Christmas movies often feel like a roaring fire and a cup of cocoa translated into story form. Hallmark churns out seemingly hundreds of these types of these warm, fuzzy movies every year. Surprisingly, however, several Christmas classics don’t exactly follow this gooey marshmallow and hugs script. Though they may eventually reach that rousing, joyful, bell-filled ending we expect from Christmas movies, a hidden dark side lurks within the garland-and-ornament-covered packaging.
For instance, when my husband watched It’s a Wonderful Life for the first time since he was a kid and casually expressed his surprise at how bleak much of it was, it dawned on me that he was right—not just about It’s a Wonderful Life, but about most of my annual favorite Christmas movies. Many of them have an element of the macabre. It’s A Wonderful Life begins with a suicide attempt and a man wishing to undo his life; in Home Alone, a child blow torches and tosses paint cans at thieves’ faces, in addition to meeting a lonely, older man he at first thinks might be a murderer; and Christmas Vacation features a rage-filled, barely-able-to-keep-it-together protagonist, an electrocuted cat, and a kidnapping. Even Hallmark’s saccharine sweet films often hint at a deep loneliness and lack of belonging.
But for me, the film that best captures this disorienting surprise of the macabre is The Muppet Christmas Carol. This good-humored and charming film is that rare movie that equally appeals to adults and children. It is, of course, an adaptation of Charles Dickens’s story and therefore bound to its source material, so perhaps it is unfair to be surprised at its dark moments. On the other hand, given that this film is a children’s movie filled with Muppets, it is not unreasonable to expect the film might gloss over some of the darker elements of Dickens’s novel to make them more palatable for its audience. But the film offers no such alternatives. In fact, its darker moments, particularly the visit by the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come, feel all the more jarring because they contrast starkly with the rest of the film, which is filled with bright colors, cheerful characters… and Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat as its narrators.
The Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come is a hooded, black void. He does not speak, offers no explanations, and provides no comfort or reassuring hugs. Rather, this ghost merely points, directing Scrooge’s eyes to look. The Ghost brings Scrooge to the cemetery and gestures repeatedly for Scrooge to look at the tombstone. Scrooge questions and pleads with the Ghost, asking for some words of comfort and reassurance. But the Ghost does not answer him and merely continues to point. Finally, Scrooge tentatively approaches the tombstone and brushes off the snow. He discovers his own name inscribed upon the stone. Trembling and tear-filled, Scrooge confronts the reality of his death.
When I was younger, I often fast-forwarded over this part. Granted, I used to be a bit of a chicken, but even when I re-watched it as an adult, I realized that Childhood Me was right to be a scared—because Adult Me was a little freaked out by it, too. I think part of its haunting power is in the strange juxtaposition of seeing a Muppet that is essentially a Grim Reaper in puppet form. The Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come points frequently to the tombstone, forcing us to face, along with Scrooge, our mortality. This encounter with one’s impending death is quite a jarring surprise in the midst of a Christmas film featuring Kermit and a karate-chopping pig.While the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present make important strides in helping Scrooge confront his behavior, it is especially this moment of encountering his future reality—of coming to terms with his own death—that encourages him to change and become a new man.
The Muppet Christmas Carol refuses to gloss over this troubling scene, and therefore invites its viewers to encounter death. Perhaps this combination of death and Christmas might seem contradictory. Isn’t Christmas, after all, a celebration of life?
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.
Advent occurs when the seasons have changed, the leaves have fallen, and our hours of sunlight decrease day by day. Our natural world serves as a daily reminder of the inescapable passage of time, and the bright, happy colors of autumn are replaced by bare, frozen earth. We see no evidence of new life, and instead must acknowledge that the darkness increases every day, gradually overcoming the hours of light.
This tradition of living in the darkness and contemplating one’s own death may seem morbid to us now, but that is partially because, just as I fast-forwarded through the dark parts in The Muppet Christmas Carol, so too have we worked so hard to avoid facing death. We cover up the painful reality of suffering and death in a way similar to how we cover the bare, raw earth with the bright green of fake grass during a burial. We may even think meditating on death is an un-Christian thing to do, believing our faith asks us to profess only the joy of resurrection and life. But while the “end” of the story is certainly the happy surprise of resurrection and life, skipping over the parts of the story about darkness, waiting, and death causes us to miss the profound wonder and surprise of Christ’s birth and resurrection.
While early Christians certainly professed Christ’s triumph over death, they also acknowledged and attended to the reality of first experiencing death in order to participate in Christ’s resurrection. For example, the earliest Christians—those who lived within the first two hundred or so years of Christ—painted the home of the dead (the catacombs) with images of resurrection, such as Jonah emerging out of the fish’s belly and the phoenix paired with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. But they also had communion in the catacombs and would literally eat the bread and drink the wine off a tombstone table. This act may seem surprising, but it beautifully communicates the theology of the Eucharistic meal, reminding Christians that one must first die with Christ in order to resurrect with Christ.
