“Angela’s Christmas,” a 2017 children’s film on Netflix, is unassuming to say the least. It’s become a favorite of my 5-year-old, who calls it simply, “the one about the girl who steals the baby Jesus.” This description really does encapsulate the plot, which was inspired by a children’s book by Frank McCourt, author of the famous memoir “Angela’s Ashes.” Like my daughter, I’ve also come to love this little children’s film, and not just because of its beautiful animation and the innocent kindness of the warmhearted Angela. I find that it actually highlights some of the most profound aspects of Christmas itself.
A darkened world
“Angela’s Christmas” and “Angela’s Ashes” share similar settings and moods. Both center on poor, struggling families in early 20th century Limerick, Ireland. The film opens with Angela’s mother caring for four young children on her own, preparing their family for an evening church service in the bleak Irish cold. The children bicker harmlessly, but their innocence is overshadowed by the harsh world around them. The foreboding night, their obvious poverty, and images like a blind beggar and a speeding prison wagon establish a sense of darkness that pervades the beginning of the film.
This is not unlike the world into which Christ was born. Many of the earliest depictions of Christ’s Nativity place Christ, after all, not in a quaint stable but within the darkness of a craggy cave. This is reminiscent of the beginning of Advent, as Christians link ourselves to the people of Israel longing for the coming Messiah, and meditate on our world’s continued brokenness. As I consider our increasingly disconnected and disillusioned world in which my children will grow up, I admit it is often difficult to see any light among the darkness.
A moment of paradox
In this grim setting, the family is welcomed in by the warm lights of their church, where Angela, in her gentle compassion, sees a figure that is not illumined by this warmth. In an interview, Frank McCourt explained that this charming childhood story of little Angela taking the baby Jesus in an effort to keep him warm signified his mother’s already powerful maternal instinct. “Kindness was her umbrella virtue,” McCourt said.
The first time I saw this film sitting with my young children, I was struck not only by the sweetness of this gesture, but also by how it stands in paradoxical contrast to the established setting. How is it that such innocence and goodness can exist in this harsh world? Why is her nurturing light so powerful to us, despite all the darkness around her?
These questions also reminded me of the many light-in-darkness paradoxes of Christmas. How could a child, born in such a humble setting, be the son of the Creator God? Why is this baby, born in the midst of human chaos, so beautiful and inviting to so many?
Chasing away the darkness
Angela’s kindness is signified, quite literally, by light in the film. As she cradles and sings to the baby Jesus in her bed, the previously cold setting is overcome by love and warmth. She carries the statue with her family to return him to their church, and the foreboding darkness of the night recedes before them. They arrive at the church, with the baby Jesus now adorned in a bright red sweater, and the priest and a local police officer are ready to confront an unknown thief. And just as I felt strangely awed by this simple act, even these representative authorities of the church and the state are drawn together and humbled by the startling power of this little girl’s nurturing act.
Likewise, the seemingly insignificant event of Christ’s birth was the spark for the growing brightness that the Light of the World would usher in. The Christ Child beneath the star—this great image of a union of opposites—also draws all to come and bow a humble knee, from lowly local shepherds to powerful foreign magi.
This Christmas, may we continue to pray for the mysteries and the power of Christ’s Nativity to be revealed to us. And in his name, may we continue to manifest his light and chase away the darkness, by our own acts of love inspired by a childlike faith.
*This article was adapted from a YouTube video essay created by the author.