Glimpse Grace in 5 Classic Christmas Movies
Christmas movies are entertainment, but they’re also stories. And stories often tell us something about what it means to be human, our need and longing for grace, and our struggle to find meaning and significance. People are spiritual beings, so it shouldn’t surprise us when God and spiritual realities show up in the stories people write.
As my family has watched Christmas movies this December, I’ve noticed several scenes depicting God or the gospel of grace in compelling ways. Here are a few examples of classic Christmas movies that illustrate God’s character or the gospel:
A Charlie Brown Christmas
In A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), Charlie Brown finds the Christmas season full of hype but short on hope. He wants to know why he’s depressed at a time of year when he should be happy. Various characters subtly point him to different answers.
Lucy wants Charlie to lead the school Christmas play because she thinks having a project and getting caught up in the Christmas season is the answer. Maybe busyness, or a hobby, or work can give meaning, or at least stir within him some magic of Christmas. He gives it a shot, but it fails.
Charlie’s beloved dog, Snoopy, points him to the Christmas lights contest. Snoopy is all about the bright lights, the displays, the show, and winning a prize. But Charlie grows tired of the commercialism and finds it another dead end.
Sally, Charlie’s sister, is all about gifts from Santa. Christmas is about what you get. But Charlie finds this materialism ultimately meaningless.
None of these answers and paths satisfies Charlie. None goes beyond the surface and gets at the true meaning of Christmas. None offers any real hope or meaning. Frustrated and dismayed, Charlie throws up his hands: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is really about?”
Finally, Linus steps up. He shares the real meaning of Christmas from Luke 2, reciting the Christmas story. It’s a story of God entering the darkness by becoming one of us to bring us life, peace, hope, and joy. Only in this story does Charlie find the meaning of Christmas and something that addresses the deeper questions and longings that led him on his journey. Jesus alone can provide a deep, sufficient meaning that the holiday hustle and bustle cannot.
It’s A Wonderful Life
In It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), George Bailey (James Stewart) is a banker at a small family business in a town where an old, stingy man seeks to run the town and its finances. George’s uncle loses the bank’s deposits, and therefore, the bank’s money. No one knows where the money went, and they blame George. The bank is doomed. George will be taken to jail. It’s a truly hopeless situation. In despair and on the brink of taking his own life, he wishes he had never been born.
At this low point an angel of hope enters the picture in an unexpected way, gradually leading to a perspective change for George. The film’s climactic final scene pictures a gospel of free grace we cannot earn or accomplish ourselves. George still has a daunting financial debt he can never pay for himself. He needs rescue. He needs the sacrifice of someone else to pay his debt.
Deliverance comes through George’s friends and family, who show up and pay what he could never pay himself. Out of love, they assume his debt and pay it at great cost, though also with great joy. They give up their own money, their savings, their vacations, their Christmas plans. They give sacrificially to bail out George.
Though hopeless, George receives help. Though trapped, he gets rescued. All is grace. None is achieved; all is received. This grace sets George free, restores his status, and provides the joy he’s been missing. What a picture of the gospel and how Christ has absorbed our sin debt and paid it himself, allowing us to receive it freely and joyfully. Being helpless isn’t the same as being hopeless when we look to God’s grace to intervene.
A Christmas Story
In A Christmas Story (1983), the father character, Old Man Parker (Darren McGavin), is unlike God in a lot of ways. He’s often distant, impersonal, and uninterested in what the rest of the family is doing. He often gets angry, stringing together profanities and modeling some bad behaviors Ralphie picks up.
Despite his faults, there are a few moments of tenderness in which the father shows great love and kindness toward his children. On Christmas morning, after all the presents are opened and things have settled, Old Man Parker points Ralphie to a gift he’s kept tucked away. It’s the Red Ryder BB Gun Ralphie had desired throughout the film. The dad went over the top in not just getting him several gifts, but also in getting him what he desired most.
As Ralphie exuberantly unwraps his present, the dad beams with joy. He can’t contain it. Fatherly delight jumps off the screen. This scene resonated with me as a father, but it also glimpsed the Father’s love for us. His heart is kind and good toward his children. He finds pleasure in providing. He loves to love us.
The movie depicts grace another way, too. The film doesn’t go out of its way to depict Ralphie as a good kid deserving to be on Santa’s nice list. Rather, he gets into a fight and drops a series of profanities as he bloodies Scut Farkus’s nose. He abandons his friends, lies, drops the mother of all cuss words, and tries to deceive his parents to get what he really wants. There’s more than enough to land him on the naughty list.
And yet Ralphie receives grace. Despite his bad behavior, he’s given gifts—not because he earned or deserved it, not because he is good, but because he is their child. He’s loved. His parents shower him with gifts on Christmas morning not because of what he’s done but despite what he’s done. It’s a small picture of grace.
Even Home Alone (1990) offers an example of the forgiveness and reconciliation we long for and need.
One of the hidden gems in Home Alone is the church conversation between Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) and Old Man Marley (Roberts Blossom) on Christmas Eve. It feels tonally different from the rest of the film—a sacred moment in an otherwise playful movie. The church, in this scene, is a refuge from the brokenness of the world. Marley describes it as a place where everyone is welcome. It offers refreshment to the weary, grace to the beaten down, and peace to the restless. For Kevin and Old Man Marley, it’s also a place where friendships are formed and where honest conversations sharpen and edify.
Kevin and Marley are united by common struggles. Both are separated from the family they love. Kevin’s separation is physical, having been left home alone as his family flew to France, but he realizes he’s also pushed them away and caused distance. Marley’s separation is emotional; he is estranged from his son and his son’s family due to some past wrongs. Kevin encourages Marley to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. Marley fears his attempt at restoration will be rejected. Kevin assures him it’s better to confess where he’s failed and seek a restored relationship than to miss out due to fear. As the movie closes on Christmas Day, with snow falling (of course), Kevin sees the fruit of his new friend’s attempt to reconcile with his son. Through the window, Kevin sees the man’s family at Marley’s home, with hugs shared and a relationship restored.
The forgiveness sought has been granted, and those once far from one another are reconciled. The cost of humility and brokenness was worth every penny. Forgiveness is possible. Forgiveness is necessary. And forgiveness is beautiful.
A Christmas Carol
Many cinematic versions of A Christmas Carol have given their own spin to Charles Dickens’s Christmas novel. The story encourages a number of virtues, discourages a self-centered life, and shows that redemption is possible for any of us. If anyone could be defined as stuck in his ways, Ebenezer Scrooge fits the bill. But one message of this story is it’s never too late to change. Scrooge has his eyes opened and receives a fresh start.
I’m reminded of biblical parables about the grace and forgiveness available at any time. Whether it’s the prodigal son (Luke 15) or the laborers hired at the last hour (Matt. 20), both received grace even though they were late to the game. The prodigal isn’t treated as a servant, nor even a second-rate son. And the laborers who were faithful from dawn are no better than those who follow the master at dusk. It’s never too late to embrace God’s gracious offer of redemption.
Christmas is for the worst of us. It’s for the chief of sinners. It’s for those who’ve waited too long to do what they should’ve done a long time ago. Redemption is available to any and all of us. As Scrooge learned, it’s not too late. And yet there’s urgency, because it could be too late soon.
This article was originally published at tgc.org and is reprinted with permission from the author.