Andy Schmookler: American Values and the Christmas Season
Holidays offer us a chance to put our usual pursuits aside. But often, also, holidays provide a light to illuminate the meaning of our usual pursuits. So it is with this Christmas season and with our efforts to meet the challenge of the present crisis in America.
Over the generations, the holiday of Christmas has become deeply woven into American culture, expressing both the nature of our country and its ideals. Aside from the commercialization of the holiday, which of course reflects an important part of what America is about, there are also the deep moral values that gain expression in America during the Christmas season.
As a way into the moral meanings of Christmas in the context specifically of American culture, I’d like to look at four of the most prominent imaginative works that, over the years, Americans have found meaningful to include in their holiday celebrations. These four are:
1) A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, and the various movie versions of Scrooge;
2) Amahl and the Night Visitors, an opera by Menotti, broadcast every Christmas season, for many years, on NBC;
3) It’s a Wonderful Life, a 1946 Frank Capra movie starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed;
4) Miracle on 34th Street, a film with Edward Gwenn, Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, and the young Natalie Wood.
These works move us because of what they say about the way the world should work according to a moral vision of what life is about. They connect with Christmas, and they connect with the moral heart of America. And the issues they raise are central to the crisis that we Americans now face in the political realm, and that are at the heart of this campaign.
In the sort essays to follow, I will briefly discuss each of these, and how they illuminate the challenge that faces us and how they should fortify us in our hope and resolve.
MONEY OR PEOPLE? THE ISSUE IN “A CHRISTMAS CAROL”
What is Dickens’ famous “A Christmas Carol” about? It’s about a man who has seriously misconstrued the question, “What is life about?”
To begin with, he is blind and unfeeling when it comes to interconnection: “”It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned. “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly.”’
Where have we Americans lately heard this point of view? The whole assault on government is a campaign launched by Scrooges of such a point of view. Let people attend to their own business, as disconnected social atoms in the market, they say, without having to concern themselves with the well-being of their fellows. “Every man for himself,” not “We’re all in this together.”
“His own business,” to Scrooge, was all about making money. He becomes rich, but pinched in spirit, small of heart.
Through the intercession of the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future, he is changed. By the end, he has grasped that life is about our interconnectedness with other people. So many opportunities missed, but it is not too late to learn to open his heart.
What has this to do with Christmas? It is of course more than that those ghosts were connected with the holiday. It also connects with what the holiday is about. It celebrates the birth of one who said, “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.” (Matthew 6:24) And who said also, “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another.” (John, 13:34)
The question that faced Scrooge is at the heart also of the present American crisis. Is the power wielded in the political realm to be about Money, or about People?
In my campaign, we’ve taken on the challenge to show how People Power can defeat Money Power. We are seeking to re-establish the kind of politics in which our interconnectedness is honored and cared for, not just every individual seeking to get what he can for himself. We want power in America not to grow out of the war of all against all, but in the service of love and compassion.
A POOR SHEPHERD BOY AS MUCH AS A KING: ‘AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS’
Younger people may not know this little opera, but for Americans from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s (at which time the composer, Gian Carlo Menotti, withdrew permission) this opera was broadcast every year as part of the Christmas season.
It is the story of a young, crippled shepherd boy, Amahl, and his mother who are visited one night by the Three Kings who are following their star to attend to the birth of a new special kind of “King.” Amahl and his mother are desperately poor, while the Kings of course are rich, and bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh as gifts to the newborn child.
The meaning of this difference between wealth and status on one side, and poverty and obscurity on the other, is a central theme of the tale. At one point, Amahl is inquiring of one of the kings whether he has “regal blood.” The king tells him yes. Amahl asks to see it, and the king replies “It is just like yours.”
In a most beautiful trio, the Three Kings sing to the mother to explain the nature of the child they are traveling to see. In two successive stanzas, the contrast and the unity of the high and the low are integrated:
“Have you seen a child the color of wheat… the color of dawn?
His eyes are mild; his hands are those of a king – as king he was born.”
And then in the next stanza:
“Have you seen a child the color of earth… the color of thorn?
His eyes are sad; his hands are those of the poor as poor he was born.”
At the pivotal moment of the story, the crippled Amahl is filled with excitement at the thought of giving something to this child, and he offers his crutch. As he does so, a miracle occurs: suddenly he does not need his crutch. He walks. He has been healed. This, sing the Kings, is “a sign from God.”
