Thinking about Dickens’ novella “The Haunted Man” and remembering the impact of that unusual Christmas story in a sermon many Christmas Eves ago in a galaxy far far away, I began to collect in my mind some top-ten Christmas delights, mostly from the weird or supernatural genre. Collecting these has long been a hobby, a backdoor entrance into the land of genuine Christmas repentance by way of the absurd, if you can call it that.
Here’s a little ‘top ten’ for the next week, from the land of Midwich, Ipswich, and Ithaca:
2. “O Come, Little Children” by Chet Williamson, about a disreputable shopping-mall Santa whose touch creates stigmata on the palms of a little boy.
3. “A Handful of Silver” by (Alabama’s own) Mary Elizabeth Counselman, about an odd patron down at Joe’s Bar and Grill.
These first three stories can all be found in a spectacular paperback collection, which truly understands what it is about, entitled Spirits of Christmas, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (Tor Fantasy, 1989).
4. “The Messiah on Mott Street”, which is a “Night Gallery” episode from long ago, starring Edward G. Robinson and written by Rod Serling. This is probably the most assimilationist (and to me, reconciling) of all Serling’s scripts — Serling who came from a Jewish family in Ithaca and who married a Protestant, and became a Unitarian. Rod Serling was fascinated by Jesus, and he also loved Christmas. “The Messiah on Mott Street”, even though it was filmed somewhat turgidly for network television, is still a standout. The ending communicates, to my thinking, something like What the World Needs Now. It’s available for free streaming on Hulu.
5. “Night of the Meek”, also by Rod Serling, and filmed on videotape during the early days of “Twilight Zone”. This is not everyone’s favorite, as it sustains a kind of un-recovering alcoholic identity on the part of the hero. Personally, I don’t see it that way, given the episode’s charming ending. You can make up your own mind (the whole thing is on youtube).
6. “The Gift”, another, less well known “Christmas” script from Serling, from mid-period Twilight Zone. Some TZ fans resist Serling’s “Christian” or religious scripts — there are at least four, not including “Mott Street” nor his amazing “Carol for Another Christmas” (which is impossible to see, by the way, unless you go in person to the Paley Museum of Broadcasting on 57th Street — treat yourself some time to that experience. They’ve also got all the “Way Out” episodes from Roald Dahl, so Heaven is on 57th Street.) “The Gift” is beautiful and sweet, tho’ not exactly “pc” in the present world.
7. “The Traveller” by Richard Matheson, which is an early short story from a master. Matheson recounts a Dawkins-type professor’s errant errand on board a time machine, to Calvary’s hill. The time traveller is surprised by what he sees, and remembers, later, that it is Christmas Eve.
8. Scrooged, the movie with Bill Murray. I still think Scrooged captures the feel of the original Dickens, and of the great metaphor and also actuality of the New Birth occasioned by repentance. Interestingly, the script writer cast himself as a Catholic priest at the very end, and it works. Murray’s speech on camera at the end is fabulous, and he also links Christmas Eve with having a sexy wife.
9. Donovan’s Reef, the story of a broken family’s reconciliation and reunion one Christmas in Hawaii. John Ford directed this one, and it is in aggregate quite powerful. Despite some distracting slapstick, typical of the Maestro as a sort of “distancing device”, the movie gets to the heart of Christmas. Some consider the high point of Donovan’s Reef to be Dorothy Lamour’s version of “O Holy Night”. Others are enchanted by the Christmas pageant in the leaky church.
10. Finally, watch Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan again, for its picture of Manhattan at Christmas and especially for its Lessons and Carols in St. Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue. I love this movie, and hope you do, too.
There are so many Christmas jewels in the pop pantheon. I left out too many to count. For example, I left out Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, which is oddly, sanctifyingly, devastatingly moving. However, if you leaf through Spirits of Christmas, which is the best of the Christmas anthologies of short stories; then treat yourself to “The Haunted Man”, not to mention Scrooged, you’ll probably require but one more thing: a video Yule Log.