The holidays will soon be upon us, and with them come all sorts of rituals and traditions in which families and individuals participate. Pop culture is a part of many of these time-honored acts, with people popping in their favorite holiday films and music to get them properly in the mood. And while there is a bevy of winter holiday film classics to choose from, why isn’t there a go-to Thanksgiving film? The day itself is rife with comic and dramatic possibilities, metaphors revolving around family or tradition, but there isn’t as deep a list of Thanksgiving films when compared to Christmas, Halloween, Valentine’s Day or even Fourth of July.
When asking people about their favorite Christmas films, there’s a wide host of answers, from “It’s A Wonderful Life,” “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” and “A Christmas Story,” to alternative offerings like “Die Hard” and “Gremlins.” Heck, there’s even a whole subgenre of horror films set around Christmas like “Silent Night, Deadly Night,” “To All a Goodnight,” “Krampus” and “Black Christmas,” among many others. But when thinking about films that people watch during the Thanksgiving season, that number dries up pretty quickly. “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” is probably the closest to a “classic” film for the holiday, but even that really doesn’t deal with Thanksgiving at all (it culminates in attending the meal) and instead is more about holiday travel.
Many people might chime in with “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving,” but that’s not even the premiere “Peanuts” special, maybe ranking third best behind Christmas and Halloween. To be sure, there have been multiple films set on or around Thanksgiving – “Dutch,” “Home for the Holidays,” “Pieces of April,” “Son in Law,” and even this year’s “Almost Christmas” – but none have punctured the pop culture zeitgeist like so many of their Christmas brethren. None of these films have inspired 24-hour marathons on cable, and fewer still have embedded themselves into people’s traditions of what to watch on the big day (or in preparation for it).
The lack of quintessential Thanksgiving films is odd because the holiday itself is perfect for dramedy, quirky comedies, feel-good family films, and even a horror film or two. While Christmas carries with it religious connotations, and every family celebrates it differently, the basic tenets of Thanksgiving are pretty universal, at least in the good old US of A. Sure, there’s some deviation in the menu, or if people watch football or something, but mostly it’s a gathering of friends and family to eat a delicious feast and give thanks for the company and remembrance of days gone past. That seems like it has immense potential to either do a biting commentary on the gluttony of a nation, the hypocritical elements of the first Thanksgiving and America’s later treatment of indigenous people, or even just to mix it up between family members with opposing viewpoints. But most of these messages and themes have already been co-opted into Christmas movies.
So why is this? Perhaps part of it is that, despite the best efforts of marketing gurus and corporations, Thanksgiving simply isn’t as commercialized as the December holidays. As soon as Halloween ends, it’s not Thanksgiving decorations that go up but instead a pivot towards Christmas decorations and offerings. There’s no presents to be exchanged, no traditional Thanksgiving ornaments or accoutrements to hang up in the house, and thus there’s very little (outside of food) to offer for consumption. Without the market driving the masses towards buying stuff they don’t need for folks they barely like, there’s not much of a manufactured audience for Thanksgiving and not much of a payoff for companies to reap.
Another reason could be that it is a quintessential American holiday (though there are other countries, like Canada, with their own version of a feast celebration). With foreign markets becoming more important for film studios, they tend to dictate what American companies are making. A Thanksgiving film would not fare that well overseas in many places, whereas a Christmas movie will play in many countries (plus have high replay value in the U.S. on TV). So perhaps the reluctance of producers to invest in something that will only play regionally, along with the shrinking demand of mid-tier films in general, is another deterrence to making these films.
Lastly, perhaps the holiday doesn’t lend itself to very many pop culture traditions. Sure, there’s the Macy’s parade, the football games and some other activities, but it’s not so much about experiencing something en masse rather than doing something intensely personal and unique. The various foods that are included reflect different families’ tastes and growth through generations; the mixing of older and younger people with their myriad of ideas (and topics to avoid). While this is no doubt rife for comedic effect and has been used by those films for that purpose, it also makes it hard to cast generalities. Maybe that’s why “Planes, Trains And Automobiles” works as close to a classic as possible – it’s about the journey and coming together but foregoes the actual holiday itself. It’s more about the frustrations of traveling during the holidays and the weird bedfellows (literally) we make in our holiday dealings, but it ultimately does come down to the message of being inclusive and thankful for what we have, in whatever form that may take.
In the end, there may never be a classic Thanksgiving film that millions watch in their homes on Thursday night. Many of the classics, like “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Story,” only became classics because of copyright loopholes that made it cheap to broadcast for television stations. That repetition bred familiarity and adoration, while there are no such films looking to be exhumed by the same legal means. But perhaps that’s okay. Families are becoming something quite different these days, with youngsters and outsiders forming their own familial tribe out of friends and loved ones rather than blood relatives.
So while the holiday is ripe for some classic film to come along and be played ad nauseam on television or home video, perhaps it’s more fitting that these new family structures find their own films that best represent family and thankfulness to them. Maybe “The Incredibles” or “The Fountain” or who knows what else could slide into that slot and fulfill the same ideal as so many classic Christmas films. Maybe the message of Thanksgiving is so elevated that it foregoes commercialization and mass marketing, and therefore returns to the personal once again. Or maybe we should all give “Son in Law” a serious re-watch (please note: don’t do this).