Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Magic, Miracles, and Can’ts That Become Cans: Why We Love Our Christmas Clichés

By Bonnie Randall

Part of the How They Do It Series (Monthly Contributor)

As I write this we are less than a week from Christmas, yet by the time you read it, we’ll be on what we in Canada (and the UK) call ‘Boxing Day’ (our version of Americans’ Black Friday). This season I am chock-full of the Christmas spirit, more so than I can remember in ages. Perhaps it’s because I am getting older. Or maybe it’s because my family had a really rough autumn. Or maybe I am just finally getting this whole ‘attitude of gratitude’ thang and so am more dialed-in than I’ve been in the past. In any event, I am loving it; the decorated house, the mountains of homemade baking, and the carefully wrapped and tied-with-reams-of-curl-ribbon gifts set just-so under the tree. It’s all so good and so warm that, the other day when I tripped over a fairly caustic article on Christmas stories and why they suck, I was dismayed and (to my shock, actually), sort of hurt.

Not that the article was necessarily wrong; as writers we’re schooled again and again about avoiding clichés, yet what are most Christmas-themed stories? One traditional cliché after another, and let me tell you: the author of said article ripped into every one of them—so much that even I, someone who up to this year was merely indifferent to Christmas tales, felt ashamed for having ever indulged in a Hallmark movie or a Harlequin romance released ’specially for the Holiday Season.

But then I set aside my shame and thought about it—first from a writerly point of view, then through the lens of a therapeutic counselor (which I am for a day-job and whose philosophy I tend to retreat into whenever I’m troubled or vexed). And where I landed when the smoke cleared (see what I did there? That too is a cliché) was at place where I could justify every last corny character, cheesy cliché, and happy-ever-after so predictable you can see it coming just as clearly as a freight train chugging down the middle of the bald-headed prairie, right from the opening line. Christmas stories work because of the clichés, not in spite of them, and here is why:

1. Because the holiday season is rooted in the concepts of hope and redemption. 

In a world saturated with mass shootings, hurricanes, crazy, self-absorbed leaders, and tide after tide of hashtags like #metoo, it is both easy and natural to feel heartbroken and hopeless. Ergo, climbing into a story where you know before you even crack it open that the curmudgeon will have a change-of-soul in the end assures us that hope still, and will always, exist…even if it is a tiny tealight in a swarm of darkness. Or a mass-market Christmas romance we pick up after seeing a memorial for Sandy Hook.

2. Because Christmas is all about the virtuous elements of humanity. 

At no time do food banks, soup kitchens, and Toys for Tots see more donations than during the holiday season. Giving feels good whether it is direct or vicarious—and it is also addictive. Therefore, immersing ourselves within Christmas stories where virtue is almost always a theme will literally light up the reward panel in our brains. And there is not one single thing wrong with feeling good.

3. Because Happy-Ever-After is elusive in real life. 

Yet it is a requirement of every Christmas story out there, and again—we both know and expect it before we even open the book or flick the Hallmark movie on. And what’s more, we want it. We want the puppy to get adopted on Christmas Day. For the orphan to have a mommy. For the lonely bachelor to find a wife. We get that life is far too tragic far too much of the time so we want the good guy (or gal) to have a win for a change and Christmas stories always, to our happy delight, deliver.

4. Because even if we don’t believe in magic and miracles, we still want to. 

A virgin has a baby. A very fat man (or very tiny, fat elf, depending on which Santa you subscribe to) can fly around the world in a sleigh in one night with a present for everyone. The incredible is true—or at the very least, we want it to be true—during the holidays, and so we seek out stories that offer more of the same: miracles, magic, and can’t that become cans.

5. Because none of us are as mature as we think we are. 

And thank God for that. Truly. We none of us ever feel like we’re ‘old enough’, do we? Our inner children are the parts of us who cower and cry inside when we’re faced with trauma or danger. But they are also the joyous, delighted parts who do cartwheels on Christmas morning and are more excited than our own, real kids when we take that bite out of the cookie left fireside for Santa in order to breathe life into the entire illusion. Our inner children were the reason why, the other night while our teenager gabbed on the phone, my husband and I watched Pooh Bear’s Christmas together—two 40somethings beaming on the couch at Piglet and Tigger. Christmas, they say, is for kids—yet the secret is we’re all kids, and that’s why every tradition, custom and, yes, cliché story has stayed alive and will remain living long after we’re gone.

The verdict, then, is to not only eschew all shame and sheepishness for picking up that romance with the big sprig of mistletoe on its cover (then devouring it while you scarf back sugar cookies and gulp rum-laced eggnog). It is also to feel free to craft a Christmas tale of your own—complete with the themes and traditions and magic that all make Christmas ‘Christmas’…all while adding to them the beautiful voice that is uniquely your own.

And, with that—

May the brightest Christmas blessings be yours, and may every good and peaceful thing grace you in the coming New Year. Thanks for reading my installments through 2017. I look forward to diving into more topics we can discuss in ’18.


Bonnie Randall Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls.

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About Divinity & The Python

Bonnie Randall Divinity and the Python
Divinity - Where deception and desire both hide in the dark...

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  1. Yes, some cliches work and--dare I say--are needed, especially this time of year.

  2. Well said, Bonnie! Thank you!

  3. Corrine Draper12/27/2017 10:01 PM

    I THANK YOU so much for the paper Christmas card! I have not sent them as e-mail/internet is EASIER! Not as personable,our lose.....sad as we will lose this access in time.......................

    1. Any Christmas wish - paper, electronic, or in person - is a wish well worth receiving. You are so welcome xo