Venom Films

So This Is Christmas Remembers the Holiday’s True Meaning

Ken Wardrop discusses his heartfelt doc

14 mins read

“This is going to be a strange experience: watching it with an audience in May,” says So This Is Christmas director Ken Wardrop. The filmmaker, speaking with POV in Toronto during Hot Docs, has the unique experience of presenting a Christmas documentary at a festival that usually marks the first sign of spring. The heartwarming doc could be a future Christmas staple alongside Wardrop’s personal favourites for the season, like National Velvet or The Sound of Music. So This Is Christmas invites audiences to think a little differently about the Christmas season when the first snow falls later in the year.

Director Ken Wardrop

So This Is Christmas considers what the holidays mean for people who are struggling. Wardrop visits residents of small Irish towns and learns how they cope at Christmas time. In Kildare, the film introduces Annette, a woman in her 60s whose health issues, isolation, and loneliness hit harder during the holidays. In Laois, Wardrop speaks with Mary, a woman in her 40s who has had anorexia since she was a teenager and dreads the big Christmas dinner. Meanwhile, Jason lives nearby with two sons who face their first Christmas without their mother after losing her to cancer. In Galway, single mother Loretta wrestles with the financial strain of providing a magical Christmas for her three boys. And Shane, finally, just sees Christmas as another day of the year.

Wardrop says he came to the project with an appreciation for Christmas in his roots. “I was brought up in a very traditional Christian family, so Christmas had all those connotations,” he explains. “The carol service, the candles, and the Christmas music—I was enchanted by that. But in recent times, certainly since my early twenties, that all disappeared.”

He says that the commercialization of Christmas made him look at the holiday differently with all the stress and trauma it brings. Family squabbles, disappearing relatives, and a hospital trip for his father helped make Christmas less of an anticipated holiday year by year. Moreover, the director says that Christmas became an annual marker of loss.

“The reason I know it’s getting close, or I used to, because my mom just passed away,” he says, pausing briefly. “My mom would always start saying, ‘I dread this time of year,’ because my mom hated Christmas. It went back to when I was 12. My grandmother, who was living with us, passed away on Christmas Day, so it tainted Christmas thereafter for us and especially for my mom. They were very, very close. Christmas became a darker time of year for us where we would remember gran.”

Wardrop adds that he tried shaking things up by fleeing to Thailand one Christmas. He says it was fun, but finding a pub with proper Christmas dinner wasn’t the same. “I’m not sure it was Turkey I was eating,” he laughs.

Loretta | Venom Films

However, while Wardrop started taking over turkey duties and hosting his partner’s family for Christmas and continuing his mom’s effort to provide a good time for all, he says he could appreciate her love/hate relationship with the holiday. Looking at his family, though, Wardrop says he could see why Christmas proved an annual strain that people endure for loved ones.

“My sister’s a single mom with two boys, and for her in particular at Christmas, she’s under a lot of stress financially, but also to make the perfect Christmas without having the quintessential family experience,” he observes. “Being a gay man who has got no children, I’m very envious of having kids around Christmas time because that’s what Christmas is for, essentially. I would always try to remind her of the gift of having two boys. At the end of the day, they’ll forget what presents they get, but they’ll remember sitting down and having the hugs and watching the TV movies with their mommy.”

Following those observations, Wardrop says he undertook the casting process to understand the strains people experience during the holidays. “I said, ‘Let’s try to find people who would be struggling,’” notes Wardrop. “Obviously you think of grief, this is immediate for me, or financial hardship, and then we were thinking of addictions and so on. You go at the very top of the pyramids and reach out to the organisations that work in these spaces for their guidance and help.” Wardrop says that organisations were more than eager to participate and highlight challenges that people feel during the holidays, but that they couldn’t facilitate connections due to confidentiality.

Annette | Venom Films

Instead, the director says his researchers did casting the old way: by taking to the streets. “Literally, they got on the streets and walked the small towns and found the characters that way,” he notes. Only Annette, Wardrop adds, followed another casting route by answering a call on Facebook and sharing her story.

