Among the many things I love about Christmas are the holiday kids’ shows—“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and all the rest. I’ve been watching them for as long as I can remember, close to forty years at least, and I never tire of them. But, love them though I do, I also find something disturbing and sad in many of them.
There is at the core of many of the Christmas kids’ shows the idea—or, in the inner reality of these shows, the actuality—that Santa Claus is in charge of Christmas, and that the True Meaning of Christmas is that Santa Claus comes in the night and leaves you a Heavenly Host of presents, all the things from the Sears Wish Book you wanted...or at least enough things to make you forget about the ones you didn’t get. I’m sure that for most of my childhood, that’s exactly how I thought of Christmas: it was about getting new toys.
But now, as a middle-aged man who is a bit more pensive, and who has at least a yearning towards some kind of meaningful spirituality, these shows make me sad, and perhaps a bit indignant. For all of its beauty and whimsy and wonder, “Rudolph,” which was the first of the Rankin-Bass stop-motion holiday shows, and which I loved so much as a kid, sends a decidedly un-Christmas message: when a terrible storm comes up, limiting vision and making travel by reindeer-powered flying sled ill-advised, Santa says, “I’m just going to have to cancel Christmas.” And in “The Year without a Santa Claus” (most notable for the Miser Brothers and their Vaudeville-era leitmotifs), Santa decides that he isn’t feeling “up to snuff,” and that nobody much cares about the holiday anymore, so he’s going to “call off Christmas.”
So there you have it: Christmas isn’t a deeply meaningful celebration, instead it’s something that can be cancelled because of illness or the weather, like a football game or a day of school or a concert. It isn’t really a holiday at all, in the original sense of the term—Holy Day—it’s just an elaborate party...but not a birthday party, of course, and certainly not a party for a major spiritual leader whose actual birthday we don’t really know, but whose birth and life are still worth pondering in our hearts every year. No, Christmas is Santa’s gig, and he can cancel it if he feels under the weather or intimidated by the weather or just unloved, and let the little kiddies scrape together their own toys.
When Jessica and I watch these shows together—which we’ve been doing since July—I tell her, “Santa Claus can’t really cancel Christmas. This is just a made-up show. Santa Claus isn’t really in charge of Christmas, and Christmas is about more than just Santa coming and giving you toys.” She focuses on these shows pretty intently, so I don’t know how much she hears when I’m talking, but I hope it’s getting through at least a little bit.
Christmas to me is about (“apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that,” as Scrooge’s nephew Fred says): a wide range of wonderful music, from the Tallis Scholars’ version of the fourteenth-century carol “Ther is No Rose of Swych Vertu” to “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas”; fanciful and often tacky displays of lights on houses and inflatable sleds on lawns and lighted animated wire-frame reindeer up on roofs; lots of Noel knick-knacks at Hobby Lobby (though that’s been going on since July, too); reading a little bit of A Christmas Carol to Anna every night before we go to bed; egg nog lattes at Borders; watching Christmas in Connecticut and It’s a Wonderful Life; lighting our Advent wreath every night before supper and doing a reading...and a good many other joyous things. I believe I could be just as happy, maybe happier, if instead of exchanging gifts on Christmas day we just got together with our families to appreciate all the other wonderful things.
In his great book Hundred Dollar Holiday, Bill McKibben says that he is “unwilling to turn Christmas over to the forces of the secular world—to the people with something to sell. Christmas is too much fun for that.” Christmas very nearly has been turned over to the people with something to sell, but if we are to wrest it back before every iota of meaning and depth is squeezed out of it like juice from a Norfolk Biffin, a good place to start would be to remind Santa that he is but a floor manager, not the CEO of the whole shebang. He can enhance Christmas, but he doesn't control it, and it would go on just fine without him. What I’m saying, I guess, is that we need a kiddy-show Santa with a little less hubris, and a little more humility.
Am I mad at Santa? No, of course not. I’m mad at the people who write and produce these shows, who flatten Christmas and squeeze the meaning and depth out of it and reduce it to a fat man in a red suit with a team of talented reindeer.
There are, of course, some Christmas shows that don’t promote the Christmas-equals-Santa notion. “The Little Drummer Boy” grounds Christmas in Luke’s story of the Nativity. “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” is a tale of growth and redemption, of the Grinch’s discovery that “maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store”; it is willing to assert that “Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.” And of course the best of all is “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” in which young Charlie Brown is troubled by the same problems that I am writing about here. Linus’s recitation of Luke 2:8-14 (“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”) never fails to bring tears to my eyes.
I’m not willing to give up “Rudolph,” of course. It’s too much fun for that. And it does contain within it some pretty good messages about individuality, acceptance, and friendship. But “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” has taken an appropriate place on the periphery of my Christmas activities, even if it is near the center of my daughter’s. I’m glad I get to experience it, and all the other shows, through her. I just hope I can teach her that there is so much more to Christmas than that.