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.”

Christmas Is Too …

Christmas FireplaceIf you listen long enough, you will discover that Christmas is too much of many things. It is too commercial, too materialistic, too Christian, too pagan, too saccharine and nothing but an excuse for shameless capitalistic mongering. These opinions will be with us until the end of Christmas, and I have no ambitions of dislodging them. But there is one I would like to dispute.

Christmas is a pagan holiday. I’ve heard this a lot, from people who approved and people who did not, and I’ve grown ever more skeptical. The historicity is vague at best, the thinking is demonstrably sloppy at times, and I see a fundamental confusion of the past and present tenses.

The historical details of the claim are often hazy. For example: Which pagan holiday? Saturnalia? The winter solstice – and if so, whose? Because strictly speaking, the winter solstice is an astronomical event and a good number of cultures have made it a holiday. More importantly, when and where did Christmas first begin to be celebrated? What descriptions of it, or commentary on it, exist in ancient sources? Is the “Christmas is a pagan holiday” claim really just an inference from general facts?

And this leads into the thinking that is, shall we say, less than rigorous. Very little is proved by the fact that Christmas takes place at roughly the same time as Saturnalia and several European solstice holidays (not to mention Hanukkah and Sanghamitta Day!). A midwinter feast is not a terribly original idea and it is quite possible that Christmas and Saturnalia both began in the Roman Empire and were still entirely distinct. That Christmas existed in the same time periods and cultures as pagan holidays may suggest associations, but it does not prove them.

Another idea in need of debunking is the notion that anything used as a symbol by pagans is forever a “pagan symbol.” Among my favorite instances of this are the Advent wreath, supposedly pagan because it is a circle and circles are a pagan symbol for eternity, and the Christmas Tree, which reputedly has its antecedent in pagan use of evergreens as symbols of life and fertility.

Part of the fallacy in this is the evident assumption that anything pagan is by definition anti-Christian. And this assumption is false; the divide between Christian and pagan may be large but it is not total. It is further obvious, as soon as you think it through, that the circle as a symbol for eternity and the evergreen as a symbol for life aren’t derived from some intrinsically pagan belief. They are derived from the nature of the things and from the universal cast of the human mind. A circle is endless, like eternity; an evergreen tree is living green when everything else is dead brown and gray. Pagans turned them into symbols before Christians did; there were, after all, pagans before there were Christians. But that does not make the symbols false or bad.

Another part of the fallacy, and perhaps the most significant part for this discussion, is that symbols change with culture. It’s likely that pagans had, in evergreen and holly, associations that Christians do not. It’s possible that certain Christmas rituals were adapted, long ago, from customs with pagan religious meaning. And so what? Who has those associations or cares for those meanings now?

And here we reach the confused tenses. Though I’ve never seen a compelling historical case for it, perhaps Christmas was pagan. It still wouldn’t mean that Christmas is pagan. No one can imagine that, if an ancient Roman were sucked through a time portal to our modern Christmas, he would say, “Why, it’s the Saturnalia!!!” Things change, sometimes beyond recognition. Their meanings change. Consider the symbols of Christmas – whether snowflakes and reindeer and Santa, or angels and the manger and the star – and it is plain that neither Saturn nor the sun-gods have anything to do with it.

What matters is not what Christmas was centuries and millenia ago, but what it is today.

So Merry Christmas.

From the Office of Cooking Experiments (Christmas Edition)

Today, in timely festivity, the Office of Cooking Experiments presents its very first Christmas edition. Christmas is, of course, a beautiful, spiritual season that is easily ruined by stress, and it is our hope to reduce the stress that you, the amateur holiday cook, so naturally feel. At Christmas, you are expected to cook for numbers and at a culinary level beyond your comfort zone and possibly beyond your capability. With the cookies you bake, the eggnog you whip up, and the many side-dishes you concoct, you contribute to the joy of the season and the cherished holiday memories of your loved ones, many of whom are no help at all. So you are naturally, as we say, stressed.

The Office of Cooking Experiments understands! The Office of Cooking Experiments has been there! Once it almost cut its own cable line because it observed that the world is divided between those who cook on holidays and those who watch football, and no cable, no football! But it did not, because it remembered it would then have to call the cableperson and perhaps answer awkward questions. The Office of Cooking Experiments further reflected that Christmas is, after all, a time of warmth and charity, and of all the faces that charity wears, cooking is not always the least.

The Office of Cooking Experiments also resolved to reduce its stress and not-totally-necessary work. Now it shares its well-learned tips with you, the amateur holiday cook, in cautious optimism that they will help you to enjoy a merrier Christmas.

Nine types of Christmas cookies are not necessary. Reflect for a moment: What cookies are people digging up from the bottom of your festive Christmas-themed tins a week after New Year’s? Don’t make those anymore.

