Letter from the Editor: Traditions, New and Old

Inevitably, your holidays are looking a bit different this year. Even if traveling across the country and gathering with a dozen family members was never a part of your annual ritual, perhaps you’re noticing more subtle differences: no Black Friday shopping trips (but there’s always a line outside of my Target store now, so I get the same experience), no work holiday parties, no church children’s pageants.

Our traditions go beyond simply what we eat or watch or where we gather, but extend also to what meanings we ascribe to the birth of the Messiah.

Traditions bind us—as families, communities, and nations. For better or for worse, we cling to them, and often use them to identify who we are and what we value. Christmas, in particular, is wrapped up in traditions for most of us, whether we realize it or not. Our traditions go beyond simply what we eat or watch or where we gather, but extend also to what meanings we ascribe to the birth of the Messiah. In this year’s final issue of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine, our authors look to classic tales (A Christmas Carol), reinterpretations of favorite Christmas stories (The Muppet Christmas Carol and Fatman), and unlikely holiday viewing choices (Cobra Kai) to remind us of the intangible truths wrapped up in our Christmas traditions.

In his feature, “Longing for Mercy: Cobra Kai and the Meaning of Christmas,” Billy Boyce finds the Christmas story in the reprised dojos of The Karate Kid. We see a lack of mercy tear apart the lives of Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso, and in its absence we are reminded of our own need for it. Boyce points us to seeing Jesus as Mercy Incarnate, born at Christmas:

As Mercy Incarnate, Christ comes bearing good news. In the Cobra Kai dojo, mercy is weak, but in Christ’s hands, mercy possesses life-giving strength… How might this impact our usual holiday traditions? With Mercy Incarnate centerstage, our normal holiday activities take on a new purpose. Gift giving, visits, Christmas cards, holiday wishes, charitable giving—things we’re tempted to engage in with a perfunctory spirit—become fresh opportunities to embody the merciful story of Christmas.

From unlikely to novel viewing choices, Christmas traditions run deep. In “Fatman: The Sleigh, the Truth, and the Life,” Chris Fogle looks to one of the newest interpretations of the Santa story. Despite that Mel Gibson’s Santa has a hitman out for him and seems weighed down by the basic realities of the world, Fogle finds our Christmastime desire for an eternal character—be it Saint Nicholas or Christ—to be intact:

These two universal, and biblical, storytelling tropes of justice and the underdog are perfectly combined in Fatman. We root for depressed and weary Santa as the underdog, unaware a highly trained assassin is coming for him; yet we’re given hope through hints of his supernatural powers to fight injustice…A key part of the Santa Claus lore is that he’s been around for a long, long time, bringing the gift of love to the world. It is no surprise then that films like Fatman portray him with an almost Christlike immortality. And that is certainly a question the audience asks itself when the hitman goes to kill Chris Cringle.

As Fogle reminds us throughout his piece, however, we must be careful to question our traditions, ensuring they point us to put our trust in what is truly eternal.

The importance of forsaking our earthly treasures for heavenly ones is a theme of one of the most enduring Christmas classics, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. In Ellen Mandeville’s feature, “Scrooge: Individualism Run Amok,” we reread an old favorite and experience Scrooge’s transformation from “the ultimate in individualism” to a man with a changed heart and are asked to inspect our own hearts, as well:

Scrooge employs his resources to, one assumes, provide the best medical care available. Others are blessed by Scrooge, and he is blessed in return. Far from being diminished by caring for and giving to others, Scrooge’s life is enlarged and improved. Caring for others is essential to our own wellbeing. May our tradition of enjoying A Christmas Carol always include a tradition of self-inspection and renewed generosity, sociability, and joy.

It is this same traditional story of A Christmas Carol that inspired a now-classic puppet-filled film, and Lanta Davis’s feature, “How the Muppets Helped Me Contemplate My Mortality This Christmas.” Davis contends that The Muppet Christmas Carol’s encounters with death—though uncomfortable for a children’s movie—point us toward the ancient practice of memento mori, the practice of contemplating our own deaths, that is imbedded in the Christmas tradition:

But The Muppet Christmas Carol is actually right to invite us to encounter our own death.  When the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come points us toward the tombstone, it also points us toward a much-neglected historical Christian tradition: the Advent meditation on mortality that comes before the joyful tidings of Christmas Day. Just like I used to fast forward through the scary part as a child, so too do we tend to fast forward over this tradition today. Now, we tend to celebrate Christmas all December long, with parties and feasting leading up to the official day. But Advent is not intended to be an extended celebration; rather, it is a season of darkness, waiting, and uncertainty, where we face the impending and inevitable reality of death. During Advent, Christ has not yet come. Death is final, Heaven unattainable.

If your Advent season felt long, dark, and unending this year, I pray you find hope in the tradition of the celebration of the coming of Christ the Savior. In the true traditions of Christmas—mercy, generosity, and eternal life—may you find comfort and joy.

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In This Issue

Longing for Mercy: Cobra Kai and the Meaning of Christmas

Cobra Kai’s lack of mercy on display makes us look for a different way, which the Christmas tradition provides. Christmas is all about mercy.

by Billy Boyce

Fatman: The Sleigh, the Truth, and the Life

In Fatman, we root for depressed and weary Santa as the underdog, unaware a highly trained assassin is coming for him; yet we’re given hope through hints of his supernatural powers to fight injustice.

by Chris Fogle

Scrooge: Individualism Run Amok

By opening himself and giving to others, Ebenezer Scrooge is living a more robust life himself.

by Ellen Mandeville

How the Muppets Helped Me Contemplate My Mortality This Christmas

Just as Scrooge re-evaluates his life and actions when he comes face-to-face with his tombstone, so too does the tradition of memento mori ask us to evaluate our lives in light of eternity.

by Lanta Davis

‘A Christmas Carol’ for the Cancel Culture

A world that can produce an Ebenezer Scrooge without a merciful God to save and bless us would be a very dark place indeed.

by Gina Dalfonzo

A Thrill of Hope: Why We Need Advent Right Now

The thrill of hope offered in the Advent season is just what we need to recover from this divisive election.

by Kaitlyn Schiess

Mannheim Steamroller and Christmas Traditions

Christmas feels more like Christmas when Mannheim Steamroller is playing.

by Nate Claiborne

Yuletide Intimations of Hope, Untarnished by Our Foibles

In all these Christmas symbols and practices, in all their manifestations and iterations and alterations, we see humanity’s earnest, finite attempts to express the ineffable.

by Marybeth Davis Baggett