In 1990, at Mann’s Chinese Theatre, I saw my first Christmas Day movie, Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather: Part III.” I had watched the first two films with my father, though they were Channel 5’s edited-for-television versions (he had also shown me the edited version of Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” which always elicited his own melancholic Army stories). My father wanted to see the third Godfather film. His interest probably made it easier for me to break away from Christmas obligations at home and see the movie in Hollywood on its opening day.
I went with three friends, all of us 17. They picked me up in El Monte at midday to get tickets for the 7 p.m. showing. It was the year’s most anticipated film, and online ticketing and assigned seating were nonexistent then. We had a late-afternoon lunch at the Sunset Boulevard IHOP. There we spotted Rodney Bingenheimer, the KROQ deejay whose Sunday night radio show I never missed. He was eating alone. Later, on our way back to the theater, we happened upon Henry Rollins walking down La Brea Avenue. Dressed in workout gear and carrying a small gym bag, he first seemed mildly surprised by my friend M.’s red Jeep skid-stopping at the curb as if we were attempting to abduct him. Rollins appeared confused by us kids all up in his face, me mumbling compliments about his recent essay in Details.
After the movie, on our way out of the theater, we encountered blinding camera lights. Our friend G. was pulled aside by a local TV newsperson. G. goofed on him by shouting, “Godfather, man!!! Awesome!!!” like Metallica had just played “Master of Puppets” exclusively for us.
But, most indelibly, by going to the movies that day, I had managed to free myself from the alcohol-fueled volatility of my family’s holidays, from ugly childhood memories, from the inevitable after-argument silence, my father finally gone to bed, my mother putting the dishes, which my grandmother had washed earlier, back where they belonged.
Say what you will about the third installment of Coppola’s gangster epic, or the Chinese Theatre’s faded, Orientalist decor, the experience of being out in the world, while everyone else was stuck at home, left me with a sense of transcendence. After that, I began noting promising movie previews and marking release dates on my calendar. I prioritized theaters with the largest screens and most enthusiastic crowds.
Every Christmas, early, I’d buy a newspaper, flip straight to the movie listings, then start making calls. Later in the day, away from home and needing to kill time before the film, we’d window-shop, toes aching with cold, or we’d play Scrabble in the bed of my friend A.’s pick-up, jackets pulled tight, a tin of Mrs. Romero’s homemade peanut-butter cookies, another Christmas tradition, opened and shared. Without fail or compromise, for 21 years, this was how my friends and I observed Christmas.
At those movies, I smirked when Max Cherry mentioned El Monte in “Jackie Brown,” appreciated the J.D. Salinger allusions in “Finding Forrester,” and disdained the blue-collar cosplay in “The Fighter.” But being with friends on Christmas Day was more important than the movies we saw. With these acts of self-determination, I was expanding my family. Still, over the years, the movie trips became more difficult to set up, friends coming and going, my companions winnowed until it was two of us, A. and I.
In our second decade of Christmas movies, our girlfriends joined us. And after 2010’s movie, my wife and I learned, under an awning, chilled by winter rain, that A. and his girlfriend J. were expecting their first child, my eventual godson. A few years later, when my son arrived, J. recognized my wife’s post-delivery exhaustion and my sleepless befuddlement. She changed the baby’s very first diaper, announcing, “Don’t worry, compadre. I got this one.” And when my father passed away, A. was the first person to find me in the hospice parking lot to offer comforting words. Over the last decade, life’s changes have altered how we spend time together, so we haven’t been to a movie in a long while.
It was looking like this year would end differently. My son, now 5, has been vaccinated. This past Halloween, he was one of six different Spider-Men in his kindergarten Spider-Verse. He now delights in Rocket Racoon’s gruffness. He has Baby Groot’s dance moves down.
Meanwhile, my godson, now 10, has gravitated toward Iron Man and Ant-Man and Hawkeye, his interest in the Avengers’ archer so strong that A. entertained the idea of buying him a bow and arrow for Christmas. My goddaughter, the boy’s younger sister, loves Captain Marvel. Both of them are vaccinated, too.
Up until Thursday morning, the plan had been for A. and me to take our families to see “Spider-Man: No Way Home” on the day after Christmas, and I had imagined it feeling like a circle closing, the turbulent family life of my youth evolved into a family of my own, one with a brotherhood spanning over three decades. But with Omicron spreading fast, we’ve decided to wait. Sure, the kids are excited to see Spidey square off against Doctor Octopus, but next year there will be some other Christmas movie to feel excited about. And when we go to that, I hope they will appreciate the importance of having everyone together, sitting side by side, enveloped by flickering, cinematic darkness.
Michael Jaime-Becerra is an associate professor of creative writing at UC Riverside and author of “Every Night Is Ladies’ Night.”