A Newer, Sleeker Santa

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If you’ve had your fill of Christmas movies involving “Bad Santa,” “Bad Moms,” bad romances, bad vacations, bad neighbors, and bad families, move over. I’m with you. And don’t get me started on the pseudo-romantic claptrap that passes for Christmas music these days. If I have to hear one more diva warbling her new rendition of “Silent Night” as though it was the National Anthem at a basketball game or one more ingénue singing that all she wants for Christmas is a new boyfriend, I’ll, I’ll — well let’s put it this way: I’ll deserve that lump of coal in my stocking.

But just when I despaired of ever again seeing a worthy Christmas movie, along came a superb film in the unlikeliest of places: a made-for-Netflix production starring Kurt Russell as that right jolly old elf — only don’t call him “old,” and don’t call him fat!

The film begins with a video montage of joyful Christmases Past enjoyed by Doug (Oliver Hudson) and Claire (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) and their two children, Teddy (Judah Lewis) and Kate (Darby Camp). But this is not going to be a joyful Christmas. It’s the first one without Doug, a firefighter who lost his life by saving someone else’s. Kate, 10, still possesses an innocent belief in the magic of Christmas, but Teddy, 15, is at that age when it isn’t cool to believe in anything or like anyone in one’s family, and his cynicism is worsened by the recent loss of his father.

If I have to hear one more diva warbling her new rendition of “Silent Night” or one more ingénue singing that all she wants for Christmas is a new boyfriend, I’ll deserve that lump of coal in my stocking.

When Claire has to work at the hospital on Christmas Eve, Teddy is assigned to watch over his sister, and the Adventures in Babysitting begin. Kate, an avid videographer (as all young women seem to be these days) hatches a plan to catch Santa (Kurt Russell) on film, and through a series of unfortunate events they end upnot only stowing away on Santa’s souped-up sleigh but also causing him to crash the sleigh and lose his hat, his toy bag, and his reindeer. Unless they can fix the sleigh, corral the reindeer, recover the presents, and deliver them before sunrise, Teddy and Kate will have ruined Christmas. For everyone.

Kurt Russell is a delightful Santa. He isn’t all-knowing. He isn’t all-powerful. He isn’t fat (as he tells anyone who’ll listen), and he sings a mean bluesy “Santa Claus is Back in Town” while he’s sitting in a jail cell. In fact, he’s kind of like the perfect dad. Wink wink.

While Santa is busy saving souls and restoring the spirit of Christmas at the police precinct, the kids have to save the reindeer, the presents, the elves — and each other.

Vivacious, 10-year-old Kate has the innocent glow and easy wonder of childhood. Nothing is beyond her ability to believe, so she has nothing to fear — not when she’s clinging to a flying reindeer, not when she’s trapped inside a toy bag, and not even when she’s surrounded by a hoard of creepy elves. She’s sweet, spunky, and endearing.

Unless they can fix the sleigh, corral the reindeer, recover the presents, and deliver them before sunrise, Teddy and Kate will have ruined Christmas. For everyone.

Teddy is endearing too, but for different reasons. He has lost not only his belief in Santa but also his belief in God. He is lost and broken, and you just want to reach out and fix him. On the steps of a church where a choir is singing his father’s favorite hymn, “Oh Christmas Tree,” Teddy questions the meaning of sacrifice. “He had a wife and two kids, and he gave it all up to help some random strangers,” he laments bitterly, remembering how his father lost his life running into a burning house. I couldn’t help but think of Brent Taylor, the National Guardsman who left his wife and seven young children behind in Utah to serve a fourth tour of duty in the Middle East and was killed by an Afghan infiltrator last month. Shouldn’t some choices and responsibilities preclude other choices and responsibilities? When you choose to have children, especially that many children, shouldn’t you give up risky behaviors like skydiving, motorcycle riding, and fighting a war in some random nation on the other side of the world?

