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Dickens’ Christmas spirit lives on in 21st-century stories

The world changes, but books, movies, and Christmas series almost never change. At least, not those sold in bulk

Peliculas navideñas
A caricature by John Leech that illustrated passages from Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol.'GETTY IMAGES
Sergio del Molino

“Once upon a time — the year 2000, to be exact — a time when Christmas, Hanukkah, and Ramadan all fell on the same days. Store shelves were emptied of candy-making ingredients, travel agents worked overtime to clear tickets home, and record numbers of toys and gifts were sold. The whole world was filled with cross congratulations. In a crowded airport in Denver, Colorado, a group of strangers were preparing to board a plane not knowing that their lives were going to change, or that a holiday miracle could happen anywhere and to anyone, no matter what they celebrate.”

This is how my paraphrasing of Three Holidays and a Wedding, begins. The Canadian writer Uzma Jalaluddin penned one of Penguin’s most powerful commercial bets for the American book market, which releases Christmas-themed books as gifts to the masses every year. Jalaluddin’s novel tells the friendship and romance of a group of Christians, Jews, and Muslims who are stranded in a hotel in a snowstorm, where they are forced to spend the holidays. The promotional material for the novel includes a teaser for readers of The Matzah Ball, a 2021 Christmas hit written by Jean Meltzer that tells the terrible, nerdy secret of Rachel Rubinstein-Goldblatt, a young Jewish woman: she loves Christmas. Those moved by Meltzer’s interfaith crossover will delight in Jalaluddin’s ecumenical friendship and romance. Or so the editors promise.

These Christmas hits rarely cross the Atlantic, so the European public is alien to the genre that Charles Dickens inaugurated in 1843 with his A Christmas Carol — whose literary stature, it goes without saying, has given several mega-twists to the best of contemporary books, and that is why it has never been overshadowed by any subsequent work of fiction. From the joyful jingling of bells and twinkling lights come movies and Christmas episodes of trending series, as well as Mariah Carey, whose perennial earworm is played in every store. However, the Christmas narrative tradition has never been interrupted, it enjoys great popularity and has its own galaxy of writers.

Jim Carrey as the lonely and selfish Ebenezer Scrooge in an adaptation of Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol'.
Jim Carrey as the lonely and selfish Ebenezer Scrooge in an adaptation of Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol'.Disney

In this star system, Jalaluddin is both one of the most atypical and predictable examples. She is a Muslim, an energetic columnist for the Toronto Star and a representative of the generation of children of immigrants who try their hardest to reconcile their parents’ culture with the Western world in which they have grown up. She is, therefore, the perfect author to square the circle of such an ecumenical matter. After all, the trend of the current Christmas narrative is not to persecute a secularized public or lower the sugar level, but to drag non-Christian believers into the spirit of present and, above all, future Christmases. The Dickens of today does not want to redeem Scrooge, but the Muslim and Jewish neighbors. It doesn’t matter what we call it, they come to say: all parties have lights and gifts for the children. So let’s celebrate together, and go hand in hand to the mall.

This literary market has remained faithful to the kitsch of the most rancid Christmas carols, with cover designs full of reds, greens, and glitter (they only need to come wrapped in tinsel and lights) that leave no room for misunderstanding. It is a tradition that is indifferent to the attempts of cinema and television to mess with the genre a little. Ecumenical or Christian, the story is always the same: the miracle of Christmas resolves conflicts and softens even the hardest of hearts.

The tradition of Christmas movies is as old as cinema itself and combines masterpieces like It’s a Wonderful Life with disposable rubbish. In the mid-80s it was renewed with notes of irony and even a certain playful sarcasm that the public celebrated with pleasure: Gremlins, Die Hard, and the Home Alone saga brought comedy, action, horror and, above all, rough-and-tumble nonsense, to the Christmas miracle. But that was a fashion of its time that has not made it to the 21st century. Le pupille, an Italian short from 2022 (only 39 minutes) that happens to be one of the best Christmas movies of all time, according to a list by The Guardian critics. The Christmas Eve story is set in a girls’ orphanage in post-war Italy and contains all the sentimental clichés expected from a Christmas classic. This year, no innovations have been announced either, and the streaming platforms are bombarding us with clone productions: family comedies with the occasional casual or playful wink, but that always end with the hackneyed miracle.

As every genre has its parody, a tradition of Christmas horror and gore also endures. This year highlights It’s a Wonderful Death is a cynical transgression of the classic tale designed for unredeemed Grinchs and Scrooges and lovers of guts and serial killers. Far from refuting the official cheesy line, this doubles down on it — if cheesy wasn’t successful, no one would feel the need to make fun of it.

Television series, especially comedies, have always been the ones that best preserved the spirit of the Christmas narrative. Likewise, episodes compete with Thanksgiving episodes to be the highlight of each season, and are often aired back-to-back. Some of the most memorable episodes of Friends (the one about the Holiday Armadillo is priceless, and very much in ecumenical harmony with Jalaluddin’s book), The Simpsons, Frasier and The Office (with the memorable episode in which the company’s party planning committee organizes a Moroccan-themed Christmas party) all take place on Christmas Eve .

An image from the movie 'It's a Wonderful Life!' (1946).
An image from the movie 'It's a Wonderful Life!' (1946).AP

The loss of seasonality — binge watching series and the platforms’ habit of releasing entire seasons all at once, means viewers are losing the habit of watching episodes weekly — has ruined this tradition. It maintained the Dickensian spirit, but adapted to the tone and audience of each series. It was a challenge for the scriptwriters of some of these shows that were acidic and ironic by nature, to fit into kitsch sentimentality without betraying the usual tone of the narrative. It was there where the clichés of the genre were put to the test the most, and where they best demonstrated their validity: Christmas survives everything and combines with anything. Among the few who persist in representing that spirit of absolute goodness is Ted Lasso. One of its stars, Hannah Waddingham, has produced Home for Christmas for Apple, with actors from the series and all the good vibes and smiles that go with it.

Christmas also continues to inspire high literature. In 2018, the Sicilian writer Giosuè Calaciura published one of the most beautiful, exciting, and successful updates of Dickens’ Christmas Carol. Il Tram di Natale (The Christmas Tram) brings together all the mysteries and desires of the holidays, without neglecting to reflect on the sacred history and the meaning of the birth of Christ, transposing the evangelical manger to a tram in an unnamed Italian city. But Calaciura’s will not be promoted as a Christmas novel in the department stores of New York, nor will its adaptations take over marquees and platform screens, because its literature takes a different path and is alien to bells and urban light shows like those of the New York or London.

Ecumenical, miraculous, and always corny: the world changes, but Christmas books, movies, and series change little. At least, not those sold in bulk.

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