A British TV dramedy about high-school teens involved in endless sex ultimately reveals a lot about the challenges Christmas often poses.
Carolyn and I just finished season four (the final) of Netflix’s Sex Education, starring Gillian Anderson and a wonderful cast. Each season starts with copious sex but soon segues into the subject of relationships with families, friends, lovers and oneself.
The show ended mainly on an up note, although some relationships remained to be worked out and one ended. But all the characters—many of them LGBTQ—saw themselves in new, healthier ways.
How does Sex Education relate to Christmas?
Many people love the holiday but not the family bickering and resentments that come up. Holiday expectations run incredibly, often unrealistically, high. At Christmas, family difficulties are supposed to magically resolve, or disappear. Many people experience a different reality.
If only Americans could live the Hollywood Christmas dream. Tinseltown has created a vast number of heartwarming Christmas movies and TV shows. Most barely scratch the surface. A few classics have taken a darker approach to Christmas and other traditional family holidays before arriving at happily-ever-after.
Take Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). George Bailey (played by James Stewart) feels left behind in his small town, a loser. He wishes he’d never been born. An angel helps him discover the many lives he’s touched for good. George emerges from a suicidal funk to have a wonderful Christmas.
Thanksgiving poses the same dilemmas. In Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), John Hughes explores loneliness. Steve Martin, as an ad executive, intends to get home to his Chicago family following a New York business trip. A series of travel mishaps follows. They pair Martin with John Candy, a bubbly shower curtain salesman. Both make it to Chicago, but Martin discovers that Candy is a homeless widower. He brings him home. (What happens after to John Candy’s character we don’t know.)
Most viewers are delighted that everything works out well. But they know from their own lives that happy endings can be hard to come by. The same dynamic of tension, hurt feelings and loneliness often repeats Christmas after Christmas and during other holidays. Some people reach the point where they refuse to join their families, preferring to spend the day with friends—their chosen family—or by themselves.
A valuable perspective on family comes from this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash (Genesis 44:18–47:27). Dr. Naomi A. Steinberg, professor of religious studies at DePaul University, comments (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary) about Joseph. Jacob’s favorite son, birthed by his beloved Rachel, Joseph is sold into Egyptian slavery by his jealous brothers. After trying circumstances, the family reunifies.
Dr. Steinberg: “The family is only a family when all its members acknowledge their connection and unite to support each other. The travails of this family illustrate the messiness and unpredictability of human emotions. Rather than be angry at his brothers for what they did to him in the past, Joseph is now grateful for their presence in his life. Moreover, the story establishes the importance of the capacity of human beings to forgive each other.”
If you’re celebrating Christmas, may you give and receive forgiveness. And may you take comfort in acknowledging that we and our families don’t have to be perfect.
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