Frosty, In True Beat fashion, Goes "On the Road"
In particular, the three Rankin/Bass specials all appear particularly subversive. While all three build on the tradition “invented” by the wealthy New Englanders, each of the specials decorates this adopted Christmas tree with a healthy supply of counter-cultural ornaments. The first, and most famous of the trio, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), focuses on an odd assortment of misfit characters, none of whom seems to fit into the mainstream of Christmas Town. The special offers plenty for a disaffected, alienated audience, and it doesn’t take long for anyone with a sense of social justice (or an appreciation of political allegory) to see that something is rotten in the North Pole.
Rudolph, as the sympathetic outsider who faces derision and discrimination, fits into a common trope of outsider fiction, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Physically different from his companions, Rudolph learns shame from his family, class hierarchy from Santa Claus, and scorn from his peers. With the help of his father, Donner, and a lump of dirt plastered onto his nose, Rudolph attempts to hide his true identity and “pass” for a brown-nosed reindeer, allowing him to compete on an “even playing field” with all the others and cling to the hope that he might one day gain the favor of Santa himself and join the sleigh team.
Along the way, he encounters other misfits and winds up leading this band of outcasts on a “march on the North Pole” where he fulfills a “dream” of “integrating” the misfits into the so-called mainstream of Christmas Town. When Rudolph finally breaks the “nose-color barrier” and heads up Santa’s sleigh, he leads them, Moses-like, to the Island of Misfit Toys where they liberate all of his similarly outcast friends. As racial allegory, the story seems pretty clear.
Equally interesting is the parallel narrative that focuses on Hermey, an elf with wavy, blonde hair who does not share the same affections as the other, “normal” elves. Hermey (short for “hermaphrodite?”) is not “naturally drawn” to toy making, but rather to hygiene, and he yearns to lead an “alternate lifestyle” where he can fulfill his true “identity” as a dentist. When Hermey “comes out” to the Foreman Elf, this paternal figure reacts as if Hermey has betrayed him and greets the confession with shock, confusion, and scorn. As a coded narrative with obvious implications for sexual identity, Hermey’s story again taps into the spirit of the marginalized and disenfranchised.
In one brief scene, the special even pays heed to the modern feminist movement. When the always macho Donner decides to leave home and search for his missing son, the unnamed Mrs. Donner offers to go with him. Donner gruffly responds, “No. This is man’s work.” While nothing Donner says or does in the special ever elicits much respect from the audience, what makes this particular line interesting is that Donner, himself, never actually gets to say it. Rather, Burl Ives’ Sam the Snowman, as narrator, gives us the line while the two deer in question mime the scene. Not only is Donner’s voice denied him, but Ives reads the line with a mock vibrato, rendering the expression of male supremacy arrogant, hollow, and blatantly ironic. Adding insult to injury for Donner’s highly prescriptive notion of gender roles, the narrator promptly informs us that after Donner leaves, his wife and Rudolph’s girlfriend, Clarice, head out on their own anyway. Clearly, in the North Pole of 1964, sisters are doing it for themselves.
The later Rankin/Bass special, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970), if anything, ups the ante on subversive content and counter-cultural ideology. In the story, the young Claus arrives at the doorstep of the Kringles and is taken in by Tanta Kringle who, as a single mother and matriarch, raises him as an eco-sensitive animal lover. When Claus, whom the Kringles rename Kris, decides to take the Kringles’ toys to Sombertown, he finds himself decidedly the outsider. Everyone he meets makes fun of his unconventional clothes, and when the town’s ruler, the Burgermeister Meisterburger, looks for the perfect label to pin on Kris, he turns to the ultimate insult: “he is obviously a non-conformist.”
When Kris learns of the Burgermeister’s law against distributing toys, he doesn’t hesitate to become an outlaw, growing a beard and mocking the out-of-date wanted poster bearing his clean-cut image. Unlike Rudolph, Kris doesn’t try to integrate or assimilate into the power structure. Instead, he rejects society’s institutions. When Kris and Jessica decide to marry, the narrator informs us that “no church would have them,” so they hold their ceremony under the stars. When he finds no welcome in Sombertown, he leads his band of followers, including a hemispherically and culturally displaced penguin, to a new home at the North Pole where they can set up their own, separate and independent society of likeminded outlaws. Whereas Rudolph strives for an integrationist platform and leads the misfits into the so-called mainstream, Kris, with his “funny” clothes (the red suit is in keeping with his Kringle heritage), reflects many of the same notions as the Black Nationalist movement; he seeks no acceptance from the devilish Burgermeister, but chooses instead to launch a separate, self-sustaining society where they can literally outlast the Burgermeisters.
