Analysis: forget Mrs Brown's Boys, traditional European Christmas TV favourites include Donald Duck, Dinner for One, cinepanettoni and Soviet architecture

For many of us, the Christmas movie, or annual TV special, is as much a staple of the season as the turkey. The Irish TV schedules will carry the usual selection of favourites from a variety of genres, such as It's a Wonderful Life, Home Alone, Love Actually and Die Hard among others. These films and such home-grown television specials, such as Mrs Brown's Boys, draw Irish families and their chocolates, onto the sofa, in a pleasurable ritual of sameness and welcome predictability. Despite changes in how we view TV, the shared experience of cross-generational household television viewing at Christmas time remains significant

But what kind of cinema or TV attracts audiences in Europe at Christmas? A quick sample reveals that viewing traditions vary across Europe, and that religious, historical and ideological differences shape Yuletide entertainment tastes and celebratory dates.

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Trailer for this year's Julkalendern series in Sweden

Since 1959 Swedes have watched an hour of Donald Duck at 3pm each Christmas Eve. Kalle Anka, as Donald Duck is known in Swedish, is the pugnacious star of a series of animated Disney shorts, first broadcast as a special in 1958, and which has remained post-dinner appointment viewing ever since. Swedish children are also treated to an animated television series, Julkalendern, with daily instalments throughout the Advent season, culminating in the final episode on December 24th. This year’s series, Knäckarbanketten (Cracker Banquet) is set in the 17th century and centres on the adventures of noble-born girl, Ottilia and her beloved accomplice, the swineherd, Amund.

Italians consume Hollywood fare, such as Home Alone too, but they have their national traditions, including the vulgar, slapstick Cinepanettoni Christmas films, named for the iconic Italian panettone Christmas sweet bread. Since the 1980s in formulaic narratives, the same actors have played dodgy Italian (ex-) husbands, fathers and thwarted lovers, whose farcical mishaps and romantic entanglements in various vacation spots, home or abroad, are resolved by their more sensible offspring. Critics are dismissive, but the Cinepanettoni remain popular with their audience.

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Trailer for In Vacanza su Marte, this year's cinepanettoni choice

The Berlin Wall came down 31 years ago, uniting socialist East Germany with capitalist West Germany. Despite the political and cultural dominance of the former West otherwise, the film output of the former East gained new audiences. Even now, and especially at Christmas, the children’s films of the former East German state film board, DEFA are perennial hits on all German TV stations.

The socialist re-telling of popular fairytales are particularly popular and the DEFA co-production with the Czech Barandov Studio of Three Wishes for Cinderella (1973) is the Christmas favourite. In this version of Perrault’s tale, Cinderella is a self-reliant, emancipated young woman who makes her own dress and gets herself to the ball, shoots, rides horses and outwits the prince with a riddle he cannot solve, before they are finally united.

Silvester is New Year’s Eve in Germany and some Nordic countries and is marked with the same procedure every year, with the return of Freddie Frinton’s tipsy butler, James, in Dinner for One (1963). Virtually unknown in English-speaking countries, the film holds the Guinness record for most repeated television programme in history, largely due to its enduring popularity with German viewers, since 1972.

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The original 1963 NDR performance of the German Silvester ritual, Dinner for One, with Freddie Frinton and May Warden

James must serve dinner to his 90 year old employer, Miss Sophie and her four imaginary guests, drinking a toast at each course, on behalf of each absent guest. The more he drinks, the more his dinner service becomes a feat of rubber-limbed dexterity and near misses, punctuated by his catchphrase query to Miss Sophie 'Same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?’  and her response ‘Same procedure as every year, James.’.

In Poland and in Hungary, a Christmas must-watch is Home Alone, released in 1992. In newly post-communist Poland, it offered an intriguing vision of the Western capitalist comfort of a well-fitted out home and an unlimited visa card. In 2010, for instance, suggestions in Poland that the film might not be screened triggered a public outcry and so Kevin continues to trap happy viewers annually. In 2017, the film attracted an audience of 4.4 million people, an estimated 11.6% of the Polish population.

In countries such as Russia, with a longer historical emphasis on secularism, New Year's Eve is the most significant seasonal date. Post-Soviet identity also maintains treasured cultural continuities with the Soviet era, shaping viewing in this period. On January 31st, Russians watch the contemporary version of a long-standing variety program, entitled Little Blue Light, first broadcast in 1962 during the Soviet era.

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The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath from 1976

Other Communist audience favourites also have a remarkable afterlife. The romantic comedy film Irony of Fate, or Enjoy your Bath! (1976), featuring a subplot satirizing Brezhnev-era soulless architecture, is transmitted across most former Soviet republics on New Year’s Eve. A 2007 sequel to the original film remains also well-received.

Linear television has seen a surge in viewers in this pandemic year, with audiences prinicipally returning for news content, while others sought refuge in streamed content. The tastes and habits of European Christmas cinema audiences reflect their diverse national and ideological histories and yet bear witness to the common power of ritual, familiarity and nostalgia, even during crises. Stepping into the world of a beloved film is at once a trip across time and space. It's a return to a zone of comfort and intimacy, connected back in time to childhood perhaps, and, synchronously, to all those other households, including diasporic ones, where people are linked in an escape to pleasurable intimacy and wonder. And during a pandemic too.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