One of the great unsung traditions of Disneyland (and Walt Disney World) is the Christmas Candlelight Processional.
The origins of this Yuletide celebration go back to the original park’s first year of operation in 1955 with the “Christmas Bowl.” Various caroling groups sang on Main Street every day during the holiday season.
The first official Candlelight Processional happened in 1958.
— Ashley Carter (@AshleyLCarter1) December 4, 2018
A large group of carolers make their way down Main Street towards the train station. They carry candles and sing through the entire procession. Then when they arrive at the train station they assemble up on the steps and essentially perform a Christmas Liturgical Concert, accompanied by an orchestra and a celebratory narrator that reads the story of Jesus’ birth from Luke’s Gospel.
Walt Disney World later adopted the tradition but (as with most things) expanded it. At the Magic Kingdom Theme Park the processional takes place every night for a month with a long list of different celebratory narrators.
Disney Meets Tinsel Town
At Disneyland they only perform two nights with one celebrity narrator. This year it was Chris Pratt of “Jurassic World” fame. The result was similar to his speech at the 2018 MTV movie awards which Rachel Stoltzfoos, The Federalist’s Managing Editor, correctly described as “totally serious and seemed to stem from a conservative view of the Christian gospel.”
Chris Pratt Praised for Faith-filled Speech at Candlelight Disney Event https://t.co/KKIOJNmgk1
— ❤️Temara Melek FYI (@TemaraMelekFYI) December 4, 2018
Pratt capped off the evening with a deeply moving reflection on the truth expressed in John 3:16 based upon his own experience as a Father.
“For me being a parent has changed my life in so many ways. And one of those ways has to truly understand the love that a father can have for a child. And when I stare at my son, that precious creation of mine, and I watch as he tries to please me in his sweet ways, the love that I feel is so pure and unending. And the more we love our children, the more we understand the capacity to which we our loved by our Father in heaven. (Interrupted by applause) That should give us a great deal of comfort and hope. Let us embrace everyone of our tomorrows with hope and love. And through this holiday spirit may we continue to spread peace and good will throughout the world. Thank you and Merry Christmas.”
Several years ago I had the honor of attending the candlelight processional. That night an old veteran of Hollywood narrated the celebration of Christmas, a gentleman with an iconic connection to the Disney film canon:
Dick Van Dyke.
Comparing the comments made that night to Pratt’s approach should highlight what made this a particularly special moment.
Van Dyke’s glorious voice, tempered by age, was a pure delight. But about half way through I wondered to myself, “Isn’t this just a blatant commercialization of my faith?”
Capitalism and Mickey Mouse, a Love Story
After all Disneyland is the quintessential symbol of American materialism. For all its virtues, of which there are many, Disneyland represents the exact opposite of the man who said, “You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.”
Disneyland is built upon a wonderful ethic of hard work and creativity. And it is the embodiment of genuine conservatism’s most scandalous value: the beauty of the truly useless.
In my review of “Stella’s Last Weekend” I wrote this was central to the very meaning of life. “Non-utilitarian love. Love for love’s sake. The kind of love God utilized when he created humanity. Love that doesn’t benefit, love that exists for love’s sake.”
Disneyland is like dessert. We don’t need it. Dessert serves no purpose. It exists because its delicious. That’s all. Some might point to this as a sign of western decadence, and they wouldn’t be wrong. Desert and Disneyland can easily become damaging if not indulged with moderation.
It’s still hard to ignore the obvious beauty of this concept. It’s a fundamental affirmation of life apart from utility. Disneyland is a business that makes a lot of money. But it makes so much money because it affirms the most basic thing about humanity: life. Life needs no justification in the conservative tradition. Even the taking of life from a conservative perspective should only be done to affirm the goodness of life, i.e. in the case of self defense or punishment for murder.
Our lives come from God and God didn’t need to make us. We are unnecessary. Our existence is non utilitarian. And that’s why life is so beautiful. We exist at the pleasure of our maker and nothing else. And out of this profound truth we should humbly serve our creator and our fellow works of art.
This philosophical answer doesn’t really solve the initial problem.
