus have taught him he needs to say Happy Holidays or maybe he never believed at all and was just lying to get with Kirk’s sister. Kirk’s going to turn him around, teach him about loving and Jesus, and the family will be saved.
That’s not what happens.
Christian’s problem, you see, is the exact opposite. He is sick and tired of what Christmas has become. He wants it to be about Jesus and compassion, not about trees, Santa Claus, and materialism. He looks around at the party, thinks about how much money they’ve spent on the tree and the lights and the presents, and says “how many kids could we feed? How many wells could we dig?”
Saving Christmas posits that he’s wrong and shouldn’t be worried about these things.
So this is the dirty secret about Saving Christmas. It is not a film about taking Christmas back from capitalism or secularism. It’s a film about how capitalism and materialism is the proper way to celebrate the life and sacrifice of Jesus. It is not just okay to celebrate Christmas with a huge tree and a big party and a bunch of presents, but it is right and proper.
Just take a second to let that all sink in.
Kirk explains this to Christian in the car for about thirty five minutes and that’s basically the whole plot of the film. Christian asks him to justify various elements of the western materialist Christmas with Biblical sources and Kirk comes up with various hand-wavy stories to connect theology and tradition. That’s the whole set up and execution of the film–these stories Kirk tells to Christian in the car.
And, folks, they’re pretty bad.
First up, Kirk explains the nativity scene. While he talks, the camera pans over a rock in a cave that is occasionally covered with a blanket and occasionally bare. This goes on for five minutes.
The nativity scene, Kirk explains, doesn’t just celebrate the birth of Jesus but also symbolizes his death. He says that while we portray a manger as a barn, it’s actually a rock in a cave that domesticated farm animals would eat off of. A rock in a cave, Kirk goes on, is where Jesus was buried and from whence he rose.
Further, the Nativity isn’t just a scene of peace but of conflict. Jesus’s birth doomed him to die at the hands of those who wanted to kill him, and Kirk explains that Herod’s soldiers were on the doorstep of the manger when he was born.
That isn’t how the story goes–the Massacre of the Innocents was prompted by news of Jesus’s birth not his impending birth, otherwise it would have been a Massacre of the Pregnant Women–but whatever, we’re already down a damn rabbit hole.
At this point, you’re probably like “what does any of this have to do with Christian’s criticism of the western Christmas” and I’m right there with you. Kirk’s first story is a massive deflection and while it points out some parallels between the birth and rebirth of Christ, it’s basically Hillary Clinton’s response to any question about the Iraq war.
Following Kirk’s first story, we get a very brief cutaway to inside the party, where Christian’s black friend talks to Christian’s bald friend. They’re co-workers at a job that just ended casual Fridays. Black friend suggests that this is somehow related to the War On Christmas, which prompts Bald Friend to go into a two minute long conspiracy theory rant that name drops (a) chemtrails, (b) Loose Change and (c) mind control via dubstep.
This scene, featuring two characters we only saw in passing at the party, is never followed-up and seems to have dropped in out of an entirely different film. I have no idea how to read it except as a criticism of the idea of a War On Christmas–that is, a suggestion that this “war” is just as silly as the conspiracy theories–which in a weird way fits the film’s bizarre message.
The Bald Friend does not appear again in the film and the Black Friend only appears once afterward, to cue up a song for a dance sequence.
We return to Kirk and Christian in the car for the second of his stories. This time, Christian lays down the ultimate card played by folks who don’t like the Westerniation of Christmas–the Christmas tree is a pagan ritual and modern Christmas is just re-purposed pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice. He asks Kirk to provide a biblical cite for the date of Jesus’s Birth and the importance of a Christmas tree.
Kirk cites Genesis. First, God created the Winter Solstice, by establishing the rotation of the Earth, so it can’t be a pagan celebration. Second, the Bible is full of trees. THE BIBLE IS FULL OF TREES.
Kirk explains that the Garden of Eden had trees. Adam ate from a particular tree, which doomed mankind. To absolve man of sin, man would have to return the fruit to the tree but since it was inside him, it was impossible. Then Kirk says that Jesus being crucified was man returning the fruit to the tree (cross) and, as such, a Christmas tree represents the cross and the hanging of ornaments represents the return of the fruit to the tree.
