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3 Movies That Changed Christmas

Bob "MovieBob" Chipman | 24 Dec 2010 17:00
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If you ever need an example of the power of a work of fiction to transform a culture, you need look no further than Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

We all know the story: Greedy Ebenezer Scrooge is cured of his bitter distaste for humanity and the Christmas holiday in particular by a dreamtime walk with three ghosts. And we know the setting: A snowy mid-1800s England where commerce and routine happily come to a halt on December 25th so that families far and wide may celebrate in the warmth of each others' company, and where Scrooge is the lone figure who refuses to participate. It's an alien world to a modern reader, but also a familiar world.

And yet, it's a world that didn't really exist when it was written.

While Christmas was a widely-celebrated holiday throughout most of Western history from the Middle Ages on, it had gone through peaks and valleys of popularity and drastic changes in function. Medieval nobles celebrated it with lavish banquets, and perhaps tossed their serfs a few scraps as well. Following the Protestant Reformation, it frequently found itself ignored - if not outright banned - by countries and peoples (American Puritans, for example) who viewed it as a Roman Catholic invention and thus an anti-Biblical heresy (the Good Book doesn't give a date for Jesus' birth). One of the great military victories of the American Revolution involved General Washington's "surprise attack" on Hessian (read: German) mercenaries on Christmas - it was a surprise because the Hessians didn't realize Americans of the 1770s didn't really care about Christmas and didn't think twice about fighting during it.

By Dickens' time, the English Christmas was a (comparatively) minor holiday mainly dedicated to drink and revelry (it was a day off work, in other words) sprinkled with new ideas like the Christmas Tree and greeting cards; and even in that respect it wasn't as important a day of drink and revelry as New Years Day. The idea of a holiday celebrating family togetherness would've been preposterous for most of Western history - family togetherness wasn't something special or rare, it was the societal default setting.

Dickens, by then well-established as a social activist as well as an author, was among a group of public figures who saw the day as ripe for transformation into a force both for social do-gooding and for re-affirming classical English traditions that were threatened with obsolescence by the march of the Industrial Age. In other words, the purpose of Carol was idealism - Dickens imagined a wholly new form of Christmas where the feast traditions of feudal-era nobles were repurposed by urban commoners and communal charity was an assumed obligation, and he imagined a society where this Christmas was almost universally celebrated and a Scrooge would be the odd-man out. But he wrote his imaginary world as though it were right outside his window - suggesting to readers that this was the way things were supposed to be, and that if they weren't, perhaps the reader should want to change that. And it worked. With incredible speed, many of the Christmas traditions Dickens invented in his story became traditions for real.

Charles Dickens wished the modern-day Christmas into existence.

For all the foolish wailing that goes on each year about the war on Christmas, or the idea that abbreviations or secular icons like Rudolph and Frosty are stripping the holiday of some greater significance, it's hard to ignore that Christmas has been shaped by popular culture to a truly amazing degree. Whatever its original religious implications, the Christmas known to both celebrants and onlookers in the present-day United States is largely a hodgepodge of books, poems, plays, jingles and all other manner of pop culture ephemera - Rudolph and Frosty were born as novelty songs. The American conception of Santa Claus was largely created by an advertisement painter employed by Coca-Cola. Here are three classic movies that made contributions of their own.

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