Keeping Christmas

Of all the Christmas stories ever told since St. Luke penned the first and true one – of all the books and shows and movies themed to the season, all the Christmas specials – the greatest is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a tour de force for the ages. The story’s greatness is made up of many different parts – the immortal Scrooge, the chillingly evocative Marley, the color that breathes through every written line, the brilliant dialogue, witty and profound by turns. Not least among the sources of greatness is Dickens’ wholehearted embrace of joy and his endless delight in material pleasures. The Ghosts of Christmas taught Scrooge to keep Christmas with charity, which is a lesson to the stingy; they also taught him to keep it with joy, which is a lesson to the rest of us.

One of the glories of A Christmas Carol is how seamlessly it weaves together joy and pleasure. Scrooge proves this rule in the inverse. He takes “his melancholy dinner in his usual melancholy tavern;” he lives in “a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard.” Christmas Eve finds him eating gruel by a low fire in a dark, empty house. Certainly Ebenezer Scrooge, the old miser, had grown as cold as the gold he loved, and this is seen in his hardness toward all human beings, those he met and those he only heard about. But it is also seen in the unremitting bleakness of his life; he never enjoyed himself.

If Scrooge’s cold heart found manifestation in the severity of his life, the warmth and generosity of others found expression in fun and the most universal of physical pleasures. Old Fezziwig gives a party, full of dancing and cake and roast meat and mince-pies; Fred gives a party, with plentiful games and excellent food and lots of laughter; the Cratchits have their own party, the children rejoicing over pudding and stuffed goose. When the Ghost of Christmas Present brings Scrooge out of his gloomy rooms to see Christmas, he takes him first to the shops, and the descriptions provided of the wares – Norfolk apples and Spanish onions, chestnuts and candied fruit – are truly lyrical.

Through all of this, Dickens finds his way to a vital truth: Joy, even the most spiritual, needs material expression. The joy of the LORD is your strength, Nehemiah once told the people, and then sent them off to feast. This is itself a defense of Christmas – if not to the Scrooges of the world, then to the Puritans. The material pleasures of Christmas are empty without the spiritual meaning, but with it, they are not superfluous. Joy naturally overflows into pleasure. We celebrate the coming of Christ with food and presents because this is how humans celebrate everything. There is no point in demanding purely spiritual observances from those who are not purely spiritual beings.

Especially at Christmas, when we remember how God, becoming incarnate, took on our physical nature, not to destroy it but to resurrect it anew. So keep Christmas with charity, and keep it with joy, and keep it with pleasure – for this, too, can be done to the glory of God.

Movie Review: Small One

You’ve all heard of a boy and his dog. This is the story of a boy and his donkey. It’s an old, mangy donkey, tattered ears and scruffy fur, but in his eyes it’s good enough for a king’s stable. He loves it, you see.

But his father tells him they must sell it, because it’s too old to earn its keep and they can’t afford an animal that doesn’t. So the boy takes his donkey to the city, trying to find a good man who will buy it.

A good man is hard to find. “Small One, Small One, Small One for sale,” the boy sings. “One piece of silver – Small One for sale.”

Comes the answer: “No, no, little boy, I will not buy!” And those are the nice people.

Small One, one of the movies of my childhood, is a simple and sweet film. That it never got on the networks’ annual run of Christmas specials, but Frosty the Snowman did, is part of what’s wrong with the world. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Frosty! I liked it when I was six.) Small One‘s run-time is 26 minutes, and the only character who has a name is the donkey. This does not feel like a lack (though it can make review-writing a bit awkward). The story does not need names. It’s too directly human, engaging the heart in broad plainness.

The animation is old-fashioned and charming. There are lovely touches – moonlight falling into the stable, golden clouds in a pale blue sky, the illustrations that formed the background of the credits. There are clever touches – the forbidding atmosphere of the tanner’s shop, silhouettes seen through colored tent curtains, the soldier who seems, as the boy looks up at him, to be seven feet tall.

So with the music. From the tender song in the credits, to the plaintive chorus, “Small One for sale,” there is a great deal of loveliness here. There is also a good dose of cleverness in the bankers’ song. “Clink clink, clank clank, give your money to the bank, telling little stories you can trust” – as they shift their eyes so slyly.

Small One is a children’s story artfully told. That’s why its maturity surprised me. The father tells his boy that Small One must be sold. There’s no rebellion, no escape. The happy ending that the film seeks is that the boy will be able to sell his donkey to a kind man. We never doubt how much he loves Small One; that love drives him to the end of the story – in trying to find a good home for Small One, not in trying to keep him.

The end is beautiful. Softly, lightly, it steps into the radiance of Christmas. We see the stranger who buys Small One … a glimpse of travelers on the road … the stable and the Star of Bethlehem, its long rays a shining Cross between heaven and earth.

And you begin to feel that everything is more than all right in the end; it is right. As they sing in the credits, and again as the Cross stands in the sky: “There’s a place for each small one – God planned it that way.”