It’s a black and white Christmas movie, with snow falling as cheerful families mingle on the city sidewalks while window shopping – shopping for food, gifts, decorations. and freshly cut trees for festivities that are only two days away.
For Americans, this scene represents the ghost of Christmas past, long before suburban malls, big box scrums and Amazon.com. And as “The Bishop’s Wife” opens, an angel – a gracious Cary Grant – enters this 1947 painting, smiling at singers and children and helping the needy and lost.
“Christmas is always in danger in Christmas films – we would have no reason to make such films any other way,” wrote critic Titus Techera, executive director of the American Cinema Foundation. In this classic film, “we have a remarkable concentration of problems in one household: a man’s faith, his family, his community and his church … all tied together.”
It’s not uncommon to find miracles, tight-knit communities, glowing churches and parables about human choice, temptation, sin and redemption in old Christmas movies, said Techera, contacted by Zoom as ‘he was visiting Bucharest.
This is why Techera – originally from Romania, before his work brought him to America – wrote four online essays on lessons learned from watching films from the 40s that were remade in the 90s. The other films from this Acton Institute series are “The Shop Around the Corner”, “Miracle on 34th Street” and “Christmas in Connecticut”.
There’s a reason many modern Americans continue to watch these movies, he said. Some yearn for a time before most Americans become so isolated – separated by distant jobs from extended families, sprawling suburban neighborhoods, and all the paradoxes embedded in digital networks that were supposed to keep people connected.
“What we see in these movies is a time when Christmas was a much less commercial holiday and there was a bit of continuity with the traditions of the past.… For many, the church was part of it,” a- he declared. “Christmas was a family affair. It was a community affair. … Commerce was more subordinate to ordinary life. Commerce had not taken over all of life, including Christmas.”
At the heart of “The Bishop’s Wife” is an episcopal leader grappling with the pride and burdens of his job, while his wife worries about her family. This bishop urgently wants to finish the construction of a cathedral; he needs the help of a rich woman who hides pain and guilt, while demanding that the cathedral be built on his terms.
The angel offers them all choices, but allows them to make their own decisions. The angel struggles against his own temptations.
“This is the Christian core of the story: the angel comes to remind everyone what Christmas really means and why it is related to gifts,” Techera noted in his essay. “It is because the Christian God is love. … God wants the needy to be protected. we in Christ, but we have reason to be proud because we are accomplishing a good thing, sometimes difficult. “
The repentant bishop gives a Christmas sermon, written by the angel, which ends with: “All the stockings are filled, all, that is to say except one. … Stockings for the born child in a nursery. It’s his birthday we ‘celebrate. Let’s never forget. Let’s ask ourselves what he would wish for the most. And then, let everyone put their part – loving kindness, warm hearts and an outstretched hand of tolerance. All the brilliance of gifts that make peace on Earth. “
Modern remakes of these films, Techera noted, tend to omit the big questions that hung over older versions, which – even when they did not include direct references to the faith – often served as quasi-Biblical parables about it. hope, gratitude, charity, forgiveness and the bonds that unite families and communities.
“There was also a feeling that Christmas was worth the wait,” he said. Today, the “vacation” lasts a month or more and ends, rather than starting, on December 25th. At this point, “a lot of people seem exhausted, and they don’t even know what Christmas is supposed to be … anymore.
“People don’t fast or pray anymore to prepare for Christmas. They just go shopping.”
Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and principal investigator at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.