Listen I’m no Bible scholar but this is all starting to sound a little like a post-hoc rationalization. Like you might as well say that the Festivus Pole represents the spear used to stab Jesus and the airing of the grievances represents Judas’s betrayal and forgiveness.
Finally, Christian asks Kirk to explain Santa Claus. He says Santa has hijacked the holiday from Jesus and now nobody remembers what it’s supposed to be about anymore. This prompts Kirk to explain Nicholas of Myra, the sainted bishop who inspired Santa. Rather than explain that Nicholas’s generosity morphed into the tradition of giving presents, Kirk goes through a heavily embellished version of the Council of Nicaea.
(Some background- The Council of Nicaea was a meeting of top dog holy men in 325 A.D. to resolve both doctrinal and bureaucratic disputes within the early church. One of the questions discussed was the nature of Jesus’s divinity. The view of Arius, an Alexandrian priest, was that because Jesus was “born” thus had a beginning he could not be infinite in the way that God is infinite. The Council rejected this view and it was one of the earliest deadly heresies of the church.)
In Kirk’s version of the Council, Nicholas saves the truth of Jesus’s divinity by personally confronting Arius. “Truth was on the line, it was not the time for this Pastor to stay quiet for the sake of being politically correct.”
Nicholas is portrayed as a gruff, adventurous warrior for Jesus. In fact, he straight-up beats up Arius and kicks him out of the Council.
The real story, which by the way is likely apocryphal because Arius didn’t have the ranking to participate in the debates at Nicaea, is that Nicholas slapped Arius and then one of Arius’s supporters urinated on Nicholas. That second part is left out by Kirk.
Badass Santa is the last straw for poor Christian. Now that he knows that Santa beats up priests for offering a different take on the nature of divinity, he realizes that Santa should definitely be the center of celebrating Christ’s birthday.
But what about all those expensive presents? What do they have to do with anything? Buckle up, because we’re about to take a left turn into true madness.
Kirk tells Christian to look at the presents from the perspective of a kid–low to the ground. Don’t they look like a skyline? Because this particular distribution of presents happens to be a bunch of cubes and rectangles. Yes, Kirk says, because the presents represent the skyline of a New Jerusalem, with the Tree of Life at the center.
CHRISTMAS PRESENTS REPRESENT THE SKYLINE OF A NEW JERUSALEM, THE GIFT THAT GOD HAS OFFERED TO US.
At this point we’re just making shit up. I wait for more: Elves are actually angels. The North Pole is heaven. Rudolph’s red nose represents the blood of Christ spilled on the cross. Those menorahs everywhere? Each three flames represents a day between Christ’s death and rebirth. The film Love, Actually is the vision of Gehenna given to Isaiah. Whatever, just go with it.
But Christian takes to the nonsense and is a reformed man. He loves Christmas again. He loves it so much that he tells his Black Friend to put a hip hop song on (THIS HAPPENS) and then everybody dances to a vaguely-rap remix of Angels We Have Heard on High.
Christian’s doubts are resolved approximately an hour into a 70 minute film, so this dance goes on for five minutes. FIVE WHOLE MINUTES OF WHITE PEOPLE DANCING TO CHRISTMAS RAP.
Even the five-minute long dance scene isn’t enough to pad out the film. Instead, we get yet another monologue from Kirk Cameron wrapping up the themes of the film. I’m just going to leave you with one, verbatim line.
“Don’t buy into the complaint about materialism at Christmas, this is a celebration of god taking on a material body, so it’s right that the holiday is about material things”
Listen, I’ll be upfront about this. I’m not a religious person, so I’m not the person who should be offended by this film. I think there’s something rather appealing about (some) of the secular trappings that have developed around Christmas, which is why Kirk Cameron’s first-of-three monologues had some appeal. A reason to gather with your family, eat a big meal, and generally try to be more kind to each other? Sure, sounds great.
But let’s not break every bone in our bodies trying to contort the Western Capitalist Christmas into something that is the proper way to honor Jesus. No matter what you think of Jesus’s divinity–and no matter how much Nicholas of Myra beats you up over that opinion–Jesus is probably the dude sitting inside the car outside of his party, wondering how many hungry kids he could have fed instead. He’s not Kirk Cameron, drinking hot chocolate and justifying the big screen television he bought himself by saying it looks like the Dome of the Rock at a certain angle.