With Amahl having been the recipient of this miracle, the status relationship has, in some sense, been reversed: “Oh blessed child, may I touch you?” ask the Kings of the boy.
What does this have to do with Christmas? Although Kings are traveling to greet the birth of this child, his birth takes place in a manger. Not even in a home of the poor, but in the place where domesticated animals might give birth.
This is the baby who will grow up to say, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” As the Kings sing in the opera, “The keys to his city belong to the poor.”
It is a vision of human value that is based not on status or power or wealth, but on the intrinsic worth of the human soul. It has been argued that the spiritual roots of the American democratic vision grow out of this vision of human value: we are not to be “subjects” of someone anointed by “divine right” to rule us, we are to be citizens with an equal claim to a voice in our collective destiny because, in the ultimate perspective, we have equal intrinsic value.
In America today, that democratic vision is imperiled. Even as inequalities of wealth and power grow, there is a political force that works to widen that gulf still further. The idea of all citizens having equal say is being undermined by that force, working as it does to put the governmental process in effect u for auction.
The agents of that force seem to care not about the plight of the least of their brethren. Far from having that generosity of spirit that leads a crippled boy to offer his crutch, they refuse to sacrifice anything to help the nation or to comfort the afflicted.
It is in the face of this spirit –so at odds with the meaning of this season—that we Americans are now challenged to struggle to re-establish the eroded power of generosity and compassion in the arena where our destiny as a nation gets decided.
REDEEMED BY SACRIFICE: ‘IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE’
There is, perhaps, no single movie that is more beloved for the Christmas season than “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Frank Capra’s great film from 1946.
At the heart of this film is the life of George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, who has had dreams of one kind of life but who has felt compelled, by a sense of duty, to keep choosing a different path altogether. His longing for travel and adventure must continually go frustrated because, at each crucial juncture, his family or his town need for him to stay and serve.
The crisis comes upon a Christmas eve, when despite all his efforts, it appears that the thrift institution he has preserved and built to protect his community against the forces of heartless greed, embodied by the wealthy banker, Mr. Potter, will now fail and be gobbled up by Potter.
Believing that all his sacrifices are now proving to have been for nothing, our hero, George Bailey, falls into despair. In this despair, George contemplates suicide. It is here that the element of the miraculous, so central to the meaning of the season, enters in. It comes in the form of an angel, named Clarence. Clarence shows George, who has come to believe it would be better had he never been born, just how important a difference he has made.
Two visions: in contrast to the town we have seen throughout the film, we are shown the town as it would have been had George –good-hearted, dutiful, caring George Bailey—never been born. The contrast is stark—even the name of the town is not the same: without George, his beloved Bedford Falls would have been Pottersville.
Pottersville is a mean and dismal place, filled with vice and injury and privation. The rich human lives we have seen are here, in this alternate reality, filled with pain and bitterness. The lovely Donna Reed, the wonderful wife to George and mother to their children, just to give one (albeit somewhat implausible) example, is a reticent spinster, seemingly filled with fear of the world around her and, likely, of life itself.
George learns that his sacrifices have purchased extraordinary human good for all the people he cares about.
And then in the climactic scene, the willingness to give that George has shown is now reciprocated by virtually everyone in the town. The bread he had cast upon the waters is now returned to him. His little bank is saved. With his spirit renewed, George Bailey is restored to his family and his community.
And the wholeness and decency of Bedford Falls is preserved.
What has this to do with Christmas?
Christmas is about the story of a birth, but the life that birth celebrates culminates in an act of sacrifice. The world is redeemed by a willingness to sacrifice. “He so loved the world…” it is said of the Father. And although the son had said, “if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me” (Matthew 26: 29), he willingly undergoes the torment and the death upon the cross, that the world may be redeemed.
George Bailey’s life of sacrifice connects directly with the season.
And what has this to with our present situation? Like George, we have ideas of the life we’d like to live, our equivalents of his dreams of travel and exploration. But like George, too, we can see that the protection of what we love requires us to set those dreams aside for a time, to sacrifice some of our own wishes to serve the big picture of all those things we care about.
At stake is whether we and our children and our grandchildren will live in an America that is Bedford Falls or one that is Pottersville.
