Storylines In Review

The Midwinter Crisis Storyline | Introduction

A sad tale's best for winter... - Shakespeare, The Winter's Tale

Storyline - During midwinter, the protagonist must confront a personal crisis brought on by seasonal events or conditions.

This story setup is one where the protagonist must confront a personal crisis over the midwinter period, brought on by seasonal events or conditions. It’s a setup most people can relate to, for the Xmas break is a stressful time, with family issues, the over-commercialisation of Xmas, work worries, winter depression etc. There’s the stress of family reunions and stayovers at Xmas, and then there’s also the can’t-get-a-date-on New-Year's-Eve issue for the unattached. People often get sick over the break due to stress knocking their resistance down. Hospitals and casualty wards fill up with accident as well as crime victims. And all this looms in the background of a time of forced merriment, when people are expected to show good cheer and goodwill towards all men.

Right - Scenes of traditional holiday celebrations set the stage for the drama: [1] BBC's Lark Rise To Candleford [2010], from the autobiographical novels of Flora Thompson; [2] Sleepless In Seattle [1993] written by Jeff Arch, David S. Ward and director Nora Ephron


This is a storyline which allowed both realist and romantic schools to be reconciled via so-called magic realism - where magic elements play a part in an otherwise realistic environment. In Dickens's classic A Christmas Carol, Scrooge's experience can be seen from a realist perspective as just a vivid nightmare (which Scrooge attributes to food poisoning), or from a romantic/gothic viewpoint as an actual visit by intervening spirits. 'Xmas miracle' stories would continue to involve mysterious visitants on a mission to instil true Xmas values among protagonists who have lost sight of them. Again, there is a useful ambiguity at work as to the nature of the mysterious visitant who sets the protagonist straight or fixes up their key social relationship, and then vanishes. Miracle On 34th Street in 1947 seems to have been the first work with an ambiguous finale challenging the viewer to wonder - in this case if 'Kris Kringle' was not just an eccentric but the real Santa. (The child in the story believes it; the adults are left wondering.)
The implied identity of The Xmas Visitant is usually a guardian angel assigned to prevent the protagonist losing faith. While this is explicit in a few instances such as It's A Wonderful Life, it is usually only implied or left ambiguous at the end, as in Noël [2004], written by David Hubbard, which has a contemporary NYC setting.
Even in that perennial xmas-tv staple, the animated film of Raymond Briggs's The Snowman [right], the boy's magical snowman friend has melted away with the thaw in the morning. That night-time magic ride to the North Pole - was it all just a dream? Briggs himself has said the work is misunderstood: it is not really about Christmas, but about coming to terms with death or loss.


Standard Setups and Scenes: These include the ‘Haunted By Past Sins Nightmare’; The 'Home For The Holidays' Family Reunion; The Winter Wonderland; The 'Snowed In' Setup; The Quiet-Xmas Disrupted; The Xmas Visitant; The Lovers' Year-End Rendezvous; The Winter Walkabout; The Magical Sleigh Ride; The Santa Disguise; The Home-Truths-Will-Out Confrontation; The Reconciliation; The Communal-Xmas-Song; The Xmas Party; The 'Xmas Miracle' Ending; The Family-n-Friends Feast; The 'New Man Awakes' Redemption.

Right: [1] The Magical Sleigh Ride scene from Santa Claus The Movie [1994] and [2] The Xmas Party scene from Doctor Zhivago, where Lara shoots Komarovsky


The 'Home For The Holidays' Family Reunion Setup - This in turn leads to the Home-Truths-Will-Out Confrontation scene.

Left: The dreaded Xmas family getogether in The Lion In Winter (1968) as envisaged by playwright and scriptwriter James Goldman. This has a [fictitious] Xmas reunion among the Plantagenet dynasty in France in 1183, The ageing Henry II, his estranged wife Eleanor of Aquitaine and their adult sons get together to argue over who should inherit the throne, and possibly also Henry's young French mistress.

