buddyEvery year I assign myself the arduous task of watching my favorite Christmas movies. No, really–it’s hard! ABC Family and AMC, between them, have helped simplify things with their impressive array of holiday fare: all that’s left for me is to check the listings and set the DVR. But watching has gotten more complicated as the years have gone by. While I was single, or first married, Love Actually radiated from the TV while I ate a quiet dinner; Elf flew by as we enjoyed a glass of wine. Since I’ve had kids, my chosen films have aired in half-hour (or less) increments during nursing sessions, bottle feedings, present-wrapping, or while the iPad babysits the little ones.

The lack of movie-viewing time has led to a necessary culling of the list and prioritization of its contents. The year I gave birth to my December baby, my belly and I regularly sprawled out on the couch and opened that day’s Netflix offerings (this was back when Netflix was a mail service and we walked five miles in the snow to get to school). I had wisely surmised that this might be my last year of uninterrupted spectating, and I packed as many flicks as I could into those few weeks, with an emphasis on classic movies I hadn’t ever (and my husband wouldn’t ever–he’s not a fan of “old stuff” unless it’s me, hey-o!) seen. Which means that, though Holiday Inn and Meet Me in St. Louis were sweetly enjoyable, they won’t be occupying space on my Recordings list anytime soon.

No, I stick to the tried-and-true films that I can’t imagine not populating my holiday landscape. Recently, I added Home Alone back into the rotation after a night at the symphony left me in joyful tears over their rendition of the movie’s score. I remember seeing the comedy in the theater the year it came out, the seats so packed that my mom and sister and I had to sit separately. I’ve rarely felt as much a group participant as I was during those two hours of shouting, laughter, and applause at Kevin’s antics (another example: when Marty McFly performed his flawless skateboard move in Back to the Future; see also–a Lost season finale viewing at a bar in New York). The movie, like so many Christmas-themed ones, pairs with its own sets of memories from across the years–snapshots of my life annually. Turns out there’s a big difference between watching Home Alone as a child and after you have children.

grinchParenthood changes everything. Life becomes busier, grimier, and just brand new. Areas of my heart that I never knew existed are now open for business. My eyes and ears are different too: each news report carries personal implications for my children’s safety; the person who cuts me off in traffic is threatening my whole family; the smell of poo pervades everything.

When I watched Home Alone as a kid, I was mesmerized by the possibility of a few days without parental supervision. Kevin’s adventure tantalized me, and his bravery inspired both my admiration and shame (are you kidding? I would have hidden under the bed the whole time). This year when I watched, I couldn’t take my eyes off Catherine O’Hara. I silently applauded the writing of John Hughes and the direction of Chris Columbus, two men who manage to capture maternal love through phone calls and airport scenes (and a memorable trip in the back of a polka-band-populated truck), then bring it home in a brief interaction between mother and son at the end of the film. I can’t watch it without crying now: the apology, the forgiveness, the running hug. I see my boys’ faces in Kevin’s when he hears his mom’s voice behind him on Christmas morning, and I feel my own desperation for their safety and well-being as O’Hara bursts into the house to find him.

But besides the parental lens, the story now resonates on a Gospel-oriented level too–maybe because I’ve experienced more of that over the years too. Finding grace in holiday movies (or movies in general) is a field ripe for harvest–it’s the stuff of all great stories. But I drew a sharp breath this year when I noticed Old Man Marley’s hand, wounded and bandaged right in the middle. And how he designated himself the neighborhood salt-spreader. Not to mention that Kevin and Marley exchange words for the first time in a church–and there touch on themes of forgiveness and redemption that both encounter (and dole out) at the story’s end.

It’s rare to make a Christmas movie and not have it soaked in those themes: family, second chances, grace (then again, I haven’t yet seen Krampus). One of my other favorites, The Family Man, follows Nicolas Cage and his hair plugs through a sort of inverse George Bailey journey: he finds out what his life could have looked like (busier, grimier, brand new) if he had made different choices that didn’t land him in an apartment sparser than his plugs. In one memorable scene between him and his onscreen wife Tea Leoni, Cage’s character asks her if this is the life she imagined having.

Can you imagine a life where everything was just easy?…I think about it too. I wonder what kind of life I would have had if I hadn’t married you…and then I realize I’ve just erased all the things in my life that I’m sure about.

Moments like these, spread throughout the Christmas season, remind me why I watch these movies: to hear the same story, over and over. To preach the Gospel to myself. Because at their root, all of these moments and stories whisper a familiar name: the Advent of a savior who unshackles us from bondage to our old life and frees us into the one we’re meant for. The busy, grimy, messy, new one we’re meant for. And it’s in these moments, every year, where I find that what I had reduced to a list has become something greater than the sum of its parts. The law of a list has been transformed into a gift. A home even–designated not by geography but by history that writes my present and future.

So I watch the kid who gets lost, and then found, by family. I watch the investment banker who falls in love with the children and wife he never had. I watch another man find what the world would have looked like without him, and that he was never alone. I watch an oversized elf find his place and purpose. Then I behold what they all somehow manage to point to: the baby in a stable, the unlikely becoming true, home becoming a person.