The mortgage meltdown, job squeeze and clash between rich and poor evoke long-popular holiday tales with ghostly clarity, offering messages of hope, faith and togetherness during an intensely uncertain year, says William J. Palmer, an English professor and Charles Dickens expert at Purdue University.
“The real reason that readers have always returned to ‘A Christmas Carol’ year after year since the 1840s is that it provides a way of reinvigorating the spirit of Christmas that everyone wants to feel during this season, no matter how hard the times or how bleak the economic outlook,” he said.
Dusty old stories mingled with more contemporary fare can touch all generations with the promise of better days ahead, says Brandon Mendelson, 25, a graduate student in history at the University of Albany in New York.
“This is how we as Americans feel in light of the recession,” he said. “For my generation at least, Gen Y, we have never in our lives encountered a situation like this. We have a belief, despite evidence to the contrary, that this situation will end soon and improve for everyone. It may be childlike innocence, but we know it to be true.”
A sampler of Christmas tales through the ages:
“A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens, 1843.
The Tale: Ebenezer Scrooge is so consumed by greed and downright meanness that he’s visited by three spirits looking to rehabilitate him at Christmas in Victorian London. They lead him on a back-and-forth journey through his past, present and future. He gets a fly-on-the-wall look at how the Cratchit family really feels about him before he emerges kinder, gentler and joyfully tossing money around.
Lesson: It’s never too late to make amends and let charity into your heart.
Notes: The story was hugely popular when released for Christmas, with an unblinking look at social injustice and gaping class disparity. By some accounts, young Dickens wrote it to pay off a debt, but high production costs cut into his profit.
“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” unsigned editorial in The Sun of New York, 1897.
The Tale: 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon begs for some Santa Claus truth. She follows her papa’s advice to consult The Sun, not wanting to believe her “little friends” that St. Nick is a fraud. The newspaper’s response in part: “Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.”
Lesson: A little faith in the unseen can go a long way.
Notes: Written by a Sun staffer who covered the Civil War, Francis P. Church, this bit of holiday history has been reprinted in dozens of languages. The real Virginia was the daughter of a coroner’s assistant who grew up to be a school teacher. She died in 1971 at 82.
“The Gift of the Magi,” by O. Henry, 1906.
The Tale: Jim and Della Young are in love, but they’ve hit hard times and can barely pay their $8-a-week rent. For Christmas, she sells her prized knee-length hair to buy him a fob chain for his cherished gold pocket watch, but he sells the watch to surprise her with two fancy hair combs. Then it’s time for pork chops.
Lesson: The greatest love may require painful sacrifice.
Notes: This short story inspired an episode of “The Simpsons,” a place in Steve Martin’s “Cruel Shoes” and a song from the band Squirrel Nut Zippers that goes like this: “Though we’ve pawned away our only pleasures. These gifts we give are not in vain.”
“It’s a Wonderful Life,” directed by Frank Capra, 1946.
The Tale: Beset by bad luck, a bank run and shattered dreams, George Bailey (James Stewart) is about to jump off a bridge on Christmas Eve shortly after World War II. But a guardian angel in training, Clarence, grants George’s wish that he had never been born. He reveals George’s accomplishments and earns himself some wings to-boot.
Lesson: A person’s real worth can be measured in family, friends and selfless service.
Notes: Based on “The Greatest Gift,” a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern, the movie is among the most popular of all time. But it was a box office bust and fizzled at the Oscars. Some considered it communist propaganda with its indictment of the monied class and the spread-the-wealth zeal of the Building & Loan.
“A Christmas Memory,” by Truman Capote, 1956.
The Tale: “It’s fruitcake weather!” 7-year-old Buddy’s childlike, 60-something cousin declares after he was dumped on relatives in the rural South of the 1930s. Poor and inseparable, Buddy and Sook bake for the famous and the unsung, trek into the woods to cut down a Christmas tree and fashion kites for each other as gifts. Adult Buddy describes his grief years later over Sook’s death – “a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken string.”
Lesson: Friendship can offer hope and joy amid bruising poverty and social isolation.
Notes: The semi-autobiographical short story was first published in Mademoiselle. A young Capote wrote it before “In Cold Blood” propelled him to socialite status. A teleplay in 1966 starred Geraldine Page as Sook. In 1997, Patty Duke had the role in a Hallmark TV special.
“How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” by Dr. Seuss, 1957.
The Tale: A furry grouch of a creature lives north of Whoville and makes his way down Mount Crumpit to end infernal Christmas. He steals the gifts and trimmings of the kind and gentle Whos. But it doesn’t work. Christmas arrives despite his plundering. The Grinch’s heart “two sizes too small” grows large after he meets sweet-faced little Cindy-Lou and hears the Whos singing. He returns the loot and makes new friends.
Lesson: Being together on a special day is more important than how you celebrate it.
Notes: Chuck Jones made an animated TV special in 1966 and turned the Grinch green. Jim Carrey took it live-action in 2000. Seuss has the Grinch conclude: “Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more!”
“A Charlie Brown Christmas,” 1965, TV special based on the “Peanuts” comic strip by Charles M. Schulz.
The Tale: Reliably depressed Charlie Brown complains about the commercial corruption of Christmas as he tries to organize a Nativity play. He gets a tongue-lashing from Lucy and the gang over the puny tree he chooses as a stage set. Inspired by a reading from Linus from the Gospel of Luke heralding the birth of Christ and urging peace on Earth, the other kids learn to love the little tree as much as Charlie Brown does.
Lesson: Have the courage to stand up for those in need.
Notes: Linus says it best as he props up the overburdened tree with his precious blanket: “I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.”
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.