by Alissa Wilkinson
As a bred and born Yankee, I’ve always thought it was weird that we insist on celebrating Christmas as if we are in the middle of the sunniest season, all light and happiness. Christmas means being wrapped in blankets, buried in sweaters, lighting candles to scare away the darkness. And by the end of the year, I’m usually feeling less than light. I’d rather switch on Vince Guaraldi’s plaintive soundtrack for A Charlie Brown Christmas than rock around the Christmas tree. I’ll take my Christmases melancholy, thank you very much.
The most melancholy of all Christmas movies is It’s a Wonderful Life, which barely escapes outright tragedy with a feebly happy ending, saved only by the existential knowledge imparted by Clarence the Angel that, well, it could have been worse. The rest are mostly cotton candy—pleasant, eminently revisitable, but sugary and full of nothing—Elf and White Christmas and A Christmas Story and The Santa Clause. I guess Die Hard is a Christmas movie, too, but—no.
When I think of movies to watch at Christmas, I go straight for an unconventional source: the 1988 British miniseries of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which my parents taped onto VHS from a PBS broadcast at some point. I probably wore it out with all my re-watching. There were sequels; the Silver Chair adaptation is probably the scariest movie I saw as a child.
But The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is dark and frightening, too, in its own right. You might remember the setup. Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy Pevensie are four English siblings sent away from London during the bombings to stay with a kind but scattered old professor in the countryside.
One day, the children are playing hide-and-seek and Lucy, the littlest, hides in a wardrobe she finds in an apparently abandoned wing of the house. The wardrobe is a portal to a land called Narnia, a snowy and silent land with talking creatures and a curious flagpole marking the path.
In Narnia, Lucy meets a faun named Mr. Tumnus. He brings her to his house, intending—as a spy, it turns out—to betray her to the White Witch. She rules the country with a frozen fist and has made it, as characters repeat throughout the story, a place where “it’s always winter, but never Christmas.” But Aslan the Lion is on the move, and spring is coming (a formula thatGame of Thrones rather obviously inverts).
Chances are you probably know where the story goes from there—if not from the same production that I saw, then from the 2005 Walden Media version, which, having presumably been sanitized for “family audiences,” is nowhere near as frightening as the one I grew up with. Lucy returns to her siblings, who don’t believe her, quite reasonably. Later her brother Edmund—who is quite the scallywag of the story—happens to end up in Narnia, too, where he meets the White Witch and famously trades his soul for a bit of Turkish Delight. Later, all four children end up in Narnia and three of them are spirited away by some human-sized beavers to a dam where they learn all about Aslan and the neverending winter. Meanwhile Edmund has slipped away and rejoined the Witch, jonesing for some more Turkish Delight.
This stretch of the film always delighted me most. The Beavers give the children a warm drink from a “singing kettle” that lulls them toward sleep, and I always wondered, what was that drink? I figured it was a wonderfully rich hot cocoa, but more magical. Similarly the witch gives Edmund a drink that warms him down to his toes. Later the children encounter Father Christmas and realize that with Christmas coming, the White Witch’s reign must be loosening its hold on the land; her power is crumbling. Good news, indeed. And he gives the children gifts.
But those gifts are a little like finding socks and new school pants, albeit a bit cooler: Peter gets a sword and a shield; Susan gets a horn that she can use to call for help, along with a bow and arrows; Lucy receives a pint-sized dagger (yikes!) and a magical healing cordial. These are not Legos for playing with. They are grown-up gifts that move the children from childhood to adulthood and signal an impending conflict. You don’t play with a dagger. You protect yourself.
The rest of the story is quite thrilling, but this Christmas shift to warding off danger is symbolic, and the children never really go back, even after they return to England many Narnia-years later. There’s something about the recurrence of Christmas, in the dark and with the candles, that reminds you of all the Christmases that happened to you before. Space and time compress. Christmas reminds me of my father—we’ll be spending our tenth Christmas this year without him, after cancer took him too soon—and it reminds me of all the versions of me I used to be, that I am getting older, that we’re all getting older. That nothing lasts forever.
By the end of the season I’m feeling not quite blue, but maybe a little silver, and I want to nestle into remembering that there is a fine tomorrow on its way no matter how dark today is. Which is why it’s worth watching to the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: it is a story of hard-won triumph, of sacrifice that brings joy, of love that hurts.
But I think now that we’re grownups, our silvery Christmases need a little bit of something to both deepen the melancholy and bring us just a little cheer. Probably something warm is in order.
So when you fire up your melancholy Christmas story of choice this year, try making something that will warm your toes. This is my favorite thing to drink in the chilliness, a twist on a traditional hot toddy. Usually a toddy involves black tea, whiskey, honey, and lemon—a fine cold remedy, by the way.
But here is what you want now. I keep the tea to honor the Pevensies’ Englishness, but twist it for the exotic idea of encountering a land not in our dimension, and throw in a bit of my own spark, too.
I call it a Tumnus & Kirke: first, make a mugful of ginger tea for each of your guests. You can concoct something from fresh ginger, but I recommend the tried-and-true Traditional Medicinals’ Ginger Aid, which has the added benefit of soothing your overindulgence in Turkish Delight earlier in the day. Add a shot of whiskey. It’s going to get hot, so you can go with the cheapest whiskey available in your cabinet (thereby offsetting your Christmas expenditures), or rum will work in a pinch. A dash of honey is indispensable.
Lemon will work for tartness, but another great option is a little dash of cranberry juice, which you might have kicking around at the holiday. Oranges also work. Even limes. Remember, Christmas is here, and that means winter’s ending soon. The White Witch’s power is crumbling.
Alissa Wilkinson is the chief film critic at Christianity Today and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. Her writing appears in The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Pacific Standard, Movie Mezzanine, Books & Culture, and other venues. Her book How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World, co-written with Robert Joustra, is due out from Eerdmans in the spring.