By James Marten
It’s no coincidence that the most benign and popular of the three spirits who haunt Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve is the Ghost of Christmas Past. Although in the end Ebenezer’s journey through select moments of his holiday memories are more bitter than sweet, this first of three ghostly tours reminds us that the ways in which we and our families celebrate Christmas—or any holiday, really—create a shared history among family members that can become treasured memories or dramas fraught with ambivalence.
Part of that memory-making, at least for some of us, threads through popular culture, whether it’s the smooth jazz-infused A Charlie Brown Christmas, the jerky stop-motion animation of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, or the star-studded, over-the-top music specials that have flooded the airwaves since the 1950s (anyone remember David Bowie singing “Little Drummer Boy” with Bing Crosby?).
But three iconic representatives of the genre are grounded in history, and self-consciously reflected that history when they were made. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (actually published in 1843 as A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas), has appeared in countless plays, cartoons, radio shows, and movies. Each version, in its own way, has captured conditions on Victorian England familiar to any historian: the class conflict reflected in the presence of the urban poor (the waifs revealed by the Ghost of Christmas Present), the barely-getting-by lower middle class represented by the Cratchits, the comfortable middle classes shopping and feasting throughout the story, and the wealthy folks who barely appear but are clearly present; the overburdened system of private charities and over-used work houses and prisons so loved by Scrooge; even the massive dislocation of the provincial population to London and its fabulous economic opportunities and worrisome dangers. Indeed, one of Dickens’ motivations for writing the little book was to offer not only a heart-warming holiday story, but to highlight the egregious conditions in which many Londoners lived.
Less concerned with societal ills than with individual redemption, It’s a Wonderful Life traces everyman George Bailey’s life from the 1910s through the 1940s, with major events like the World Wars and the Great Depression neatly framing the movie into three acts. Smaller episodes reflect those times, from the druggist’s near-disastrous grief from losing his son during the WWI to the run on the Baileys’ building and loan in the early 1930s that ruins the George and Mary’s honeymoon, to the incredible energy poured into the war effort on the WWII home front. Along the way we glimpse the effects of eastern European immigration and the development of the kind of the kind of suburban housing that would be made famous by the post-war Levittowns. Every one of these and many other historical moments plays a role in the life George resents—and every one provides a specific kind of Christmas memory showing why his presence enriched the lives of others.
It’s a Wonderful Life appeared in 1946, as soldiers returned from war and adjusted to peace (like George’s hero brother Harry—a pilot like Jimmy Stewart, acting in his first movie since returning from several years of active duty) and as the country tried to glimpse a little optimism after the shattering destruction of the war. Eight years later, White Christmas came out at a time when, despite the Cold War, Americans felt more confident and the world was more or less at peace; filmed in living color and featuring peppy musical numbers, it occupies a place on the spectrum of Christmas movies about as far from It’s Wonderful Life as possible. Yet even a bit of fluff like White Christmas is rooted in war-time and post-war America, from the GIs longing for home at the make-shift show put on by comrades just before they go into combat to the sudden rise to entertainment prominence of television to the bittersweet reunion of already aging veterans who gather to honor their old general after he’s been rejected by an army too modern to need an old-school soldier like him. Despite its modern sensibilities, White Christmas seems to have been produced to create nostalgia.
Whether these or other Christmas classics are on your must-see list, or if you simply watch a few minutes here and there while channel-surfing, for many of us these stories—and no doubt countless others—firmly meld fictional Christmases into real history and into our lives.
Happy Holidays on behalf of my colleagues in the Marquette University History Department!
James Marten is professor and chair of the history department. He’s a little sheepish about admitting that one of his favorite holiday movies is Love Actually.