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Series 10

hristmas is a time of inspiration for many people, not just in a religious sense but also artistically. The festive season has provided creative impetus for many folk tales, poems, songs, books, stage plays, artworks and films among other things. Some of the works of art are deeply solemn and religious, while others are more about the joy and festivities of the season. Although there are some exceptions, most Christmas-themed works are things that are enjoyed only at a particular time of the year.

Stories of Christmas
Of mice and nutcrackers
The Nutcracker And The Mouse King was written in 1816 by the German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann. The story is of a girl named Marie (this would change to Clara in other adaptations) who receives a nutcracker shaped like a man in uniform for Christmas. As the clock strikes midnight, Clara is being attacked by evil mice and is rescued by the nutcracker. The pair then race off to another land populated by dolls, where they dance all night. The nutcracker turns out to be a prince under an evil enchantment and Clara breaks the curse to become his bride. The story has been adapted many times as pantomime, theatre and in film but most famously as a ballet with music composed by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day Their old, familiar carols play, And wild and sweet The words repeat Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
From Christmas Bells by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1864)

Did you know?

n One of the best-selling singles of all time is a Christmas song. White Christmas, which was written by Jewish composer Irving Berlin for the 1941 film Holiday Inn and sung by Bing Crosby, struck a chord with troops who were away during World War II. n The book The Fir Tree, written by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, was published on December 21, 1844. This story is about a tree desperately wanting to grow up and look like the other tall, luscious green fir trees. He waits for the day when he can be chopped down from the forest and stand decorated for children to enjoy.

A turn for the verse

Some of the earliest writings that could be considered poems were most likely verses or hymns penned for the Christmas mass as early as the 3rd century AD. Many of these were set to music (see Jingle all the way). Over the next few centuries people continued writing verses for church but eventually poems with Christmas themes went beyond the church. The 14th-century poem Sir Gawain And The Green Knight begins at Christmas time (which was then also considered New Years Day) and dwells substantially on ideas of Christmas, but it is not a religious tract. Over the centuries some famous poets have turned their hand to writing lines about Christmas, including Shakespeare, Wordsworth, John Donne and Emily Dickinson. There have also been many popular Christmas-themed poems such as A Visit From St Nicholas by Clement Moore (see below).

Home Alone

One of the biggest films of 1990 was the Christmas story Home Alone, written by John Hughes and directed by Chris Columbus. Macauley Culkin plays eight-year-old Kevin McCallister, who is inadvertently left home alone by his family when they depart on their Christmas vacation. Confronted by two burglars trying to rob the house, he fights them off using some ingenious methods. The movie was a box office hit and made $500 million worldwide. It spawned a series of sequels with Home Alone 2, 3 and 4.

Australian festive works

The Gift Of The Magi

The Gift Of The Magi is a popular short Christmas story written by O. Henry. It is about a poor young couple who scrape together money to buy each other a Christmas gift. O. Henry was fond of putting a twist at the end of his stories and this one is no exception. The scene where they exchange their gifts has become part of Christmas folklore.

St Nick drops in
Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. This is the opening of one of the most famous pieces of Christmas verse. It was first published anonymously in the New York Sentinel in 1823. It is generally accepted that Clement Clarke Moore wrote the ballad, although there have been claims of other authors. The poem tells of a person in bed on Christmas Eve who hears a sleigh landing on his roof and catches a glimpse of St Nicholas delivering presents. In 1863 it was published accompanied by illustrations by Thomas Nast in a best-selling book. Since then it has become one of the best known poems written about Christmas.

A novel idea
One of the most famous novels set during Christmas is Charles Dickenss A Christmas Carol. It is the story of miserly old businessman Ebenezer Scrooge, who hates everything to do with Christmas, dismissing the season with the expression Bah! Humbug!. Scrooge is visited by three ghosts in the night who change his view of Christmas. First published in 1843, the novel was a huge success and has never been out of print since. Dickens wrote four more Christmas books to cash in on the success of A Christmas Carol but none were as successful or as memorable. Dickens frequently gave readings of his book at public appearances and it was later adapted to the stage. The story was adapted to create what is possibly the first Christmas film in 1901 as Scrooge, Or Marleys Ghost. There have been innumerable versions since, including the famous 1951 version starring Alistair Simm, the 1970 musical Scrooge, a 1988 contemporary American comedy version starring Bill Murray called Scrooged, A Muppet Christmas Carol in 1992, and the 2009 computer 3D animated film A Christmas Carol, with Jim Carrey providing the voice of Scrooge and most of his expressions through motion-capture technolgy.

