Christmas is closely associated with coziness, and reasonably so. It happens at the time of year (in the northern hemisphere) when we are all snugged up like badgers while it snows, blows and rains outside. What with all the lights, hot chocolate, lovely fires, and beautiful music of the time (not to mention the warm socks, holly, lovely dinners, visits from family and friends, and remembrance of Old Times). It’s hard not to think that’s what the whole thing is about.
What doesn’t get noticed as often is how much fear and Christmas go together. The best Christmas stories are rooted in fear and, at their very best, even a sort of terror. The original story, of course, contains not only the heartwarming icon of the Holy Family in the stable, but also Joseph’s confusion and fear over the Holy Pregnancy. That terror, whether you read it as Joseph’s doubts about Mary or (as Jerome did) as Joseph’s doubts about himself are not the stuff of a Kodak Moment. It is, after all, about a man contemplating dumping his completely vulnerable wife in deep fear and doubt. It requires nothing less than an angelic visitation to keep the Blessed Virgin from facing the abandonment and rejection that her Holy Child will one day face in full strength. The story passes from Annunciation, through near catastrophe, to happy resolution as Joseph take up his role as “son of David” and takes his place as Father and Guardian of the Christ.
That’s not the last time we will see that pattern of joy, fear, and happy resolution. The tale of the escape of Jesus, even more, is a tale that passes with alarming swiftness from joy to terror to happy resolution. Your average Best Christmas Pageant Ever doesn’t tend to include a scene where a bunch of kids in plastic armor march on stage and then begin to methodically dismember a clutch of baby dolls. But that’s an integral part of the original Christmas story. It’s also the basis of the most heartbreaking of all Christmas carols:
Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young to slay.
It is from this horror that the Holy Family flees and finds safety in Egypt. :The Christ, at the beginning of his mission as well as at the end, is delivered from death and the dragon who would devour him and the Woman. The Church remembers this element of terror in the gospel story by immediately following the birth of Christ with feasts that celebrate, not only the Slaughter of the Innocents, but the murder of St. Stephen the first martyr, the murder of St. Thomas a Becket, and the first white martyr, St. John (who had to endure the murder of his brother James, the first apostle to be martyred). All these stand as reminders that the point of the gospel is that Christ has come to break the power of the kingdom of the final earthly fear: death.
In the same way, the art about Christmas contains an element of fear as well. One notices it even in minor tales such as The Gift of the Magi where the impoverished couple must win through the fear of poverty to discover their real riches. The Homecoming is set against a backdrop of the fear of loss just as Meet Me in St. Louis is filled with the fear of exile and the loss of Home. A Charlie Brown Christmas features a protagonist afflicted by “pantophobia”: the fear of Everything. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (in its video incarnation, at least) features an anti-hero who is, at the crucial moment, struck by terror at the magnitude of his own sin.
Indeed, the greater the work of art about Christmas, the more pronounced the element of fear becomes. The archetypal Christmas story in English—A Christmas Carol—was described by its author, not as a Christmas story, but as a ghost story. It contains, in fact, four ghosts. One of them—Jacob Marley—is, if not a damned soul, at least one enduring a fearful purgatory.
To sit, staring at those fixed glazed eyes, in silence for a moment, would play, Scrooge felt, the very deuce with him. There was something very awful, too, in the spectre’s being provided with an infernal atmosphere of its own. Scrooge could not feel it himself, but this was clearly the case; for though the Ghost sat perfectly motionless, its hair, and skirts, and tassels, were still agitated as by the hot vapour from an oven.
What Dickens makes of Marley is ambiguous. On the one hand, he speaks sometimes as a damned soul who has lost the possibility of happiness forever:
“It is required of every man,” the Ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world — oh, woe is me! — and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”
However, shortly thereafter, we are given to hope that Marley is not damned as he speaks of his “penance” and tells Scrooge:
“I am here to-night to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer.”
Hell does not deal in chance and hope and, as Lazarus points out to the Rich man in hell, intercessory prayers from the damned don’t bear much fruit, so we can all hope that poor Marley eventually completes his penance and meet merrily with Scrooge on the Last Day. But meantime, the fear of Marley’s apparition is only prelude to the still greater fear inspired by the other three spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Future.
These three (an allusion to the Blessed Trinity) lead our hero on a ride that culminates in outright terror as he confronts what Jesus warns us we will all confront: our guilt, mortality and the judgment that lies beyond it. It delivers a proper scaring and provokes a right and holy fear of both sin and God—all for the good of the hero and his final happiness. Scrooge’s squeal of terror at the sight of his own gravestone is follow by the hope-filled realization: “Why show me these things if I am past all hope?” Scrooge’s repentance is so genuine and satisfactory because Dickens so beautifully captures the real meaning of holy fear.
In the same way, the greatest Christmas film of all time—It’s a Wonderful Life—(directed by the Catholic Frank Capra) takes our hero George Bailey through an odyssey of terror too. It’s interesting that fear seems to attend the story, not because George is deeply wicked like Scrooge, but because it is a Christmas story and Christmas stories, like the Easter story, properly take us from the joyful mysteries, through the sorrowful mysteries, to the glorious mysteries. George Bailey is not at all the tight-fisted hand at the grindstone nor the squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner that Scrooge is. He is generous, kind, filled with a spirit of adventure, and willing to bear the responsibility for the Building and Loan and his family. He resists temptation to become the protégé of the Scrooge of Bedford Falls, Mr. Potter. So why does he have to undergo a baptism of fear and suffering?
Because the Lord of the Universe is the same Lord of both stories, and it is he, not they, who sets the pattern of reality which reflects his birth, passion, death, and resurrection. So George, whose temptation and sin is despair, not avarice, receives the proper and terrifying rebuke to his sin just as Scrooge does—and the happiness for which he is intended when he repents, just as Scrooge does.
That, in the end, is the point of the Christmas story all along. It is expressed in the beautiful legend that the cradle was made from the same tree as the wood of the cross. The Evangelists see everything—including the birth of Jesus—as related to the ultimate truth about him: that he is born to die and rise for us. The Passion and Resurrection of Jesus are imprinted on every aspect of reality from the miracles he performs to the stories he tells to the very circumstances of his birth. So the Eucharistic Lord is laid in a manger in Bethlehem—that is, a feed box in the House of Bread, because it is his destiny to be the Bread of Life broken for us. He is lost for three days and found at the Temple because he will be lost for three days in the grave and then the Temple of his body will be found alive again. The darkness and fear of the hellish dragon who seeks to devour him as a child is the same darkness and fear that while swallow him completely on the cross—and perish when he destroys darkness and fear in the Resurrection. It is why he is heralded by a star in the darkness of a fearful night. For Hell is real and our fears of it are justified. But the baby was, after all, born to save us from the fires of Hell.