Christmas in the Parsonage

Everyone knows the basic collection of well-watched Christmas (I use that word loosely) movies: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, A Christmas Story, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas, It’s A Wonderful Life, etc. (By the way, have we exhausted the joke debate about Die Hard yet?) I am sure you have your favorite, as well.

But there are some deeper cuts that don’t get as much attention. One of those is Holiday Affair (1949), with Robert Mitchum, Janet Leigh, and Wendell Corey, in which a war widow with a young son (Leigh was only 14 years older than her on-screen son!) is prepared to marry Carl (Corey), until Steve (Mitchum) enters her life via a comparison shopper meet-cute. It takes place from just before Christmas to New Year’s. Perhaps because of its setting and the date of its production—the fact that so many of the details are foreign to audiences at this point in the 21st century—it feels incredibly robust compared to our contemporary holiday romantic comedies. Mitchum and Leigh, at least, will likely be recognizable still today.

On Kanopy (the digital library borrowing system), I found The Holly and the Ivy (1952). While I should probably recognize Sir Ralph Richardson, I have not seen anything with any of these actors. I was intrigued, however, because it takes place mostly in an English parsonage (here its genesis as a play is most evident), when the children of a Church of England parson come back for Christmas. The oldest daughter Jenny (Celia Johnson) has remained at home after her mother’s death, essentially keeping house for her aging father. The second daughter, Margaret (Margaret Leighton) writes for a fashion magazine in London, and the brother, Michael (Denholm Elliott) is in the military.

We get a good feel for the different characters’ personalities and how they feel about both their father and the church, as well as their different experiences growing up as children of a pastor. The rest of the main characters are Jenny’s intended fiance, David (John Gregson), and two elderly aunts, one the sister of Martin (Richardson) and one the sister of his deceased wife.

The main plot points are brought together by the revelation of a secret that Margaret has kept from her whole family, and the reason she is rarely back home. The fact that she feels unable to tell either her father or her older sister causes Michael to say that there are all sorts of secrets kept in the house, because no one can tell the truth in the presence of their parson father. Especially Margaret and Michael have come to conclusions about what their father would say if they revealed their secrets (a love affair and dead child, and a lack of faith, respectively).

The movie has a happy and hopeful ending, but I am more interested in Martin’s character and some of the things he reveals about his feelings toward the church, especially at Christmas. In an early scene with Jenny and David, Martin says, capturing the difficulty, even in the ’50s, of the pastor’s job: “That’s the worst of being a parson. Nobody wants you. Well, at least they do and they don’t. If you don’t go near them, they say, here am I. I’d been in the place six months, and the parson never comes near me. And if you do go, they say, what’s he want to come poking his nose in here for?” Every pastor knows the frustration of trying to figure out what to do for people, each of whom thinks his or her desires are the only ones the pastor should be taking into account.

Later, Aunt Lydia (Margaret Halstan) says that she thinks Christmas “is the loveliest of the festivals.” Martin says, “Do you know, I hate it?” Lydia is shocked and says, “Martin, why?” He says, “Ah, the brewers and the retail traders have got hold of it. It’s all eating and drinking and giving each other knick knacks. Nobody remembers the birth of Christ.”

Every family has its own traditions, and the family is focused on those; sometimes church plays a part in those traditions, and sometimes it doesn’t. When church is included, people are disappointed if everything does not go the way they expect it to—if they don’t get to sing their favorite hymns, for example. And there is a whole congregation of people who want the church part of their traditions to fit their expectations. And the pastor has to somehow navigate that, or risk the dissatisfied grumbling.

Martin’s complaint is a version of what you might hear from nearly every pastor—and many other Christians, of course—from Thanksgiving onward. The commercialization of the “holiday season” and the number of shopping days before Christmas have essentially destroyed real observance of the churchly season of Christmas, not to mention the observance of Advent. Sure, the obstinate pastor tries to keep Advent as Advent, but people are often surprised and offended that he stubbornly refuses to allow any singing of Christmas hymns prior to the actual season of Christmas. Advent is simply the name for the countdown to Christmas, isn’t it?

“Of all the sermons in the year,” Martin says, “it’s the one on Christmas morning I dislike. Nobody wants to hear you. They’re all fidgeting in their pews, longing to be back home basting the Christmas goose. There’s no time to be telling them anything—anything important.” And now we have churches that intentionally do not have services on Christmas Day, setting aside the Holy Family to emphasize the “importance of family.” That is to say, I feel where Martin is coming from, although in our time it is generally the most committed Christians who show up on Christmas Day.

And Martin has observed more: “There’s the church. A great little country church standing up there in the middle of the town. It’s the center of the place architecturally. It should be the center of the place spiritually too. But it’s not. No. That little tin-pot shack of a cinema [Margaret and Michael] are going to tonight has more influence on the lives of people here than the church.” (Which is true enough as not to need further evidence.)

The difficulty for Martin and for all clergy families is not only that children who grow up in parsonages have no fewer problems than those who don’t, but to somehow preserve faith when one is so close to the reality of the human organization of the church. Obviously (or maybe not), only the Holy Spirit can sustain the faith that He has created. But there is a profound and burdensome responsibility on pastors, in addition to the struggles of all Christian parents in a materialistic, moralistic-therapeutic-deistic culture, which certainly has not improved in the last 70 years.

As a child, I used to feel like Jenny, who says, “But Christmas morning, there’s something about Christmas morning. No, but the first moment when you wake up. Somehow, I don’t know why, I always know it’s Christmas morning. It’s as if during the night while you were asleep, something had happened. You even expect the world to look as different as it feels, and you lie there, taking it in and realizing, and it seems strangest of all that it’s Christmas everywhere.” But, as Aunt Lydia says, “Somehow Christmas never seems quite the same now. As one gets older, the magic seems to go out of things.”

That is probably mainly a result of the number of responsibilities that a person has as he or she gets older. But there’s something about the responsibilities of the parsonage that make it more than just the “magic” going out of things. It is, perhaps, being too close to the holy things of Christmas. The “work” can easily crowd out the receiving of the gifts, though that is a danger for pastors at all times of the year. You might think it would be harder around Easter, because there are so many more services, but I (speaking only for myself, of course) find it easier. Holy Week is not threatened by commercialism so much as it is ignored. And usually no one asks to sing Easter hymns during Lent.

All of this is not to say that Christmas is “harder” for pastors, as if there were a who-has-it-worse competition. Everyone in every vocation has his or her own cross to bear. Many people struggle through the entire season for numerous reasons. Everyone needs the Gospel of the newborn Christ proclaimed to them, including pastors. (That, I think, is one of the keys to preaching at Christmas: preacher, preach the Gospel to yourself and you will preach to the people.) But I think that The Holly and the Ivy might be the only Christmas movie I have ever seen that centers its narrative around some of the particular difficulties of the pastor and his family.