So This Is Christmas weaves through the characters’ homes as Wardrop sits down with them to discuss Christmas, their stories, and how they feel about the season ahead. Wardrop shoots each interview as a cozy conversational exchange with the characters’ humble surroundings and sparse decorations captured warmly on 35mm, which makes their stories hit poignantly. Shooting on 35mm, however, Wardrop says he had to listen attentively and know when to let the camera roll. “I had a little button with me and I couldn’t roll all the time because of the expense of 35mm, so I would only hit the button when I felt I was in the zone,” he notes. “It’s kind of nerve-wracking because you hit it and the cameras are so quiet, you’d ask, ‘Did I hit that or did I stop it?’ Having said that, all the characters were so open, honest, and authentic.”

However, Wardrop says that the sound was always rolling even when cameras weren’t, so they could pick things up in the audiowhen needed. Moreover, the director credits his sound man, Bob, for making the participants so comfortable. “The sound [technician], beyond the director, is actually the person who’s most intimate by putting on the mic,” observes Wardrop. “He just connected with all of the characters. He also happened to be a smoker, and I noticed there were four smokers in my film. So every time Bob would head out for a cigarette, they’d go with him.”

Mary | Venom Films

Wardrop says he found that simple connection Bob would have with them during smoke breaks a revelation. “I’d be doing all the talking and stressing, and here’s Bob outside entertaining them. It was really powerful. He was beyond a sound person for me. He was my assistant comrade and friend, and he connected with them. I hadn’t realised how important sound is beyond the technical side of it. That person has another role to play as well.”

There’s clear comfort with the interviews as the conversations offer a cathartic means for the participants to work through their stories. The film illustrates the power of active listening, something the warmth of the 35mm evokes as opposed to cold digital images: slowing down and giving people attention can be a gift.

“Most of my characters, when you go and meet them, they’re like, ‘Why would you be bothered with me? Why would you be bothered with my story?’” says Wardrop. “That’s what I connect with. I connect with the ordinary stuff in life. I try to find a window into something that’s deeper and more has more gravitas.”

While So This Is Christmas features a heavy dose of interviews, the creative documentary treats the story with an artistic touch. Interludes that Wardrop calls “advent scenes” illustrate the villagers’ anticipation for Christmas. Vignettes with kids in church offer clearly composed bits with shot/reverse shot dynamics, while trips through the streets of Dublin show Mary and others shopping, putting on brave faces amid the Christmas cheer.

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The joy of Christmas in these street scenes frequently contrasts with the palpable anxiety in the participants’ homes. Wardrop points to one scene where Annette puts up her little tree to add some Christmas spirit, but offers something of a bah humbug once it’s up. “She has this great statement about how there are people now who buy Christmas trees and then change their trees so they’re fresh in time for Christmas with the proper smells,” says Wardrop. “So many people put so much money into the decorations and I wanted to juxtapose that side of Christmas against other people’s realities.”

Beides Wardrop’s empathetic ear, the film demonstrates the supports that people can find when the season hits them hard, especially as it observes Mary going to a social centre in between shopping trips for her nephews. “From a filmmaker’s perspective, we had a duty of care to these characters and worked with a psychologist, especially when they watched the film,” adds Wardrop. “Obviously these are vulnerable people telling their stories and we had to ensure everybody was happy and comfortable with it being shared with the world. Ireland’s quite good, I have to say. People do get lost between the cracks, of course, but there are places to help if you know where to look.”

Wardrop adds that wrapping the film on Christmas Eve gave him a sense of what his participants were feeling, going home and knowing that some of them were alone. “And then this Christmas, my mom passed away in July, so it was my first Christmas without my mom. It was particularly tough. I think I will forever more say I dread Christmas more than my mom,” he says.

“If there was a purpose behind the film, it would be for people to sit up and take a moment to think about their neighbour who may not be having as lovely a time as Christmas as you. Maybe knock on the door.”

So This Is Christmas screened at Hot Docs 2024.


Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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