Use crockpots. At the Office of Cooking Experiments, “Use crockpots” is our mantra; it would even be our motto, if our current one were not so absolutely superlative (“We make mistakes so you don’t have to”). It is ideal that, at Christmas dinner, there be dishes of unusual number and complexity and that they all be done at more or less the same time. Amateur cook, crockpots are your end run around this; things cooked in crockpots can be done hours apart and served, hot, at the same time with minimal burning.

Count the number of burners on your stove and add the oven. This is the upper limit of dishes to make for Christmas dinner, even if you use crockpots.

Measure the spices carefully. We mean this literally – many dishes are sadly sensitive to generous amounts of, say, cumin or red pepper – but also figuratively. In Yuletide recipes, you are liable to come across spices that you do not use the rest of the year and have never even seen in your local grocery store, though granted you were not looking. Measure the likely contribution of these spices to your Christmas joy and decide whether they are worth an excursion to the store. We recommend cloves but not fennel. We cannot even define cardamon.

NOTE: When the recipe calls for “grated lemon zest”, it is merely joking. Have a hearty laugh and break out the lemon juice.

There are many, many different ways to decorate a Christmas cookie. Some people regard sprinkles as a necessity, others as a superfluity. Some people prefer the dunk-and-done method, others view frosted Christmas cookies as works of art as elaborate as the Sistine Chapel, only not as permanent.

Which method is best? Whatever method is not yours. Trust us, and let everyone, including four-year-olds, frost as many cookies as they want in whatever way they want.

Yes, amateur holiday cook, there are many ways to reduce your stress during the Christmas season, and one of them is to get other people to do cookery for you. It makes them feel useful. It is a gift. ‘Tis the season.

Tannenbaum

Tannenbaum

The lights are laced through the branches of the Christmas tree – the same lights that have adorned our tree for twenty Christmases past. The bulbs are old, thick; they do not sparkle so much as glow deep colors over the evergreen needles.

A plastic crown tilts on the reaching topmost branch, a token of the King. Wooden sleds dangle among wooden angels, which still keep most of their gold and white glitter. One branch bends, tugged down by a ceramic Noah’s Ark. Another lightly bears a candy cane of pipe cleaners twisted together.

High among the branches hangs a white, gold-edged cross. The only ornament that matches it is a gilded dove, halfway down and on the other side of the tree. Nothing matches Larry the Cucumber, sporting pajamas and a nightcap as he stands perkily in front of his own Christmas tree. It’s plastic, but so is he.

Yarn Christmas wreaths are scattered high and low – red and white, green and white. One Christmas wreath is thin metal, golden once and tarnished now; a long-ago year is imprinted on it. Other ornaments have that touch – etched with names or dates, marked by family and friends.

Candy canes are hooked on the branches – decoration today, candy again as soon as Christmas Day is past. Tinsel icicles are draped on the branches; even the bent strands shine with every bit of light they snatch. Two or three ornaments are paper, made in some barely recalled Sunday school.

A quilted rug wraps around the tree stand, its red and green patches saluting the season. White squares are sewn in, and rocking horses seesaw over them. They remind me of another rocking horse, a real one back in my childhood, that was made by the hands that made the quilt.

For the currency bartered for a Christmas tree like this is not money but time. Years and people go on their way, and leave things to be put on a Christmas tree.

(Christmas) Movie Review: Rise of the Guardians

Jack Frost was nimble, Jack Frost was quick; Jack Frost froze the world with his stick.

Yes, I know: It’s a mixing of disparate bits of culture and childhood lore, kind of catchy and not quite right. And in that, it’s like Rise of the Guardians.

Rise of the Guardians was released into theaters around Thanksgiving, and released onto DVD just before Easter. It is, indeed, another holiday movie, and like so many holiday movies, Santa is a character. But this is a Russian Santa. With Yetis. And the movie is not really about him anyway.

It’s about Jack Frost. Free, irresponsible, spreading fun, spreading mischief, leaving messes in his wake, always unseen; nobody believes in Jack Frost. The Guardians know he exists, but they don’t really know who he is. To be fair, he has only a poor idea himself.

I must say this about the movie: It was nice to experience a story about Jack Frost. I had never before seen Jack Frost slated any role, let alone that of hero. To me the idea was fresh, and they made him a character both charming and touching. His style is in vogue: cool, ironic, an edge of bitterness. But from the beginning there’s a palpable yearning, and a certain warmth toward the children he leads on wild snow days. Backstory often fails to live up to its own foreshadowing, but Jack’s doesn’t. It is pitch-perfect, full of emotion without angst, and it truly makes sense of what Jack is and why.

Rise of the Guardians has two great strengths. The first is their ability to unite different pieces of childhood stories and so cast a new light on all of them. To create a story with Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy, and the boogeyman is to create a world large enough to contain them.