History: The storyline's popularity largely goes back to one work, Dickens's 1843 A Christmas Carol, which was an unprecedented success, for it was effective as both a romantic and a realist work. It is sometimes credited with inventing Christmas as we know it today. Dickens introduced an an early form of magic realism (an all too real ‘nightmare’ sequence) to explore the memento-mori aspect of the midwinter holiday. There are over 80 screen versions. (See illustrations below from the 1951 and 1970 versions.)

This is also the progenitor of the second-chance-in-life storyline, where the protagonist has an experience that changes his value and lifestyle. In this case, he is prompted by a trio of vision-enabling spirits sent in by the ghost or ‘shade’ of Scrooge’s late, equally miserable partner Marley, who wants Scrooge to avoid sharing the same earthbound fate. Scrooge ends up promising, “I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future” – i.e. recognising in future the consequences of his actions.

Its subtitle is ‘Being A Ghost Story Of Christmas’ and its ghost-story aspect no doubt helped popularise the ‘Ghost Story For Christmas’ as a traditional form of public entertainment, which would be maintained on British tv for many years.  

Right: Dickens's 1843 A Christmas Carol went through innumerable editions. A pair of stills from illustrated 19C editions.


Left and below: The storyline gets many elements, including its traditional happy ending in the form of the 'new man awakes' transformation scene, from A Christmas Carol. [Screenshots from the 1951 and 1970 versions]

Left: Despite there being nearly a hundred screen versions to date, most people consider the 1951 British production, titled Scrooge, with Alastair Sim, to be the definitive one.

Settings: Because writers utilise the full range of seasonal occasions, our 'midwinter' setting here extends from the start of 'full-on' winter with the first blizzards around Thanksgiving, right through to early February. Writers wanting to avoid the looming sentimentality of the Xmas period can opt here for an earlier or later setting, between Thanksgiving at the earlier end, and sometime after NY's on the other, in January. (The late time-setting here, Candlemas on Feb. 2 [halfway point between midwinter solstice and spring equinox] seems to be limited to a single usage, which has got the occasion known by the popular name of Groundhog Day).
Nevertheless the usual setting is the midwinter break / Xmas vacation period from Xmas Eve through New Year’s. Traditionally 'Christmastide' extends to Twelfth Night alias the Feast Of The Epiphany on Jan 6th, which was Old Christmas before the British calendar was advanced by 11 days in 1753 to bring it into line with the Gregorian Calendar, and is a setting in some older works such as James Joyce's The Dead and a scene in Dickens's 1843 A Christmas Carol, where Scrooge observes a Twelfth Night children's party from his youth.

The main requirement is a full-on winter setting with freezing temperatures and snow on the ground, the frozen landscape being symbolic of character stasis even where it is simply in the background and not an active element. See our feature page on this for examples:

The 'Midwinter Crisis' Storyline | Setting The Scene In The Bleak Midwinter


Being socked in by winter fogs and snows can drive some people mad. Still from The Shining [1980], from the Stephen King novel.

However, it's not enough for a 'midwinter crisis' story simply to be set during the midwinter break. Seasonal events, such as holidays, or conditions, such as a blizzard, really need to be part of the story setup or development. For example, the remake of the hitman's revenge-quest story Get Carter (2000) is set just before Xmas in Seattle, so there are xmas-background trimmings to evoke the "season of goodwill to all men" for a bit of crude irony; but the story does not depend on this, cf the 1970 Newcastle-set original.
On the other hand, the Xmas setting is central to another hitman drama, Allen Baron's location-filmed cult indie noir Blast Of Silence [1961], pictured below. Here, the restless neurotic hitman finds his personal and professional lives unravelling disastrously when he tries to fit in a 'normal' Christmas break to fill in the time while walking the NYC streets following his next target.
Right: The cult Australian film Wake In Fright [1971], adapted by Evan Jones from the Kenneth Cook novel, is set over the Xmas break but would not normally be classed as a midwinter crisis story as it lacks any of the usual trimmings, since the seasons are reversed down under, so that this is the hottest time of year.

