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Published on Mommy Tracked (http://www.mommytracked.com)

Mother as the Supporting Role.

by Meredith O’Brien

 

While perusing the Christmas movies and specials in my DVD collection while attempting to make a holiday viewing selection for my family recently, I had a realization: In most of the TV Christmas specials and Yuletide-focused films that have become holiday classics, the mothers – when and if they appear on screen – are largely cast as supporting characters, depicted as the helpmates for their husbands or their kids. The biggest exception to this is the single working mom Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) who ran Macy’s Thanksgiving parade from Miracle on 34th Street [1], to whom I dedicated a loving column [2] a few years ago.

 

Take my favorite Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life [3], the first DVD I pulled off my shelf. George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) was the focus of the film, with explorations and depictions of his disappointments, his dreams, his good heart, his loyalty, his desperation. His wife, Mary, (Donna Reed) was sharp, had a sense of humor and seemed eminently capable at everything she did. In the film, she never seemed flustered while raising their four kids or remodeling the family home or doing volunteer work. But other than the abrupt end to her night of romance with George, where they danced the Charleston at a graduation party and then flirted beneath the moon on the walk home, Mary was largely relegated to the backburner, only seen in relation to George’s life. In the scene where George learned what would’ve happened to her had he never been born, we learned that Mary would’ve been *gasp* a single librarian! The horror! (She wouldn’t have married Sam Wainwright?) Sure, Mary is a swell gal, but she wasn’t really given a lot to do.

 

The next DVD I put my hands on was my other favorite Christmas movie, Elf [4], the one with Will Farrell as Buddy the Elf. In that one, Buddy had been given up for adoption and raised by the elves who worked for Santa at the North Pole. When Buddy overheard two elves gossiping about how he’d been adopted – his ginormous size relative to the other elves never clued him in about the fact that he was adopted – Buddy traveled to New York City in search of his birth father. His birth mother had, of course, died. (What’s a family movie without a dead mother? No wait, that’s usually an animated Disney movie.) His father’s wife Emily (Mary Steenburgen) was kind and patient with the uber-naïve and sugar-fueled Buddy, but again, she was just there mostly to blunt the meanness and harsh attitude her husband exhibited toward Buddy. The movie was, after all, about Buddy seeking to reunite with his dad, not his stepmother.

 

Mothers are hardly seen or are absent from many of the TV specials. I looked at our Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer DVD [5] and recalled that Rudy’s mom was seen in the cave saying hardly anything after Rudy’s birth while Rudy’s father insisted on making his son wear a false nose and be ashamed of his red one. Oh, and the mom was among Rudolph’s friends and family taken captive by the Bumble, but that’s about it.

 

My Santa Claus is Coming to Town [6] DVD reminded me that we never see Kris Kringle’s parents, just Tanta Kringle, who adopts the baby, raises him with the elves. There are no parents seen at all in the Charlie Brown Christmas special where the Peanuts’ gang buys their own Christmas tree, run their own Nativity play and run through the streets without any adult supervision.

 

There are a few exceptions on the parental front, aside from Miracle on 34th Street. Mother Nature got a pivotal role in the TV special The Year Without a Santa Claus [7]. She helped save Christmas by ordering her ornery and warring adult sons, the Heat Miser and Snow Miser, to get along and give Mrs. Claus what she wanted so Santa would get the message that the world believed in him.

 

Another big exception came from the ubiquitous A Christmas Story [8]. Sure, the mom of 9-year-old Ralphie Parker and his younger brother Randy is in a supporting role as well (she wasn’t even given a name, just “Mrs. Parker”) but she’s showed a whole lotta chutzpah throughout the film. No doormat, she (though she really deserved to be able to eat a hot meal without being interrupted).

 

When her hot tempered husband “won” that horrific fishnet stocking-covered leg lamp with half a butt cheek hanging out and he insisted on putting it on display in their front window -- completely clueless that the lamp, described by the film’s narrator as “electric sex,” might be offensive to his modestly dressed wife – Mrs. Parker took matters into her own hands by “accidentally” knocking it over while watering her plants. I personally loved the fantastic scene of Mrs. Parker quietly snickering in the background as her husband tried to glue his pathetic leg lamp back together.

 

In another scene, upon hearing that her son Ralphie had uttered the F-word, she promptly shoved a bar of soap into his mouth as punishment then demanded to know where he’d learned that word, oblivious that he frequently heard it from his father.
However Mrs. Parker wasn’t all about reprimanding children and wrecking ugly, sexist lamps. In the car on the way home from getting the Parker family Christmas tree, she, along with the two boys sang a loud, obnoxious versions of “Jingle Bells,” including an energetic raspberry at the end. She thought outside of the box by encouraging the young Randy to “show Mommy how the piggies eat” in order to get him to consume at least something from dinner.

 

The coolest thing Mrs. Parker did came near the end of the movie after Ralphie finally took on the bully who had been terrorizing the neighborhood kids. Upon finding Ralphie sitting atop Scut Farcus, swearing up a storm while pounding away on the boy, Mrs. Parker calmly brought Ralphie home, put a cold washcloth on the back of his neck and sent him to his room to chill out. When Mr. Parker got home and he asked Ralphie where his glasses were, she lied about finding Ralphie’s glasses on the radio, instead of where they were really left: In the snow, cast aside during his fight. What a cool mom.

 

As I looked at all the DVDs and reflected on these Christmas special moms, I wondered what it would be like to get them together in one room: The independent and thoughtful Doris Walker, the confident and wry Mary Hatch Bailey, Buddy the Elf’s stepmom Emily who ate Buddy’s pasta and maple syrup concoction without complaint so as not to hurt his feelings, the stern Mother Nature (sans her feuding sons) and Mrs. Parker who drank red wine on Christmas morning. That would be quite the gathering of Christmas mamas, one that would deserve top billing.


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