From Dickens to Disney, The Guardian, December 20, 2003

In film, literature and in music, Christmas has come to signal a feast of sentimentality. But, in the best, there's a darkness under the blanket of snow, says Blake Morrison, and a hint of the alien beyond the glow of the hearth...

A man called George comes home on Christmas Eve after a crap day, the worst ever, at the office. He's stressed out, with a stinking cold, and in the middle of a financial crisis. "Hello darling, hello daddy," his wife and children call as they go about their festive pursuits, merrily ignorant of the storm to come. One child is practising Hark! The Herald Angels Sing on the piano: "Must she keep playing that?" he snarls. Another child wants to know how to spell frankincense: "How would I know? Ask your mother." A third is lying upstairs with a temperature: "It's a wonder we don't all have pneumonia," he moans.

"Draughty old barn of a place, it's like living in a refrigerator. Why do we have to live here in the first place, and stay around this measly, crummy old town?"

"What's the matter?" his wife asks.

"Nothing's the matter," he says, but then bawls her out for inviting relations round - "Family? I don't want the family over here" - and grumbles at the size of his own family: "Why do we have to have all these kids?" The scene culminates in him smashing up the living room. Later, after getting drunk, being beaten up and crashing his car, he will stand on a bridge, staring down into a black torrent, ready to jump to his death.

Few of us could fail to recognise the ingredients of a quintessential family Christmas - rows, claustrophobia, alcoholic excess, worries about money and suicidal despair. It's the kind of grimly contemporary, even postmodern, version of yuletide that leads one of the characters in Martin Amis's novel The Information to ask, "How are we going to get through Christmas?" But, in fact, the scene comes from Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life, made in 1946 and one of the best-loved Christmas movies of all time.

It is remembered as a feel-good movie and we'd feel miffed if it didn't appear in the seasonal schedules. There's the schmaltzy intimacy of the small-town setting, Bedford Falls (authenticating that required RKO to construct a 300 yard-long street with 75 stores and 24 full-grown oaks). And there's a cheesy denouement, too: saved from suicide by a guardian angel, George Bailey (played by James Stewart) ends up singing a chorus of Auld Lang Syne. But before the Capra-corny ending, we're asked to peer into some pretty dark waters - to see the worst of Christmas as well as the best.

Most of us over the age of consent feel ambivalent about Christmas - resentful of its demands on our time, credit cards and digestive system, but afraid to ignore its chimes of hope and goodwill. There can be a comic, even tragicomic, side to this. For my mother, Christmas tended to be a trial, not least because we spent it with my father's relations and never hers. She'd happily have skipped the whole business, I suspect. Yet, when my father was dying of cancer in December 1991, she fretted that Christmas would be "spoiled" as a result - and in the middle of her grief continued to worry about letting us all down. However hollow the rituals (and to my mother they could never have seemed more hollow than that year), they're also hallowed rituals. We feel a pressure to do right by them and, for one day in the year at least, to believe in something, whether Santa Claus, the infant Jesus or the possibility that one's least favourite uncle will, this time, behave. That's the double bind explored in the classic portrayals of Christmas, both on screen and on the page.

Of course, the accepted view is that any cultural artefact timed for release at, or showing a preoccupation with, Christmas will be, by definition, sentimental tosh. A mere list of Christmas movies - The Muppet Christmas Carol, Mickey's Once Upon A Christmas, The Santa Clause, Jack Frost, Olive, The Other Reindeer, Jingle All The Way - is enough to send any sane person screaming to the attic. A good rule of thumb is to avoid anything with "Christmas" or "Santa" in the title, though it's interesting to note how many not-bad American films in the former category were made during or just after the second world war, when Christmas had a special meaning for American servicemen abroad - Christmas In Connecticut (1945), Christmas In July (1940), Christmas Eve (1947), Christmas Holiday (1944), White Christmas (1954) - and, though it may be cheating to include it in the latter category, I like the sound of Santa Sangre (1989), in which, according to Halliwell's Film Guide, "an armless but far from harmless mother forces her demented son to use his arms and hands as substitutes for her own, severed by her jealous husband". Perhaps a full-on mutilation movie isn't quite the thing for Christmas. There are knife fantasies enough over the average turkey dinner without them being projected on screen. Still, my point is that classic Christmas texts do acknowledge the horror and mayhem, before bringing us to a happier resolution. In that way, we have our fruit cake and eat it.