Above: Another pair of examples where the Xmas setting is or is not crucial to the drama in question. (Mouse over photo to see 2nd image.) [1] The 1914 ''Xmas truce in the trenches' incident was dramatised in Sainsbury's 2015 Xmas ad. Before that, it was the centrepiece of the 2006 film Joyeux Noël, which showed the background of events before and after the famous incident. [2] On the other hand, the 'execution in the snow' sequence in The Victors [1964] is set Xmas Eve simply for added irony - so that sentimental Xmas songs can be heard on the soundtrack as the US army deserter is executed in a snowbound landscape. (There was only such execution in WW2, that of Pvt Slovik, which took place on Jan 25th, in the courtyard of a French farmhouse.)


Unlike in other storylines, the exact time-setting is an essential component, with different plot setups attached to different occasions.

The earliest time-setting here is usually Thanksgiving, with the Thanksgiving-weekend family getogether the basic setup.

A Thanksgiving supper scene is not necessarily the centrepiece, though it can be included to demonstrate a dysfunctional family setup, as in The Accidental Tourist (1988), scripted by Frank Galati and director Lawrence Kasdan from the Anne Tyler novel. The time-setting is often the entire Thanksgiving weekend, and the two 1970s Connecticut commuter-belt families in The Ice Storm [1997] (scripted by producer James Schamus from the Rick Moody novel) are hit by various kinds of personal crisis, among both parents and teenage children, in the midst of the sexual-revolution-hits-suburbia Seventies.

Right - [1] A dysfunctional family gathers for a fraught Thanksgiving supper ("Are you sure the turkey's cooked enough?") in The Accidental Tourist (1988) and [2] The Thanksgiving-weekend wife-swapping 'key party' from The Ice Storm [1997].

In much of North America, late November often sees the first blast of wintry weather, and this is sometimes worked into the story setup. Dramatists and novelists sometimes have the first big blizzard of the year occur right at the Thanksgiving weekend, as in The Ice Storm. Here, a deadlier type of storm than usual precipitates the tragic accident which allows the two dysfunctional families to overcome their selfish preoccupations.

A Thanksgiving-weekend blizzard is used to strand the protagonists together in the tv movie One Special Night [1999], adapted by Nancey Silvers from Jan Hartman's play A Winter Visitor. Two strangers, a mismatched duo (played by Julie Andrews and James Garner), shelter overnight in a handy unoccupied holiday home after her car goes into a snowdrift.

The Xmas-launch Thanksgiving parade is where the story, by Valentine Davies, of Miracle On 34th Street (1947 etc), begins. It was originally titled The Big Heart before being changed to reflect the address of the famous NYC department store which sponsored the Santa parades (Macy's on West 34th Street.) The store’s hired Santa impersonator is sacked for drunkenness and replaced by a passing look-alike … who just happens to be the real Kris Kringle (presumably visiting NYC incognito). Valentine Davies’s story setup was so popular that a 1947 novella, two 1950s live tv versions, a 1973 tv-movie and finally a colour widescreen feature version followed, in 1994. The 1947 b&w version became an annual tv favourite, and was digitally colourised for this purpose.
Both Miracle On 34th Street and Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story [filmed 1983] cover the month from Santa’s arrival at the department store Thanksgiving Parade, where Santa hears the young protagonist’s Xmas wish, to Xmas morning, when gifts are opened and the wish may or may not have come true.
This month-before-Xmas is also a setting in adult comedy-dramas, like the portmanteau romcom Love Actually (2003) which features in its 135 minutes 8 different London couples in the month before Christmas. The one moving moment in it occurs in the Xmas-morning gift-opening scene, when a husband's present to a wife leads her to realise he has been unfaithful, but under the circumstances she cannot reveal her true feelings.
Love Actually (2003), written by its director Richard Curtis, is a compendium of standard scenes (some would say cliches). As well as the gift-opening surprise moment, there is everything from a Xmas staff party to a Xmas pageant. There was even to be an 'angel' character [Rowan Atkinson's], but this idea was dropped during production.

