Reflections

Christmas Eve in Literature, Music, and Film 

Eleanor Deckert

It’s interesting to explore how our ideas about Christmas have changed over the years

and are linked to new literature, new songs, new movies and TV shows.

1642

Father Jean deBrebeuf, a Jesuit priest living at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons in Canada, wrote The Huron Carol in the language of the Huron/Wendat people. Iesus Ahattonnia, Ahattonnia, Iesus Ahattonnia. translated means “Jesus is born.”

1818

When Franz Gruber, the organist in a tiny village in Austria, discovered the church organ was beyond repair on December 23, he composed a simple tune accompanied by guitar with the words from Joseph Mohr's poem in time for the Christmas Eve service. Silent Night, so quickly composed, has lasted so long.

1823

In Troy, New York, the Sentinel published an anonymous poem on December 23. A Visit from St. Nicholas, more commonly known as The Night Before Christmas was claimed by Clement C. Moore as the author in 1837.

1843

In England, Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol after his 1842 visit to the USA. After viewing his own past, present and future, Ebenezer Scrooge is transformed from “Ba-Humbug” to sincerely proclaim, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”

1844

Hans Christian Anderson, Danish writer of many fairy tales, brings The Fir Tree to life, first in the forest, then in the parlour, abandoned in the attic and at last discarded.

1845

He added Den Lille Pige med Svovlstikkerne, translated as The Little Match Girl a story of poverty and hope.

1868 and 1869  

Louisa May Alcott wrote an American classic in two parts. Little Women Chapter 2 describes the family's Christmas, emphasizing the ethic of sharing with those less fortunate.

1860s and 1870s  

A collection of true stories describing her life on the American frontier, Laura Ingalls Wilder, who lived to age 90, published her Little House books between 1932 and 1943. Christmas celebrations are mentioned as she grows up, including: cousins in the Big Woods, a home-made rag doll, Mr. Edwards bringing candy, a cookie, a tin cup and a penny from Santa Clause, and a tree covered with gifts presented by Reverend Alden.

1887 and 1895

Martin Luther, founder of the Protestant Reformation in 1517, has long been hailed as the composer of Away in a Manger. However, recent scholars cannot find traces in German tradition nor any of his writings that indicate his creative hand. Two tunes were first in print in 1887 and 1895.

1892  

Imagine the first production in Moscow of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite Ballet.

1897

Printed in September, this letter made history in the New York Sun:

DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in THE SUN it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus? Virginia.

And, in a poetic essay, the answer:

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist.

1905

O. Henry first published The Gift of the Magi. “Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty- seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.”

1908

Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows features a Christmas scene shared by friends: Mole, Rat, Toad and Badger in Chapter 5.

1908

And, from Canada's Lucy Maud Montgomery's Chapter 25 of Anne of Green Gables, we hear Anne exclaim, "Merry Christmas, Diana! And oh, it's a wonderful Christmas. I've something splendid to show you. Matthew has given me the loveliest dress, with such (puffed) sleeves. I couldn't even imagine any nicer.”

1920 through 1942  

JRR Tolkein, well known for the Trilogy of the Rings, wrote annual Letters from Father Christmas for his children.

And now, we move from print, to radio and film.

CBC recently broadcast Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas which demonstrated how Jewish-American song writers brought a more secular holiday.

1939

Rudolph made his first red nosed appearance as a colouring book published by Montgomery Ward department store. The song was aired in 1941.

1940

White Christmas became popular a few years later as a comfort to troops after Pearl Harbour.

1941

The Little Drummer Boy, also named Carol of the Drum was first recorded by the Trapp Family Singers in 1951.

1945

Let it Snow and Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire were written during a heat wave.

1950

brought Silver Bells.

1958

Rockin' around the Christmas Tree was recorded.

1962

Holly Jolly Christmas was made famous by a recording of Burl Ives.

1962  

Do you hear what I hear? Written in October, released in late November, is actually inspired by the threat of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Meanwhile, in books-to-movies:

1924

A daily cartoon strip about Little Orphan Annie was first adapted as a radio play, then a Broadway musical and (with a climax on Christmas Day) made into more than one film as recently as 2014.

1946

It's a Wonderful Life starring Jimmy Stewart ends with his small daughter's words, “Teacher says that every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.”

1950

“Always winter and never Christmas,” the children learn that Narnia is governed by the Ice Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe written by C.S. Lewis.

1957

A book became animated (1966) then a full-length movie (2000). Dr. Seuss describes How the Grinch Stole Christmas and reaches the turning point when “the Grinch's small heart grew three sizes that day.”

1985-1995

The creator of Calvin and Hobbs, Bill Watterson, sums up our more recent TV options. “Oh look, yet another Christmas TV special! How touching to have the meaning of Christmas brought to us by cola, fast food, and beer.... Who'd have ever guessed that product consumption, popular entertainment, and spirituality would mix so harmoniously? ”

Many other toys and TV shows added a Christmas feature:

Charlie Brown, Winnie the Pooh, Ernest, Cat in the Hat, Elmo, Barbie, Muppets, Angelina Ballerina, My Little Pony, Dora the Explorer, Beauty and the Beast, Frozen.    

1990

British humourist, G.K. Chesterton, has a different perspective. “Christmas is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.”