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September 2, 2015

TV 101: The true meaning of TV Christmas specials (OR: You're a mean one, Mr. Black)

by Jay Black, posted Dec 24th 2008 12:03PM
See, a public domain alternative to the real thing is just as good... right?If there's one universal among TV Christmas specials it's this: they all seem to want to tell you what the "true" meaning of Christmas is. There are so many specials trying to explain the true meaning of Christmas, it actually makes you wonder if the power of TV to influence has been exaggerated. I mean, you'd think after watching approximately eleventy-five billion hours of holiday programming, we'd have gotten the point already.

Perhaps the reason why America continues to view Christmas less as a time for spiritual reflection than as one for reindeer sweaters, crass consumerism, and suicide contemplation is because our Christmas specials aren't really sending the messages that they claim to be. Sure, on the surface we're told about "peace on earth and goodwill to men, blah blah blah", but there's a bubbling subtext in these specials if you only look hard enough.

I've decided to put my New Jersey state college English degree to good use and break down what Christmas specials are really saying...

1. A Charlie Brown Christmas

What it claims to be about: The Christmas Spirit trumps consumerism

What it's actually about: A check from CBS trumps all

A Charlie Brown Christmas
is one of the most popular specials of all times because it attacks the out-of-control consumerism that serves as a constant threat to the "true meaning" of Christmas. You see, there's nothing Americans enjoy more than being told by a self-righteous cartoon that everything they're doing is wrong (see: The Rush Limbaugh Show).

Except it's hard to get excited about denying consumerism when that anti-consumerist message is obscured three times during the half hour by commercials. The irony is further accentuated when the characters telling you that Christmas isn't about toys or decorations are best known as ... toys and decorations.

Teaching anti-consumerism on a major network show like the Charlie Brown Christmas special is like having a meeting of the Child's Safety Network at the Neverland Ranch.

If Charles Schulz had really wanted to spread his message that Americans were forgetting what's important at Christmastime, he'd have done it in such a way that the kids watching wouldn't be subjected to a toy commercial every eight minutes. If he really didn't care about the same materialistic trappings that the rest of us care about, he wouldn't have plastered his characters on everything from the MetLife blimp to Snoopy brand nipple clamps (if they don't exist, they will eventually).

No, all A Charlie Brown Christmas teaches our children is that if you're going to sell out, make sure you hold out for a network, because that's where the real money is.

2. How the Grinch Stole Christmas

What it claims to be about:
How the Christmas spirit can grow even a heart three sizes too small

What it's actually about: Jewish people sure are grumpy!

I confess it never occurred to me that the Grinch was a stand-in for Jewish people. Dahlia Lithwick explains the symbolism in her excellent piece for Slate called "Oy, Hark! A Jewish parent's guide to Christmas Specials."

Once Lithwick pointed it out, though, it made a lot of sense. The Grinch's main problem is that he's disconnected from the Christmas experience. Since he doesn't understand it, he begins to scorn it. One imagines that had he been able to pull off his Whoville heist, he would have spent the rest of Christmas day eating Chinese food and going to the movies.

It's troubling to think of the message, then, that the special is trying to send to kids: if someone doesn't understand Christmas or maybe doesn't like it very much because their major solstice holiday involves crappy gifts like socks, it must be because their heart is the wrong size. When you meet those people, don't try to understand them, rather do your best to convert them (ideally through singing and unconventional rhyming).

Let's hope he doesn't grow any useless mutations...3. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

What it claims to be about:
You should accept people who are different than you

What it's actually about: If you're deformed, you better make sure that your mutation is useful to Santa

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a classic tale: a child is born with a horrible, horrible mutation, he is shunned by his father for it, teased mercilessly about it by his peers, then, finally, achieves acceptance when his tormentors come to their senses. On top of that, it's told with really wicked stop-motion animation that's as exciting to little kids as it is to their pot-addled older siblings.

If you look closely, however, this is not a tale about acceptance at all: it's a tale about utility. Rudolph is never accepted until after his nose mutation proves useful to Santa. This says to children that the only people worthwhile are the ones who can contribute to the economic well-being of society. There are Soviet-era propaganda films with less depressing subtext.