In fact, the tradition of memento mori, which literally means “remember your death,” historically was a common refrain for Christians. When I visited some of the early churches in Rome, I was shocked by how many tombs, skulls, and bones I saw. Before that visit, my main associations with skulls were pirates and poison, and other than the hour or so it took for a funeral service, I did not think of bodies nor death belonging inside the church walls; back home, the cemeteries were all outside, hidden away and covered with grass, flowers, and trees. To be honest, all the artifacts of death in the Rome churches freaked me out at first, and amidst the beautiful paintings, sculptures, and architecture, seemed out of place. But when I learned about the memento mori tradition, I realized that these images of death, and the placing of tombs within church walls, were supposed to be jarring. They were a way of reminding Christians that life is short, and time is always moving us closer to our death.
The Capuchin Crypt in the Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins church in Rome even has several chapel rooms decorated with the bones and skulls of former monks. These rooms are filled with symbols of judgment, like a scale to weigh one’s good and evil deeds, and time, such as an hourglass with wings. The fact that these symbols are made entirely out of bones makes them all the more potent and disturbing. Walking through these bone-covered rooms feels hauntingly eerie. But the monks did not create this space as some sort of morbid tourist attraction, as if they were trying to create some early version of a haunted house. Rather, these rooms of bones and skulls represent the memento mori tradition. The monks invite the visitors who walk through these rooms to reevaluate their lives in light of their death. The entrance to the rooms includes a sign that reminds us, “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be.”
These flying hourglasses and calls to remember one’s death are not intended to frighten, but to teach. There is a moral quality to the memento mori tradition. Just as Scrooge re-evaluates his life and actions when he comes face-to-face with his tombstone, so too does this tradition ask us to evaluate our lives in light of eternity. When weighed against the flying hourglass of life, so many of our desires and worries seem trivial, as do our attempts at control. Death has a way of reminding us what really matters, of helping us keep things in perspective.
It is Scrooge’s encounter with death that helps change his heart. In seeing the shortness and smallness of his life, he reevaluates his priorities and seeks to make more long-lasting, important contributions to the world rather than scrimping to save money that will not follow him in death anyway. While the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present make important strides in helping Scrooge confront his behavior, it is especially this moment of encountering his future reality—of coming to terms with his own death—that encourages him to change and become a new man.
The hard truth is that we, like Scrooge, need to confront the darkness of death to appreciate the joyful light of life. If we do not acknowledge the dark moments of life and fast-forward over them, we do not achieve the same sense of wonder and gratitude proper to the triumphant, celebratory end.
Historically, Christians celebrated Advent with liturgical traditions that slowly moved from darkness to light. For instance, an over 800-year-old cathedral in England, Salisbury Cathedral, celebrates Advent with a centuries-old tradition. They begin their Advent service in complete darkness. Then, a solitary candle is lit, and slowly, they add more candles, until almost two thousand candles illuminate the cathedral.
Christian music, too, traditionally reflected the longing and uncertainty of Advent. While many of us today tend to sing Christmas songs all through December, historically, Advent songs were typically in a minor key, with a note of longing, a work not yet complete. Joyful Christmas songs were not sung until Christmas, until after Christ’s birth. Consider, for instance, the contrast of two songs with similar-sounding titles but different musical purposes: the somber sound of Advent’s “O Come Emmanuel” compared to the joyful exuberance of Christmas’s “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”
The Advent sense of uncertainty, waiting, and wondering “how long” has special resonance during a pandemic year where those feelings are all too familiar. We have had our share of walking in the darkness in a state of confusion, feeling isolated, lost, and surrounded by death. We often have felt out of control and frustrated by a lack of answers. We feel with new acuity the pain of our separation from God, lamenting and crying out with the psalmist, “How long O Lord, how long?” What we thought would only be a few weeks quickly turned into several months, and we are still unsure “how long.” We want so much for it all to end, and we all look for those rays of hope that tell us this strange and dark time may be coming to a close.
This year may be one of the few times, then, that many of today’s Christians are already experiencing Advent together. This sense of “waiting in the darkness together,” holding on for a hope we cannot fully see, is the Advent feeling. Advent is about the world waiting for salvation, hoping for the Messiah, but knowing only that He hasn’t come yet. In the meantime, as we look forward to the day we can move on and begin anew, we must face the grim reality and struggles of the present.
It is easy and all-too-tempting to move straight to the happy endings, to cloak ourselves in the feasting and celebration of Christmas. But first, like the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come, Advent points us to the tombstone. Without first encountering death, Scrooge would not have experienced the same transformation. Without the darkness and silence of the tombstone, he would not have awoken so joyfully to the light of Christmas morning, nor sung his Christmas songs so gleefully. Likewise, the season of Advent asks us to contemplate life without Christ. Only then, after dwelling in the darkness, can we start to understand the reverent exuberance of Christmas, the day the Christmas star lit up the darkness, the day God became flesh to save us from death. Only when we have journeyed through the long darkness of night can we welcome the light of Christmas morning as Scrooge does in the final song of The Muppet Christmas Carol with “a grateful prayer and a thankful heart.”