Twelve Days of Completely Secular Yuletide: The Polar Express taught me that Christmas is what you make of it

My family did not celebrate Christmas growing up. We lived in a tropical Southeast Asian country where it was 30 degrees Celsius year round, so most things typically associated with Christmas were alien to me.

Snow was a foreign concept, and I never believed in Santa Claus. After all, how could he climb down chimneys to leave presents for every child in the world, when none of the houses around me had them? It seemed unfair to me that some children would be excluded from his list just because of this, so clearly there was only one other option — that he does not exist.

But for a few years, my siblings and I did have one tradition — watching our bootleg DVD copy of The Polar Express (which I have no idea why we owned, where it came from or where it resides now).

Many aspects of the film were incredibly entertaining to us. The idiosyncratic rotoscope animation, the absurd sequences, the slightly sinister atmosphere that looms over what is supposedly a kid-friendly movie. The highlight of this bootleg copy, however, was the subtitles — completely different from the film, littered with profanities that were obviously not present in the actual dialogue of the children’s holiday film.

The Polar Express follows a boy similarly skeptical, who is picked up by a train during a snowy winter night and told that they are traveling to the North Pole to meet Santa Claus. After a series of wacky adventures, he arrives at the destination and does in fact meet Santa Claus.

Confronted by the object of his disbelief, he is forced to reevaluate his stance on Christmas. His growth into a believer is marked by the chiming of bells. Once unable to hear the music, he now finds himself changed. He is then offered the opportunity to pick any holiday gift he wants, and he chooses a simple bell off of Santa’s sleigh — a symbolic, sentimental gift over a materialistic one.

The Polar Express isn’t always seen as a heartwarming classic. A quick scroll through its Letterboxd reviews revealed that many people are put off by the seemingly lifeless animation and overall gloomy overtone. But to me, The Polar Express is exemplary of an ideal Christmas — one that I never experienced as a child. It encapsulates childlike wonder and holiday spirit like no other movie can. The sense of magic in the film is so palpable that even in the more grim moments, it shines through.

Maybe this movie was so poignant to me as a child because I wanted my own beliefs to be challenged, to have it proven to me that Christmas is more than just a holiday I experienced through American movies and television.

Now that I live in Vancouver — where snow has fallen every winter, and holiday lights have gone up everywhere — Christmas feels much more real. It feels like the warmth of hot chocolate on a cold day, trying the limited edition holiday drinks from various coffee shops and sending Christmas cards to my friends. It is the enchantment of witnessing the first snowfall (before it gets annoying), of putting yourself through eating ice cream on a freezing day just to try the new Rain or Shine flavors and seeing the horse carriages in Kerrisdale.

Although I may not have always celebrated a “traditional” Christmas, I’ve come to realize that it’s most important to make the season my own — no matter what that looks like.