My normally taciturn, former-Marine son contacted me the other day, slightly more animated than usual. He lives in Southern California and he, his girl and her sisters had spent the day at Disneyland/Anaheim, CA. They’d attended the park’s annual “Candlelight Ceremony”, traditionally held Saturday and Sunday of the first weekend in December — where, he excitedly informed me, he’d seen Hollywood top-liner Chris Hemsworth read the actual Christmas story; the crowd, he further continued, was then invited to croon “Silent Night” together.
A little follow-up investigation divulged, in addition to Joseph Mohr’s Christmastide classic, there was other seasonally appropriate music involved. Hemsworth’s narration was accompanied by a fifty-piece orchestra and six-hundred voice chorus performing lots of popular Christmas carols.
Allow me to be inescapably specific: I didn’t write Christmas “songs”, but “carols”. The former are “secular” tunes, non-spiritual; the latter unapologetically religious in nature. The Disneyland ensemble — composed of choristers from across the land, including churches — trilled an assortment of familiar melodies extolling the historical “reason for the season”: the birth of Jesus Christ.
Punctuating their vocals was Hemsworth’s reading from — wait for it — the Bible: Isaiah, Matthew, Luke and 1 Corinthians. Yes, he enunciated the magisterial passage from the eighth-century B.C. Jewish prophet foretelling the Messiah’s earthly arrival; also, the Gospel writers’ accounts of His actual advent; and the Apostle Paul’s well-known “love” passage. (This is where I officially resist the temptation to make a predictable joke about “Thor” ‘s proclaiming the Good News of God’s Son.)
I’ll be even more unambiguous: those Christmas standards? They included: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, “Away in a Manger”, “Joy to the World”, “The Hallelujah Chorus”, and other forthrightly sacred compositions. In case you’re wondering, there was no sinister, Grinch-like bowdlerizing of lyrics. “Jesus” wasn’t expunged from the presentation. The “J-word” made insistent, matter-of-fact appearances. The lesser-known but winsome traditional French carol “Now Is Born, the Divine Christ Child” was featured: “Bow in homage to Him now.” And, as already mentioned, yet more audacious? That crowd-involved “Silent Night” sing-along: “Christ the Savior is Born”.
They were all there, whether sung or recited: testimonies to the virgin birth, visitations from angels, shepherds and Wise Men, salvation and the worship of Jesus Christ. These were full-bodied, full-throated, Jesus-centered professions of Christian orthodoxy — in the very heart of the “Magic Kingdom”, mind you.
Yep, I was certainly taken aback. Recall, founder Walt Disney’s organization has, apparently by design, maintained a studied, consistent neutrality on matters of traditional spirituality. Some would bluntly contend it’s been neutral, at best.
In a piece meant to be complimentary to Walt’s legacy, Mark Pinsky relates:
[T]he Disney empire, by its founder’s designation, is a kingdom of magic, almost totally without reference to any kingdom of heaven … There are no churches on Main Street at Disneyland or Walt Disney World or chapels on Disney cruise ships … Walt’s daughter Diane Disney Miller told one minister that there are no churches on Main Street because her father did not want to favor any particular denomination. It is an explanation repeated today by company officials … Walt “didn’t want to single out any one religion,” according to Disney archivist David Smith … Magic, Disney apparently decided, would be a far more universal device to [resolve plot conflicts] than any one religion. A 1954 Time magazine cover story, coinciding with the opening of Disneyland in Anaheim, noted that Walt Disney had been described as “the poet of the new American humanism”.
All the while, Mickey Mouse and Company have tipped their hat to many a religious virtue (sacrifice, loyalty, kindness, friendship, and the like) without referencing God Himself or those who explicitly revere Him; particularly not those who acknowledge the crucified and risen Savior He sent.
All that said, where has Disney made a delightful exception? These early-December, rather conspicuous blasts against its “secularist” norm.
The Orange County Register reports, “The annual ceremony tells the story of the first Christmas in song and story, and has been a part of the holiday season at Disneyland since the earliest days of the theme park in the 1950s.”
Unaccountably, it has survived, even into 2017. On this narrow front, if few others, this mammoth fantasy-entertainment conglomerate hasn’t rolled with the anti-Christian paranoia that has bedeviled Western Civilization for a generation now.
Did Disney’s separation-of-church-and-theme-park memo get lost in cyberspace somewhere? The don’t-mention-Christ-at-Christmastime directive never make it down from the top-floor offices?
If so, here’s to nobody noticing. (Please don’t pass along this column to the American Humanist Association, American Atheists, or any of the rest of the Scrooge crew.)
Probably unintentionally, Disney’s yearly “Candlelight Ceremony” underscores how much effort it takes to get away from what is, in fact, the literal point of the broader season. Indeed, millions have managed to do so, but that result hasn’t and doesn’t come easily.
Christmas has an enchanting allurement to it, one that pokes and prods men’s souls, largely because of the enthralling claim it entails: the Creator has mounted an intrepid, impossibly sacrificial rescue mission, undertaken on behalf of those who too frequently live in rebellion against Him. C.S. Lewis framed it thusly: “Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise”. Humankinds’ inner self is wired to respond to those glad tidings. Our Savior, the God-Man has arrived.
There’s compelling grandeur, mystery, other-worldliness in that narrative; and poignant tenderness.
An internationally known and determinedly non-religious corporation just heralded that message – again. In post-modern, twenty-first century American culture that might not be quite a Christmas miracle, but it stands unquestionably impressive. Or, as Walt Disney might prefer, practically magical.
Image: Screen Shot: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fk9Z29pyPKg