Jesus and Three Movies You’ve Never Watched at Christmas

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Several years ago, I pitched the idea of drawing names for Christmas in order to avoid the time- and bank-demanding reality of shopping for two dozen family members. Only one sibling joined me and we soon relented due to pushback. We tried again the following year. More on board, but still no go. Then it finally stuck and now it’s the norm.

My sister and I fought our own desires to maintain tradition. What we proposed was taboo, even scandalous. Okay, I admit that all we did was save a little money, but it was hard!

I want to tell you about three movie characters who are truly taboo. The summaries, I feel, are rather dry, but they convey uncanny similarities between Babette, Vianne, and Mary, characters who changed my Christmas this year.

Babette’s Feast

Babette Hersant showed up on a wind-storm night in Denmark, cloaked, literally and metaphorically, in mystery. For years after she arrived, she prepared simple meals for two elderly women. The Puritan flock their father had led stuck to its pietistic ways, so when Babette asked to prepare a French meal to commemorate the deceased minister’s 100th birthday, they hesitated.

Martina: “But dear Babette, we didn’t intend to have a dinner party. My sister and I were thinking of a modest supper followed by a cup of coffee.”

Philippa: “You know we never offered our guests anything more than that.”

They finally agreed to Babette’s request but then Martina dreamed about a Golden Calf with Babette as the devil offering wine and death. In tears, she gathered the flock to confess: “And now we have exposed ourselves to dangerous, or maybe even evil, powers. I cannot even tell you what you may be served to eat and drink.”

Man: “What will happen to us?”

Woman: “Lord, grant us Thy mercy.”

They decided to honor Babette, but with the promise to remain silent. “It will be as if we never had the sense of taste.”

Despite mediocre acting and a small budget, Babette’s Feast won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The dinner scene is remarkably long and remarkably good. The devil tried to show up, but failed, and a visiting guest concluded that “Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.” This line struck home in their town, Gnostic as it was, and the sisters praised Babette for liberating them: “Ah, how you will delight the angels!”


Vianne Rocher is number two as the protagonist in Chocolat. Vianne also arrived in the wind, and was also cloaked, literally and metaphorically, in mystery. She brought controversy to the church-goers of Reynaud, where the mayor stood chief among the offended. He ran the French village and its church and never let a sin go unpunished. When Vianne said she planned to open a chocolaterie on the first Sunday of Lent, she was judged for a litany of evils.

Her behavior threatened Reynaud’s way of life. In one scene, the mayor ordered the young priest to spy on her, saying, “It is important to know one’s enemy.”

Vianne’s good work had immediate effects. She helped a wife escape a husband after years of beatings. She rekindled a marriage and brought a drunk to sobriety. She reunited a boy with his grandmother, awakened a mother, and eventually – in one of my all-time favorite movie scenes – converted the mayor himself. All things the church is supposed to do.

When the controversy finally forced Vianne to leave town, neighbors showed up to help. It was an act of hospitality, returned by those to whom hospitality had been shown. Vianne was overwhelmed. In the midst of her emotional response, a voice-over proclaimed, “Christ is risen.”

It was the young priest on Easter Sunday.

Mary Poppins

And who doesn’t remember my third Christmas character? Mary Poppins also arrived cloaked in mystery. She, too, came on the wind, this time with an umbrella, and like the others, to rescue people from oppressive men. The miser father, Mr. Banks, had no time to feed the birds, care for beggars, or love his children. And Mrs. Banks—supporter of women’s rights—lived without his approval. Yet Mary’s spoonful of sugar transformed the Banks family. Chaotic upheaval of order broke them for good.


In each case, Babette, Vianne, and Mary freed the people. They countered problems many of us see in the Church, and they released citizens who had been bound. I like this redemption thread. Of course, I can look at these films as statements about gender inequality, religious ignorance or the Christless gospel of good works. Maybe that’s what they are. But this year they returned me to the Christmas story.

People anticipated Jesus to show up within defined expectations. But he surprised them. He adjusted the rules. He worried the crowd. He brought upheaval to tradition.

I have no way of feeling what his recipients felt before the results were in. I have no way of returning to the before, when those who would have been my spiritual leaders panicked and conspired to remove the threat. I have no way of knowing if I, too, might have banned the taboo figure. Advents rarely unfold as anyone expects, save a few prophetic figures. That is God's way—to surprise us with controversy, challenge, and great unexpectations.

I need to remember this. What once was taboo, I now celebrate, for it has set me free. I hope you'll rent these films and have a merry, liberating, Christmas.

Image by Marko Milošević. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Post by Sam Van Eman.