With the pandemic limiting travel over the holiday season, many Americans will be settling in front of the television to watch their favorite holiday movies to add some cheer.

The entertainment site Vulture reports 82 new holiday movie releases in 2020. But, even before the lockdown, production of annual Christmas movies was reported to be up by at least 20% since 2017 on a single cable network.

Holiday movies are popular not simply because they are “escapes” but because these films offer viewers a glimpse into the world as it could be.

Christmas movies as reflection

In his 2016 book “Christmas as Religion,” the religious studies scholar Christopher Deacy states Christmas movies act as a “barometer of how we might want to live and how we might see and measure ourselves.” These movies offer a variety of portraits of everyday life while affirming ethical values and social mores along the way.

The 1946 classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” represents visions of a community in which every citizen is a vital component.

Another movie commonly replayed this time of year is 2005’s “The Family Stone,” which portrays the clashes of a mostly average family but shows viewers that quarrels can be worked through and harmony is possible.

Movie-watching as ritual practice

As holiday movies bring viewers into a fictional world, people are able to work through their own fears and desires about self-worth and relationships. Such movies can provide solace, reaffirmation and sometimes even courage to continue working through difficult situations.

When people see some part of their own lives unfold on screen, the act of viewing operates in a fashion that’s strikingly similar to how a religious ritual works.

As anthropologist Bobby Alexander explains, rituals are actions that transform people’s everyday lives. Rituals can open up “ordinary life to ultimate reality or some transcendent being or force,” he writes in the collection “Anthropology of Religion.”

For Jews and Christians, for example, ritually observing the Sabbath day by sharing meals with family and not working connects them with the creation of the world. Holiday movies do something similar, except the “transcendent force” is more secular: It’s the power of family, true love, the meaning of home or the reconciliation of relationships.

Movies create an idealized world

Take the case of the 1942 musical “Holiday Inn.” It was one of the first movies where the plot used Christmas as a backdrop, telling the story of a group of entertainers who have gathered at a country inn.

It was a deeply secular film about romantic interests, couched in a desire to sing and dance. When it was released, the United States had been fully involved in World War II for a year and national spirits were not high.

The movie hasn’t endured as a classic. But Bing Crosby’s song “White Christmas” from the movie became etched in the holiday consciousness of many Americans, and the 1954 film “White Christmas” became better known.

As historian Penne Restad puts it in her 1995 book “Christmas in America,” Crosby’s crooning offers the “quintessential expression” of the holidays, a world which “has no dark side” — one in which “war is forgotten.”

More modern movies such as “Jingle All the Way,” “Deck the Halls” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” center around the idea that the true meaning of Christmas is not in rampant consumerism but in goodwill and family love.

‘All’s right with the world’

Though Christmas is a Christian holiday, most holiday films are not religious in the traditional sense. There is hardly ever a mention of Jesus or the biblical setting of his birth.

As media studies scholar John Mundy writes in a 2008 essay “Christmas and the Movies,” Hollywood continues to construct Christmas as an alternative reality. These movies create on-screen worlds that kindle positive emotions while offering a few laughs.

“A Christmas Story” from 1983 waxes nostalgic for childhood holidays when life seemed simpler and the desire for a Red Ryder air rifle was the most important thing in the world. The plot of 2003’s “Elf” centers on the quest to reunite with a lost father.

In the end, as the narrator says late in “A Christmas Story” — after the family has overcome a serious of risible mishaps, the presents have been unwrapped and they’ve gathered for Christmas dinner — these are times when “all’s right with the world.”

At the end of a troubled 2020, and as so many families are physically isolated from their loved ones, people need to believe in worlds in which all’s right. Holiday movies allow a glimpse of such a place.

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S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate is a religious studies professor at Hamilton College, Clinton, New York. The essay comes from The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.

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