The Christmas spirit is powerful, even in 2020

The Grinch sends a tree up the chimney during his raid on Whoville in the 1966 cartoon classic, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas."

Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of "Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics." She co-hosts the history podcast "Past Present" and "This Day in Esoteric Political History." The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN)Covid cases spiking. Mass evictions looming. Restaurants shuttering. Families isolating. It's hard to imagine a bleaker backdrop to the Christmas season than this set of cascading crises disrupting so many of our holiday traditions.

The sharp economic downturn in the United States, combined with widespread uncertainty for many workers, has tightened budgets, while the pandemic has scuttled the usual array of parties and gatherings that clutter calendars every December. Even the promise of a stretch of days away from work, typically a welcome relief for families scattered by long days apart while at work or school, seems more oppressive than usual for people who have already been huddled together for months, locked in a routine of relentless sameness.
Nicole Hemmer
This may well be the most crisis-bound Christmas of most people's lives. And yet, if cultural history is any guide, no holiday is more prepared to meet our muddle of frustration and worry. Christmas, a potent blend of secular and religious traditions, has long been a tangle of contradictions and a repository for some of our deepest cultural concerns.
    That's been the case ever since the revival of Christmas in Victorian Britain in the mid-1800s. Before that, Christmas was more of a holy day than a holiday, a day when businesses remained open and celebrations centered around churches. Britain and the US, along with other countries, imported Germanic traditions that have become mainstays of the holiday: Santa Claus and reindeer, decorated trees, Christmas carols and Advent calendars.
      The 1938 film adaption of "A Christmas Carol" starred Leo G. Carroll as Marley's Ghost, left, and Reginald Owen as Ebenezer Scrooge.
      But the new Christmas had to balance a number of tensions: between the religious and the secular, between community and commerce, between meritocracy and capitalism (presents are supposed to be doled out on a naughty-nice continuum, but wealth is a far more useful metric than who's been good that year).
        A holiday centered on gift-giving and indulgences arrived in an industrializing Britain at a time when deprivation and want were everywhere. No story captures that contrast more than "A Christmas Carol." Charles Dickens wrote the tale in 1843, and it would play a pivotal role in popularizing Christmas celebrations. But it did so through a tale of painful inequality, informed in part by Dickens's angst over children put to work in the country's mines and factories. There was wealthy miser Ebenezer Scrooge, impoverished clerk Bob Cratchit and his son Tiny Tim, desperately in need of health care his family cannot afford.
        Spirits intercede not with a tale of Christianity but humanity, filtered through capitalism. Scrooge has the means to do good, and the good he does brings him joy as well: a tidy fable of philanthropy.
          If "A Christmas Carol" centered on philanthropy, the tales that came after put sacrifice at the center of Christmas, especially for those with little to give. In "Little Women," written by Louisa May Alcott in the late 1860s, the March family gives up its Christmas breakfast to feed a much poorer family that lives nearby. When they arrive home, they find an even bigger feast awaiting them, provided by a wealthy neighbor.
          While the Marches do not go without, the family in O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi," a Christmas short story from 1905, has no neighboring philanthropist on hand. So, the couple sells the things that matter most to them — the wife her hair, the husband his watch — to give a gift that will be treasured by the other: a now-useless set of combs and a watch chain, testaments to their sacrifice and love.
          The 1933 film adaption of Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women" starred, from left, Joan Bennett, Katharine Hepburn, Jean Parker and Frances Dee.
          It's a theme repeated in the Christmas movie classic "It's a Wonderful Life," whose main character George Bailey believes he's worth more dead than alive, until an angel shows him how much his life has mattered to the people around him, who ultimately rally to his side to bail him out of financial trouble.
          While deprivation shaped these Christmas tales, a worry over commercialism inflected "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," written by Theodore "Dr. Seuss" Geisel. Rather than worrying about children in factories and the brutality of industrial labor, Dr. Seuss has his eye on the burgeoning consumerism of the United States after World War II, worried that the crush of toys and postwar prosperity could corrode not just the meaning of Christmas, but a deeper sense of purpose and community in American life.
          The story has its own Scrooge-like protagonist, one who attempts to upend the joyous holiday by stealing all its trappings, from the gifts to the stockings to the roast beast and all its trimmings — only to find his victims were perfectly happy gathering for a pared-down Christmas. The takeaway here is also a tidy one: "Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more."
          The challenge this Christmas is that both consumption and community have been curtailed for many Americans. Church services have been scaled back or canceled. Singing carols has been marked as a particularly effective way to spread the virus. The warm communion of families and friends, which Christmas fables assure us makes up for sparse stockings and scaled-back presents, has been largely rerouted to Zoom and FaceTime.