The angel, Clarence, revealed to George the divergence of paths that would have taken place in a past in which his sacrifices had not been made. Our job now is to envision the divergence of paths into a future depending upon whether or not we make the sacrifices within our power to make to see to it that the Potters of our time are not the shapers of our nation’s destiny.
UNDREAMT OF IN YOUR PHILOSOPHY: MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET
The central issue in Miracle on 34th Street is what kinds of forces are at work in the world, and more specifically, whether the prosaic view of common sense captures everything we need to know about what’s possible.
The film pivots around two characters: one is an attractive woman, played by Maureen O’Hara, and an elderly bearded man (played by Edmund Gwenn) who claims to be Santa Claus. The old man’s claim to be Santa Claus is an assertion that the world contains magic and mystery. The woman, by contrast, is heavily invested in the idea that the world is just matter-of-fact and commonsensical.
We, the audience, are continually encouraged to root for the idea that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in her philosophy. And eventually it comes out that her rejection of life’s magical element is the fruit of her past bitter disappointment in romance.
Two other people in the story depend upon the outcome of the tension between these two worldviews. A young man has a romantic interest in the woman who resists romance, and the woman’s young daughter is enchanted with the wonderful, warm-hearted Santa Claus, and struggling to reconcile what she sees and experiences with the imaginatively sterile vision of things she’s being taught by her mother.
The miraculous, of course, wins out over the sterile. To our great delight.
And what does this have to do with Christmas? It’s more than that the man is claiming to be the Kris Kringle that happens to be associated with Christmas. It’s about the idea that more is at work in the world than the prosaic and commonsensical.
The world appears, in the Christmas story, to be fully under the dominion of the brutal Romans and the corrupt rulers they have installed. But there’s another kind of power that can enter the world, and that other kind of power is represented by a baby being born in a manger. That this other kind of power is a threat to the conventional power of kings and armies is shown by the reaction of the corrupt Herod who –just as did Pharaoh at the time of Moses’ birth—wants the child found so that he could destroy it.
In human affairs, sometimes the mundane course of events is disrupted by a spiritual power that operates by means other than swords and gold.
At the conclusion of Miracle on 34th Street, the life of the skeptic is transformed by the operation of magical powers she had said could not exist. Kris Kringle helps her find true love, and her daughter to grow up in the home of her dreams. Impossible, in terms of common sense. But possible in the world where unseen forces can work miracles.
And how does that relate to our campaign, and to the larger question of People Power defeating the Money Power?
Common sense says that someone running as a Democrat in a District that is so heavily Republican as the 6th District cannot win. But there are forces that can be tapped into that can upset the obvious expectations.
Within the human spirit, something can be kindled.
A young man immolates himself in Tunisia, out of despair for his life in a corrupt society, and thus ignites also a movement across that part of the world that has already toppled three governments and may yet topple more. Common sense would never have seen the possibility.
Here, in these dark times in America, there is in many of our countrymen a yearning for a renewal of the goodness and effectiveness of our political process. That yearning is an expression of the spirit, and the spirit is capable of changing the world in ways not unforeseen through the usual calculations.
Where is the power to be found in America today? That question can be answered in terms of dollars, in terms of red or blue districts, in terms like those that made Herod king. But it may be that the answer will lie elsewhere, in the kindling of the spirit.
Let the Herods of our times tremble, for this could be one of those times when the seemingly miraculous overturns the seemingly solid commonsensical order of things.
SOLSTICE: MAKING THE TURN FROM DARKNESS TO LIGHT
Christmas comes around the time of the winter solstice. That’s not coincidence, but is tied into the meaning of the holiday.
That the birth of Jesus is celebrated at this time of year is NOT because anyone found a birth certificate indicating that he was born in the latter part of December. There was no birth certificate, and it’s generally understood that this time of the year was chosen by Christians for reasons that connect with the fact of its being the solstice.
The winter solstice is the time of greatest darkness: the night is at its longest, the day at its shortest. The solstice is also the time when light begins its ascendancy: the days now begin to lengthen. In many cultural traditions, holidays around the time of the solstice put an emphasis on lights—the lights and candles of Christmas being one such instance.
The time of year when light begins its comeback is a fitting time for celebrating the birth of a child whose story culminates in redemption. At the darkest time, the light begins the process of recapturing the world.
So it is with our political crisis, and with this campaign. This is a time where darkness has been dominating in the realm of power in America. The solstice and the Christmas season are fitting occasions to commit ourselves to helping making the turn back toward the light.