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A Gremlin’s Guide to Gift-Giving} ?> For the past five or six years, my mother-in-law has been trying— unsuccessfully, I might add—to start a new Christmas tradition of giving only handmade gifts within the family. The admirable idea behind this is the desire to resist the increasing commercialization of Christmas by giving thoughtful, personalized gifts without spending a lot of money. It draws the sharp and important distinction between the importance of “gift-giving” as an integral part of Christmas and “commercialization,” with an emphasis on consumption and greed.
The importance of gift giving as an aspect of the holiday season precedes the Christianizing of the winter solstice festivities. In the gospel account of the nativity, the Magi from the East brought gifts— gold, frankincense and myrrh (“but don’t worry too much about the myrrh next time”)—to the Christ child to acknowledge the importance of his birth. And we’ve all had to suffer through the terrible, endless carol, “The 12 Days of Christmas.”
Only a few Christmas movies (my preferred favourite holiday tradition) touch on the theme of gift giving with any real intentionality. There’s A Christmas Story, of course, which is more about being wary of what you ask for—You’ll shoot your eye out, Ralphie! But the only Christmas movie I can think about that treats seriously the importance of gift-giving is Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984). Now, in the interest of full disclosure, my holiday watching tends towards the more metaphysical stories about the cosmic importance of the individual: A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, etc. And yet, when it comes to a reflection on the importance of gift-giving, few films come close to the astute allegory that is Gremlins.
When you strip away all the rubber monsters and Phoebe Cates, at the heart of Gremlins is a failed salesman’s attempt to win his son’s love with a present. It’s a warning about how an awful, thoughtless gift, a gift that doesn’t take into account the receiver, can destroy lives.
Isn’t this really all about Rand? Not Billy? After all, he encourages Billy to open his gift before Christmas because it’s so special, making all the other gifts for Billy less important.
Rand’s decision to purchase the Mogwai is deeply suspicious. Why is he searching for a gift for his son, who’s probably in his early 20s, in a Chinatown magic shop? Is there anything in the film to suggest that Billy, who works in a bank, likes comic books and toys, has any interest in mystical Asian objects? So, when Rand tells the owner of the store that the creature is exactly what he’s been looking for to get for his son, can we believe him? Has he really been looking for a previously unknown creature for his son who already has a beloved pet dog?
Rand fails to recognize that Billy’s dog, Barney, is under threat from the town crank, Mrs. Deagle. He makes callous remarks about the Mogwai replacing the dog as people’s pet of choice. In fact, once the Mogwai begin to reproduce (it only takes water after all), Rand only sees the moneymaking possibilities, not the increased responsibility that falls to Billy or the inherent dangers implied in the various and vague warnings: don’t get them wet, don’t expose them to direct light, don’t feed them after midnight. While he listens to the warnings, and passes them along to Billy, he never thinks to ask the shop owner about the consequences of violating these odd restrictions. And why would he? Rand is not really considerate about the well being of this strange creature or the demands of caring for such a pet; he only wants to be the “cool dad” who buys his kid an awesome gift, whether the kid appreciates it or not.
Gifts are an important part of the Christmas holiday. Well wrapped presents under a decorated tree are as important a visual of the spirit of the holiday as eggnog is. Gifts can show our family and friends how important they are; they can make our loved ones feel special. But the gift needs to be a reflection of both the person giving the gift and the person receiving. It should be something that speaks to the individual and the unique relationship you share. When people buy gifts without thought or consideration, they are potentially, like Rand, destroying Christmas and maybe the whole city.
P.S. Michael Boyce loves gifts (http://www.amazon.ca/gp/registry/wishlist/ref=nav_wishlist_btn).
Michael teaches English Literature and Film Studies. He is a professor at Booth University College in Winnipeg and his other publications are scholarly works. He's published on Hitchcock, Alec Guinness and James Bond. He likes coffee. A lot. And Jonah Ray follows him on Twitter.