Tales for hard times: Christmas stories in books and on film can inspire a sense of hope for a better world

  • By Leanne Italie Associated Press
  • Thursday, December 4, 2008 2:22pm
  • Life

Hard times have you down this holiday season? Take a trip to the library for some inspiration from treasured stories of Christmas past.

The mortgage meltdown, job squeeze and clash between rich and poor evoke long-popular holiday tales with clarity, offering messages of hope, faith and togetherness during an intensely uncertain year, said William Palmer, an English professor and Charles Dickens expert at Purdue University.

“The real reason that readers have always returned to ‘A Christmas Carol’ year after year since the 1840s is that it provides a way of reinvigorating the spirit of Christmas that everyone wants to feel during this season, no matter how hard the times or how bleak the economic outlook,” he said.

Five Christmas tales that inspire our sense of hope:

“A CHRISTMAS CAROL” by Charles Dickens, 1843

The Tale: Ebenezer Scrooge is so consumed by greed and downright meanness that he’s visited by three spirits looking to rehabilitate him at Christmas in Victorian London. They lead him on a back-and-forth journey through his past, present and future. He gets a fly-on-the-wall look at how the Cratchit family really feels about him before he emerges kinder, gentler and joyfully tossing money around.

Lesson: It’s never too late to make amends and learn to give.

Notes: The story was hugely popular when released for Christmas, with an unblinking look at social injustice and gaping class disparity.

“YES, VIRGINIA, THERE IS A SANTA CLAUS” unsigned editorial The Sun of New York, 1897

The Tale: 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon begs for some Santa Claus truth. She follows her papa’s advice to consult The Sun, not wanting to believe her “little friends” that St. Nick is a fraud. The newspaper’s response in part: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.”

Lesson: A little faith in what you believe can go a long way.

Notes: Written by Francis P. Church, a Sun staffer who had covered the Civil War. Virginia was the daughter of a coroner’s assistant who grew up to be a schoolteacher. She died in 1971 at 82. This bit of holiday history has been reprinted in dozens of languages.

“THE GIFT OF THE MAGI” by O. Henry, 1906

The Tale: Jim and Della Young are in love, but they’ve hit hard times and can barely pay their $8-a-week rent. For Christmas, she sells her prized luxuriant hair to buy him a fob chain for his cherished gold pocket watch, but he sells the watch to surprise her with two elegant hair combs.

Lesson: People in love would give up their most prized possession for their beloved.

Notes: This short story inspired many movies with themes of selfless giving.

“IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE” directed by Frank Capra, 1946

The Tale: Beset by bad luck, a bank run and shattered dreams, George Bailey (James Stewart) is about to jump off a bridge on Christmas Eve shortly after World War II. But a guardian angel in training, Clarence, shows George what would have happened to the people he loved and to his hometown, Bedford Falls, if he had never been born.

Lesson: A person’s real worth is measured in family and friends, not wealth.

Notes: The movie is based on “The Greatest Gift,” a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern. It’s among the most popular films of all time now, but was a box office bust and fizzled at the Oscars.

“A CHRISTMAS MEMORY” by Truman Capote, 1956

The Tale: Seven-year-old Buddy is dumped on relatives in the rural South of the 1930s. “It’s fruitcake weather!” declares Sook, his childlike, 60-something cousin. Inseparable, Buddy and Sook bake and peddle their fruitcakes, trek into the woods to cut down a Christmas tree and fashion kites for each other as gifts. Buddy describes his grief over Sook’s death years later, the news “severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken string.”

Lesson: Unlikely friendships can provide a sense of family, and offer hope and joy amid bruising poverty.

Notes: The semi-autobiographical short story was first published in Mademoiselle magazine. A young Capote wrote it before “In Cold Blood” propelled him to superstar status.

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