With all the sugarplums thrown at our TV screens during the holidays now, directed squarely at our squareness, I don’t see how Fox News is convincing anyone that there’s a ‘war on Christmas’. These dozens of holiday films are disseminated by the ‘liberal media’, and no matter how diverse the casting, all end in reasserting the power of the holy days to quell discontent, depression, division and any other negative emotion. They are snowflakes dropped by the snowflakes, so where’s the issue?
There was a time, though, when Fox might have had a point about liberal messaging in holiday fare, though they surely wouldn’t have been observant enough to recognize it.
Remember that back in the 60s there were only three commercial channels on TV. Ratings were still important, but writers didn’t have the same pressure to copy banal-but-successful formulas as they do now that everyone from The 700 Club to Logo makes holiday movies. Add to this the creative atmosphere of those times, when writers’ rooms were full of Ivy League libs nicotined to the gills and wasted on spiked eggnog.
The animated film version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer appeared in 1964, the first holiday season where Lady Bird Johnson’s Christmas tree would be compared to Jackie Kennedy’s. It takes a novelty song about mean reindeer and ups the asshole quotient by a lot. Christmas’ most beloved icons – Santa, his elves and reindeer – are presented as corporate taskmasters and judge-y shamers, victimizing Rudolph and other characters to the point they put their lives in danger to escape. This poke at the patriarchy mixes with a selective 60s blindness, leaving the whole outing with a yellow streak in its Styrofoam snow, and thus so much more fun to watch than another pretty white couple Gift-of-the-Magi-ing each other.
From the get-go, all the male authority figures are pricks, with Santa the worst. Reflecting the ethos of 60s masculinity, he shows up periodically to instill fear of his disapproval in reindeer and elf alike. Rudolph’s ‘handicap’ makes him literally unable to brown-nose Santa, as if he were born with a subversive gene, so his dad insists he cover the glow nose with mud, forcing Rudolph to risk suffocation to fit in. But you can’t hide who you truly are for long. Lesson.
Meanwhile, over in the slave-labor toy factory, Hermey the likely-gay elf is berated by his boss for wanting to study dentistry instead of continuing in the proud tradition of mind-numbing factory work for a Santa who has no doubt threatened to outsource to the South Pole if quotas aren’t met.
Rudolph and Hermey bye Felicia this BS to wander the wilderness, where they hook up with a loner named Yukon Cornelius, inspired by Yosemite Sam and, at least for Hermey, Heath Ledger’s character in Brokeback Mountain.
Running from the Abominable Snow Monster lands the group on the Island of Misfit Toys, where the writers have clearly switched from Marlboros to marijuana. Kids whose families could afford a TV in the 60s are made to laugh at a dumping ground of faulty manufacturing, toys that are suicidal because no kid wants them. A train with square wheels, a Jack-in-the-box whose name is Charlie and talks like Paul Lynde on helium, a bird with no wings. I can’t remember what was wrong with the girl doll. Maybe her name was Sylvia Plath? They are ruled by a lion.
Then it gets all Lion King as Rudolph grows into a studly stag and bumps into his girlfriend who has gone looking for him. She convinces him to go back but then…the Abominable Snow Monster!
Yukon and Hermey show up just in time, and all realize that their biggest obstacle is easily overcome by tackling it head-on and defanging the threat with knowledge. Lesson. Unfortunately, this won’t work back in Santa’s village. The elves are too worried about their jobs and the reindeer too blindly pro-Santa. But everyone feigns contrition when a global-warming super-snowstorm hits and they need Rudolph.
Then comes the clincher: Rudolph insists Santa pick up the misfit toys. Sure, Santa says, but then refuses to sully his hands or his reputation with defective toys. So an elf hands each misfit toy an umbrella and tosses it out of the sleigh to float down to poor children, who will love the misfits because that’s all they’re gonna get. Santa hasn’t learned a thing, ending the story as the same cruel capitalist he was at the beginning, while Rudolph busts his ass up front for this entire unappreciative lot, secretly relishing the moment China takes over toy manufacturing from the North Pole and the elves are forced to make solar panels.
By 1970, the liberal sleigh ride was over with grinch Richard Nixon in the presidency. It was time for rebellion to come from Santa himself, not just a quirky outsider.
In Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, Santa is a straight-up revolutionary. If you were to read a synopsis of the plot minus the Santa layer, it would sound like a big-budget action thriller: an orphan-turned-rebel tries to help a town oppressed by a tyrant, is hunted down and imprisoned, his family’s home burned to the ground, until he escapes into exile, launching insurgencies from a secret base.
Star Wars is still light years down the road, so we open instead in the milieu of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, in the Bavarianesque village of Sombertown. Like Chitty, the tyrant ruler Burgermeister Meisterburger hates children and is aided by a skinny henchman who overdoes his bidding (think Trump and Stephen Miller). When an infant is laid at the castle doorstep (what was the mother thinking?) Burgermeister orders his Stephen Miller to send the child back to
Mexico the Enchanted Forest where lives a warlock who does God-knows-what White Walker thing to babies.
The child is saved by the Kringles, a toy-making elf clan led by a matriarch. They name him Kris, and he grows into a hot ginger. Kris gets his rebel on when he hears the BMMB has banned toys and the town children have to amuse themselves with only their imaginations and musical numbers written by failed Broadway songwriters.
On his first not-so-clandestine outing to deliver toys, Kris is scolded by a schoolteacher for breaking the law, until he gives her a doll and promises to advocate for equal pay. When the BMMB and Miller show up, Kris gifts the infantile ruler a yo-yo, but killjoy Miller reminds the ruler that though he may be a nasty piece of work, he’s no Mitch McConnell, and breaking his own law is hypocritical. BMMB demands Kris’ arrest, and ginger boy has to escape through the Enchanted Forest.
The Winter Warlock is waiting, with his stalactite fingers and frozen drool. After some shameless flirting and a gift of a toy train, Kris melts the evil warlock into a kindly old gay man in an Obi Wan robe. Then we get a coming-out anthem called ‘Put One Foot in Front of the Other’ which ends in the lyric “and soon you’ll be walking out the door!” Of the closet!
An old gay man walking arm-in-arm with a muscle twink is not a good look in Sombertown, much less a children’s special, so they are joined by a penguin and the lady schoolteacher, and the gang come up with more and more subversive ways to get the toys to the kids, including sneaking down chimneys and hiding toys in stockings. The 8-year-old cultural anthropologist in me loved this part.
Eventually they are all caught and imprisoned, and the elves’ village burned down. Winter has one last trick up his robe, and the rebels escape via flying reindeer to the North Pole, far out of the evil empire’s reach. There’s no triumphant revenge scene, though, just the inevitability of a disruptive entrepreneurial venture going corporate. Kris marries the teacher, builds a new toy factory and settles into a once-a-year toy dump. Everyone ignores the Burgermeister after he gets voted out for Angela Merkel, who pardons Kringle on condition that his toy parts get made in 13 different EU countries.
So once you get tired of the cartoonish humans in yet another Home for the HoliDaze, go watch something where the puppet strings are visible, where the asshole Santas at least aren’t Tim Allen and where ‘abominable’ refers to a plush toy and not a script.