Don't believe me? Examine the story closer... it's all right there in the song:

Then one foggy Christmas Eve, Santa came to say
"Rudolph with your nose so bright, won't you guide my sleigh tonight?"
Then all the reindeer loved him, as they shouted out with glee
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, you'll go down in his-tor-reeeeeeee...

So, let me get this straight. Had his nose mutated in such a way that it couldn't help Santa deliver his toys, he'd be completely SOL? Let's say that he had grown four nostrils and an inability to smell gingerbread; can I assume that he'd still, to this day, be excluded from reindeer games?

If he were Rudolph the Really Really Hairy Reindeer, he'd be off the reservation -- until, I guess, Santa needed a reindeer-hair coat one extra-cold Christmas Eve.

What kind of cold, Darwinian organization is Santa running? Does he eliminate wheelchair ramps in the North Pole because that would make the disabled reindeer lazy?

If Rudolph really wanted to teach kids about tolerance, it wouldn't have tied Rudolph's acceptance by the other reindeer to his level of utility to Santa. Instead of saying that we can all contribute in our own way, it made misfit kids everywhere hope and pray that their particular physical problems would one day start glowing.

4. Every '80s Sitcom Christmas Episode

What they claim to be about
: Santa Claus might be hiding around every corner!

What they're actually about: The only reason to be nice is because you might get presents for doing so

Let me paint you a picture: our favorite TV characters run into a seemingly insignificant older gentleman on or around Christmas Eve. At the end of the episode, the older gentleman disappears, but not before rewarding the kindness shown to him by giving everyone special (magical!?) gifts. There is shocked disbelief. Then someone finally says:

"Hey, that old guy... with the beard... you don't think he could have been..."

Cue the sleigh bells and a distant ho-ho-ho.

I'm thinking specifically here of episode 145 of Family Ties (Miracle in Columbus), but it could very well be the template for every single "special Christmas episode" that ran during the 80s.

I'm all for showing kindness to bearded strangers, but it feels unseemly to link every act of kindness to a tangible physical reward. Wouldn't it be truer to the Christmas spirit to show people performing random acts of kindness with no hope of something being given to them in return?

At the very least, it might be wise to teach children that not all overweight men who ask them to sit in their laps are actually Santa Claus in disguise. (Such wisdom, I imagine, might have saved Arnold and Dudley from a very harrowing experience at Gordon Jump's bike shop).

5. A Colbert Christmas

What it claims to be about:
A scheme to make money off of original Christmas songs

What it's actually about: Stephen Colbert is awesome

And on that note, let me end by saying a hearty Merry Christmas to all who actually took the time to ignore their friends and family this Christmas season by spending it online with us. It's that kind of commitment to the dark and lonely corners of the internet that might make you the subject of your own Christmas special one day!

So as long as you've come this far, do me a favor and tell me the real meaning of some of the other Christmas specials in the comments. I can't be the only person with a New Jersey state college English degree (I know this because my college was offering them free to anyone who mailed in two proofs of purchase from any General Mills cereal).

Enjoy the holidays!

Jay Black is a writer and comedian who is best known for his work as the voice of "Kid Vid" for the Burger King Kid's Club. For more information about Jay or to catch one of his live shows, check out his website www.jayblackcomedy.com.

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Hey, Jay, about Rudolph: in the special, Santa and the other characters apologize to Rudolph BEFORE the storm hits and Rudolph's "nonconformity" is desperately needed. Just saying.

But I agree about Charles Schulz's love for merchandising. His zeal for pasting that damn dog over everything helped cool my ardor for his creations. That, and the fact that his strip went downhill the last 20 years of its existence; if only he'd retired, a la Gary Larson and Bill Watterson, when he knew he'd run out of ideas. Peanuts is now a sad, faded memory to me now; much like Jim Henson's Muppets (stop trying to bring them back already!!! It's pitiful! Amen).

December 25 2008 at 12:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Thanks for pinpointing the feeling I've had for so long about something being rotten at the heart of Christmas specials.

December 25 2008 at 5:56 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Hey Jay, you coming out to So Cal anytime in the near future? My wife and I would love to come to your show!

