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The Human Conditioner

Christmas, they say, is a time for sharing. They don’t specify what.

In a purely technical sense, I guess it could be argued that the implied notion is economic. Make like Scrooge and divest your holdings, even out the distribution of wealth, or at least make token offerings as those wise men of old are said to have done. In the more sophisticated marketing climate of today’s world, the crass reshuffling of the economic deck is disguised with a thick layer of sentiment that suggests we should all be sharing magical moments of connection and love, aided by the twinkling lights, sugar rush and the brute force of the piped-in holiday soundtrack.

And, just in case we haven’t figured out how to be merry enough on our own, there are the Christmas movies. There used to be just a couple. The classics – Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Charlie Brown’s Christmas. Then came more. A Christmas Story, Scrooged, The Santa Clause. By now it’s an entire genre, with more being added each year. I would argue that Die Hard is a Christmas classic. Not one for grandma, perhaps. But certainly full of the kind of crazy  lonely obsessive behavior that can overcome even the most mild-mannered among us when the holiday vice squeezes a little too hard.

But, among all those lists of holiday favorites, I never see mentioned my personal favorite, which I would like to share with anyone who is looking for something a bit off the beaten Christmas path. It’s an odd little comedy called Mixed Nuts. It was directed by Nora Ephron and stars Steve Martin as the harried director of a suicide prevention hotline on Christmas eve. The cast includes the late gifted comedienne Madeline Kahn, Juliette Lewis, Adam Sandler and more, including a surprise appearance by Liev Schreiber, whose scenes with Martin are worth the price of the film.

It’s a kind of screwy plot. But what makes it a great Christmas movie is that, while it touches lightly on familiar holiday tropes ranging from the insane pursuit of the perfect tree to the dangers of flying fruitcakes, it also builds to a kind of emotional epiphany centered on the real human core of the holiday – the need to feel some kind of connection, to have even a momentary glimpse of the meaning of all the insanity in the human condition. And that transcendent moment comes with a birth, just the way it did at the first Christmas.

The birth of child, at any time of year, breaks the spell of indifference and self-absorption that blinds humans much of the time. Every baby is nothing short of miraculous. What’s crazy is how quickly we forget, and go back to our hardened ways. By mid-January, not much of that Yule time mellow is left. Which is a shame, but there it is. It’s the human condition. We can’t really function in a state of joyous bliss. We have to get up and go to work, do the laundry, fix the broken world.

So, I guess it’s nice that  we get to have a few weeks in December when a lot of people are at least making an effort to be the kind of humans they’d like to think they were. More flattering, more generous, more forgiving, more patient. In this sense, Christmas does bring out the best in some people. It’s the human conditioner. It kind of rinses out the bitterness and brittleness, and leaves us more flexible, with a spring in our step, and for a few brief shiny hours, the world seems a better place, and we feel ourselves to be better people. And miraculously, we are.

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