In 1938, the “Chase and Sanborn Hour” was the most popular radio program. “Mercury Theatre on the Air” ran second—until Mercury’s dramatist, Orson Welles, updated an old story, War of the Worlds. It proved stunning. This weekend, you will likely hear an updated version of Christmas. Will it however prove stunning… or sappy?
Radio was all the rage in 1938. Most Americans tuned in to the “Chase and Sanborn Hour” featuring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy. This irked Orson Welles, who decided on a plan to steal Edgar Bergen listeners. He would modernize an old novel for the new medium. Welles asked a staff writer, Howard Koch, to update H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.
Koch shortened the story and changed the location and time from Victorian England to present day New England. On Sunday, October 30, 1938, as the “Chase and Sanborn Hour” went to a commercial break at the usual 12 minutes into the show, the “Mercury Theatre” team was ready. That was the moment when many people routinely changed the channel to “Mercury Theatre.” What they heard next proved stunning.
Reporter Carl Philips (Orson Welles) was in a field near Grover’s Mills, New Jersey describing Martians attacking the Earth. Welles was so believable that tens of thousands of terrified listeners took him seriously. They ran out of their homes screaming while others packed up their cars and fled. By the time the “Mercury Theatre” break came (announcing that this was just a play) thousands had already fled their homes.
The original Christmas story was taken just as seriously. It was War of the Worlds, recorded in Revelation 12 when, in eternity past, a dragon and his legions waged war against God. It’s told in Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28. God won, the devil lost, and the vanquished (a roiling force totaling one-third of the angelic realm) were thrown down to earth. That’s why Genesis 1:2 describes the earth as “formless and void,” a Hebrew phrase with ominous overtones of judgment. Satan is slithering in the underbrush.
The story continues with a woman about to give birth. Satan is crouching before her getting ready to murder the baby. At the moment of birth, the infant is snatched away to safety. Enraged, Satan declares all-out war on those who celebrate Christmas. The story closes with Satan scanning the horizon, seeking to devour the child’s followers. It’s a stunner—especially since we rarely hear this Christmas story anymore. That’s because a 19th century update turned it into a sappy story.
In the 19th century, Victorians, many of them people of faith, romanticized the idea of “childhood” as something quite separate and distinct from adult life. They felt the kids couldn’t handle anything shocking, so scary stories were sanitized by removing or emasculating villains, included Satan in Christmas. “Away in a Manger,” published in 1885, updated the story with only “the stars in the sky” looking down on the cherubic child. No Satan. “Silent Night,” written in 1816, deletes warfare while waxing eloquently “all is calm, all is bright.” Rector Phillips Brooks updated the battle at Bethlehem in 1868 to “how sweet we see thee lie” in a “deep and dreamless sleep” while “the silent stars go by.” These saccharin takes on Christmas continued into the 20th century.
As filming for “Meet Me in St. Louis” wrapped up in 1944, Hugh Martin wrote a song for Judy Garland titled “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” When presented with the draft, Garland and director Vincente Minnelli hated it. One line read: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas / it may be your last / Next year we may all be living in the past.” That left a bitter taste. Minnelli demanded it be sweetened and Martin acquiesced: “Let your heart be light / Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.” The problem, however, with sweet songs and stories is that few people take them seriously.
Every great story has an “inciting incident” when all hell breaks loose and protagonists do battle with antagonists, writes Hollywood screenwriting coach Robert McKee.1 That used to be the Christmas script. The irony is that today’s sappy versions omit Satan, playing into his hand since, as an antagonist, he prefers the shadows.
The solution is a better update of Christmas—from Victorian England to present day New England, East Coast, West Coast, and every place where all is not calm and all is not bright. It would explain why Washington doesn’t work, why spouses cheat, and why nations go to war. It would reinsert Satan into the story to keep us “alert and of sober mind” about evil slithering in the underbrush. As one writer put it, “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (I Pet. 5:8). The reality is that we battle three antagonists—the world, the flesh, and the devil. Christmas is supposed to leave us a little shaken—we cannot escape the War of the Worlds.
“Religious happiness is no mere feeling of escape,” wrote psychologist William James, “the world is all the richer for having a devil in it, so long as we keep our foot upon his neck.”2 Keeping a foot on Satan’s neck means keeping him in sight. Sugary takes on reality fail to see shadowy figures. Satan is right there at the manager scene—will your faith community see him in this weekend’s Christmas update? Or will you instead hear a sappy story that few take seriously?
1 “Storytelling the Moves People: A Conversation with Hollywood Screenwriting Coach Robert McKee,” Harvard Business Review, June 2003.
2 William James & Bruce Kuklick, “Circumcision of the Topic,” Writings: 1902-1910 (New York: NY, Library of America, 1987), pp. 51-52.