by Earl Crown
Earl Crown is a doctoral student and graduate assistant in American Studies at Penn State Harrisburg, where he also teaches United States history. He holds degrees from Messiah University (B.A. in History, 1995) and McDaniel College (M.L.A., 2012). His scholarly interests include 20th century American social and intellectual history. He is currently researching the 1948 presidential campaign of Henry Wallace and its connection to progressive student activism in the Jim Crow south. Originally from Baltimore, he lives in Hanover, Pennsylvania with his wife Sarah and two children.
Every Thanksgiving, it seems that no sooner has the unfinished turkey on my plate cooled that I begin hearing stories about how the rising tide of secularism is again threatening the Christmas holiday and its true meaning. A 2013 article by former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly identified the origins of the apparent war on Christmas as having come “about ten years ago when creeping secularism and pressure groups like the ACLU began attacking the Christmas holiday.” O’Reilly is far from the only combatant. In 2018 for example, Fox host Sean Hannity took to Twitter to proclaim that “CHRISTMAS IS UNDER SIEGE.” President Trump recently warned that if Biden were elected, “the Christmas season will be cancelled.” Fortunately for them, former child star turned holiday militant Kirk Cameron is here to help, with his film Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, which currently boasts a rating of 0 on the website Rotten Tomatoes.
As scholars of cultural studies will tell you, however, establishing the true meaning of a socially constructed ritual is a fraught undertaking. Christmas, like all holidays, is an ever-evolving patchwork of symbols expressing various experiences and beliefs. There are no scriptural standards instructing how—or even if—the faithful should observe the birth of Christ. Even if we strip Christmas to the bare essence of Biblical text, it is still extraordinarily difficult to put it into an annually observed ritual that perpetually maintains a “true meaning.”
Often overlooked in these squabbles is the distinction between commemorating that Jesus was born and reflecting on why he was born. Christian culture warriors are often concerned with the former and point to explicitly religious content, or lack thereof, in film, television, and public festivities in defense of their cause. A movie that focuses too much on Santa Claus or a store clerk replacing “Christmas” wishes with the more neutral “holidays” can easily be used to indicate the nefarious handiwork of their culture war adversaries.
But what if Christmas is not defined by such externals? Could, for example, a film that fails to directly reference Jesus’s birth ironically serve as a better reminder of the reason for the season than one that does? After all, there is not much treatment of the nativity in Christian scriptures. In fact, much of the remainder of the Bible serves to contextualize why Christmas happened in the first place. In the process, it contains graphic portrayals of people violating God’s laws that would surely earn an NC-17 rating if ever translated literally to film. To separate the nativity story from the rest of the narrative would be to miss the point, and perhaps reduce it to the realm of ordinary.
I was reminded of this tension when I noticed characters passing movie houses that are playing The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) in two famous films, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). In other words, the Capra and Coppola films present America at the same time. In addition, each film considers the role of religion in American life, and each depicts Christmas.
The two films, of course, present these things quite differently, but in doing so they do invite reflection on exactly what a Christmas movie—as well as Christmas itself—is. At face value, the Capra film embodies what, to many culture warriors, Christmas is about and what is endangered in contemporary American society. It seems to me, however, that the world of The Godfather is more consistent with the overall narrative of Christian scripture, and that It’s a Wonderful Life fundamentally contradicts it.
Perhaps I should not be too surprised that Frank Capra’s imaginative Bedford Falls resonates with today’s religious conservatives. To those people who accept a narrative of moral declension that began in the 1960s, Bedford Falls must seem like a reminder of all they think has been lost. Citizens appear to be faithful church attendees and openly proclaim a belief in God, marital monogamy is celebrated, and profanity is non-existent. Even when behaviors that violate Christian standards are presented, such as drunkenness, they are clearly not idealized.
Of course, to watch It’s a Wonderful Life and presume that it accurately reflects a moral America in the late 1940s is enormously problematic. In addition to neglecting the codified misogyny and racism of the time, this view also overlooks the film’s creation under the auspices of the Hays Code. Following the denial of free speech to the motion picture industry by the Supreme Court in the 1915 Mutual Film Corporation case, the Code restricted the content of cinema from the 1930s until its replacement by the ratings system in the 1960s. Its restrictions are on full display in the Capra film when Mary Bailey (Donna Reed) informs husband George (Jimmy Stewart) that she is pregnant. Rather than use the word pregnant, which was one example of a long list of prohibited words, George instead finishes Mary’s sentence, saying instead that she was “on the nest.” The morality of Bedford Falls was therefore more a product of cultural and political hegemony than democratic virtue. It would be objectively false to proclaim that such a place as Bedford Falls ever existed, or that we should try to return to it.
