Christmas Spirit and Ecclesia: What Christmas Movies Can Teach Us about the Church

I blame Charles Dickens for the current confused state of Christmas, and I'm not alone. Our friends the Puritans had cracked down on Christmas and some of its more festive elements, and even after they were gone and the prohibitions lifted in England and America, Christmas continued to be a somewhat muted celebration. But Charles Dickens, in a series of 19th-century Christmas tales that included "A Christmas Carol," re-popularized the celebration of Christmas in a big way, and in "A Christmas Carol" itself, he conflated Scrooge's story of redemption with his willingness to celebrate Christmas. In short, our inability in 21st-century American to sometimes tell the difference between Christian redemption and Christmas spirit comes to us directly from "A Christmas Carol."

Not that there's anything wrong with that. If the story shows us a grace-driven redemption through supernatural intervention that drives a self-centered lout like Scrooge to treat his neighbors with justice and give to the poor—which it does—then I'm okay with it. The shape of Scrooge's Christmas makeover is, at heart, the story of religious conversion. Perhaps the reason we're so drawn to Christmas films year after year is that consciously or unconsciously we understand that they are stories about salvation.

The shape of Scrooge's redemption should be very familiar to us through the many cinematic adaptations of the story (I'm particularly drawn to the Alistair Sim's A Christmas Carol and A Muppet Christmas Carol), and also through many other Christmas movies (not the least of which is It's a Wonderful Life), for at the heart of most of them is the central element of Christian faith: the necessity of belief. We could wish that more Christmas movies perceived the Christmas story to be an essential part of Christmas, and I do. Every Christmas since I was about six years old, I have choked up when Linus steps up into the spotlight and says, "Of course, Charlie Brown. I know the true meaning of Christmas. There were in those days, shepherds in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night..." But still, in a cynical, fast-paced, and overly practical society like ours, the willingness to believe takes us a long way in the right direction.

Americans tell pollsters that the vast majority of us believe in God, but what exactly does that mean? We may believe that there is a God, perhaps (as I like to say I believe in aluminum), but do the poll numbers suggest that our absolute faith is in God? Are we willing to live and die for that faith?

We all need to have faith in something that gives us worth and to which we can give our lives. For some Americans, that faith is given largely to our nation; for some it is largely lodged in science and technology; to some it is in our economic structures; to some it is in consumerism. The faith and belief we're going to find in these Christmas movies is not explicitly Christian, but it does show us countercultural generosity, the power of radical belief, and the way community or fellowship can form around that belief. Through these secular vehicles we can certainly hear the prophetic voices that Tillich talked about.

A Miracle on 34th Street contains a number of these elements; where there are miracles, we said, there must be God nearby, so who could blame people for confusing the Christmas message with this Christmas story? As in many Christmas stories (from Scrooge's on forward) A Miracle on 34th Street contrasts the way we live and think in our everyday lives with what is possible at Christmas time, and almost always the everyday comes up wanting.

Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) works as a Santa at Macy's Department Store, and he's very good at what he does. He should be: he says he's the real deal. Not everybody thinks this is possible. As is often true in Christmas films, the vast majority of people can't believe in the possibility of Christmas magic. When Kris Kringle gets locked away as insane and brought up for a hearing, a young attorney, Fred Gailey (John Payne), decides to defend him. "Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to," he says. "Don't you see? It's not just Kris that's on trial, it's everything he stands for. It's kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles."

Belief in Santa, that is, is a step toward belief in other intangibles. And a failure to believe—well that's a slippery slope.

That's important to Fred because he is gaga for Doris Walker (Maureen O'Sullivan), who has a little girl, Susan (Natalie Wood), and Doris has raised Susan not to believe in frivolous things like Santa Claus. So the element of redemption in the film, the miracle on 34th Street, if you will, is restoring a child's childlike faith. Susan comes around—"I believe . . . I believe . . . Even though it's silly, I believe"—and ultimately, so does Doris: "I was wrong when I told you that, Susie. You must believe in Mr. Kringle and keep right on doing it. You must have faith in him."

12/11/2012 5:00:00 AM
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  • Greg Garrett
    About Greg Garrett
    Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post,, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.