The Sinister Side of Christmas


We work so hard each December at making Christmas merry, but the roots of our celebrations run deep and dark.

Within the past several days, I’ve attended performances of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol on Cape Cod and George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center. Two vastly different interpretations of the holiday, but they share a dark heritage.

In E.T.A. Hoffmann's 1816 story, "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," on which the 1892 Tchaikovsky ballet is based, scary old Drosselmeyer (portrayed above by Balanchine) was once the royal rat-catcher, who set traps for the Mouse Queen. This led to a series of incidents that ended in his nephew being turned by an evil spell into a nutcracker.

Hoffmann might have been rebelling against the Enlightenment and its emphasis on rational philosophy. As a Romantic, he believed that imagination was under attack by rationalism. His tale challenged readers to liberate their inner child from the monotony of the real world.

Hoffmann's Romantic approach to imagination, reality and childhood has been lost in most productions of The Nutcracker. The ballet—saved only by Tchaikovsky’s brilliant score—is a holiday diversion full of dancing and merriment. But there's nothing profound in its storyline.


Then there’s Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Today is the anniversary of its publication—December 19, 1843.

Most of us probably have never read the book, but we’ve all seen plenty of film or theatrical adaptations.

Have you noticed that Dickens leaves out Baby Jesus to concentrate on grotesquery, poverty, indignity, pranks, dancing, food—and death?

There are thousands of novels that tell us we should be kinder and more moral, novelist Michael Faber says, but most of them gather dust. The secret of A Christmas Carol lies in the real reason for Scrooge's change of heart—his realization that, at long last, he's capable of having fun.

Like Hoffman’s Romantic view of what life can be, the greatest tragedy Dickens can imagine is an existence devoid of playfulness, of biding time on the way to the grave. Fun, for him, is the only redress for death. Scrooge's triumph is that he looks his own corpse in the face and defiantly resolves to enjoy the gift of life to the full.

It’s not hard to figure out why Christmas fables like A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker draw on the somber to set things in motion. After all, the Biblical narrative of the Nativity has its own sinister backstory, with evil Herod conniving to learn the location of the would-be king of the Jews so he can assassinate the infant in his crib. Failing that, he orders the massacre of every Hebrew boy under the age of two:

In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.

But true to the manner of Hoffman and Dickens, at this time of good cheer we might do well to declare death null and void in favor of living a full and loving life, one in which we are, at long last, capable of having fun.


Read my newest book, Fat Guy in a Fat Boat, in print or Kindle from Amazon:

Also available is my e-book, A Light from Within, about the small moments of our lives that seem commonplace until they are examined under a creative lens.

And my weekly reflection on each Sunday of the Jubilee Year of Mercy can be found at:

Showing 2 reactions

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.
  • Charles Paolino
    commented 2015-12-19 14:26:25 -0500
    Most re-presentations of “A Christmas Carol” ignore or gloss over the essence of the story, which is rooted in Dickens’ anger over the economic and social injustices of his time. The key to Dickens’ thinking is in Scrooge’s conversation with Marley’s Ghost, specifically Marley’s lament that during his lifetime he had not allowed his spirit to go out among his fellow human beings – to “the peripheries,” as Pope Francis says —and that in death he was condemned to travel endlessly, observing the pain and want that he no longer has the power to assuage. "Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode?‘’ Marley asks. "Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!’’ And before departing, he gives Scrooge a vision of myriad souls sharing the same fate. "The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.’’

    There is also a telling conversation between Scrooge and the Spirit of Christmas Present. Scrooge comments on a contemporary issue, a legislative proposal to require that bakeries close on Sundays. Poor people who had no kitchen facilities in their homes would take their meals to these bakeries to be cooked. Bob Cratchit’s family, for example, sent the goose to such an establishment to be baked. Scrooge, connecting this proposal with fundamentalist religious thought, accused the Spirit and its “family” of trying in this way to deprive the poor of a meagre weekly pleasure—a hot meal. The Spirit’s response was ferocious and, in its way, relevant to our own time in more ways than one: ``There are some upon this earth of yours who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.’’
  • Judi Space
    commented 2015-12-19 08:48:09 -0500
    A fine reminder for those of us who have lost loved ones. We must be able to turn away from our sadness to let love and light into our lives once again