The second strength is the personalities of the Guardians and their delinquents, Pitch-Black and Jack Frost. Pitch is, essentially, an inversion of the Guardians – an interesting and softly menacing character. (A lot of the credit for this goes to the actor, who played him like velvet – soft and black.) The Guardians, though all abundantly well-meaning, are a little … wonky, somewhere between offbeat and mildly neurotic.

Despite all that it does right, Rise of the Guardians is hobbled by a sense of not being quite big enough. This comes partially from the oddly limited way in which the Guardians responded to the boogeyman. They showed no degree of strategy and – energetically but, on consideration, unjustifiably – ran around plugging up leaks where they should have been thinking how to dam the river.

The story’s conception of the Guardians, like its use of them, was sometimes limited, and this also fostered a hazy sense of smallness. Most of what the makers did with the Easter Bunny and Santa rise guardiansClaus and so forth was fun, and the way they brought these childhood legends together was coherent and interesting. But it wasn’t grand. The story had one piece of really excellent mythos; what it did with the Man on the Moon was mythical, worthy of a fairytale. The makers, however, failed to expand this piece of mythos. The movie as a whole would have been elevated if some of the generic “belief” had been replaced with the mystery and purpose of the Man on the Moon.

Rise of the Guardians missed some of its opportunities, but it is still a good movie. The animation and the acting were both superbly done, the characters were creative and endearing, the story held interest and humor and even heart. And the value of Rise of the Guardians is even greater when you remember that a good movie is hard to find.

Movie Review: Arthur Christmas

Arthur’s heart was in the right place; it was his feet that usually weren’t. He wasn’t quite harmless – certainly not to the elves he routinely tripped over, whose home he once accidentally melted.

But he meant well.

Arthur Christmas is a story of Santa, his wife, his father, and his two sons. If you ever wondered how Santa Claus could visit every child in the world in one night, here’s your answer. If you ever wanted to see the intersection of a military operation, a mega-corporation, and a fairy tale, here’s your chance.

There is not much unique in the premise or themes of Arthur Christmas. We’ve all seen the modernistic re-take on old cultural standbys, from Santa to superheroes to the monsters beneath our childhood beds. We’ve seen many stories of Santa, stories of misfits at the North Pole, stories about saving Christmas and learning its spirit.

But the ideas are still good, and at any rate Christmas is not the best playing field for originality. God wrote the Christmas story, and our own stories are meant to catch echoes of His – even if only in a dim note of hope or good cheer.

As expected as the ideas of Arthur Christmas are, there is some freshness in the execution. The Claus family passing down the position of Santa from one generation to the next is new, and the movie draws a lot from it. In many ways Arthur Christmas is a film about family. There’s a fine-edged realness to the portrayal; we see their love, and the complexity of hurt and longing that too often grows up around love.

Arthur Christmas also makes a striking variation to the saving-Christmas theme. Here Christmas Eve came off with brisk efficiency … except for one small glitch. Out of a billion or so gifts, one was missed. One child was missed. Arthur’s urgent, flailing effort was for one child.

And by exchanging the generalization of children for the reality of a child, Arthur Christmas adds power to the story. Arthur’s mission is that much more poignant, his heart that much bigger. Anyone at the North Pole would have moved heaven and earth for all the children of the world. But Arthur, like the shepherd leaving his ninety-nine to search for the one lost, did it for one child, whose name he knew.

Arthur Christmas is a lighthearted story, most of it fun and funny. But it had its moments of tenderness and seriousness, enough to give another depth to the film. If you, like me, keep a list of Christmas viewing, Arthur Christmas deserves to be added.

Review: Arthur Christmas

Arthur’s heart was in the right place; it was his feet that usually weren’t. He wasn’t quite harmless – certainly not to the elves he routinely tripped over, whose home he once accidentally melted.

But he meant well.

Arthur Christmas is a story of Santa, his wife, his father, and his two sons. If you ever wondered how Santa Claus could visit every child in the world in one night, here’s your answer. If you ever wanted to see the intersection of a military operation, a mega-corporation, and a fairy tale, here’s your chance.

There is not much unique in the premise or themes of Arthur Christmas. We’ve all seen the modernistic re-take on old cultural standbys, from Santa to superheroes to the monsters beneath our childhood beds. We’ve seen many stories of Santa, stories of misfits at the North Pole, stories about saving Christmas and learning its spirit.

But the ideas are still good, and at any rate Christmas is not the best playing field for originality. God wrote the Christmas story, and our own stories are meant to catch echoes of His – even if only in a dim note of hope or good cheer.

As expected as the ideas of Arthur Christmas are, there is some freshness in the execution. The Claus family passing down the position of Santa from one generation to the next is new, and the movie draws a lot from it. In many ways Arthur Christmas is a film about family. There’s a fine-edged realness to the portrayal; we see their love, and the complexity of hurt and longing that too often grows up around love.