Even a lesser Rankin/Bass special like Frosty the Snowman (1969) captures this same spirit of rebellion and social protest. In the earliest scenes of bored students cooped up in a classroom, Frosty the Snowman draws pretty clear battle lines. Schools and institutions are repressive and corrupt, and children should never trust anyone over 30. This attack on school has historical Christmas roots both in the United States and Europe, where long before Vietnam war protests, students would lock out the teacher and take control of the school. According to Nissenbaum, “at Christmas schoolboys devised their own version of carnival misrule, a ritual practice that ‘turned the world upside down’ every bit as much as aggressive peasant wassailing had done. Here the figure of authority was the schoolmaster, and it was on him that the tables were turned.” While the children in the special don’t forcibly throw out the teacher like their ancestors, their sensibilities aren’t terribly different. The opening scenes contrast freedom-loving children and the oppressive institutions of adulthood.
As a result, Frosty, in true Beat fashion, goes “on the road”. He must escape the city that will literally kill him if he stays, so he and a young student, Karen, attempt to buy a train ticket to the North Pole. However, when the horrified clerk learns that Frosty has no money, he slams his window shut, forcing Frosty to become a hobo, Robert Mitchum-style, hop a freight train, and skip town. The train clerk, along with the repressive classroom teacher, the disbelieving traffic cop, and the villain, Professor Hinkle, a suit-wearing evil magician with an educator’s title and a stipend from the dreaded school no less, all provide negative images of the establishment, and all clearly are in the employ of “the man”. So Frosty embraces a world of the disempowered, playing with rabbits and disaffected youth. The final message from Santa, the special’s deus ex machine, suggests that such pure creatures like Frosty can only return with the magic snow of Christmas, truly the season for social outcasts and misfits.
While it would be relatively easy to argue that these three specials are merely designed to bring in more consumers to the commercialized, invented tradition of the domestic, child-centered Christmas, and, thus, are simply doing their part, working for “the man”, their themes say differently. The wealthy New Englanders who, in large part, “invented” modern Christmas traditions, were looking for protection from social protest and chaos. They were isolating themselves from the more dangerous elements of the rabble—“fleeing to the suburbs” of the holiday season, so to speak. Yet, with these three specials in particular, Rankin and Bass effectively “bus in” those who are cut off from privileged positions of race, gender, sexual identity, and social class.
Two other specials, Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! and A Charlie Brown Christmas, explore a similar theme that challenges the most striking aspect of the invented Christmas tradition: consumer capitalism. While Theodor Geisel, writing as Dr. Seuss, is best known for his fanciful stories and nonsense poetry, his work almost always demonstrates a socio-political context. In his early career, he worked as a political cartoonist for the leftist paper, PM, railing against fascism, racism, and isolationism. As Art Spiegelman notes in the Introduction to Dr. Seuss Goes to War, these “cartoons make us more aware of the political messages often embedded within the sugar pill of Dr. Seuss’s signature zaniness. For better or worse, the didactic moralist struggled for supremacy over the iconoclastic jokester in much of his mature—could that be the right adjective?—work.”
This struggle between someone with a socio-political sensibility and an “iconoclastic” vision provides the perfect balance for exploring the complexities of the modern Christmas season. In How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Geisel mixes one part Beowulf with one part A Christmas Carol to argue that, as the narrator suggests, “Christmas doesn’t come from a store.” Interestingly, he takes the corollary position of the Rankin/Bass specials, making the outsider the villain, but also the star. Certainly the Whos down in Whoville display little in personality. If the viewer has a dog in this fight (not counting the Grinch’s little dog, Max), it must be the vile figure of the Grinch who, like Beowulf’s Grendel, has been alienated from the celebrations and revelry of the village.
Yet Geisel’s plot, with the Grinch leaving his Spartan-like home, sneaking into Whoville, and stealing all the material goods, decorations, and food, of the more “comfortable” Whos, reenacts the oldest Christmas celebrations in Europe, with the Grinch, as the representative of the lower classes, threatening harm to the wealthy landowners, the Whos, invading their homes, and consuming their food and drink. The ancient means of appeasing the “rabble” was to allow them to feast like kings for a day, just as the Grinch “carves the Roast Beast” while sitting at the main table of the Whos in the story’s conclusion.