In “Mame,” the 1960s Broadway musical, times get really hard for the high-living, irrepressible “Auntie” Mame Dennis. It’s the Great Depression and the wolves of poverty lurk outside the door.
As Mame contemplates the crisis, it’s July, and she sings “We Need a Little Christmas” confident that carols, candles, holly — and the atmosphere of the Yuletide season — will dispel the gloom. Hard times, says Mame, need Christmas. Even if out of season, a touch of holiday joy right now will, she believes, make things better.
And it does.
The song in Jerry Herman’s score would bring “a little Christmas” to a Depression-plagued summer. Christmas itself, in 2020, brings tough times. The season is here, according to the calendar; we need not invoke its magic and import it into an economically dreary July.
This year, maybe we need a “little” — that is, a smaller — Christmas, than in previous years. And it will still be Christmas.
That song — with the slight change in emphasis — can still lighten the burdens imposed by a deadly virus, the need to keep distant from loved ones, a tough economy, social unrest and political turmoil.
Yes, we need a little Christmas. Many won’t be with friends and families to observe the festive rituals of previous years.
Others won’t be financially able to provide as much Christmas as they did last year.
But perhaps there is relief in celebrating a “little” Christmas. “Downsizing” doesn’t seem like a word you want to apply to a happy civic and religious holiday. But this year, it fits.
Smart preachers gave up sermonizing against the commercialization of Christmas years ago. Christmas is a big commercial deal; and it is fun to shop, spend and luxuriate in the gifts and experiences. There’s nothing wrong with that in boom times.
This year, when shopping and spending may be dangerous or impossible, one’s first thought might be that Christmas is ruined. But it won’t be if we decide on a little Christmas. By keeping it small, putting more thought than money into it, Christmas will still be Christmas.
There may not be overnights with relatives, hourslong dinners, crowded churches on Christmas Eve. But we can have a little Christmas with televised worship services, a briefer gathering, masked and socially distant.
A little Christmas gives us the opportunity to rethink some expensive family traditions or the need to plan our gift to Grandma by guessing what our sister is likely to spend and making sure we spend a few dollars more.
A little Christmas could keep those January credit card bills from chilling our hearts. A little Christmas with fewer around the festive table could make us appreciate loved ones more when we are able to be together again. And that will happen.
A little Christmas would enable us to give a few more dollars to the local food bank or our favorite charity, operations where the pandemic and the economy are also having a serious impact.
A little Christmas can preserve essentials, but on a reduced scale, and could keep us from using the holiday as a pretense for escaping the reality of our times.
Of course, those focused on the religious part of Christmas know that the beloved stories, carols and prayers remain alive and immune even from a coronavirus.
Like Mame, this year a lot of us have “grown a little leaner, grown a little colder, grown a little sadder, grown a little older.” And even if Christmas won’t be as grand as those of previous years, a little Christmas can still deliver.
Charles Austin, of Plymouth, is a retired Lutheran pastor and a former reporter for the New York Times and other newspapers.