Finland’s not fine. Not fine at all.
Back in the days before electricity or hot water or motor cars, This version of Finland is mainly known for its trees and bears and snow. Lots and lots of snow. And for those who live there, every cold, bear-filled day can feel a bit miserable. (I’d say unbearable, but, y’know, there are lots of bears, so that wouldn’t make a lot of sense.)
Why, even the king feels a bit out of sorts. And so he gathers all of Finland’s bravest and hardiest soles to go “to the very edges of our kingdom. Go beyond and give us something—anything—to give us hope again.”
Well, most of the peasants gathered have no idea where to find hope. But Nikolas and his father, they just might have a clue.
See, Nikolas’s mother would tell her little boy a story, every night, of a place called Elfhelm—the happiest, most hopeful place on earth. It’s filled with elves (as you might have gathered), and it’s located way up north—past the forests, past the snowfields, past the Pointy Mountain guarded by sleeping giants. But if you can get there, she said, you can find hope. Also, chocolates.
Well, Nikolas’s mother is no longer with him, but the story surely is. Nikolas’s father remembers it well, too. And soon Dad and a band of rough-hewn Finlanders decide to go in search of it. For the king promised a great reward.
“But isn’t the reward bringing us new hope and wonder?” Nikolas asks his father as father packs his things.
“The reward is the money,” his father says. “And money means food and warm clothes, so you can have a life.” And he gives his son his own red hat—a hat his wife made for him—for safekeeping.
And so the men depart, leaving Nikolas in the care of his nasty Aunt Carlotta.
But one day, after Carlotta cooks Nikolas’s turnip doll for dinner—Nikolas’s only toy, and one made by his mother no less—the boy makes a curious discovery. Hidden inside the red hat his dad left, he finds an embroidered map. A map to Elfhelm.
Carlotta’s a terrible person. And Nikolas’s dad has been gone far too long. So Nikolas decides to brave Finland’s cold north with his pet mouse Miika and search for Elfhelm, his father, and a little hope for himself.
Will he be home for Christmas? If you asked Nikolas this directly, he’d look at you without understanding. See, his mother called him Christmas, but he has no idea what it means. No idea at all.
On one level, A Boy Called Christmas is all about the three virtues that Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 13:13: faith, hope and love.
We’re told that Nikolas’s mother believed in Elfhelm. “And for her, believing was as good as knowing,” Nikolas’s father says. Nikolas also has a strong sense of belief. When his mouse (who develops the ability to talk) asks him about whether cheese is a real thing, Nikolas admits that he’s never seen cheese. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in it,” he adds.
That sense of faith—believing in something brighter and better, even if you can’t see it—is integral to the show’s prime virtue of hope. That is, after all, what Nikolas and his father are looking for. But turns out, they need not go to Elfhelm to find it. “I asked for something new,” the king marvels. “You brought me something we forgot we already had.”
And what gives the people hope in this movie? Love and charity. Christmas, we’re told, is “not about the presents—although they are wonderful. It’s about what’s behind them. We give what we have to show that we care.”
We see characters brave a great deal and sacrifice for each other, too. We hear how valuable the truth is, even if it’s sometimes inconvenient. (“The only thing in life that is simple and clear is the truth, but it can be painful,” we’re told.) Nikolas and his father clearly love each other. And all that’s wonderful. But …
… Have you noticed that we’ve not mentioned Christ once for this Christmas movie?
We’re told that Finland had no clue what Christmas even was back in Nikolas’s day. When Nikolas asks his father why his mother called him Christmas, Pops tells him, “It’s just a word. It doesn’t have to mean anything.”
The citizens of Elfhelm are aware of a day called Christmas. “Christmas is the greatest day of all because Christmas is the kindest day of all,” one says. But watching A Boy Called Christmas, someone not schooled on the day’s real origins might imagine that it was a creation of the elves.
