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Have Yourself a Counter-Culture XMas: Red-Nosed Misfits, Elven Outlaws & Bearded Marxists

The TV versions of Rudolph, Santa, and Frosty are chaotic, freewheeling, and anarchic -- closer in spirit to Heath Ledger's Joker than to Bing Crosby's Father O'Malley.

You know Lenin and Trotsky,

And Che Guevara,

Kerouac, Dylan,

Brando and Mailer,

But do you recall,

The most famous subversive of all?

Few characters are more beloved than the stars of the most popular television Christmas specials. The images of Rudolph, Frosty, and Charlie Brown appear as unthreatening in the American canon as Mickey Mouse or Mister Rogers. In many ways, the specials have helped to define the Christmas holiday season for generations of viewers. And there is a pretty clear consensus about which specials really matter: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, Frosty the Snowman, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and A Charlie Brown Christmas. Ask anyone to finish the song, “You’re a mean one...” and you’re almost guaranteed to hear “Mr. Grinch!” in response.

While the networks have trotted out special after special over the years, and while every now and then one will get defrosted for a time (1974’s The Year Without a Santa Claus comes to mind), none of them has really offered much of a challenge to this holiday quintet. Yet, many fans may not realize that all five of these shows were created during a short six-year span during the late-‘60s. We may not be conditioned to think of terms like “subversive”, “counter-cultural”, “iconoclastic”, or “revolutionary” when we see images of Rudolph and Frosty, but in many ways these specials reflect the spirit of that era as surely as Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Far from being the season of “peace on Earth”, each December features a tumultuous socio-political debate about how American culture has lost the “true” meaning of Christmas, with the most flamboyant complaints coming from conservative commentators who argue that somehow Christianity and traditional American values are being victimized by a “vast left wing conspiracy” to secularize their cozy, idealized memories of Bing Crosby tunes, Currier and Ives prints, life-size Nativity scenes, and chestnuts roasting on open fires. For the past few years, Bill O’Reilly of Fox News has turned each December into a social crisis, even informing his audience in one of his “Talking Points Memos” that a liberal “war” on Christmas is central to “the culture war between traditional Americans and secular progressives. Outside of the war on terror, this culture war is the most important thing happening in the country today.” One of his fellow Fox News broadcasters, John Gibson, even wrote a book, The War on Christmas (Penguin 2005), declaring that liberals have launched a war, not only on Christmas, but “really a war on Christianity.” He concludes with a bit of rhetorical saber rattling (or maybe jingle bell ringing?), by rallying his troops and threatening his enemies that “The war on Christmas is joined.”

These calls to stop the secularizing liberals and to “put the Christ back in Christmas” often speak to a desire to bring back an idealized Christmas of old—homogenized, white bread, and snug in the WASP nest that was, for some, the American Dream. They try to put Christmas in a box—safe, controlled, and neatly wrapped in heavy stock paper from the gift-wrapping center at Macy’s. In the context of this debate, Bart Simpson’s notion that “Christmas is a time when people of all religions come together to worship Jesus Christ” doesn’t seem too absurd.

As Christmas has become increasingly politicized, the general perception has been that “Christmas” belongs to the conservatives while a bloodless mishmash of a multicultural, politically correct, and socially sensitive “Holiday Season” belongs to the liberals. However, if that were true, wouldn’t it follow that the Christmas television canon, a celebration of the holiday specifically dedicated to teaching and entertaining children, would have emerged during one of the key moments in modern conservative ascendancy—influenced by those who know how to “keep Christmas well?” Yet, the best of the specials didn’t emerge during the Reagan Revolution, the Gingrich Contract with America, or the Bush Patriot Act. These specials belong to the counter-culture flower children.