The launch of the Xmas shopping season of course excites children looking forward to presents, but for many adults, it is probably the starting point of winter depression. Some films begin with this commercial event and run right through the Xmas-shopping season to end at Xmas. In many western countries this is also the start of Advent, a month-long period ending on Christmas Eve, but these days it is more what we might call the Xmas-Shopping Period, complete with its own sales dates, starting with Black Friday and Cyber Monday, which occur right after Thanksgiving Thursday.

Right - Dramas are often set over this runup-to-Xmas month, ending Xmas Day, as in the 1965 tv special A Charlie Brown Christmas, from the Charles M Schulz comic strip (“Christmas time is approaching and Charlie Brown knows that he should be happy, but he really isn’t. He’s focused on the overwhelming commercialism that is all around him.”). It is credited with being a trendsetter here ("Schulz commenting on the commercialization of Christmas resonated with people").

Christmas Eve is last chance to complete Xmas shopping, and this can cause a last-minute crisis for the parent unable to obtain a wanted gift. The 1996 Jingle All The Way, written by Randy Kornfield and producer Chris Columbus, is a satire of last-minute xmas-shopping panics, with a pair of fathers in Minneapolis trying desperately on Christmas Eve to obtain an action-figure toy that is all the rage with kids that year.

Stories set across the year sometimes have an epilogue at Xmas, it being easy to indicate the passage of time with some Xmas trimmings. For example, The Man Who Loved Women (1983), the 1983 US remake of Truffaut's 1977 film, begins and ends on 21 December, with the protagonist, distracted by women as ever, being knocked down while out Xmas shopping. The ‘almost-affair’ romantic drama Falling In Love (1984) written by Michael Cristofer literally bookends the story thus. It ends as it began, a year on after the protagonists’ first meeting with the pair again xmas shopping in a bookstore, their final constrained farewell just a “Merry Xmas” exchange [scene on YouTube here].

One final hurdle for the protagonist in the run-up to Xmas may be Office Xmas Party Day, with its opportunity for inappropriate behaviour. In Bridget Jones's Diary, Bridget’s penchant for drunken karaoke singing (usually alone at home) gets the better of her at the office party. The last Friday before Xmas, known as Mad Friday [see above] is also known as Black Eye Friday due to the number of drunken fights, and Bridget's two male rivals end up in a brawl over her.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy [2011] – the MI6 office Xmas party sequence where the staff stand as a Leninist flat-cap version of Santa leads them in a chorus of the Communist anthem. (The white-haired gentleman at right is author John le Carré - the singalong may well be a genuine MI6 Saturnalian tradition.)

The 2011 film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, adapted by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan from John le Carré's 1974 novel, adds an MI6 office Xmas party sequence not in the novel or earlier BBC TV version. This is intercut into the main narrative several times, to introduce character relationships, notably the protagonist discovering a colleague seducing his wife [clip here].

The office party in The Apartment [1960], written by I.A.L. Diamond with director Billy Wilder, set at a large NYC insurance corporation, has echoes of the Roman Saturnalia, when the slaves had license to mock their masters. With inhibitions lowered by alcohol, the occasion can be used by dramatists as an opportunity for characters to make fools of themselves or get caught out in some indiscretion. Here, the heroine reluctantly attends a ‘swinging’ office party at a large NYC insurance company, and is told by a drunken colleague her office romance with her manager is merely part of a long series of such relationships by a manipulative boss [clips here and here]. Both she and the male protagonist quit their jobs in protest at the sexual politics.
Right: The Apartment [1960] - Something of the Roman festival of Saturnalia, when the usual rules of conduct were waived, seems to survive here in the office workers Xmas party.

The Apartment is a favourite with some among Xmas films, being set Nov-Dec with climactic events starting with the Xmas office party and ending NY's Eve. (Below, a screenshot from The Guardian)

This setting of a Xmas Eve office party was the basis of Die Hard (1988) being voted 'greatest Christmas movie' by Empire film magazine in 2015. The party, atop an LA office tower, ends with attendees being taken hostage and a lone cop violently sabotaging their heist plan.