The defining text here is A Christmas Carol, a book that made its author so synonymous with Christmas that when he died (so the story goes) a London barrow girl was heard to say: "Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die, too?" What everyone remembers from it is the transformation of Scrooge from miser to cheerful philanthropist. But it wouldn't have survived as long as it has but for two other elements: the haunting of Scrooge by three ghosts, and the humour of his misanthropy ("Bah, humbug") before he sees the light.

The supernatural has always been part of Christmas. It's an acknowledgment of the alien threat beyond the cosy hearth. But the haunting of Scrooge, as he is forced to watch scary clips from Christmases past, present and future, speaks to more familiar adult dreads. Past Christmases link us to our losses - to people we loved who are no longer with us. Present Christmases, as enjoyed by others, fill us with envy - how much nicer and happier they seem than us. Future Christmases encompass the years when we'll be dead and forgotten - another bleak thought. This is the triple horror visited on Scrooge. No wonder he agrees to mend his ways.

Before he does mend them, Scrooge gets the best lines, like Milton's Satan. "Every idiot who goes about with Merry Christmas on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart," he says, and then fends off the man collecting for charity:

'What shall I put you down for?'

'Nothing!' Scrooge replied.

'You wish to be anonymous?'

'I wish to be left alone.'

The ending of A Christmas Carol is a turkey, as Scrooge buys a giant bird for the Cratchit family. But before letting us relax and tuck in ("God bless us, every one!"), Dickens rolls us through a bed of holly.

A Scrooge-like figure is essential to any Christmas classic. He's the Cromwellian Puritan trying to abolish it. Or the Grinch, in the Dr Seuss book, trying to steal it. Or the dangerous furry mogwais in Gremlins. Or the horrible tycoon Potter in It's A Wonderful Life. Or Raymond Briggs's Father Christmas, grumbling at all the blooming work. But really he's just us - a voice for the uncharitable sentiments provoked by shopping rage, charity tins, out-of-tune carol singers, office party hangovers and seasonal burnout.

One of the most interesting Scrooges of recent years is Nicolas Cage in The Family Man (2000), single, career-driven and still at his desk at 8.35pm on Christmas Eve. Then comes his redemption: just as George Bailey, in It's A Wonderful Life, is shown what life would have been like if he'd never been born, so Cage is shown what life would have been like if, 12 years earlier, he'd married his fiancee. Plunged into the parallel universe of a family Christmas, he's appalled by the shabbiness and suburbanism - but grows to love it and declines the chance to return to his old life.

Over the years, many writers have enjoyed playing Scrooge, or even Herod. "A slavering Niagara of nonsense," Larkin said of Christmas; an "atrocious institution", said Shaw ("We must buy things that nobody wants, and give them to people we don't like"); while Wendy Cope offers this: "At Christmas, little children sing and merry bells jingle,/The cold winter air makes our hands and faces tingle/And happy families go to church and cheerily they mingle/And the whole business is unbelievably dreadful, if you're single."

It can be a dreadful business for families, too, not least because of the pressure to be familial. "Petty jealousies and discords are forgotten; social feelings are awakened in bosoms to which they have long been strangers; father and son, or brother and sister, who have met and passed with averted gaze, or a look of cold recognition for months before, proffer and return the cordial embrace, and bury their past animosities in their present happiness... and all is kindness and benevolence": thus the radiant Dickens version. We know family Christmases aren't like this, but hope wants to triumph over experience - and when it doesn't, and the rows begin, there's a sense of failure and guilt.

