Religion Today

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Tale of Two (Christmas) Films

Two film studios released films this year to capitalize on the Christmas season. They could not be more different. The Star tells the nativity story, from Mary’s discovery of her pregnancy, through the trip she and Joseph make to Bethlehem, to Jesus’ birth. It is a children’s cartoon where the main characters are animals, not humans. The Man who Invented Christmas tells a tale of how Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843 as he lived a Christmas carol plot of his own.
            These films represent the two main strands of Christmas celebration that have dominated American culture since World War II. The post-war era saw the largest expansion of church building in the country’s history. Along with that came an increase in church attendance, especially at Christmas time when the tale of Jesus’ birth was celebrated in story and song.
            The other strand took place in popular culture, especially in the nation’s film and burgeoning TV industries. Often featuring Santa Claus, it emphasized the importance of people being together with their loved ones at Christmas. From Miracle on 34th Street to It’s a Wonderful Life through the Burl Ives Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, versions of A Christmas Carol and Dr. Seuss’s The Grinch who Stole Christmas (a Christmas Carol remake with the Grinch as Scrooge) to White Christmas, these films emphasized connections with family and friends, or making such connections if they did not exist.
            Dicken’s novella A Christmas Carol influenced the popular approach to Christmas. His tale makes no reference to the gospel story, but through the three ghosts shows Christmas as celebrating the joy of family and friends as well as the terribleness of being alone—especially at Christmas.
            The Man who Invented Christmas captures in part the invention of Christmas, for it acknowledges that a Christmas-focused book would be a hard sell. In the early nineteenth century, Christmas was a minor holiday, not even as important as our Halloween. Just a couple centuries earlier, the Puritans had outlawed Christmas because the day’s traditions of sport and drinking had overshadowed its religious associations.
            By Dickens’ time, the Puritans were long gone, but the holiday had not yet had a major resurgence. The film’s ending suggests a coming increase in Christmas’ popularity and influence in society, an importance that Dickens’ tale encouraged.
            The religious significance of Christmas, focusing on Jesus’ birth, has found it difficult to move from the churches into the popular realm. Few films feature the gospel story of Mary and Joseph. The most successful recent one was the 2006 The Nativity Story, a film focusing on Mary and her (unwanted?) marriage to an older man as she deals with her unusual pregnancy.
            This year’s film, The Star, tries again to bring Jesus’ birth to the popular audience, this time by focusing on children as its audience. It does this by retelling the story through the eyes of cute animals who must “save” the first Christmas by protecting the pregnant Mary from being killed by a soldier and his two mean tracking dogs.
            The Star makes the nativity story exciting by adopting the conventions of modern cartoons, those from video games. The film opens with a mouse witnessing Mary’s encounter with the angel and then running to spread the word. Her race over the rooftops echoes the Assassin’s Creed video games (including a fall into a hay wagon).
            This is shortly followed by chase scene with the young donkey, an escape down a cliff, a later rescue on different cliffs, and hitting the bad guy with a runaway cart. Each of one these scenes reflect video game challenges familiar to children.
            The gospel tale takes place in the background while the plot with the animals—led by a donkey, a dove and a sheep (a Dory-like character)—plays out in the foreground. It is the donkey, not the inn keeper, who finds the stable for Mary and Joseph. The angels’ announcement of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds becomes the sheep’s rallying of the flock to drive off the soldier and the bad dogs.
            In the end (spoiler alert!), the soldier falls off the cliff, but the dogs are saved. They become good dogs and wind up in the nativity tableau with the other animals.

            The Star thus brings the religious story into the popular realm, but it does so by whole-heartedly adopting the popular conventions of children’s cartoons. This will presumably enable it to move to DVD and have a long afterlife on Netflix for children’s seasonal viewing. Will future Sunday school teachers have to teach their pupils that, no, dogs did not chase Mary and Joseph all the way to Bethlehem?

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Thanksgiving at Plymouth: The Christmas Substitute

The celebration of Thanksgiving as a national holiday in late November was not enacted until the 1870s. The official reason was to commemorate the landing at Plymouth of the nation’s Puritan forefathers and foremothers. The holiday’s national designation stemmed from two forces. The first was the unceasing will of author Sarah Josepha Hale who spent 40 years of her adult life campaigning for the declaration of Thanksgiving as a national holiday.

The second was the Civil War and its aftermath. Thanksgiving celebrates the American nation and the country’s citizens unity within it and subordination to it. So it is not surprising that Abraham Lincoln issued the first national proclamation for its observance and that his successors, encouraged by Hale, instituted the national date of a Thursday in late November.

Before the establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, states held their own observances on a variety of dates under different names. As the location of the Pilgrims’ landing, Massachusetts commemorated the first arrival of the Puritans on the Mayflower at the site of Plymouth rock, which they identified as December 22.

In the town of Plymouth itself, public celebrations began to take place in 1798 and accounts of celebrations over the next 25 years appear in the “Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts,” vol. 17. 

Plymouth’s observances contained three main parts: a religious ceremony which included a procession around the town and a sermon or “oration”; a large dinner followed by the drinking of numerous toasts to leaders past and present; and a festive ball filled with dancing and merriment. This last item is usually accompanied by thanks to the town’s women for organizing such an enjoyable evening.

Toasts feature prominently in the local news reports, which often list them. The dinner of 1798 features 29 separate toasts. Unsurprisingly, later reports reveal worries about public drunkenness.

Plymouth’s annual observance of the “Pilgrim Anniversary” took place just three days before the traditional date of Christmas, December 25. True to their Puritan heritage, most people in Massachusetts during the 18th and early 19th centuries did not celebrate Christmas.