Of course, everything turns out right in the end. Christmas isn’t ruined, and we have a touching, sentimental moment to remind us of the true meaning of Christmas. Unfortunately, many a harried mother has been heard to utter those infelicitous words sometime during December: “You’ve ruined Christmas!” (I might have uttered them myself a time or two over the course of producing 45 Christmases for my family.) It stings, and children feel it. Moms feel it even more. But Christmas is a time for binding wounds, not picking at scabs. We all have the power to ruin Christmas, or to save it. The Christmas Chronicles prepares us to understand the truth about Santa — that his helpers don’t all live at the North Pole. They live in every house, every family, and in every heart where love is.

If you’re yearning for a Christmas movie that isn’t treacly and childish, isn’t cynical and offensive, isn’t about falling in love, and isn’t about dysfunctional families (all families have troubles, but that doesn’t mean they’re “dysfunctional”), this one is for you. It’s witty, sophisticated, adventurous, uplifting, and fun. Better yet, this first-rate, first-run film is available on Netflix in the privacy of your own home. I hope its title, The Christmas Chronicles, suggests another installment next year. Kurt Russell is a Santa to be reckoned with.

Just don’t call him fat.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Christmas Chronicles," directed by Clay Kaytis. Netflix, 2018, 144 minutes.



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Executive Privilege

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Like the Father or the Dog Just Died

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Leading up to Father’s Day, I count my victories in small bites. This month, it was a button.

While filling in my son’s information on ePACT, an online emergency preparedness resource for families, I noticed that on the mother’s page there was a button for "same address as child." For the father, there was no such button. I wrote a letter. Now fathers have a button too. A button-sized victory for dads everywhere. Well, for dads in British Columbia anyway.

There’s still a part of me that feels ridiculous writing complaint letters about these sorts of things. Two years ago, I would never have noticed the discrepancy. Who cares about a button? But after two years as a single dad — two years of dealing with gender-role stereotypes at nearly every level — there I was, not only noticing but writing letters.

Unfortunately, not every institution is as responsive as the nice folks at ePACT. There is, to pick on the local 800-pound gorilla as an example, Revenue Canada. Its policy for the Canada child tax credit explicitly and unabashedly discriminates based on gender: “If there is a female parent who lives with the child, we usually consider her to be [the primary caregiver]. However, if the male parent is primarily responsible, he must attach to Form RC66, Canada Child Benefits Application, a signed note from the female parent that states he is primarily responsible for all of the children in the household.” And if the female parent will not provide a signed note, then the burden of proof on the father is somewhere between that of a criminal trial and the Spanish Inquisition.

In my case, a sole-custody court order was deemed insufficient to prove that I have “primary responsibility” for my son. I was asked to provide letters from his school, from his afterschool activities, and from community leaders such as doctors and lawyers. For a mom, it’s automatic. For a dad, it’s a two-year treasure hunt.

But resistance is futile, so I tried to comply. In doing so, I noticed that my son’s elementary school had changed his student information from “Father has sole custody” to “Mother has sole custody” despite the fact that the school had a copy of the court order. Like ePACT, the school is full of good people. The teachers, the principal, everything about it is great, and it was apologetic about the error — a simple accident, not conscious discrimination. But even as an accident, it says volumes about social expectations. People assume that the mother is the caregiver to such a strong extent that it changes what they see on the page.

It’s somehow become socially acceptable (again) throughout North America to devalue a human being purely because of an identity-characteristic such as gender.

Dealing with this over and over has made me hypersensitive, a bit like a feminist in the 1980s. When my son’s teacher corrected his grade-one essay about his family from “My family is my dad, my mom, and . . .” to “My family is my mom, my dad, and . . .” I asked the teacher why. She told me I was “ridiculous” and “offensive” to bother her with such an issue. She was both right and wrong. It is ridiculous to complain about a simple swapping of the word order — though not that dissimilar from the campaign 20 years ago to change “businessman” to “businessperson” — yet when you correct a child you’re telling him he’s wrong, that he made a mistake. Why is it a mistake to put “dad” first?