In James Joyce's A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, an argument over Parnell breaks out during dinner, prompting Mrs Dedalus to put down her knife and fork: "For pity sake and for pity sake let us have no political discussion on this day of all days in the year." There's the dream: that for one short day, when days are their shortest, we be nice to each other. But in modern western societies, Christmas can stretch for 12 days. By the time schools go back and offices reopen to the sound of voices murmuring, "Thank God that's over", the murder rate has risen and therapists report a sharp upturn in business.

What we expect in modern accounts of Christmas is an ironic acknowledgment of this - but not too much. Christmas ain't like it used to be, and it never was, but, hey, we can all use a little nostalgia. Bill Nighy as the ageing rock singer in Richard Curtis's latest seasonal offering, Love Actually, is jokily upfront about his attempt to cash in on Christmas with a remake of Love Is All Around: the song is "shit", he says, solid gold shit. But the film affirms the idea that love, post 9/11, is all around, and that getting together with friends and families at Christmas is a jolly good thing.

Beyond the dross and cynicism, the search for the perfect Christmas continues. The plot engine of Jonathan Franzen's much acclaimed novel The Corrections, about five members of an American family, is the mother, Enid's, messianic determination to have "one last Christmas" - "one last really nice family Christmas" - before she sells up the large family house in midwest St Jude. By March, she has already extracted a promise from the youngest of her three grandsons, Jonah, to join her nine months hence. But corralling her grown-up children proves more difficult. Her daughter, Denise, is a workaholic chef. Chip, a failed screenwriter, has disappeared to Lithuania. And though Gary, Enid's other son, is more promising material, with children of his own, he has a wife, Caroline, who can remember how awful Christmas was the previous year (and how awful Enid's present to her was, a pink polyester bathrobe which she immediately deposited in the trashcan). "Gary, she is bonkers on the topic of Christmas," Caroline complains, and not only refuses to travel to St Jude but persuades her elder two sons not to go, either.

With so much stacked against her, including the mental and physical decline of her husband, Alfred, there seems no chance of Enid fulfilling her dream. And in the end even little Jonah stays home in the east playing computer games rather than join his grandma: "a parable of the crisis of moral duty in a culture of consumer choice". But for a few hours, miraculously, the five Lamberts do succeed in sitting at the same table together. The scene provides the novel with its climax, the reintegration of an atomised family, and in an epilogue we see how their lives are changed as a result. Franzen pulls off the classic trick - a dystopian portrait that none the less acknowledges the potency of Christmas.

I used to think the Americans had ruined Christmas by replacing Dickens with Disney. No point fighting it, I decided, and took the family to Florida, where we spent Christmas Day, in sunshine, at the Epcot Centre, and ate lunch in an aquarium restaurant watching sharks. But even down in Key West the traditional imagery of sleds and reindeer was pervasive. And the dominant face on the motel TV screen wasn't Mickey or Pluto but Santa Claus - an American invention, it's true, but one whose origins lie back in Europe, with St Nicholas.

In fact, the Americans and British have been in cahoots over Christmas for more than 200 years, swapping and refining each other's customs but studiously avoiding major innovations. Things are done in a certain way because they've always been done that way, and it's blasphemous to modernise the script. In a job on a newspaper's literary pages once, I was keen to publish a nativity ode by a highly respected contemporary poet. But, in its evocation of the holy birth, the poem used the image of afterbirth in a bucket, and the editor wasn't having it. It's no time of the year for iconoclasm.

Elvis Presley discovered this in 1957 when he recorded a rock version of Irving Berlin's White Christmas. The words were the same - "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas/Just like the ones I used to know" - but Elvis was the voice of reckless youth and all true Americans (Berlin included) were outraged. Blue Christmas, on the same album, was derided, too. Red, green and silver are allowable Christmas colours - but not yellow, blue or black. White remains the ideal: the white of snow; the white of fairy lights (coloured lights being naff); the white of Father Christmas's beard, which makes him look like an archetypal Dead White European Male, despite the fact that he's still living (and even though it's Mother Christmas who does all the work).

