The Christmas season isn’t just fret and rush with commercialism watching from on high. It may sometimes seem that way, especially in a society ever less religious and ever more materialistic, but then we witness the special bursts of kindness, generosity, hope and love. The underlying message exerts itself, and it often does so through stories.
After all, the power of narration, in current events, history and fiction, is to engage every part of you, to put you there, to give you an experience, to make you feel and wonder, to reach sensibilities enabling an understanding that is emotionally coherent. Yes, we need discourse, too, the sort of discussion that steps aside and ponders more abstractly. But stories? They are what we live by.
Let’s start with “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, the 1843 yarn about mean, old Ebenezer Scrooge, a bah-humbug kind of guy when it came to Christmas and worse than that when it came to fellow human beings.
You know the tale. On Christmas Eve he goes home and is visited by four ghosts. The first is a deceased business partner warning that undeterred misdeeds will follow him to the grave. The next takes him to the past where he sees how he abandoned love for money. He then visits the present and sees how his self-centered detachment from others is, among other evils, risking the life of an underpaid employee’s very ill son. Finally, he visits the future and sees the son’s death with tears being shed and his own death with hands being clapped.
Scrooge wakes up from all of this on Christmas Day a different man, happily making up for what he has done and becoming devoted to the boy, Tiny Tim, who gets well. Because of intervening insights fostering charity and transformation, Scrooge, forevermore, is a good man.
For another story, let’s visit with “It’s A Wonderful Life,” a 1946 movie that starred James Stewart as George Bailey. This character is in some ways the opposite of Scrooge before his change. He has spent his life sacrificing for others, but runs into trouble when an uncle’s loss of $8,000 threatens to land him in prison. It’s Christmas Eve, but Bailey figures his life is ruined and would have killed himself except that, owing to prayers from friends and family, he meets his guardian angel.
The angel shows him that many would have died and his beloved town would have been ruined if it had not been for him. He races happily home but would have been arrested if it were not for alerted townspeople who came up with the money he needed for legal rescue. It was soon time for a merry Christmas, and what we have witnessed is that self-sacrifice can lend meaning to life and evoke loving response.
A third story is O. Henry’s 1905 “Gift of the Magi,” in which a poor wife cuts off her beautiful hair and sells it to get money enough to give her poor husband a chain for his magnificent watch. He meanwhile sells the watch to give her decorative combs for her hair. What they share Christmas day is joy in a love that goes beyond mere possessions.
Then there’s “A Christmas Story,” a comedic TV film in which the main character, a 9-year-old boy, wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas and all kinds of small things go wrong as one big thing goes right: love, again. Family love.
The best of all the stories, of course, is the one that generated the others: A baby is born in a manger. It’s an incredibly great event, but what we have is a stable, suggesting humility and kinship with the downtrodden, and an innocent sweet baby, suggesting much to come. What we will get includes an inundation of love.
As Tiny Tim said in the Scrooge story, “God bless us, every one!”
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Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Readers may email him at [email protected]