December 24 2008 at 7:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'm really glad someone else besides me notices all the hidden meanings in these specials. While I love Rudolph, I can't ever forget how Santa was a real asshole to Rudolph at first. Of course he apologized later (after Rudolph saved his ass, of course), but even so, the damage was done. That's real despicable behaviour.
Anyway, I will try my very best to make it to one of your shows, Jay. I enjoy all your posts, and after spending an entire day pretending to enjoy the company of my relatives, this one was exactly what I needed. Thank you!

December 24 2008 at 6:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

If I haven't made it clear in the past, I want to publicly state that Jay Black is amazing and I hang on his every word... well most of the time. But that having been said Jay, don't f*** with Charlie Brown man.

December 24 2008 at 4:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Joel's comment
Jay Black

(Just so you know, I read that comment out loud to my wife and she laughed her ass off. Very nice work, point taken!)

December 24 2008 at 5:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

There are some major questions about the reliability of the book Michaelis wrote about Schultz -- as in, he twisted around everything people told him to support the conclusions he'd already decided on -- so you might want to take anything in it with several healthy grains of salt. But A Charlie Brown Christmas would be the greatest television special of all time for the music alone, though It's the Great Pumpkin, Carlie Brown has a much better spiritual message.

Reading the Grinch as Jewish is stunning: it clearly can't have been intentional by the author, but once you've pointed it out it's so clear.

The biggest shocker, though, is discovering (or rediscovering, because I hadn't seen it in 40 years) that Rudolph includes a character named Hermie the Misfit Elf...who wants to be a dentist no less! How have we gone all this time without realizing Rudolph has a Jewish best friend at the North Pole?

December 24 2008 at 3:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to RAB's comment
Jay Black

I hadn't heard the criticisms of Michaelis's book. I thought since the family had cooperated that it was a fairly accurate portrait of the man. I'll have to spend some time reading the criticism later on tonight (which is, as you know, the traditional Black family Christmas Eve: while my son and wife sleep, I try to dig up counter-points to popular biographical works).

That said, I want to make it clear that the Charlie Brown Christmas special is great television; I just think that any commercially produced piece of anti-commercialism is inherently flawed, at least so far as message is concerned :)

December 24 2008 at 5:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Kid Vid! Awesome. He was way better than Wheels.

December 24 2008 at 2:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I have to agree with Anita - sure Charles Schultz did give permission for all kinds of usages of his characters while he was alive - he didn't say no to everything like whats-his-name who did Calvin and Hobbes. But you really can't be blaming him after his death, considering that even if he hadn't - his family could have allowed it. And who is to say that his family HASN'T approved more since his death? (and like Anita said - he and his family are still not to blame for the commercials)

Note: I'm actually not a fan of the special despite my all time love of Snoopy... I've just never cared for the rest of the Peanuts characters...

December 24 2008 at 1:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Saya's comment
Jay Black

Of course, you're right that you can't blame a dead guy for what happens to his characters, but having just finished David Michaelis's excellent biography of Charles Schulz, I think I can say with some confidence that there wasn't a merchandising deal on the table that Schulz didn't enjoy signing. It didn't make him a bad person -- I mean, after all, I've been bugging my agent for years to find a way to let me sell out -- it just made the message of A Charlie Brown Christmas special a little less special to me :)

December 24 2008 at 1:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

By the way, I never liked Charlie Brown Christmas because of the message of consumerism, it's just because he's a blockhead and underdog. That poor bastard deserves some Christmas spirit, party invitations and more! He reminds me of me. :-D

December 24 2008 at 1:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Richard Keller

And a Merry Christmas to you, Jay...I think. About 'Charlie Brown Christmas' -- It wasn't always this way. When the special first premiered on CBS in 1965 it has one sole sponsor, Coca-Cola. Granted, your argument still rings true about commercialism because original versions of the cartoon show the Peanuts gang knocking Coke cans off of the fence with snowballs. Still, it was one sponsor (then two, when Dolly Madison and McDonalds took over) and not a pool of toy manufacturers.

December 24 2008 at 12:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Richard Keller's comment
Jay Black

Hey Rich, thanks for the info there. I had no idea that they went single sponsor (and that the special had _product placement_). Wowsa.

(Though, I'll be honest: it kind of makes me wish that Snoopy nipple clamps _did_ exist, if only to see how they would have integrated them into the special...)

December 24 2008 at 1:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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