Arthur Christmas also makes a striking variation to the saving-Christmas theme. Here Christmas Eve came off with brisk efficiency … except for one small glitch. Out of a billion or so gifts, one was missed. One child was missed. Arthur’s urgent, flailing effort was for one child.

And by exchanging the generalization of children for the reality of a child, Arthur Christmas adds power to the story. Arthur’s mission is that much more poignant, his heart that much bigger. Anyone at the North Pole would have moved heaven and earth for all the children of the world. But Arthur, like the shepherd leaving his ninety-nine to search for the one lost, did it for one child, whose name he knew.

Arthur Christmas is a lighthearted story, most of it fun and funny. But it had its moments of tenderness and seriousness, enough to give another depth to the film. If you, like me, keep a list of Christmas viewing, Arthur Christmas deserves to be added.

Review: Merry’s Christmas

When your car has just been repossessed, and you don’t know where you can scare up the rent, getting a second job is a very obvious thing to do. A second job as a Christmas coordinator is not so obvious.

Especially for Merry Hopper. Abandoned by her parents on Christmas Day, she had never experienced a real family Christmas. Nor did she ever coordinate a Christmas for anyone besides herself and her cat. When you really consider it, her only qualification for being a Christmas coordinator was that her name was Merry.

And, I suppose, that she loved Christmas.

Merry’s Christmas is a romance. Romance is not my usual genre, but I have enjoyed romance novels when they cross with other genres: historical fiction (Masquerade, by Nancy Moser) and comedy (Boo Hiss, by Rene Gutteridge). Merry’s Christmas is in the style of comedy – and a Christmas tale.

Merry’s Christmas is deeply felt, yet lighthearted; there is no real villain. The characters felt real, and even the third point in the love triangle is ultimately a person who can be understood. I would like to highlight two particular triumphs in this area: first, the nine-year-old boy, because he seems like a nine-year-old boy. It is a challenge for adults to write children, to find that level of intelligence and maturity truly appropriate. Susan Rohrer doesn’t trip on that snag.

The second, much more significant triumph is the heroine of the story, Merry. She’s a thoroughly sympathetic character: highly intuitive on an emotional level, a born nurturer, determinedly sweet – and yet there is something hardy, and almost heroic, in how happy she can be after all her troubles. Angst is prevalent in modern fiction; I appreciate the unfussy sadness of this heroine – and even more that she can pluck up her heart to be grateful and even optimistic.

Merry’s Christmas was first written as a screenplay, and you can tell. The brisk, efficient set-up puts one in mind of a movie. The style is gently omniscient, and does not – as many people say of the omniscient viewpoint – compromise closeness to the characters.

The screenplay-origin may also be seen in the chief failing of the novella: a little too much telling instead of showing. Skilled actors convey emotions and thoughts through tones of voice, expressions, body language, a glance in the right direction at the right time. Novelists, too, must give indirect but clear signals.

Merry’s Christmas is a hopeful story, as all Christmas stories ought to be. Its characters are winning, its plot simple as it aims, straight and true, for the heart. Merry’s Christmas turns on incredible changes of fortune – and that, in a Christmas-tide story, is stirringly appropriate.


I received a review copy of this novella from the author.

The Founder of the Time

I have been continuing my read of Christmas Books of Dickens. There is a genre of Christmas entertainment – songs, movies, stories – that has been called “Christmas bubblegum”: high on sugar, low on substance. Dickens’ stories, for all their sentiment, could never be classed in it. They have too much sadness, and too much religion. (Dickens also has an unaccountable tendency to detour into ghost stories while telling Yule-tide tales.)

Here is a brief passage from “The Seven Poor Travellers” (available in full here):

Going through the woods, the softness of my tread upon the mossy ground and among the brown leaves enhanced the Christmas sacredness by which I felt surrounded. As the whitened stems environed me, I thought how the Founder of the time had never raised his benignant hand, save to bless and heal, except in the case of one unconscious tree. By Cobham Hall, I came to the village, and the churchyard where the dead had been quietly buried, ‘in the sure and certain hope’ which Christmas-time inspired. What children could I see at play, and not be loving of, recalling who had loved them! No garden that I passed was out of unison with the day, for I remembered that the tomb was in a garden, and that ‘she, supposing him to be the gardener,’ had said, ‘Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.’ In time, the distant river with the ships came full in view, and with it pictures of the poor fishermen, mending their nets, who arose and followed him, – of the teaching of the people from a ship pushed off a little way from shore, by reason of the multitude, – of a majestic figure walking on the water, in the loneliness of night. My very shadow on the ground was eloquent of Christmas; for did not the people lay their sick where the mere shadows of the men who had heard and seen him might fall as they passed along?

Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year, in the Name of Him who “made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.”