The Christmas celebration is meaningless without the backstory. Trimming the tree, placing the wreathes, decorative lights, candles, brightly wrapped gifts lying beneath green branches are more than hollow traditions. The foundation upon which the festiveness of Christmas rests is its 2000-year-old backstory.
Traditionally, families of the Christian faith take time out from mirthful celebrating to recount how it all began. If I were making a movie with a Christmas motif, I’d probably, at some point, film a mother standing on a ladder placing an aluminum star on the pinnacle of a Christmas tree while her children look on. When she descends and claps the ornament’s year’s worth of dust off her hands, her cute-as-a-button 6-year-old daughter looks up and says, “Mommy, why do we put a star on the tree?”
What’s a Mom to say? Because it’s pretty? Because everyone else does? Because that’s what we always do? Because it guides Santa to the tree? No curious little inquisitor will be satisfied with that. Little ones have a keener ear than we might think when it comes to discerning truth. Except, of course, when it comes Santa, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny − fables that we so painstakingly perpetuate.
And so, Mom calls Father away from his session with the nightly news and presents him with the star issue. (I do not apologize for holding to this ancient view of family.) We cut to Mom and Father seated on the sofa with the children gathered around. What’s Father to do? Merely going back to how Christmas traditions developed in Medieval Days will only generate more questions and confuse the issue. An over-simplification such as, “Because it reminds us of the first Christmas,” leaves a dissatisfying vacuum. Nothing short of visiting the beginning will answer the question at hand: “Mommy, why do we put a star on the tree?” So, Father blows the dust off the family Bible, turns to the Book of Matthew, and begins reading, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise…” He doesn’t read the entire Book of Matthew. Too tiring and unnecessary. He draws out only the first eleven verses of Matthew Two.
When Father comes to the part that tells of the Wise Men following the star to the manger where they present their gifts, the curiosity of the little inquirer is rewarded. “Oh, so the star told them where to bring their presents.” She lifts her eyes to the star atop the tree, then scans the gifts strewn around beneath it. “And we put our presents where the star is shining, too,” she says while clapping with glee.
Christmas in this humble abode now assumes a texture that mere tinsel and lights could never provide. Backstory. It was necessitated by the occasion, and reached far enough back in time to provide a reasonable explanation of the matter at hand.
In this case, no fancy flashbacks were necessary. The action is in the reading, and telling; the intent listening; and the star, ablaze with reflected light from the fireplace. The camera works closeups of each family member that catches their sundry expressions as the story progresses; a wide shot of the whole scene; a tilt-up shot of the tree which comes to rest on the sparkling star; a close shot of Father’s index finger tracing the words in the book as he reads, etc. Without leaving the present scene, we see a quiet and profound transformation effected by a powerful backstory as it unfolds through the telling and listening, while enhanced by a setting rich with ties to the past.
How far and how much? As used in the Christmas scene above, one must reach back far enough to extract just enough information to answer the implied or expressed question at hand. Flashbacks that cut to a reenactment of the backstory are more often than not cheap and ineffective. A skilled writer and director find ways to utilize the elements of the “now” to effectively draw up water from the depths of the “then.”