Christmas has been the backdrop to many beautiful stories from the Second Shepherds Play to O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi.” Given the charm and beauty of Christmas, this is no surprise. Many of “Christmas” stories, if we pay careful enough attention, are valuable meditations on the love and self-forgetfulness taught best by God himself. Yet consider scope of the Christmas story. It is the story of Christ. But the story of Christ does not end with His birth or on the coming of the Three Kings; it passes through the Passion and Death of our Lord unto the Resurrection and triumphant return to Heaven. How many modern tales set at Christmas venture even as far as the Crucifixion? There is one worthy of a final Advent meditation: Puccini’s opera, La Bohème.
Not only does the timeline of the opera begin on Christmas Eve and end in Lent, but the lives of its protagonists reveal the basic virtues of Christmas: glad poverty, true love, and the sum of these two, which is Christian festivity. Finally, the ending of the opera, rather than being simply tragic, is a challenge to believe—to believe in and celebrate the Eternal Love that first revealed its full extent on the first Christmas.
It is true that this opera, like so many, is often seen as dismissing Christian life and morals. For example, the program for this year’s performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York describes the Bohemians as despising “conventional morality” and the conventional men and women who practice it. But it is vital to understand how preposterous it is to evaluate this “conventional morality” as anything truly Christian. For instance, the main “bourgeois” character is not only pompous, rich, and fat, but is completely enslaved to lust and prestige; and the next most prominent “anti-bohemian” is an adulterer. No, Puccini does not mean to give license to sins against the sixth commandment in his opera, but rather, to show them for what they are: tawdry and banal.
Far from doing away with Christianity, the Bohemians live in a world, like our own, already very post-Christian. If anything, the Bohemians call us back to the freshness of true Christian vision. What makes the Bohemians exemplars of Christian virtues in this world is not that they live completely moral lives, but rather that they strive, without fully realizing it, toward true love and the sacrifice and the permanence that it implies. Whereas the wealthy man only ventures out in public with Musetta so that he can later bring her into his bed, Mimi and Rodolfo forego lust in order to share Christmas Eve with their friends. When they do end up living together, jealousy and resentment quickly creep into their love, and they separate. Their decision to reunite is clearly not motivated by sin. Rodolfo knows that Mimi is dying and wants to care for her, at least until the warmth of spring returns. Here Mimi responds with one of the key lines of the opera, her wish that “winter would last forever.” Illness is worth enduring for an enduring love. These must not be seen as meaningless words spoken in the heat of emotion, for Marcello had advised her only moments ago that, “when people are unhappy, they should separate.” Puccini is quite clearly indicating that, while the goal of their desires is obscured by the dismal and post-Christian age they live in, what Mimi and Rodolfo long for is marriage.
Just as Christian romantic love is hinted at in the selflessness and sacrifices of the Bohemians, so is Christian charity and poverty of spirit. What do the Bohemians do when they are penniless? They joke about their poverty and then sacrifice their own artwork for a blaze in their small stove. What do they do when one of their number comes into money? First, the fortunate one, Colline, shares with his friends without reserve. Next, he exhorts them to accompany him outside to celebrate the night of Our Lord’s birth. True, they spend all their money on Christmas night—is there a better night on which to do so? Can we not see here an imitation, though very imperfect, on the Holy Family in the stable of Bethlehem, an example of those who learn the lesson that poverty and lack of money of two very different things?
Indeed, Puccini makes a sharp contrast between the Bohemian Christmas Eve and Christmas Eve for the rest of Paris. While around them children, women, and men chase after toys, garments, and luxury items for themselves, the Bohemians order a feast at the local café. Far from spurning Christian tradition, the Bohemians persevere in the traditions of their medieval forbearers; while everyone else pursues the Enlightenment goal of getting and spending.
Feasts have their price, however, and as mentioned before, this is one Christmas story that leads to a Calvary. Mimi dies, after a final suffering in which she is finally purified of her greatest defect, self-centeredness. Similarly, in their attempt to help her, her friends gladly endure various forms of self-sacrifice. Rodolfo comes to a full realization that true love is worth suffering. Musetta gives up her vanity and begins to pray. The two other Bohemians, Colline and Schaunard make oblations not only of their property and time, but of their very selves.
Yet Mimi dies. The fact remains, and the audience is left with a question: is Mimi’s death a tragedy, a void that has swallowed up everything that has passed before? There are at least two hints that this conclusion is not the Puccini’s intent. First, can a work that so powerfully calls the audience to empathize with the protagonists and praises the simplicity and joy of their life turn on itself and negate the value of all these things—only because the medicine for Mimi, her sole worldly protection, arrives too late? It is poverty itself that allowed Mimi and Rodolfo to meet. If Rodolfo’s sorrow is meant to be permanent and to carry us along with it, then we have viewed a farce, not tragedy.
What then is our response to be? The final hint is Colline’s farewell to his great coat as he prepares to sell it for Mimi’s sake. The coat, like its owner, has played the part of the philosopher. It has refused to “curve [its] back to the rich and powerful” and, in its cavernous pockets, has given shelter to the great minds of the world. But now it is called to do something else. It is called to ascend the “holy mountain.” Like a noble pagan, like the noble Bohemians, the time has come to transcend natural good cheer and a love that is only human. We hopefully have passed along with them from Christmas to the Crucifixion, and we are left at Holy Saturday. What will our choice be—to believe that the joyful poverty, simple love, and festive spirit of the Bohemians are ultimately meaningful? If so, it is only meaningful if Mimi’s death is not the end of the story. La Bohème does not explicitly carry the audience to an otherworldly conclusion, but it does bring us to the otherworld’s humble door.