Of course, in one sense, the fact that the “classics” are now decades old would seem to lend weight to the O’Reilly/Gibson argument. If American culture is “losing” its connection to the “real” Christmas, it makes sense that the only “good” television specials were the ones created years ago. However nostalgia, filtered through paranoia and narcissism, proves a far less reliable beacon than a bright red nose on a foggy December night. A closer examination of these programs suggests that what resonates in such holiday specials is not a controlled and confining tradition, but rather a much older and more chaotic, freewheeling sense of anarchy, a cousin more closely related to Heath Ledger’s Joker than to Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley. In fact, the Rudolph, Santa, and Frosty of the Rankin/Bass specials would seem more comfortable at a peace protest or Civil Rights march than a boycott of Target for wishing customers “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”. If the “radicalism” of these specials seems surprising, it shouldn’t, for in many ways they represent a partial correction in the development of the American Christmas tradition.

As many cultural historians have demonstrated, evidence suggests that the “true meaning” of Christmas may not be what conservative commentators think. In his Introduction to Christmas Unwrapped: Consumerism, Christ, and Culture (Continuum, 2001), James Tracy writes, “Such jeremiads usually call for a return to the ‘original meaning’ of Christmas, either as a Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth or as a spiritual celebration of ‘family values.’” Yet, as Tracy suggests, “these critiques fall wide of the mark… because they at least implicitly posit a golden age of Christmas observance from which we have fallen.” This pre-Lapsarian Christmas tradition is largely a myth, romanticizing a so-called “ancient tradition” that really originated in the 19th Century. In The Battle for Christmas (Knopf, Doubleday, 1997), Stephen Nissenbaum points out that most of the earliest observances of Christmas had little to do with our romantic notions of a domestic, child-centered holiday: “It was a time of heavy drinking when the rules that governed people’s public behavior were momentarily abandoned in favor of an unrestrained ‘carnival,’ a kind of December Mardi Gras.” No wonder the Puritans banned it (See "Christmas Controversy" on Wikipedia)

The European tradition, with an emphasis on short-term social inversion, effectively contained the dissatisfaction of the lower classes and reinforced the status quo. However, as the riotous practices re-emerged in democratic New England of the early 19th Century, the threat of a democratic social protest, with implications lasting far beyond the need for a week or so of blowing off steam, made the Christmas season dangerous politically. As Nissenbaum explains, rather than following the lead of the Puritans and banning the celebration altogether, several wealthy New Englanders, including Clement C. Moore, began incorporating sketchy practices from Dutch cultural history and claiming them as historical Christmas traditions. The end result was an invented tradition, a domestic, child-centered, commercial Christmas, complete with presents, indoor trees, Santa Claus, and an implicit sense that this was the way things used to be.

At the risk of sounding like one of John Edwards’ old talking points, the United States became a land of “Two Christmases”. One Christmas, a politically-tinged American descendent of the unruly carnival celebrations of European tradition (Quasimodo’s Christmas, if you will), becomes increasingly marginalized, while the other, a manufactured holiday “safe” for those with wealth and privilege, comes to define the holiday mainstream. However, the topsy-turvy Bakhtinian social inversion that offended the Puritans and frightened the New England elite, has roots that O’Reilly and his compatriots should presumably admire, from some of the earliest Christian doctrine in Matthew 20:16: “So the last shall be first, and the first last.” In fact, the same idea underscores the narrative structure of the most enduring Christmas stories: Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, where a rich man’s past, present, and future is turned upside down; Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, in which George Bailey’s various failures make him “the richest man in town;” and that other famous Christmas story where kings give presents to the poor kid born in a barn.

Thus, one could argue that while the domestic Christmas of invented tradition becomes the face of the season, the real heart of Christmas rests not in a placid still-life of carolers, sleigh rides, and easy listening music, nor even in a devout, pious, and formal religious ceremony, but rather in the tension-filled class struggle of chaos and rulebreaking. If so, then it should come as little surprise that the turbulent ‘60s, which saw the climax of the Civil Rights Movement, the modern feminist movement, Stonewall, the anti-war movement, the sexual revolution, and the rise of youth culture, provided the immaculate petri dish from which grew the heart of great Christmas popular art.

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