As adapted by Steven E. de Souza and Jeb Stuart from Roderick Thorp's 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever, the Nakatomi Corporation office Xmas Eve party atop an LA skyscraper is taken over by a gang who hold everyone hostage except the protagonist, an off-duty cop who happens to be in the bathroom.

Christmas Eve must certainly be the worst time of year to become unemployed. Being given notice can of course happen then, this being the last working day of the calendar year.

Holiday Affair [1949], scripted by Isobel Lennart and John D. Weaver from his story 'Christmas Gift', combines the being-sacked and Xmas-eve shopping setups. It has the protagonist, a war veteran, lose his job as a toy store clerk on Xmas Eve for helping a young war-widow and single mother with a Christmas shopping refund for a toy train set she cannot afford. Romantic complications ensue: she is to marry a lawyer on New Year's Day but invites the now homeless store clerk to Christmas dinner, leading to a 3-way bustup which is finally resolved by a reunion on New Year's Eve. Released on Xmas Eve 1949, it was not initially a success but when tv arrived in the 50s, became a Xmas-tv perennial, and was remade in 1996 for network tv.


Despair on Xmas Eve at financial ruin comes to a head in It's A Wonderful Life [1946], scripted by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett and director Frank Capra, which opens with a small-town banker contemplating suicide on a bridge. This prompts the intervention of a guardian angel who shows him what life in his town would have been like had he never been born. As in A Xmas Carol, the story opens and closes on Xmas Eve, most scenes being "life-review" flashbacks.

Though it became a xmas-television perennial in America, it was initially considered rather 'dark' in its outlook, and was even investigated by the FBI as communist propaganda, due to its 'obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore, who had earlier played Dickens's Scrooge, as the villainous banker.

The midwinter period is the background for many a domestic-crisis drama, with the week before Xmas the favoured seasonal setting. Below are stills from a pair of examples of a marital crisis developing in the runup to Xmas - [1] Eyes Wide Shut and [mouse over photo] [2] Tennessee Williams's Period Of Adjustment [filmed 1962], set Xmas Eve.

Below: In Eyes Wide Shut [1999], updated from Arthur Schnitzler’s 1925 Vienna-set novella Traumnovelle (Dream Story), the protagonist, a married NYC doctor, becomes restless in the runup to Xmas and steps out of his safe existence. He wanders off alone for a couple of sexual adventures, to Greenwich Village and a country estate, with frightening results. The novella was set during Mardi Gras in February (hence the masked balls motif), but that did not fit the modern NYC setting, where the orgiastic masked gatherings initially have the outward semblance of a year-end fancy dress party.

Certainly, ‘family xmas’ getogether setups have their own inherent tensions, and in the hands of many a dramatist, lead to confrontations over long-standing issues, which have been simmering away for years and only come to a boil at Xmas.

Family 'togetherness' can be too much of a good thing over the holidays.

The tensions of the familial Xmas reunion visit are satirised in Alan Ayckbourn's 1980 play Season's Greetings, one of his provincial-suburban comedies, does not seem to date, with its brittle pretense of Xmas cheer and conversations about repetitive or violent Xmas tv. (The 1986 110-minute BBC TV version runs periodically at Xmas on BBC4.) Part farce, part satire, it has 9 adults locked in together over a 4-day period, with its 4 scenes set Xmas Eve, Xmas Day, Boxing Day, and 'Next Morning'.

Since at least the 1970s in America, there’s been a whole strand of made-for-tv-xmas movies, usually produced for the Hallmark Channel, which end happily, with family members hugging in front of the Xmas tree. (Hallmark made their money from greeting cards sales.) This is the leave-you-feeling-good romantic approach to the xmas-crisis story, where problems are only temporary, resolved by the end of Xmas break.


