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.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Prior to this film, the idea of “The Christmas Shopping Season” as a secular celebration in its own right stretching from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve hadn’t fully penetrated the entire national culture. This hit film, set in the shopping season mecca of New York City and centered on the institution of the Macy’s department store Santa, took the urban shopping month vibe coast to coast.
The frustrating thing about this movie is that, because it’s a classic, everybody knows it ends on heartwarming moment of implied “maybe” about magic and faith; thus it’s often mistaken for a kid’s movie when it’s really a screwball-comedy about insanity and legal maneuvers. Edmund Gwenn (who won an Oscar) plays an elderly man who answers to Kris Kringle and believes himself to actually be Santa Claus. The film, up until that final wink, generally regards him as a lunatic but a harmless one whose delusion makes him and others happy.
Hired to play Santa at Macy’s, Kris creates a public sensation by disregarding the “steer them toward product we stock” policy and nudging the store and its rival into a holiday détente – not by magic, but because being nice guys makes their profits soar. But he butts heads with a snooty psychiatrist, and finds himself on trial as a public menace.
This is where the screwball comedy part comes in: The trial isn’t about Kris proving himself, but rather about the entire legal system (judge, lawyers, witnesses, etc) realizing that a guilty verdict would involve the public-relations disaster of legally ruling that Santa Claus doesn’t exist and then twisting themselves into knots (up to and including outright perjury!) in order to find some way out of the scenario.
A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
The Peanuts special that started it all is a Christmas institution in its own right, but its biggest contribution to the holiday’s culture is one of its most subtle aspects: music.
Before this special, Christmas music generally came in two flavors: somber religious hymns and novelty jingles. But from 1965 on, mall-walkers and radio-listeners have been able to look forward to some soothing notes of light jazz being peppered in-between all that pomp and syrup, and for that they can thank composer Vince Guaraldi, whose then-atypical jazz score for this special has become a holiday staple in and of itself.
It also may have had another bit of influence: As part of his ongoing rant against the commercialization of the holiday, Charlie Brown grouses about artificial aluminum Christmas trees. Such trees were something of a fad in the mid-60s, but their popularity nosedived shortly after this special came into being, and manufacturers have blamed Charlie Brown for their demise ever since.
Scrooge, aka A Christmas Carol (1951)
As I mentioned, Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol helped create the modern idea of the holiday, and thus paved the way for all the Christmas movies and specials that would come later. So it’s only fitting that a movie made over a century later would end up expanding on his imaginings.
This 1951 British adaptation (Scrooge in the UK, Carol in the US) adds some extra details to Scrooge’s backstory that aren’t actually in Dickens’ original story, but have found their way into later adaptations. Chiefly, it adds the element of Scrooge’s mother passing in childbirth, adding a tragic extra dimension to his being hated by his own father and Scrooge’s resentment of his nephew – whose difficult birth took the life of Scrooge’s sister, the only relative who ever treated him well.
This is almost universally seen as the best movie of the story, and star Alastair Sim would go on to reprise his role as Scrooge in a 1971 animated version as well.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.