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Watch the classic ‘Christmas in Connecticut’ for a taste of our Judeo-Christian past

Christmas in Connecticut

Warner Bros.

Father Jonathan Mitchican - published on 12/24/21

Modern audiences might see this completely secular film as old fashioned, if not problematic.

The 1945 film Christmas in Connecticut is absolutely bananas. It is funny and bizarre, with a plot full of holes, but it is rendered charming by the performances of Barbara Stanwyck as Elizabeth Lane and the incomparable S.Z. Sakall as her Uncle Felix. What is striking about watching this Christmas classic in 2021 though is how devoted to a Christian moral framework it is, despite being utterly secular.

Lane is a magazine columnist who writes a popular Martha Stewart-like magazine column about food and the charms of country living, despite the fact that she lives in an apartment in New York and cannot cook. When her publisher, Alexander Yardley (played by Sydney Greenstreet), compels her to have war hero Jeffrey Jones (Dennis Morgan) over for Christmas dinner, Lane and her chef uncle scramble to fake a country Christmas on a Connecticut farm. The farm is owned by John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner) who pretends to be Lane’s husband for the sake of Yardley and Jones, and who Lane has agreed to marry for real, even though she does not love him. The result is a slapstick comedy with people constantly going in and out of rooms, attempting to deceive one another, even as Lane and Jones begin to fall for each other against their better judgment.

Christmas provides the background for this silly story to unfold, but it could just as easily have been set at Thanksgiving or some other time. Unlike other Christmas films of the era, there is no attempt to wax poetic about the true meaning of Christmas. Besides a brief rendition of O Little Town of Bethlehem, mostly for the sake of showcasing Morgan’s singing, the story of Jesus is entirely absent. In fact, religion is never mentioned or even hinted at. When Sloan and Lane attempt to get married at various points in the film, always being interrupted before they can exchange their vows, they invite over a local judge to “perform the ceremony.”

The absence of religion from the film would seem to make it the perfect candidate for a resurgence of appreciation in our own day when religion has largely been sanitized out of film and television. It has other attributes that might make it appealing to a modern, secular audience as well. Despite being a product of its time and containing some tropes about gender and race that we would now rightfully condemn, there are ways in which Christmas in Connecticut is surprisingly progressive. Lane’s unsuitability for domestic life, for instance, is the punchline to a number of gags, but she is never presented as a pitiable character who needs to just settle down and get herself a man. Quite the opposite, she is strong, smart, and independent. Moreover, at age 38, Stanwyck was far older than most Hollywood starlets of the time – indeed, she was a year older than Morgan – and yet she is always shown to be desirable, never pathetic or desperate in the way that other unmarried women of her age sometimes were.

Yet even as Christmas in Connecticut carefully avoids any reference to Christianity, there is a surprisingly Christian morality at its core. Though the film makes fun of sentimental ideas about family life, it nevertheless advocates the goodness of marriage and family. For Jones in particular, marriage and “settling down” are revealed to be their own new kind of adventure, not the same as what he experienced in the service but ultimately more grounding and enriching. Marriage is also repeatedly presented as the only appropriate context for sex. Lane goes out of her way, for instance, to ensure that she sleeps in a separate room from Sloan when they are unable to get married, and she reassures Sloan’s housekeeper and later Yardley that she is not interested in a purely physical union with anybody. 

Modern secular audiences would see these things as old fashioned, if not problematic. But they were deeply embedded in the fabric of the society that produced Christmas in Connecticut. Morality and faith are not the same thing. At the level of individuals, a person who proclaims to have no faith might be considerably more moral than a person who goes to Mass each week and confesses Jesus as Lord. Yet the two are intertwined at a deeper level. Ivan in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov famously said that if there is no God, then everything is permitted. That does not mean that a society that loses its religious grounding will instantly become amoral, but that over time a society with no sense of God will become not only more permissive but less cohesive. 

In 1945, there was enough of a Judeo-Christian framework left in western society that even in the absence of genuine belief, the value of something like the exclusivity of sex within marriage could be easily seen. In 2021, we are a lot further down the rabbit hole. Interesting, screwball comedies like Christmas in Connecticut have been replaced by Hallmark Christmas movies that celebrate the very sentimentalism around the family that Christmas in Connecticut so deftly satirizes. Looking at the trajectory of Christmas films from the 1940s until today, we can see the loss of a moral consensus in western society happening in real time.

None of this is meant to suggest that we were living more in line with Christian moral values 80 years ago than we are today. There were certainly gaping holes in our morality back then which come through in some of the older Christmas movies in absolutely cringe-inducing ways – take for instance the blackface scene in Holiday Inn or the moment Kris Kringle beats a guy with his cane in front of a group of children in Miracle on 34th Street. But the moral consensus that we had, flawed as it was, has been replaced by no consensus at all. Perhaps one of the gifts of watching some of these old films is that, as C.S. Lewis says about why we should read old books, we are not in danger of falling into their errors because they are so obvious to us, while they may critique for us things that have become so common in our culture that we no longer even notice them. Christmas in Connecticut brings together some notions about the intrinsic value of each person that were not popular at the time with a long-held vision of the goodness of the family that is not often seen in modern popular culture. And it manages to do all of that while being funny. It is hard to imagine a better reason to revisit a Christmas classic.

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