And there’s more. Nikolas’s story is being told to a trio of still-grieving children via a Princess Bride-like conceit. The children of the “real” world know plenty about how Christmas is supposed to look and feel, what with its trees and gingerbread houses and jolly old elves. But they assume that this story—of Nikolas and Elfhelm—is Christmas’s origin story. And when the eldest child asks, “Is that how really Christmas properly began?”, the storyteller (Aunt Ruth) says, “It must be, because I never lie.”
We hear about, and see, a great deal of magic. One elf casts a “drimwick” spell on Nikolas, which he characterizes as a “little hope spell.” That spell infuses much of the magic that follows. Other characters conjure more disturbing spells, including shooting lightning out of staves and levitating someone. We also meet a “truth pixie” and a rather nasty troll.
Miika, the mouse, flirts with a gingerbread queen—licking her inanimate face. And when he meets an elvish cheesemaker, he asks if he might marry her.
The Truth Pixie is meant to be impishly whimsical. But in truth (which she’d appreciate), she appears to be something of a serial killer. Her greatest joy is feeding people a certain sort of leaf that causes their heads to explode. (She feeds her last leaf to an unfortunate troll. And while we don’t see his head explode, we do see a suggestive poof of soot and air shoot from a chimney where the unfortunate troll was.) She also loves explosives. And while her colorful firecrackers don’t cause any physical harm, they do some significant property damage.
A bear chases Nikolas and his dad until he’s scared away by a hunter. A reindeer stag charges Nikolas, but mainly because he’s enraged by the arrow sticking out of his rump. Nikolas is nearly eaten by a troll. (Someone encourages the troll to “pop” him and then “squeeze out all the juicy bits.”) Miika is sent flying occasionally and nearly gets cut in half by an ax. Someone falls to their death. Another someone apparently freezes to death before being resuscitated/resurrected. Soldiers brandish pointy weapons. Characters go on quests that are considered dangerous and deadly. Nikolas and the children being told Nikolas’s story all lost their mothers. (We learn that Nikolas’s mom likely was killed by a bear.)
None, but we do hear the word “blinking” stand in for what could’ve been a harsher profanity. A few names are called.
Nikolas’s Aunt Carlotta is not very nice. As soon as Nikolas’s dad is out of sight, she throws Nikolas out of the cabin they’re supposed to share, eats his food and forces him to do most of the chores around the house. The last straw is when she cooks Nikolas’s beloved turnip doll.
When the king asks, rhetorically, what the people need, one calls out, “A health care system.” Another says, “a living wage.” Depending on one’s politics, these could be taken as rather low political commentary. One also might detect a message on immigration, too—which, again might rub some adults the wrong way (even though most kids wouldn’t notice it at all).
[Spoiler Warning] A bunch of men kidnap an elf as a way to bring back “hope,” or at least proof that a hopeful place exists. The name “Nikolas” in elvish apparently means something akin to smelly sausages.
You can pull a lot of good stuff out of A Boy Called Christmas—even good biblical stuff. As I watched Nikolas embark on this perilous quest for “hope,” I thought about another passage that Paul wrote, this one in Romans 5:3-5:
… but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame …
But those three little dots ultimately tell the story of this story, right? Because any connection that the movie has with the Bible ends with the elipses. Left out is the rest of verse 5: because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
A Boy Called Christmas posits that love and charity and hope are good, important and praiseworthy things. But it tells us that such things come from Elfhelm or us. It misses the fact that they all pour forth from God. And while that’s not an unusual omission for secular movies to make, it’s really disappointing in what is presented as a Christmas origin story. If the elves of Elfhelm were inspired by the birth of Christ, they fail to say so. And that’s deeply disappointing.
One could argue that many accoutrements of Christmas were taken from older, pagan celebrations, from the tree to the time of year. Christianity has always been deft at taking elements of the predominant culture and turning them around to face a brighter truth—the real faith, hope and love we have in Jesus.
A Boy Called Christmas takes a religious celebration and turns it—at least on its face—wholly secular. And while families can find plenty of worthwhile messages in this star-studded package (including Oscar winners Maggie Smith, Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent), they should also reserve plenty of time to talk to their children about the film’s failings, too—and that there’s a reason the word Christmas begins with the name Christ.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.