On December 25th, shops were open their normal hours, children attended school, and daily life continued as normal. Merrymakers were often prosecuted for disturbing the peace. Massachusetts continued this treatment of Christmas until well after the Civil War.

Puritans disliked Christmas intensely. It was not a biblically ordained celebration. Nowhere in scripture appears any encouragement for a celebration of Jesus’ birth. When the Reformation took place, many Protestants saw Christmas (and Easter) as part of Catholicism’s “pagan corruption” of Christianity and removed them. American Puritans held to this view long after most other Protestants abandoned it.

Perhaps more importantly, Puritans disapproved of the rowdiness, drunkenness and inappropriate actions that accompanied Christmas celebrations of the time. They believed the celebration of the Savior’s birth, who was God’s Son, should not be a time for encouraging irreligious behavior.

From the 1880s onward, despite changing attitudes in Massachusetts, American Christmas stories and poems decry and ridicule this dour Puritan denial of Christmas and its celebratory joy and festivities.

The stories usually imply and even state outright that the rejection of joyous activity on Christmas day is typical of daily life in New England: no one ever smiles; children are quiet and subdued; there is no pleasure in living; happiness is never expressed.

Such tales overlook the festivities of the Pilgrim festivals just three days before. Celebrating the foundation of America as a nation, these revelries are secular (despite occasional religious overtones). So drunkenness and loud and exciting activities like dancing did not offend religious sensibilities, because they did not take place on a religious holiday.

The people of Plymouth did not shun merriment; they didn’t even shun it in late December. They simply avoided associating it with a day which their puritan heritage linked to “pagan worship.” In many ways, they exemplify what happened in Boston and Massachusetts’ other towns and cities. And, it should be noted, they engaged in the very despised activities that caused their Puritan forefathers to reject Christmas.

Plymouth’s early celebrations of what later became Thanksgiving, then, gave them a day of celebration which they could enjoy at the same time the rest of the country was celebrating Christmas. Their secular observance of the nation’s founding provided a substitute for Christmas religious festivities.

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How Chocolate Pioneered Suburbia

From Thanksgiving to Christmas, America embarks on a month-long obsession with food. And not just any food, but the food of feasting, of special times. One of those foods is chocolate.

In my youth, chocolate-covered cherries and chocolate Santas were the rule, but now European chocolate has become popular. Terry’s Chocolate Oranges, Toblerone, and boxes of Ferrero Roche are now common. My favorite come from the English firm of Cadbury’s, whether it is bars of Bourneville and Dairy Milk or gooey Cream Eggs.

And it was when the two Cadbury brothers took over their father’s failing cocoa factory in 1860 that the technological advancements in chocolate making laid the groundwork for the sweet, brown bars so many of us desire. Along the way, the brothers also laid the foundations for modern suburbia—constructing a new way of living for factory workers, away from city slums.

Richard and George Cadbury were Quakers. In fact the three leading makers of English drinking chocolate in the nineteenth century were Quaker families: Cadbury, Rowntree and Fry. This was not unusual, for at the time 10% of England were practicing Quakers, and Quaker religious discipline carried over into good business practices. Indeed, many Quakers were trusted bankers, founding institutions such as Barclays and Lloyds banks.

In 1860, the cocoa bean was difficult to work with. Manufacturers had not yet learned how to separate out the bean’s oil in the manufacturing process, so the resulting drink had an unpleasant scum and it was cut with additives to absorb it. In the search for an enjoyable drink, many mixtures were tried, including tapioca, lichens, and brick dust.

By 1867, the Cadbury brothers became the first English chocolate makers to perfect a procedure for removing the oil and thus were the first to sell pure, unadulterated cocoa. This product turned the company’s fortunes around and demand for it skyrocketed.

As Quakers, Richard and George were quite concerned about the rapid increase of urban poor during the industrial age. Most of their workers lived near their Birmingham factory in rather squalid conditions. Families with several children occupied apartments of just one or two rooms, with no private toilets or water. There was no schooling, health care, or recreational facilities.

Quaker beliefs emphasized two key points. First, believers should have a personal relationship with God; they should listen to the “still, small voice” of the Spirit guiding them. To hear that voice, their worship services were often silent. Second, they should make this relationship known through their good works, their actions to help their fellow human beings. At different times, this has led Quakers into anti-slavery movements, anti-poverty work, and pacifism.

So when the Cadburys needed to build a new factory in the 1870s, they did not build it in the city. Instead, they located a rural site about 5 miles outside Birmingham. The brothers believed that factories did not have to be dark and cramped to be profitable. This went against current business practices and was widely expected to fail. But instead it helped spur the chocolatiers’ success.

As the factory’s staff grew, the two brothers decided to build a model town to house them. This would be a village, not a city, with wide streets, tasteful and affordable houses on lots large enough to have a garden, accompanied by schools and playgrounds, trees and parks. As the new town of Bourneville grew, they added recreational grounds which included a cricket pitch, formal gardens, and even a swimming pool. Eventually, the Cadburys created the Bourneville Trust to allow the townsfolk to control the town’s common property and got out of “real estate development.”

Nearly all of Bourneville’s tenants were former slum and city dwellers now working at the Cadbury factory. The success and profits from their cocoa company enabled George and Richard Cadbury to follow their Quaker ideals to establish this model community. This was imitated by other successful British business people, both Quakers and non-Quakers.

In America, even the chocolatier Milton Hershey followed suit. The ideas put into practice in these model factories and towns showed that humans could be happy and productive at the same time; they did not need to be subjected to ill-treatment and poverty wages for a business to be profitable. The suburbs of the twentieth century drew heavily on their pioneering efforts.

Note: In case you are wondering, it was not until the early twentieth century that the solid chocolate bar, so familiar today, was perfected. This column is based on the book by Deborah Cadbury, Chocolate Wars. New York, 2010.

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