A Christmas Carol isn’t just a Christmas story, it’s the Christmas story (sorry baby Jesus), the one that brings us all together. Who can hate the heartwarming story of a lonely miser, moved to repentance, generosity, and kindness to his hard-worked employees? It’s tempting to read it as an inherently left wing story, except that it’s not just people on the left who love it; it’s everyone.
A central contradiction of capitalism is between the tendency, on the one hand, to erode people’s capacity to feed and house themselves, to take care of one another, to behave morally and believe in the morality of the system in order to maximise the extraction of profit and, on the other, the need to reproduce the system, to keep people alive in order that they may continue to be exploited, to keep people happy enough that they’ll keep doing what they’re expected, to maintain at least some kind of moral legitimacy so that we keep paying our bills and racking up debts. Capitalism wants to suck us dry and spit us out, but it also needs (some of) us to love our families, to feel hopeful about the future, to have children, to invest. This is the real meaning of Christmas, and of The Christmas Carol.
Like all salvation narratives, however, the meaning of Christmas shifts and changes over time. The meaning of Christmas is made incarnate anew each time that old old story is told; and so alongside the synoptic gospels – Dicken’s original text and The Muppet Christmas Carol – and the dark reboot – It’s a Wonderful Life – we find endless retellings, reworkings, each illuminating something about the particular crisis of social reproduction in the context it was made.
One Magic Christmas (1985) is, I argue, essentially a Christmas Carol remake – a Christmas angel, rather than a ghost, is sent to teach the real meaning of Christmas not to a rich miser but to a stressed out housewife, reluctant to spend money she and her newly unemployed husband don’t have on Christmas presents and setting him up in his own business. By showing her the grim future in which she does not die unmourned but instead because she didn’t give money to a struggling father, he murders her entire family, the angel teaches her the real meaning of Christmas, which is to buy presents for her kids and let her husband use all their savings to follow his dream of being a small business owner. Produced just as neoliberalism got under way, it’s a fascinating parable of changing expectations of what it means to be a good mother: not careful and prudent management of the household finances but expenditure and indebtedness.
Christmas Cupid (2010, starring Christina Milian and Ashley Benson) takes as its subject a career-minded publicist who fails to help her best friend’s business out whilst ruthlessly climbing the career ladder and sleeping with her boss. Her biggest (Lindsay-Lohan-style-messy) client dies on Christmas Eve, choking on an olive, and returns to teach her the true meaning of Christmas by introducing her to the spirits of boyfriends past, present and future. She learns that it was a mistake to dump the former boyfriend who wanted her to sacrifice her career dreams so she could follow him to the middle-of-nowhere in Iowa (Iowa!), but has the chance to sacrifice her career and accept her ex’s Christmas proposal. It’s very of its time: concerned about the new generation of women delaying marriage for the sake of their careers, rather than on account of being broke, depressed and barely able to pay rent let alone have a child.
Retellings of A Christmas Carol – like angel film with which they often overlap – are rarely good films in any sense of the word. But this year’s Netflix offering Christmas on the Square, the Dolly Parton Christmas angel film which at first seemed like exactly what we all needed this Christmas was particularly disappointing. It’s been a bad year for Christmas films across the board – if you didn’t hate Happiest Season and A New York Christmas Wedding then please see me after class – and I wonder whether it’s something to do with the particular kind of crisis of social reproduction we find ourselves in. Christmas on the Square opens with Dolly Parton dressed as a beggar in Swarowksi-encrusted rags, singing about how the poorest people are those who don’t know how to give. In continuity with the long Hollywood tradition of confusing ghosts and angels, Dolly is our stand-in for Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmas past, present and future all rolled into one; Christine Baransky is our scrooge, a miserly single businesswoman who is selling off an entire town to be turned into a mall, while mistreating her Bob-Cratchit-like assistant, betraying her only childhood friend, and endangering Tiny-Tim-like-children born and unborn. The town pastor tries to organise resistance and Christine Baransky’s ex-boyfriend tries to win her back, but it’s only when Dolly starts appearing not to Christine Baransky but to her put-upon PA that things change. The PA learns about the responsibilities of angel interns, and by doing her best to care for her abusive boss, brings about the final redemption we all knew was coming.
Even the 1980s didn’t stoop to this level of brutal emotional manipulation to try to get us to sympathise with capitalists, and the over-the-top fakery that Dolly has so successfully wielded in other contexts (including the vastly superior 1996 Dolly Parton Christmas angel film Unlikely Angel) falls flat here. In a year when thousands upon thousands of people have died, improbable percentages of renters put at risk of eviction, and the wealth of billionaires keeps increasing, it’s impossible to believe in the Christmas magic of a bullied worker caring for her boss enough to bring about a change of heart. It’s interesting that the Scrooge figure here is a woman – more plausibly the victim of harm at the hands of social reproductive norms, perhaps; or maybe more easily brought back into the realm of social reproduction, discovering a long-lost child and boyfriend all on the same Christmas. But it’s terrible, and I hated it, and if it’s interesting at all it’s because it lays bare that lie as old as A Christmas Carol itself: that the love of a family will save us from the violence of capitalism.