The Santa Clause

The Santa Clause is a 1994 film directed by John Pasquin. It is centred on the character Scott Calvin (Tim Allen), who has just been through a divorce and is now trying to patch things up with his son. Calvin catches Santa on his roof and accidentally scares him, causing Santa to fall off. Scott dons the Santa suit to complete delivery of toys to children but by doing so accepts that he must become the new Santa. The movie made more than $189 million worldwide, and has become a favourite during the festive season. Australians have created many works that feature Christmas. In 1898 Mary Minnie Grant Bruce published her first story Her Little Lad, in the Christmas supplement of the Melbourne Leader. Many of her later books would feature scenes depicting how Australians celebrated Christmas. In A Bush Christmas, a 1931 book of poetry by C.J. Dennis, the poet also explored a more authentic image of Australians in the hot, snowless festive season. The 1947 film Bush Christmas also showed some of the peculiarities of the Australian yuletide season in the Outback, with children chasing horse thieves and dealing with a bushfire before tucking into Christmas dinner. There have also been many Australian Christmas songs, including The Three Drovers, an Australian take on the three wise men written by John Wheeler, and Rolf Harriss Six White Boomers, a song about Santa using kangaroos to pull his sleigh in the Outback. Australians have also rewritten some Christmas classics to give them local flavour, including the Australian Twelve Days Of Christmas, which features parakeets, koalas, opals and goannas.

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Santa on celluloid
Since the invention of cinema people have been putting Christmas scenes on film. One of the earliest films was Scrooge, Or Marleys Ghost (1901) based on Charles Dickenss A Christmas Carol. Many more versions of the story would follow (almost too many to count). The 1923 silent film Christmas showed the misadventures of a man sent out by his wife to buy a Christmas tree. The 1947 film Miracle On 34th Street is about a man who claims to be Santa Claus who is taken to court to try to prove that he is not insane. It was remade twice for TV in 1959 and 1973 and more recently as a film in 1994. The film Its A Wonderful Life (1946), starring Jimmy Stewart and with its climax on Christmas Eve, has become a perennial Yuletide favourite although it can be enjoyed any time of the year. The modern classic A Christmas Story (1983), about a boys quest to get a Red Ryder air rifle for Christmas, didnt do well at the box office but has since become a classic and inspired a string of Family favourite: Tim Allen movies and television shows narrated by a person in The Santa Clause recounting their childhood. More recently the 1990 film Home Alone became the third highest-grossing film that year and stayed in cinemas well past the Christmas season and is another film that is enjoyed beyond the confines of the Yuletide season.

Yuletide by the book

As Christmas evolved over the centuries into a popular celebration, many myths and legends grew surrounding the season. In some cases pagan folktales were combined with Christian religious messages. The Russian story of the young girl who is showered with gifts for her kindness to Father Frost was eventually adapted as a tale of Christian purity and charity. By the 18th and 19th centuries some of these tales were being written down in collections of stories and new ones were being created. In the folktale collections of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen there are some tales set on or around Christmas. There include The Elves And The Shoemaker, The Little Match Girl and The Fir Tree. The idea of writing a novel set during Christmas is something comparatively recent. One of the first is the short 1843 novel by Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. Since then there has been a range of Christmas books. In 1882 Louisa May Alcott published A Christmas Dream and How It Came True. There have also been some popular childrens works such as Ted Dr Seuss Geisels How The Grinch Stole Christmas! (1957).

Jingle all the way

Initially there was some reluctance among early Christians to celebrate the birthday of their saviour Jesus Christ, because this was considered a pagan practice. But by the time celebration of a Christs Masse on December 25 became sanctioned by the Catholic Church in the 9th century it had become common practice to gather in churches to listen to music and sing songs dedicated to Christmas. In late medieval times a form of song known as a carol, with verses alternating with a chorus, became popular. English religious Christmas carols were banned by Protestants in the 17th century but later re-emerged as a popular form in the 18th century under the creative hand of composers such as Isaac Watts. Today most of the songs we call Christmas carols are not actually carols in the original sense but simply songs with a Christmas theme.

Bah, humbug: A 1984 version of A Christmas Carol

Sources and further study

n The Annotated Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens with notes and introduction by Michael P. Hearn (W.W. Norton). n Can Reindeer Fly, by Roger Highfield (Weidenfeld and Nicholson) n Christmas, by Yvonne de Sike (Hachette) n Christmas At The Movies, by Mark Connelly (I.B.Taurus) n Christmas Unwrapped, by Patrick Harding (Blake Publishing) n Encyclopedia Britannica

Editor: Troy Lennon Graphics: Paul Leigh and Will Pearce


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