In this consumer-based world, Thanksgiving is sandwiched between Halloween and Christmas. That is what the facades of stores and coffee shops tell us, it is what the inside of department stores look like, and it is what the radio will play for us. Thanksgiving is the dollop of cranberry jam spread between a bottom chocolatey piece of orange bread and the top candy-striped peppermint piece of red and green bread. It gets lost in there. It’s too much of a mouthful.
I began to think about this in the context of media. There are tons and tons of Halloween movies out there. They range from the horrific to the gentle, for adults and children alike. The one that pops to mind immediately is Hocus Pocus, followed closely by (duh) John Carpenter’s Halloween.
And Christmas? Hell, there are too many to count. It’s A Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story play on repeat on multiple television channels every year. Not to mention How The Grinch Stole Christmas and the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials.
So what can you tune to this Thanksgiving? This year, according to imDb.com, AMC is airing the entire Godfather series, Syfy is marathoning James Bond films, ABC Family is showing Disney Pixar animated features back to back to back, and Spike is running through The Mummy franchise like it’s been doing forever.
Thanksgiving (in TV land) stacks up to a bizarre mish-mash of franchise films played all day, not a turkey-themed gem in sight. So many end-of-the-year holidays have television and movie staples that morph into family traditions. So why not Turkey-day? Well, let’s see.
Halloween movies tend to run in two different directions: family-friendly and horror-rific. Hocus Pocus and Halloweentown are on the front-end of that spectrum. Halloween is a mystical and fun-filled occasion, and it is aimed mostly at enticing children. Because it is a holiday built from a spiritual religion and myths, and warped over time into new practices, Halloween movies have a lot of material to work with that can still be molded into original stories. Ghosts and creatures, as well as stories of trick’r'treaters and candy-mongers. Look at films like The Nightmare Before Christmas or It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!:
These are stories that kids can relate to, that travel with us into adulthood. Holidays are half nostalgia, after all.
On the other end of the spectrum is horror. And tons of it. Plenty of films have used Halloween as a stepping-off point. The Halloween films always marathon on some channel or another. A more recent example is the horror anthology Trick’r Treat, a film of different storylines (a serial killer buries a body; a girl is stalked by a werewolf; a group of bullying teenagers get their comeuppance) that converge in some way over the course of one Halloween night. Even if the spooky holiday is not the inspiration, millions of people take the night as a personal challenge to watch as many scary movies as they can handle.
Christmas is likewise divided into two-ish categories: family-friendly fluffy films and comedies. The Santa Claus, Miracle on 34th Street, and The Polar Express live in that first category. Again, the movies feed on nostalgia. In terms of comedy, Elf has somehow become a staple of the season, along with comedies like Home Alone and even, yes, Gremlins. I myself am partial to the best of all Christmas movies: Die Hard.
Looking now at how these films have become holiday classics, it’s easy to see why Thanksgiving doesn’t receive the same treatment. Thanksgiving is a straightforward holiday. Families eat dinner together. They are merry. There is no mythology to draw from. There is no playfulness in how the scenario can be handled. It all boils down to dinner. Where are the goddamn reindeer and vampires?
Films that are plotted around Thanksgiving don’t make a point of being a “Thanksgiving movie” for the most part (excusing the John Hughes classic comedy Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and flops like Pieces of April). Scent of a Woman (starring Al Pacino) takes place over a Thanksgiving break at a boy’s school, but it only serves as a jumping-off point for the plot to move forward. The same is true for a Thanksgiving scene in Rocky and this spectacular scene from Addams Family Values.
Y’know, in viewing this scene, I think I’ve unearthed the truth: Thanksgiving brings out the worst in people. It makes people start fires, try to kill each other, and have arguments over mashed potatoes. It’s not as though Thanksgiving has an innocent origin. Celluloid is apparently fuel for the fire that is human emotion. Be wary, friends. Be wary (but eat turkey).