When did it become such a bad thing to be male? Why has “testosterone” become a dirty word? Thinking about these things, I started to do something men don’t often do: I talked, communicated. First during poker games with friends who happened also to be single fathers. Then through a website I started for single dads, initially as a fitness site for dads with little spare time. And finally through systematic research for a book that grew out of this frustration.

What I’ve seen coming out of all this talking is that it’s somehow become socially acceptable (again) throughout North America to devalue a human being purely because of an identity-characteristic such as gender. In the US, President Obama's method of counting civilian casualties excludes all military-age males, within a strike zone, who have not been explicitly proven innocent. Meaning that it’s official government policy that in certain situations the simple fact of being male makes you guilty until proven innocent.

Here in Canada, we have a Ministry for the Status of Women — a cabinet-level government ministry — that publishes reports of journalists who write articles discussing the gender discrepancy that’s leaving boys behind in schools, and reframes this as a “hate” issue against women. A report from 2003 titled School Success by Gender: A Catalyst for the Masculinist Discourse, for example, argued for greater government monitoring of websites that seek to help boys in school or give fathers support in custody disputes. "Some masculinist groups use the Internet as a vehicle for hate-mongering against feminists. This accessible and virtually universal medium gives them the opportunity to say and post almost anything. It is no accident that this medium is being used by those on the extreme right, pedophiles and pornographers.”

This is not a fringe group writing. It’s a report for a government ministry associating men with pedophiles and pornographers simply because they are seeking each other’s support — something that women do far more naturally than men for reasons of culture and history. If men are forming support groups, if they’re seeking a greater role in caring for their sons and daughters, if fathers are engaged with their sons’ education and well being, then those are all good things. They should be encouraged. It means we’re slowly moving to a post-gender society. Ironically, however, all the institutions we’ve put in place to help enable that transition are precisely the ones that are now causing the greatest obstacles.

The philosopher Ivan Illich once pointed out that every institution gradually becomes counterproductive to its original intentions: the medical industry causes illness, educational institutions induce ignorance, the judicial system perpetuates injustice, and national defense makes a nation less secure. Similarly, the fight for gender equality has now made it almost politically incorrect to acknowledge equality among parents.

So let me put my cards on the table before I get added to the ministry’s list of “certain writers acting as the customary spokespersons for the masculinist discourse.” I’m not a misogynist. I’m not anti-feminist. I like feminists, and I have read more feminist literature than any man I know. I don’t agree with all of it. I tend to prefer French deconstructive feminists, such as Luce Irigaray, and literary ones such as Gayatri Spivak, over the more combative ones, such as Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon,who once wrote that "to be rapable, a position that is social not biological, defines what a woman is." Which inevitably implies that to be a rapist defines what a man is.But I’ve read them all, I appreciate them all, and I think it’s time for men to start learning from them all.

That's because it is time for a masculinist discourse to complement feminist discourse, especially in family matters where the unofficial policy often seems to be mirroring the official “guilty until proven innocent” approach to defining war casualties based on gender. We don’t need men shouting words like “feminazi,” which is the way masculinists are caricatured — but it's worth pointing out that to be a good feminist you also have to be a masculinist (and vice versa). I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to become as hypersensitive as I am now to missing buttons for the dad’s address or the constant bombardment of “man as idiot” commercials on radio and TV. But we do need to start some sort of conversation about gender that is rooted in today rather than in history. I have a son, and to me that trumps any notion of historical wrongs. I don’t want him to grow up voiceless, any more than a feminist 30 years ago wanted her daughter to grow up second class.

And if not for your sons who will one day become fathers, then do it for the girls. Because if you assume men cannot raise healthy, well-adjusted, and confident children just as well as women can, then you’re also implicitly re-opening the question of whether a female firefighter can perform certain rescues as proficiently as a stronger male counterpart.

In the song "Everybody Knows," Leonard Cohen sings the line, "You've got that broken feeling, like your father or your dog just died." Within family matters in North America it does sometimes seem that this is the status that fathers are assigned. So on this Father’s Day, let’s give the dads a promotion. Fathers are wonderful. They’re just as cool as mothers.




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