Being the second in a series of guest posts by Daniel Gabelman
Like The Lord of the Rings films, Peter Jackson has decided to release The Hobbit just in time for Christmas. Despite having relatively few Christmas themes, fantasy films seem to have a predilection for Christmas release—The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and several Harry Potter films also made it out just in time for the holiday season. The practical and financial reasons for this are fairly obvious: Christmas is one of the most lucrative periods in the cinematic year. But the film industry is also—probably unwittingly—tapping into the old carnivalesque tradition of Christmas.
In medieval times, the twelve days of Christmas were a time for feasting and revelry during which normal, everyday reality was suspended and a fantastical, topsy-turvy realm reigned supreme. Special religious and political licence was given for crude jokes, wild imaginative stories and subversive pranks. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Puritans and Rationalists joined forces to curtail many of these Christmas practices resulting in Washington Irving lamenting that ‘modern refinement’ had brought ‘havoc to the hearty old holiday customs’ and that ‘there is more of dissipation, and less of enjoyment’ in the world.
Dickens—who read Irving—is often credited with single-handedly saving Christmas from this ignominious slide into obscurity, and his A Christmas Carol (1843) was perhaps the first Christmas blockbuster. Probably the most successful ghost story of all time, A Christmas Carol revels in the power of Christmas to invert the desires and attitudes of even the most miserable and miserly.
Like fantasy films today, fairy-tales in Victorian times tended to appear just before Christmas, and also like modern fantasy films, they often had little overt connection to Christmas. The most famous of these was the blockbuster story of Christmas 1865 (and many Christmases thereafter), that little known work, Alice in Wonderland (Through the Looking Glass was also published just in time for Christmas, 1871).
Although Alice’s dream occurs on a hot summer afternoon, the narrative is filled with carnivalesque inversions common to the medieval Christmas tradition. The authority figures in both Alice stories (Kings, Queens and Knights) are comical, impotent and inept while creatures like cats, caterpillars and turtles are given peculiar status and wisdom. Games and parties are the norm in Wonderland, but they are strange games like the Caucus race in which there is neither beginning nor end and every participant gets a prize, and unusual parties like the Mad Hatter’s tea party in which they celebrate ‘unbirthdays’ and clocks that don’t work properly. Carroll also mocks the traditional moralistic poetry that children would have learned in schools and instead offers amoral rhymes of his own that undermine the supremacy of sense in favour of nonsense.
In 1884 as if somewhat embarrassed at the slightly indecorous nature of his book and its recurring appearance at Christmas, Carroll wrote the following Christmas poem which he included in subsequent editions:
Lady, dear, if Fairies may
For a moment lay aside
Cunning tricks and elfish play,
‘Tis at happy Christmas-tide.
We have heard the children say –
Gentle children, whom we love –
Long ago on Christmas Day,
Came a message from above,
Still, as Christmas-tide comes round,
They remember it again –
Echo still the joyful sound
“Peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Yet the hearts must childlike be
Where such heavenly guests abide;
Unto children, in their glee,
All the year is Christmas-tide!
Thus, forgetting tricks and play
For a moment, Lady dear,
We would wish you, if we may,
Merry Christmas, Glad New Year!
Carroll’s fairies may ‘forget tricks and play’ temporarily, but it almost seems as if they only set aside their wild revels for this moment because there is something about Christmas that justifies all their playful levity. The joy of the Christmas message overflows into the infinite larks and japes of the fairy realm.
Daniel Gabelman holds a PhD from the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts, University of St Andrews. He teaches English literature, and his book on George MacDonald’s fairy tales is forthcoming from Baylor University Press. He and his wife live in East Sussex.