Christmas brings resurgence of faith
The ghost of Christmas past and present called on me this Christmas. Two worlds representing the spirit of a Christmas 55 years ago and the other of a Christmas transformed by the changes of time, were neatly captured in some Christmas television programming.
Wellington’s community television station, Wellington Television, played that often-repeated Christmas interlude between dinner and supper, It’s A Wonderful Life.
Directed by a Catholic, Frank Capra, and controlled under the auspices of the strict censorship regime called the Hays Code (named after a Presbyterian), It’s A Wonderful Life rode a central conservative thread throughout its narrative.
It’s A Wonderful Life is partly a story of good versus evil dollied up in modern clothes set in a town called Bedford. The good guy is George Bailey played by the quintessential classical actor James Stewart. The bad guy is Potter who owns much of the township.
Bailey has a crisis three quarters way through. He owes $8000 to creditors or his bank will be shut down. It will mean the end of a family business and the end of an era. Distraught, and unable to procure the money, he contemplates the unthinkable.
When an angel intervenes and saves him, Bailey later exclaims how he wishes he had never been born. The angel grants his wish. Bailey rediscovers Bedford as if he hadn’t been born. Corrupt and seedy, indulgent and lurid, the town is now under the management of the greedy Potter.
The angel gently reminds Bailey of the times he helped others, like saving his brother from drowning who subsequently replicates the deed by living up to his stripes in the war.
Bailey finally comes to his senses and discovers how his actions influenced the town for good and what it would be like if he did not stand up to the evil that is Potter.
In this film characters pray, angels are good and humble and people work together for the common good.
That was America, circa 1946. Despite its simplicity there is an overarching propensity locked within: the dignity and worth of humanity and simple unadulterated faith.
The theory or principle is universally applicable any time, anywhere and is where respect for others and individuals themselves may originate.
Fifty-five years later, a cultural shift has occurred when one compares that Christmas story with an episode of Becker. Broadcast the Friday before Christmas day, Becker stars Cheers hangover Ted Danson in the title role as the strained and indignant doctor. The character is played for laughs. In its concluding moments the essence of a part of American and Western pluralistic society is reflected: cynicism.
Becker, in this episode, is having a wonderful day, contrasting his usually awful ones. After receiving a tax refund and rejoicing over the relocation of his most despised patient, his day finishes, portrayed with extreme manipulation, with a taxi driving through a puddle and splashing him, followed by getting mugged and his abhorred patient revealing that he will back in town. Likeable Becker, typically, blames the man upstairs for his wonderful sense of humour.
Tongue in cheek or not, Becker winks cynically and questioning at what the makers of It’s A Wonderful Life took for granted—God’s inherent goodness.
Becker flirts with a raw honesty and many sitcoms today are experimenting with the edge of humour, which often includes dark sarcasm, like in Titus on TV 3.
Two television shows reflected transitions in society over the last 50-odd years. One was of belief and faith, the other of cynicism towards God and life in general. They uncannily create cultural motifs; one from past and one from now.
Were we like the cynical Becker this Christmas? Bad things do happen during Christmas, with cynicism burgeoning, but generally, the time brings out a remarkable vulnerability to the festivities and trappings of the season. The rest of the year may exhibit indifference to spirituality and religion, apathy, distrust of politicians and a curiosity and tampering with new ideas (like the surge in books been sold on Islam since September 11).
Notice what happens during Christmas though. The TV media has items of children receiving presents instead of getting beaten. Shots of people on beaches become fashionable for a while. Trees, Saint Nicholas, and reindeer beguile children and adults take a step back to enjoy holidays. City Missions are presented as the bringers of glad tidings in the form of plenty of food for those less fortunate to cook their own roast with the extended family. Churches are jam packed with those who usually stay away.
The TV Guide lists Christmas offerings such as Carols From Kings, Praise Be Special, the redemptive The Christmas Takeover, The Nutcracker Prince, the Queens Christmas message and David Copperfield.
At least Christmas proves that faith is still part of the cultural zeitgeist even if It’s A Wonderful Life is as old as the hills.
By Peter Veugelaers. Published 2002, The Evening Post.