The One Holiday Tradition That'll Bring Your Family Closer Than Ever (And You Can Do It All Year Round)

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Why Movies Are The Christmas Tradition You Can Do Year Round To Bring Your Family Members Closer Together

It's the gift that keeps on giving.

My father and I approached the ticket window at his local movie theater. In his Sicilian-American Brooklyn accent, he said, “I’ll have one senior ticket for Bohemian Rhapsody and one regular for Green Book.”

“Separate movies?” The young man behind the plexiglass asked, just as surprised as I was.

“What? You’ve never seen that happen before?” my dad asked.

A few days earlier, my dad said that he’d like to see Green Book, but when we met up in town for a bite before the movie, he wasn’t sure.

“What about Bohemian Rhapsody, I hear it’s good,” he said. “Wanna see it again?” I didn’t.

After 46 years I know my dad is a guy who does what he wants, when he wants — but standing there at the ticket window, it still stung.

Seeing different films seemed absurd, but it’s how family members do things now. We watch on our own devices. We favor what we want to see over a communal viewing experience.

Amidst all the technological advances we’ve created in the past century, this may be one that’s contributed most to our loss of connection.

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Since the beginning of time, people have circled a fire listening to a storyteller. In past centuries books were read aloud in groups. With the invention of the radio, families gathered around the big wooden box in the living room. And when the TV arrived it was too expensive to have more than one newfangled contraption and so the collective experience continued. Even the Simpsons watch TV together.  

But this practice of experiencing stories served a greater purpose than passing time, providing entertainment, and keeping the kids quiet.

In her book Wired for Story, Lisa Cron discusses the neuroscientific reasons that story is critical to our evolution.

She writes, “A recent study, in which subjects underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brain while reading a short story revealed that the areas of the brain that lit up when they read about an activity were identical to those that light up when they actually experience it.”

In other words, at Christmas a family didn’t just watch It’s a Wonderful Life, they lived it. They became George Bailey. And like George, hopeless and contemplating ending his life, they recovered their will to live just in the nick of time. If we’re laughing and crying with a protagonist like George Bailey then all of us are synced up for two hours – vibrating at the same frequency, something that’s far more difficult to achieve at the dinner table.

This isn’t only relevant for families but for our country. Before cable television, VCR’s, TiVo, and binge-watching, we watched shows at the same time each week and we watched them together. We became the same characters, frightened by and delighting in the same things. And we discussed it all the next day at the water cooler.

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Something that’s said to have advanced gay rights more than Gay Pride parades and politics was a television show: Will and Grace. The gay characters on the show allowed the audience to see homosexuals as humans instead of “other.” Social scientists call the phenomenon “The Will and Grace Effect,” reflecting how storytelling can change social biases. It brings us together, awakens empathy, and help us evolve.

Cron continues, “Story was more crucial to our evolution than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs just let us hold on, story told us what to hold on to.”

As I sat through Green Book, I missed having my dad beside me. Despite the controversy regarding the accuracy of the film, he would have liked it.

But what I would’ve liked was to hear when he laughed, to nudge him when Sicilian dialect was spoken, and to talk about the seven fishes eaten on Christmas Eve and whether we would make them this year like they do in the movie.

As we walked to our respective cars, I would’ve been interested to hear his thoughts about the racism experienced by the African-Americans in the film. And before seeing it, I had never considered the way Italian-Americans also experienced discrimination. As an immigrant with an accent, was he discriminated against in New York? How about in the army when he was drafted and stationed at bases in Georgia and Texas?

But I didn’t get that chance because our movies let out at different times. He’d gone home by the time mine ended. The opportunity was lost. He liked his film. I liked mine. But there were no shared moments between us.

At a time when our country feels so divided, maybe we need collective experiences of storytelling more than ever. And since the holiday season amplifies everything — our sadness and our separation — we don’t need a little Christmas right this very minute. What we need is a little connection. No, make that a lot of connection.

If stories can do that for us, why not use them?

Instead of letting everyone unwrap their tablets and smartphones and rush off with their individual devices, go watch with the one glued to Elf in the other room; apologize to the one who always has to defend that Die Hard is in fact a Christmas movie; or offer the Kleenex box to the one who cues up Love Actually, year—after bloody—year.

Watching one movie together might just give us the holiday miracle we’re hoping for—a priceless feeling of unity.

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Michelle Fiordaliso is an executive coach, award-winning writer, filmmaker, and has appeared as a relationship expert on Today, Tyra and Oprah Radio. She holds a Master of Clinical Social Work and Psychotherapy from NYU, and you can read her NY Times Modern Love essays here and here.