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 more. freshly cut trees for festivities which 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 otherwise,” wrote critic Titus Techera, executive director of the American Cinema Foundation. In this classic film, “we have a remarkable concentration of issues 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, shining 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 long 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,” Techera said. “For many, the church was one of them. Christmas was a family affair. It was a matter of community. … Commerce was more subservient to ordinary life. Commerce had not invaded all of life, including Christmas.
At the heart of “The Bishop’s Wife” is an episcopal leader struggling with pride and the 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 wealthy 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. So there is room for pride, but of a special nature: the pride of helping where we can those who need us. They have a claim over us in Christ, but we have reason to be proud of because we are accomplishing a good thing, sometimes difficult.
The repentant bishop delivers a Christmas sermon, written by the angel, which ends with: “All the stockings are full, all, that is, except one. … The stocking for the child born in a manger. We are celebrating his birthday. Let’s never forget that. Let’s ask ourselves what he would most like. And then, let everyone contribute their part: loving kindness, warm hearts and an outstretched hand of tolerance. All the brilliant gifts that make peace on Earth.
Modern remakes of these films, Techera noted, tend to omit the big questions that hung over the older versions, which – even when they did not include direct references to the faith – often served as quasi-Biblical parables about 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 no longer fast and pray to prepare for Christmas. They just shop.
Terry Mattingly conducts GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a principal investigator at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.