Have Yourself a Counter-Culture XMas

Red-Nosed Misfits, Elven Outlaws & Bearded Marxists

by Greg Carpenter

23 December 2010


Even the Grinch Fights the Power

The major difference is that Geisel posits the story as a “conversion” experience for the Grinch.  Unlike the European peasants, the Grinch isn’t demanding to be a part of the feast. Instead, he reflects the American addition to the tradition that struck such fear in the wealthy New Englanders: the threat of social protest. The Grinch doesn’t demand to drink the Whos’ liquor for a day; he sets fire to the wine cellar. The Grinch tries to destroy the season, a season he identifies as wrapped presents, decorations, trees, edibles, and songs.  In short, he objects to the trappings of the invented, domestic Christmas of the wealthy.  His conversion comes, not from gaining an appreciation of these “invented” physical trappings, but rather by seeing the purity of the Whos en masse

After having collected all of the material goods into one common location, he hears the Whos singing, all joined equally hand in hand.  At this point, the revolutionary returns to redistribute the wealth and share equally with the Whos in the celebration. In fact, as a redemption story, the focus is ambiguous. While the Grinch, as the protagonist, is redeemed in terms of a conventional narrative, he also manages to redeem the Whos by forcing them to celebrate without any material comforts.  He attacks the focal point of the invented Christmas tradition by divorcing Christmas from consumer capitalism. In this way, by “throwing out the moneychangers” he even manages to redeem the Christmas celebration itself.  Rather than “taking the Christ out of Christmas” he takes the “Ka-ching” out of the fourth quarter fiscal report.

If it seems that we are living in an age of new restrictions and greater scrutiny, where people like James Dobson focus on the sexual identity of underwater cartoon sponge life, there is still hope.

As a former political cartoonist, Geisel certainly has the street cred to write a subversive, counter-cultural Christmas story, but the soft-spoken, sweater-wearing, Sunday School-teaching Charles M. Schulz makes for an unlikely Abbie Hoffman. In fact, his Christmas special, with Linus’ famed recitation from The Gospel of Luke, and the solemn pronouncement, “And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,” would seem to position Schulz squarely in the conservative camp of O’Reilly and Gibson. Yet, as David Michaelis makes clear in Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography (HarperCollins, 2007), Schulz was frequently misinterpreted on issues of religion:  “It’s not an evangelistic strip,’ said Schulz.  ‘In fact, I’m anti-evangelistic.” Michaelis points to various touchstones in the strip’s mythos, including Linus’ obsession with the Great Pumpkin, Schroeder’s worship of Beethoven, and Lucy’s harsh judgmental pronouncements as examples of the ways in which Schulz subtly skewers many of the weaknesses of practiced religion.

This subversive strain in Schulz’s work also dominates his handling of Christmas, for Schulz’s technique here, much like Rankin and Bass, is to attack from the inside, using the language and medium of the establishment in order to express his own counter-cultural perspective.  While one might read Charlie Brown’s persistence as a form of American cock-eyed optimism, Schulz keeps his focus on the pain of the experience. Sure, Charlie Brown never gives up, but he also never kicks the football. While the Horatio Alger figure of American myth may go from rags to riches, Charlie Brown remains static, moving from rags to rags, albeit ones with black zig-zag stripes. 

Schulz’s sense of fatalism shares more in common with Arthur Miller than Leave it to Beaver. In fact, Schulz saw this suspicious brand of Americanism married to much of the evangelical movement, and as Michaelis notes, “[Schulz] had come to think of evangelical Christianity as a danger to independent thinking.  ‘I am fearful of an overly organized church and I am very fearful of a church which equates itself with Americanisms,’ he said as early as 1967, identifying it as a ‘frightening trend: people who regard Christianity and Americanism as being virtually the same thing.” 

Thus, Schulz’s Christmas special is particularly challenging to the established order of life in America. He introduces us to his protagonist, Charlie Brown, as a boy who is suffering what would soon be termed the “Christmas Blues”.  Like many people from his ‘60’s audience, Charlie Brown complains about the arrival of Christmas, experiences signs of depression, and resorts to seeing his low-rent therapist, Lucy. In an unlikely turn of events, he winds up directing the children’s Christmas play, but he still finds himself cut off and alienated. As he shouts directions, the other children ignore him, doing their two-dimensional, animated head jerk dance while Schroeder bangs away on his tinny piano. These children believe they have found the Christmas spirit and have none of Charlie Brown’s reservations.  Even Snoopy has found his niche, having won the community’s annual lights and display contest, as sure a sign of conspicuous consumption as one could find. Yet, Charlie Brown, like Schulz, runs counter to the main culture. 

