RUTLAND, VT—In what has become an annual holiday tradition, the dysfunctional Dawes family came together Sunday to sit in front of the TV and watch touching, feel-good family dramas in stony silence.
"We see each other so rarely," said Nicole Dawes, 44, whose three children were all home from college. "It's so nice to all sit down together and have a peaceful time. And [son] Kevin didn't bring up that awful new girlfriend of his once the entire time."
Following a special holiday dinner of turkey, artichokes, and spiced yams, Nicole and sullen daughter Gabrielle, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Vermont, were put in charge of selecting the movies to watch. The two shared a wordless 10-minute car trip to their local Blockbuster video store, where Gabrielle ruled out most of her mother's choices as "stupid" or "lame." Tired of saying no and eager to leave the store, Gabrielle finally assented to the holiday classic It's A Wonderful Life and the 1994 remake of Miracle On 34th Street.
"I can't believe we got Miracle On 34th Street again," Gabrielle said. "Still, it's better than some of the other stuff my mom was pulling off the shelves. I mean, The Santa Clause? How gay is that? I hate Tim Allen."
Added Gabrielle: "I wish we hadn't gotten It's A Wonderful Life. It's so long. Besides, why would anybody pay actual money to rent that thing when it's on TV, like, a bazillion times every December?"
Upon Nicole and Gabrielle's return, It's A Wonderful Life was promptly inserted into the living-room VCR. Familiar with the annual routine, the family members huddled around the TV without exchanging a word, just as they have since the holiday tradition began in 1991.
As the movie played, Kevin, 22, a senior at Southern Vermont College, paid little attention, wrapped up in thoughts of his impending graduation. The few times he did focus on the film, it was to negatively compare his own family to the Baileys.
"That movie always makes me think about how if dad's hardware store lost $8,000 like George Bailey's bank did, it'd totally tear us apart," Kevin said. "He'd probably blame us and drag us all down with him. Good thing he isn't trusted with much money at his job."
Following the conclusion of It's A Wonderful Life, an awkward 80-second silence occurred as the videotape rewound. The silence was briefly broken by daughter Gina, 20, who remarked that the evening's dinner had been "really good." Peter, her father, grunted in agreement.
As Miracle On 34th Street played, Peter sat in rapt attention, pushing aside anxieties about work, aging, and his chilly relationship with his children.
"The original was one of my all-time favorites," Peter said. "I was trying to spot the differences between the two. I was just glad to have something to focus on besides trying to make conversation with the kids. I have no idea what they're up to these days. Jesus, they're all grown up, able to vote and all. I wonder if they hate me."
Some 40 minutes into the movie, having consumed three snifters of brandy, Peter fell asleep.
When the second movie finished, the three children claimed exhaustion and trundled off to their childhood bedrooms, feigning excitement for the following day's Christmas-tree-shopping excursion.
"It's good to see all the kids together under one roof. It reminds me of when they would all watch cartoons together growing up," said Nicole, wiping a tear from her eye. "I love the holidays."