When Christmas advertising campaigns begin at the same time Halloween costumes go on sale, things have gone too far for Kathy Kuntz.
“Having Christmas trees and decorations in Kmart on Sept. 1 is a bit much,” remarked Kuntz, faith-formation coordinator at St. Vincent de Paul, Churchville.
Meanwhile, Sara Morningstar said acknowledgements of Christmas are in abundance at her home, where her family annually erects a Nativity scene and Advent wreath. Yet at Churchville-Chili High School, where she is a senior, Sara must deal with governmental prohibitions against noneducational references to Christmas in public schools. The holiday’s secularization carries over to her peers.
“I have some very religious friends, but to a lot of others (Christmas) just means decorations and gifts,” said Sara, a parishioner of St. Christopher in Chili.
In fact, Christmas has become so secularized that the Knights of Columbus now promote a “Keep Christ in Christmas” campaign.
Unexpectedly, however, efforts to remind the public that Christmas is about the birth of Christ are getting a boost from a most-unlikely source — Hollywood.
On Nov. 26, “The Nativity Story” became the first film ever to make its world premiere at the Vatican. Five days later, it was released into major distribution by New Line Cinema, the Time Warner unit behind the “Lord of the Rings” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” film franchises.
Though a handful of television productions have depicted Christ’s birth, “The Nativity Story” is the first major Hollywood movie ever to focus exclusively on Christ’s birth.
It remains to be seen whether the film will fill theaters the way a delivery of Sony PS3 video games packs stores — or whether its release signals a new opening for religiously themed films among such secularized Christmas flicks as New Line’s 2003 holiday release “Elf.”
But initially, “The Nativity Story” is gaining positive buzz in both the Christian and secular media for its high quality and close attention to Biblical detail.
“Hollywood finally gets it right with ‘The Nativity Story,'” wrote David DiCerto, reviewer for Catholic News Service, noting that the film goes beyond the stereotypical “secular brand of sentimentality” designed for mass appeal.
“The Nativity Story” is showing in the same theaters that in recent years have presented the likes of “The Santa Clause,” ” “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “Bad Santa” and “Christmas with the Kranks” as well as “Elf.” All of these films, as well as such favorites from earlier generations as “A Christmas Story” and “It’s A Wonderful Life,” steer away from references to Christ’s birth.
Yet avoiding references to the real star of the Christmas story did not originate with modern media. Charles Dickens’ classic novel A Christmas Carol, released in 1843, was so deeply affecting that Dickens is dubbed “the father of the modern Christmas” by Robert J. Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
Dickens’ novel lovingly extols Christmas customs of his native England, emphasizing family gatherings and big feasts as well as the pervasive power of the Christmas spirit — themes that resonate strongly today as well. However, the book makes nary a mention of Jesus.
Thompson pointed out that A Christmas Carol emerged at the time Christmas was becoming a more accepted religious celebration in the United States, following a ban on Christmas celebrations among the first American settlers due to such perceived pagan practices as decorations, feasts and carols. Additionally, by the late 1800s, the Industrial Revolution had put the United States in a better economic position for spending on Christmas celebrations and gifts, he observed.
“The commercial interests, and the absorption of Christmas in churches in general, really happened simultaneously,” Thompson said.
From that point, 20th-century media treatment of Christmas transformed the holiday into “what turns out to be the greatest consumer orgy of the entire year,” Thompson remarked. He cited two examples from the world of advertising: present-day renderings of Santa Claus based largely on an image from a 1930s ad campaign for Coca-Cola, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’s 1939 origin in a supplement to a Montgomery Ward catalog.
Movie has pros and cons
“The Nativity Story” comes at a time of openness to biblical movies that’s been absent for nearly a half-century, since the days of “The Ten Commandments” and similar Old Testament epics. According to the article “Hooray for Holy-wood” in the Nov. 20 issue of Time magazine, several other religiously themed films recently have been released or are now in production. Time writer Rebecca Winters Keegan credited controversial actor/filmmaker Mel Gibson for sparking the current trend.
“It was the success of Gibson’s 2004 Crucifixion film, ‘The Passion of the Christ’ — which no studio wanted to touch and which earned $1 billion in worldwide box-office and DVD sales when the director funded it himself — that made believers out of Hollywood executives and ushered in a flurry of faith-based filmmaking,” Keegan wrote.
“I remember the powerful reaction and the renewed interests that happened after the Passion movie,” Father Patrick Van Durme, pastor of Steuben County’s Our Lady of the Valley Parish, recalled in a Nov. 25-26 bulletin column in support of “The Nativity Story.”
“What a great gift it would be to our world and culture as well as a gift to Jesus Christ if that same energy was built up around the story of his birth,” he continued. “We could really be a part of putting the real meaning of the season back into these following weeks.”
Yet for all the film’s positive aspects, some have raised concerns about the producers’ priorities. For example, Father Louis Sirianni, pastor of Greece’s St. Mark Parish, pointed out that New Line’s parent company Time Warner Inc., (which also owns Time magazine) is among the boycott targets listed by Life Decisions International as a result of these entities’ support for Planned Parenthood.
Noting an aggressive public-relations outreach to Christian churches on behalf of “The Nativity Story,” Father Sirianni observed, “I find it interesting that a corporation that supports an organization which is probably the major provider of abortion services would seek support for a movie about the birth of a child to an unwed mother, the birth of Jesus Christ who is the epitome of respect for all human life.”
“I don’t think we should lose sight of the fact that this movie was made for commercial gain and not for the purpose of evangelizing Christ,” added Lisa Marcelletti, faith-formation coordinator at Scottsville’s St. Mary of the Assumption Parish.
Marcelletti’s comment calls to mind “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which continues to stand apart from other seasonal television specials due to its direct reference to the Nativity and its and denouncement of Christmas commercialization. At one point in the program, for instance, Lucy tells Charlie Brown “Let’s face it; we all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big Eastern syndicate, you know.”
Ironically, when it was first released in 1965, the special also contained blatant references to its original sponsor, Coca-Cola.
“Hollywood isn’t any worse than any number of other commercial enterprises that make lots of money off of people’s religious devotion,” Marcelletti said.
And even faith-based consumers willingly hand that money over.
“For the most part, Christians have embraced the secular and more or less ignore their own tradition,” she added.
Yet Marcelletti said she does welcome help from “The Nativity Story” in reminding people of that tradition.
“The idea of a real, Scripture-based Hollywood movie about Jesus’ birth is fine — if it’s well done and faithful to Matthew’s and/or Luke’s versions,” she said.