Christmases are traditionally white in the Wasp sense, too. When radio stations across the deep south refused to play the Elvis version of White Christmas, one of their objections was that it sounded "too coloured". You do see the occasional black person in Christmas movies, as housekeepers (It's A Wonderful Life, Miracle On 34th Street), criminals (The Family Man) or in bit parts (Love Actually). But Christmases as black people celebrate them have barely featured since the 1870s, when there was a brief vogue for magazine illustrations of poor black families in the deep south trapping possum for Christmas lunch or paying homage to Sandy Claws.

That snow is a compulsory motif at Christmas may be related to the fact that Dickens (so his biographer Peter Ackroyd tells us) experienced a white Christmas for the first eight years of his life. Most of us in the UK now have less chance of seeing snow on December 25 than we have of seeing a yeti. But the greenhouse effect has only increased the longing: la nostalgie de la neige. Macaulay Culkin stares out at snow at the end of Home Alone, and no Richard Curtis film would be complete without it. It's the comfort blanket covering all evils.

"Home" (spoken with a croaky ET tremor) is another key motif in Christmas texts. "Heaven's fallen sister - Home," Dickens once wrote, and most children, being xenophobes, agree it's the only place to be. But when there's an extended family and two sets of grandparents, definitions of home become vexed. In Home Alone, Culkin is left behind when his parents and siblings fly to Paris and fail to notice his absence - it's their punishment for taking fancy foreign holidays and his for saying "families suck". Left behind to defend the house, the eight-year-old survives two burglars, a suspected serial killer and an escaped tarantula. There's a similar act of child empowerment at the end of Love Actually, when an 11-year-old boy outwits airport staff at Heathrow to carry the message of love to his girlfriend.

Christmas is for kids, as people say. But there is always some horrible, killjoy child denying the existence of Santa. I became that kind of child myself at a village party 40-odd years ago when, after receiving my present from the great man, I sneaked outside for a look at his sled and reindeer - and found only a Morris Minor. In Miracle On 34th Street, a hard-bitten single mother brings her daughter up to disbelieve in Santa. These two snooty sceptics must be taught a lesson, and duly are. Their teacher and saviour is Kris Kringle, a department store Santa who, for claiming to be the genuine article, stands accused of being a liar and madman. He wins his case; the single mother gets a husband; and her daughter gets the family home she wanted. Such are the rewards of faith.

A comparison of the 1947 and 1994 versions of Miracle On 34th Street shows how little has changed: Santas, Scrooges, tests of faith, jokes, dangers, miraculous conversions - the basic Christmas ingredients stay the same. But there are subtle differences. In the 1947 black-and-white version, Imagination triumphs over Reason, and the dollar ethos is attacked ("There's a lot of bad isms floating round - but the worst is commercialism"). In the later film, consumerism is taken for granted, and the battle is between Faith and Atheism, with those rallying round Kris Kringle singing gospel music and waving banners that read "We Believe!" Dickens and Disney largely secularised Christmas, through a pagan imagery of fir, mistletoe, plum puddings, roaring fires and teddy bears. Christian fundamentalism seeks to restore the stable and crib.

What's also noticeable about the 21st-century Christmas is its lack of civic-mindedness. The Dickens version involves considering others less fortunate than oneself. And the joy at the end of It's A Wonderful Life is that of a whole community. There's no such wider vision in Home Alone, The Family Man, Love Actually or The Corrections, which celebrate family and friends but see outsiders - other people - as hell.

Still, it doesn't do to complain at Christmas, or you end up accused of Scroogism. Much easier to lie back and take in yet another romantic comedy. Hamlet or King Lear might be more stimulating; more appropriate, too. But not every Christmas offering is bland. Pay attention and you'll taste poison in the stuffing or hear gunfire when the cracker explodes. Merry Christmas!