More importantly, even if It’s a Wonderful Life were a documentary, it would still make a poor model for a Christmas movie. There is nothing Clarence the angel does to help George in his struggle to do the right thing that George could not have done for himself with a little self-reflection. George does not need the full complexity of the narrative of the Gospel of Luke. He does not need a baby to be born of a Virgin, publicly proclaim good news to the poor and freedom to the oppressed, be crucified, resurrected, and ultimately ascend into Heaven. What he needs is a weekend away for some rest and relaxation. George’s character and self-contained goodness place him totally at odds with the New Testament narrative of why Christ came to earth. Were Jesus to be born and minister in Bedford Falls, he would be wasting his time.
Another character who, like George Bailey, faces an internal struggle between good and evil is Coppola’s Michael Corleone (Al Pacino). At first, Michael’s character seems much different than his father, mafia boss Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando). Though Vito is depicted early in the film as gentle-mannered and soft-spoken, Coppola reveals through the fear and trepidation of those around him that this is a man whom many people fear. Michael, on the other hand, is anything but fearsome. When he first arrives with his girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton), he looks like a typical cinematic hero. He is wearing an army uniform, is bathed in light, and is in love with a pretty American girl. After telling Kay about his father’s criminal involvement, Michael tells Kay, “That’s my family, Kay. It’s not me.” Michael, by all appearances, has deliberately chosen a life that is vastly different than the violent, corrupt world of his family.
Michael’s determination to choose his own fate is complicated by a series of tragic events, including attempts on his father’s life and the murder of his brother by a rival crime family. When Michael shoots two men in a New York restaurant, his efforts to avoid his “family” business have failed. From there on out, his mannerisms are increasingly like those of his father, and his on-screen presentation is increasingly dark. As the movie ends, he has “settled all family business” by ordering the murders of his enemies, including his brother-in-law Carlo. Suspecting that Michael had Carlo killed, his now-wife Kay asks him “Is it true?,” to which Michael says, “Don’t ask me about my business.” As the film ends, Michael descends into the darkness of his office, having become the new Godfather. His best intentions could not help him overcome the darkness that apparently lay dormant inside of him.
So what does any of this have to do with Christmas? Despite the lack of even a mention of Jesus in It’s a Wonderful Life, Christian culture warriors love it. In his December 2015 newsletter, evangelical author and public figure Dr. James Dobson celebrated it as being “synonymous with the Christmas season,” and stated that it “gives viewers a tantalizing glimpse of values and beliefs that have been all but lost.” Jimmy Stewart is celebrated for having “faithfully attended church” and for “his homey, midwestern drawl.” “The film is noteworthy,” Dobson says, in contrast to the actual historical record, “for its depiction of a time when life was simpler.” Dobson seems to define synonymity with Christmas by broad morality and the presence of an angel. Apparently, so do many of his readers, as Dobson concludes his review by asking them if, after giving to their churches, they have “a little ‘extra’ left over that [they] might want to consider investing in our outreach.”
Regardless of what our constructed holiday symbols represent, The Godfather is a far better representation of a world in need of Jesus and therefore of Christmas. This may sound strange. It certainly lacks the trappings of Christmas nostalgia. Dobson says that prior to watching a Christmas movie with his family, he likes to “make some hot cocoa and popcorn, [and] throw a log on the fire.” The Godfather may not be the best choice for this type of family movie night. When the film aired on NBC in late November of 1974, a New York Times article criticized the network for its “association of…gruesome and sickening films with Christmas.” I am not suggesting that anyone replace nostalgic traditions with something as heavy as the story of the Corleone family. As singer Jackson Browne says in his song “Rebel Jesus,” “I’ve no wish to come between this day and your enjoyment.”
But if Christians want to seriously ponder the meaning of Christmas, we need to recognize that it is far more complicated than sprinkling cultural symbols with the perfume of spirituality. If the narrative of the Bible is to be taken seriously, then there must be a compelling reason for the son of God to have been born. Despite its arguably immoral content, explicit presentation of religious hypocrisy, and lack of many overt references to Christmas, The Godfather presents humanity as being in need to something outside of itself, and it is therefore far more reflective of the reason for Christmas.