For many of us, this Christmas will feel a lot more like normal than last year. Notwithstanding concerns about new variants, in many places COVID restrictions on gatherings and face coverings are long gone, and we can attend Mass in full churches and host friends and family without legal implications or moral reservations. In other places, however, difficulties remain or have returned. For example, in the United Kingdom, it appears likely that up to four times as many people will be obliged to self-isolate at Christmas this year than last year. The Netherlands has locked down again. And things are grim in the New York City area too.
But whether it is business as usual or not, for a lot of people, this Christmas—like many Christmases—may still be a time of loneliness and hardship. “Normal” is not so good for a lot of people at this time of year. We miss people who have died, we regret relationships that have gone sour, and we feel the weight of pleasing others with gifts as prescribed by our consumerist culture. Among some Christian groups, there are even “Blue Christmas” services that acknowledge the shadow side of all the Hallmark cheer.
There are just a few great Christmas movies that speak to us honestly about the loneliness imbedded in the season for so many people. And none of them touch me more deeply than the 2002 film About a Boy, adapted from the novel by Nick Hornby and directed by Chris and Paul Weitz.
Will, played by Hugh Grant, is a loner, and a rich one at that, thanks to royalties from his father’s decades-old Christmas song “Santa’s Super Sleigh.” Although Will’s life within a self-constructed Gen-X slacker-verse has been made possible by a beloved piece of holiday kitsch, he hates Christmas, which is tied up in personal hurt and loss. As a result, Will tells us he usually chooses to spend Christmas with his blinds closed and lights off, watching videos and getting drunk and stoned alone.
Will believes his whole existence is a counterfactual to John Donne’s poetic truism “No man is an island.” Almost twenty years before COVID lockdowns, Will pretty much already lives the quarantine life, but with one exception: women. Amid his many casual relationships, Will cynically discovers that vulnerable single moms are particularly grateful partners, and he infiltrates SPAT (Single Parents Alone Together), inventing his own precocious two-year-old called Ned, whom he uses to meet Suzie.
Through Suzie, we meet Marcus, played by Nicholas Hoult, an awkward latchkey kid who attaches himself to Will in a hilarious scene where Marcus accidentally kills a duck on a picnic in the park. Soon, Will has a shocking introduction to Marcus’ mother, Fiona, played by Toni Collette, who has just attempted suicide. Will’s carefully curated and protected life as an island is suddenly ruined as he has no choice but to help a group of strangers get through a crisis. At the same time, Marcus’ young mind is spinning in the opposite direction from the solitary Will’s. With his mother in a state of severe depression, Marcus comes to realize that the twosome of his own life is not enough. “You need at least three,” he tells himself. It’s heartbreaking stuff, and precisely the sort of thing that weighs on many of us at Christmastime, but we are often ashamed to admit it. It may be easier to pretend “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” than face the deluge of what-ifs, whys, and hows that hit us all at once.
About a Boy unfolds as a funny, tender coming-of-age story that shows Marcus beginning to flourish as a young man, with Will’s island shrinking little by little as the two spend more and more time together. A beautiful soundtrack by the English singer-songwriter Damon Gough, who records under the name Badly Drawn Boy, completes a seamless co-mingling of pop music and cinema reminiscent of the Hal Ashby / Cat Stevens 1971 collaboration Harold and Maude. Gough sums up both the film and the theological depth of Christmas on the track “Something to Talk About,” singing, “The joy is not the same without the pain.” Marcus and Fiona invite Will to spend Christmas with them instead of in a solitary stupor. He accepts, but he then finds himself caught in the big lie about his fictitious toddler. Soon after, Will falls in love with Rachel, played by Rachel Weisz, and he invents new lies before finally being forced to disentangle himself from the nonsense that has enabled his selfishness for far too long.
Unbeknownst to the thoroughly secular characters in About a Boy, the Nativity of the Lord Jesus is an unveiling—an apocalypse—where God makes known for all people and places his plan to set the world straight. Christmas, therefore, is a time for truth, which can often be painful. Mary and Joseph certainly teach us a thing or two about embracing and living in the truth, no matter the consequences. And as St. John tells us in the prologue to his Gospel, Christ’s coming is not just truth, but the fullness of “grace and truth” (John 1:14). Although About a Boy never explicitly acknowledges the sacred meaning of Christmas, we finally see all the characters get out from behind grace-proof walls and enter a fuller version of reality. The community of hurting, healing people that gathers at the next year’s Christmas celebration in the final scene of About a Boy is a testimony to the unspoken truth of the season’s significance. It’s a “Silent Sigh,” as Badly Drawn Boy sings in one of the hit songs on the soundtrack—a prayer of gratitude like St. Paul’s “sighs too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26).
Whether this Christmas feels like a return to normal or not, and whether we find ourselves in a good place in life or struggling through a difficult season, we remember that no man is an island. And if we do find ourselves a bit lonely, watching About a Boy may just be the thing to help us cope.
Merry Christmas, dear readers. It is a privilege that you let me into your lives.