Yes, Disneyland itself is not a repudiation of Jesus and the Gospel. But the truth is that Disneyland does commercialize Christmas. They are making money off of Jesus Christ. They aren’t alone in this by any means. But there’s a big difference between Macy’s having a Santa Claus and Disneyland putting on a ceremony full of songs explicitly about Jesus and celebrities reading from the Gospels. Commercializing a secular vision of Christmas is one thing. Commercializing Jesus is another entirely.
There’s real tension here. At least until the right answer became obvious to me. The real answer to this tension comes from the Bible (of course). The apostle Paul wrote these words to the church in Phillipi:
“The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains.But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.”
In other words it doesn’t really matter why Disneyland does this. The fact is they are telling the true story of Christmas. They are preaching the Gospel. Even if they were doing it for truly evil reasons it would glorify Jesus by preaching the good news. But Disneyland doesn’t do this for evil reasons. They do it because it’s a tradition of weighty cultural significance. And they can make money off of it as well.
They’re a business. That’s what they do.
At the end of the ceremony Van Dyke recited the famous “One Solitary Life” speech about Jesus. And while his rendition was excellent the best version of all time belongs to the man in black himself, Johnny Cash. His performance is retitled “Here Was a Man.”
But no matter who gives this speech it highlights another central aspect of Paul’s theology from the same letter to the Phillippians: Jesus’ humility. “One Solitary Life” emphasizes that Jesus was not a person of means or celebratory. He lived a life of poverty and obscurity. But his impact on history has been entirely disproportionate.
But then Van Dyke took a PC turn.
It wasn’t vicious or cowardly. He simply listed off the various other holidays connected to this time of year and encouraged everyone to fully engage in the beauty of this season. There’s nothing wrong with this approach to Christmas. It’s an exhortation to love and give oneself to others. That’s great. But still Christmas is Christmas. It isn’t Hanukkah. It’s Christmas.
Why This Bible Classic Isn’t Complete
In the end Van Dyke ultimately read off the crib sheet for William Wyler’s “Ben Hur.” Wyler was a modern Jew tasked to make a movie that deals heavily with Jesus. And he made a wonderful film, a true classic, even if it’s incomplete.
Wyler mutes the exclusive message of the cross by leaving Jesus in the tomb. Instead, he has Judah Ben Hur reach a moral epiphany concerning violence rather than actual Biblical salvation.
Judah: “Almost at the moment He died, I heard Him say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Esther: Even then.
Judah: Even then. And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand.
In other words Jesus’ act of forgiveness and sacrifice shocked Judah out of his desire for vengeance. This is indeed beautiful and right, but it’s far from complete. Theologians call this the moral exemplar theory of the atonement. The idea is that Jesus changed the world through his courageous pacifistic confrontation with evil. But in 1 Corinthians the Apostle Paul argues that without the resurrection the gospel, and our faith, would be in vain.
This is not the place to go into all the details as to why Paul is right. But the short version is that Jesus came to defeat sin. He didn’t simply come to give us good morals. He came to do battle with the forces of evil that enslave humanity and overcome them in order to save us.
This he did through his death and resurrection. He paid the penalty for death that we could never pay and secured for us an immortal future life with his resurrection. And while this message is not itself exclusive, because all our welcome to come to Jesus in faith, it doesn’t take a professional logician to see that these truth claims are in fundamental conflict with numerous other world views.
What Pratt Got Right on This Special Night
And this is what made Pratt’s speech at the end of his narration so special. He did not do what Van Dyke did, offer a Hollywood version of the Gospel. “One Solitary Life” is so popular within American culture because it can easily be reinterpreted as a parable about individualism. It’s not hard to see that someone unfamiliar with a full vision of the Gospel could look at that speech and find inspiration about the significance of their own life.
After all, if Jesus’ life was factually so humble and he became the most significant human in world history then anyone of us might change the world in the same way. “One Solitary Life” is a lot safer within our culture than what Pratt said.
It wasn’t a brave thing to say, but it was the right thing to say. Thankfully our speech and thoughts remain free in America. We enjoy privileges that most of the world does not. But just because something didn’t require bravery doesn’t make it easy.
He works in a world that thinks his beliefs are crazy and offensive. Standing out from your peers isn’t easy. But I’m glad he does, from time to time.