Right: The Gathering (1977), written by James Poe, was not made by the Hallmark Studio and was one of the less sentimental examples of the made-for-tv-xmas movie, with the gruff family patriarch trying to repair relationships via a xmas getogether as he is dying of cancer.

It may be unfair to imply this is a sentimental US approach. The prototype seems to be a postwar British play, The Holly And The Ivy [UK 1952] by Wynyard Browne [1911-1964], a West End stage hit adapted for the screen by Browne and Anatole de Grunwald in 1952. This is regarded by some as the first realist ‘Xmas movie’. Only 83 minutes long, it has also been called the "Christmas movie for people who don't like Christmas movies," and handily compresses its problem-and-reconciliation development into two [rather than three] acts, set Xmas Eve and Xmas morning. (See below.) The longstanding inability to communicate between generations is cleared up in time for the principals to attend the 11am Xmas morning carol service. (There is a fan-made musical montage on YouTube, here.)

Adapted for the screen by Wynyard Browne and Anatole de Grunwald from the 1950 play by Browne, it is regarded as the first realist drama dealing with the generation gap in this context. The story is set at a parsonage in snowy Norfolk, where the family is gathering for Xmas, and a few overdue ‘home truths’ will finally be voiced. It became a ‘xmas perennial’ shown every year on local US TV stations before the onslaught of US made-for-xmas-tv movies arrived.

It can be a bleak time to spend alone for students staying on campus over the holidays, due to being unable to spend Xmas with their family for reasons of travel cost. (Some unis would lock the dorms over Xmas after a student suicide, forcing residential students to go home or at least stay elsewhere.) Of course, students may form their own relationships over the winter.

A pioneering work here was the award-winning Canadian student drama Winter Kept Us Warm (1965), written by producer-director David Secter, Ian Porter, and John Clute, set over an entire winter on the U. Of Toronto campus. This has a pair of male students form a close friendship during the winter, which fails to survive the spring - as the choice of title, a quote from TS Eliot's The Waste Land, indicates.


Above: Winter Kept Us Warm (1965), the first English language Canadian film screened at Cannes, has its crisis develop towards winter's end as one of the two campus friends becomes hostile at the other's new girlfriend as a rival for his attentions.

Midwinter is a time symbolising death and in ancient days may well be when people mourned the dead with the passing of the old year and the transition to the new one. It may also in some examples be considered a subset or offshoot of the the 'mid-life crisis' storyline, where long-simmering dissatisfactions etc come to a head over the Xmas holidays.

Below, left and right: In La Bûche / Season's Beatings (1999), written by director Danièle Thompson and Christopher Thompson, combines these motifs. The death on Dec 20th of the family matriarch's 2nd husband, followed by the heart attack of the first husband who is the 3 daughters' father, prompts relationship re-evaluations all round.

As well as domestic dramas focusing on generational tensions, there are 'festive romcoms', where feelgood indulgence is easier to achieve within the context of the obligatory home-for-the-holidays visit. A typical festive-romcom setup would be where the unmarried protagonist meets a future partner while visiting parents for Xmas holidays. In Bridget Jones's Diary [2001], Bridget first sees Mark Darcy at her parents’ New Years Day party and surmises he may be the Mr Right she has been waiting for - until he turns around to reveal his Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer jumper.

His reindeer jumper in fact represents another source of Xmas-holiday strain, the embarrassing Xmas gift, in this case from his mother. Bridget herself is wearing an old outfit of her mother's, and is mortified to overhear herself described by the man his mother tried to fix her up with as “a verbally incontinent spinster who smokes like a chimney, drinks like a fish and dresses like her mother”. It is this incident that prompts the tipsy 30-something singleton to begin her diary with some (short-lived) New Year’s Resolutions.

Above, left and right: Bridget Jones's Diary [2001] - The Xmas holidays may be a time for family reunions, but New Year’s is a time for making personal New Year’s Resolutions for the coming year, perhaps prompted by the excesses of the holiday period, as here.
 Page Top |   Return to Home Page |   Email   | Storylines In Review 2016