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    "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents" (Alcott, 1868, 2008). This memorable opening line, uttered by Jo March in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, may be similar to one heard in households across the world with the approach of the holidays associated with the months of November and December.

    The post-WWII media onslaught has resulted in numerous articles and op-ed pieces, particularly in the twenty-first century, regarding whether commercialism negates the “Christmas spirit.”  For example, the National Retail Federation, which tracks consumer spending, revealed in January 2015 that the 2014 total holiday in-store retail sales amounted to $616.1 billion, while online and e-commerce sales totaled an additional $101.9 billion (Allen, 2015). 

    So, does commercialism foster the “Christmas spirit,” or does the “Christmas spirit” inspire consumer spending? Just what is the “Christmas spirit”? This term is one that has always intrigued me, and while what qualifies as “Christmas spirit” may be subjective, this article will consider how the “Christmas spirit,” not to be confused with the three ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, can be found in the ordinary, and not necessarily in the value or amount of holiday gift giving.

    As a child, Christmas was a special time of year; while the allure of Santa Claus never truly captured my imagination, the thought of decorating the Christmas tree and, well, the entire house, would prompt more than a few attempts to encourage (never pester!) my mother to reconsider her rather firm rule that the tree could not be decorated prior to December 1. Our annual tradition was that each member of the family would receive a new ornament that could be added to the tree on the night we decorated the tree. Similarly, Christmas Eve brought a new pair of pajamas; Christmas morning included a present from Santa, hand-written in Mom’s unmistakable “Santa font.” The Christmas spirit flourished each year with the renewal of traditions. 

    Part of that emphasis on tradition, particularly by the time I became a teenager, was the holiday movie extravaganza.  Miracle on 34th Street (the original from 1947) was a family favorite; as an adult, Joyeux Noel and Love, Actually top the list. As an historian, beautifully-scripted and well-acted films which provide at least a half-hearted attempt to portray historical accuracy always capture my attention, and Joyeux Noel, the story of the World War I Christmas Truce (an unofficial cease fire) in December 1914, does just that. Does the film contain an anti-war message? Perhaps. More importantly, how can a war movie reflect the “Christmas spirit”? This film manages to combine the horror of trench warfare with the significance of the human spirit, although, yes, it is highly sentimental, saccharine even, at times. Rose Pacatte, in her article “Away in a movie theater” (2014), questions whether the film contains a message of hope or, rather, “the failure of humanity to internalize the Christmas message.” However, if the goal of the holiday season is to inspire individuals to reconsider their fellow man, then this film achieves that.

    Equally saccharine is Love Actually, a film in which the setting is the Christmas season; while I enjoy the film, as an historian who explores gender depictions in pop culture, the film raises more than a few red flags in the depiction of love and romance.  Nonetheless, with the slice-of-life presentation of a dozen vignettes, the film does explore the human spirit, and, well, perhaps, human naiveté, too. Considering this article’s emphasis on the Christmas spirit, then, this film is one for which, particularly closer to the holidays, I choose to ignore the intellectual red flags, and focus instead on the film’s often none-too-subtle reminders regarding how the Christmas season inspires childlike wonder.

    While the holiday season is one that prompts countless debates regarding the impact of commercialism in the modern world as many seek to fulfill the tangible side of the opening line from Little Women, there is something magical about watching human beings interact in a slightly kinder manner with one another (Black Friday mayhem notwithstanding!). Seeking (and locating!) the intangible Christmas spirit, and rekindling a faith in humanity, even if only for a brief period, may be one of more inspiring aspects of the holiday season. In our increasingly cynical world, that may be the greatest gift.


    Alcott, L.M.  (1868, 2008).  Little Women Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/514/514-h/514-h.htm

    Allen, Kathy G.  (2015). “Retail Holiday Sales Increase 4 Percent.”  https://nrf.com/news/retail-holiday-sales-increase-4-percent

    Pacatte, S. R. (2014).  Away in a movie theater.  U.S. Catholic, 79(12), 36 – 38. Retrieved from EbscoHost.

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