The stories regarding the special and the network’s uncertainty about it are legendary.  When CBS executives first saw a screening, they expressed what Michaelis recounts as a slew of criticisms:  “The animation was crude—couldn’t it be jazzed up a bit?  The voice talent was unprofessional—they should have used adults. The music didn’t fit—who ever heard of a jazz score on an animated special?  And where were the laughs?”  Consequently, as the show’s producer, Lee Mendelson, recollects in A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition, the executives declared it the end of Peanuts on television:  “We will, of course, air it next week, but I’m afraid we won’t be ordering any more.” 

Most of the decisions Schulz made defied convention, leaving a fairly vulnerable and unhealthy looking special. Like the pitiful tree upon which Charlie Brown decides to lavish his attention, the special has seemingly nothing to appeal to the dominant culture.  Yet, faced with the despair of Charlie Brown, both the children in the special and the audience at home (if not the corporate executives in the initial screening) are forced to empathize with the alienated and disaffected protagonist. Confronted with their cultural dominance and hypocrisy, the children become transformed, the last becomes first and the first last, and they launch their own revolution, storming the house of the rich Czar, in this case, the unlikely Snoopy, and raiding his supply of Christmas lights, saving the future of the pitiful tree, the spirit of Charlie Brown, and the integrity of their own lives.

These five specials form the core of the Christmas television canon. All five continue to air each year, all five sell on DVD, and all five were produced over 40 years ago.  If anything, the specials are bigger than ever, having morphed into cash cows of the merchandising world, inspiring ornaments, books, sequels, and toys, all boxed and sold in the same post-modernist mall of irony that houses stacks of mass marketed, $20-a-pop Che Guevara t-shirts. However, if we consider one small sampling from the history of the Rudolph special, we can begin to see why the television industry has been failing to capture the ‘60s magic ever since. 

According to Rick Goldschmidt, the official historian of the Rankin/Bass production team, the Rudolph special was altered only one year after its debut.  In his online essay, “Rudolph:  Behind the Scenes Part One” (TV Party.com), he writes,  “When it came time to rebroadcast the special in 1965, General Electric executive Willard Saloff decided he wanted to replace the song and sequence of ‘We’re a Couple of Misfits’ with a NEW song ‘Fame and Fortune.’”  The omission of the original song must have struck audiences as somewhat odd, since the creators had already prepared them for the song by including brief renditions of its opening strains in two prior scenes.  Thus, when the two characters, Rudolph and Hermey, finally meet and launch into their exuberant exaltation of rejection and isolation, the audience has been fully prepared to enjoy the number. 

Alas, the executives were apparently uncomfortable with this celebration of deliriously defiant deviants reveling in their misfit status.  Instead, the newly implemented “Fame and Fortune” sequence shows the two characters joyously boasting of how they will ultimately achieve, Horatio Alger style, fame and fortune (from a dental practice for Hermey and… perhaps a traveling side show for Rudolph?).  Apparently, the forceful nature of the “Misfit” song had none of the weakness, depression, or dependence that a dominant culture demands from its marginalized members.

According to Goldschmidt, the network also cut the Burl Ives line, “This is man’s work” as well as the revelation that Yukon Cornelius had been searching, not for silver and gold, but for a peppermint mine instead.  Better to let everyone think that the women know their place and that the prospector wants what everyone in a consumer-capitalist culture ought to want—money.  While the excised scenes have been restored to the DVD, the changes speak to the same corporate culture that didn’t “get” the Peanuts special. As the succeeding decades have demonstrated, when we try to stifle and control the anarchic spirit of the holiday celebration, we simultaneously shut down the tension and depth that leads to beauty, relevance, and art.

So, if we return again to our earlier question of why they don’t make good Christmas specials anymore, it’s tempting to place a large share of the blame on the modern conservative movement.  Using the red and blue state jargon of contemporary American politics, the gradual “reddening” of America that has taken place over the last three decades, like the reddening of Frosty the Snowman’s thermometer, has effectively melted the misfits, outlaws, and Marxists that have given the Christmas specials their enduring appeal. If it seems that we are living in an age of new restrictions and greater scrutiny, where people like James Dobson focus on the sexual identity of underwater cartoon sponge life, there is still hope.  History can, after all, be cyclical, and just as these subversive ‘60s specials reflect a reaction against the class-structured, commercial celebrations of “invented tradition,” one can only expect that a similar reaction against the more belligerent conservative “traditionalists” must be on its way in the not-too-distant future.  If so, perhaps we will see a new silver age of television Christmas specials, and then we can truly say, in the words of one tiny misfit:  “God bless us, every one.”

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