“Seeing isn’t believing. Believing is seeing.”
When it comes to Christmas, most people have some sort of mental image of what the holiday looks, sounds, smells, feels, and tastes like. Even for those who do not celebrate the holiday, it can be difficult to miss the influence that Christmas has had on popular culture. Many Christmas traditions have their roots in ancient holidays that pre-date the birth of Jesus of Nazareth – the holiday’s focal point. Traditions from Yule celebrations, Winter Solstice observations, and many other festivals have shaped the Christmas that the world sees today. Those stories will be told in the December 18 Holiday Time Capsule: “Saturnalia, Winter Solstice, and the Roots of Christmas.”
The impact of Christmas on pop culture goes back well over 150 years to holiday cards sent in the mid-19th century and classic songs like “Up on the Housetop,” which was written in 1864. Magazines like Harpers Weekly published stunning images of Santa Claus throughout the end of the century that inspired the depiction of Santa to come. Most of those images were drawn by the illustrator Thomas Nast and based on the 1822 poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” by Clement Clark Moore.
That 19th century influence turned the early 20th century into a treasure trove of Christmas imagery. One of the most iconic figures to come out of that era was the Coca-Cola Company’s Santa Claus. Coca-Cola started using the holiday in advertisements in the 1920s with a Santa that looked quite a bit like Nast’s. By 1931, the company wanted to show Santa as a wholesome man who could be both realistic and mythical. Illustrator Haddon Sundblom was selected to create this reimagined version. Sundblom used all of the previous work of writers and illustrators to craft the look, creating a human looking Santa with a warm smile, red cheeks, and that classic red suit. Contrary to what some might believe, Santa’s suit is not red because of the Coke connection, he had been wearing a red suit for quite some time.
Santa wasn’t Coke’s only Christmas connection, though. In 1993, the company shifted their holiday advertisements to feature a family of polar bears. The animation was based on a small Labrador Retriever puppy that resembled a polar bear. The puppy belonged to Ken Stewart who used the dog’s looks and movements to inspire the polar bear design. The scenes were done with computer animation but incorporated the work of sculptors, real bears, and scanned images of Coke bottles. Over time, the ads featured the Northern Lights, introduced cubs to the family, and played on the heartstrings of TV watchers. Those heartstrings also connected Coke with global warming and the plight of real-life polar bears losing their arctic homeland. By 2012, Coca-Cola partnered with the World Wildlife Fund to create the Arctic Home Campaign to bring awareness to the issue. In that year alone, the Campaign raised over $2 million for the WWF.
Coca-Cola certainly isn’t the only commercial entity to use Christmas in its advertising. Many TV commercials have had a lasting legacy this time of year. One of the most famous Christmas commercials features a choir of Hershey Kisses wrapped in their holiday best as they play “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” The Hershey Kisses Bell commercial premiered in 1989 and is Hershey’s longest running ad. Another chocolate group got involved in the mid-1990s when the classic M&M characters met Santa Claus. “So, you think Santa will like these red and green M&Ms?” asks the Yellow candy. Red responds, “I don’t know, I never met the guy.” The duo faces off against Santa in a game of shock as Red exclaims, “He does exist!” and Santa responds with “They do exist!”
Other brands have used the holiday as a backdrop on a much grander scale. Sainsbury’s, a large supermarket and store chain in the United Kingdom, has spent several years creating small films for their holiday commercials. In 2014, they marked the anniversary of the 1914 Christmas Truce, a moment in the first World War when the fighting stopped and soldiers from opposing sides were seen playing football between their trench lines. Some viewed the commercial as a masterpiece while others thought it was in poor taste. The controversy around Sainsbury’s commercials continues to this day. Their 2020 ad featured three short films that highlight a Black family celebrating the holidays with a focus on family meals. Many viewers did not care for the use of a Black family and attacked the retailer with racist feedback. In response, several British retailers came together with a statement about equality and a push for the community to fight back against racism in all forms.
While Christmas has seemingly taken over the televised marketing for many major companies, print marketing also enjoyed their share of the festivities. One of the most classic pieces of Christmas print marketing was the JC Penney Christmas catalog. These massive catalogs had hundreds of pages filled with everything from clothing and shoes to toys and household items. It contained nearly everything one might want nestled under their tree. Not to be outdone, Sears had their own holiday catalog, The Wish Book, which regularly topped 600 pages. By the late 1990s, the huge catalogs were discontinued with retailers opting for smaller versions and eventually going digital with online copies instead of the classic printed versions. The historic catalogs are so loved that dozens are available in scanned versions online for folks to travel down memory lane.
If commercial advertising isn’t exactly your cup of hot cocoa, Christmas movies have definitely staked their claim as a pillar of the holiday season. The first Christmas movie dates all the way back to 1898! This short film, Santa Claus, was created by George Albert Smith, a British filmmaker. At the time, the film was a visual marvel, which featured groundbreaking technology to show action happening in multiple locations. The viewer sees a nanny tuck in two children and just as she turns out the light, Santa appears on their roof. He climbs into the chimney and magically appears next to the children’s bed. This 122-year-old film still delights folks today with its simple but magical story.
“Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”
George Bailey entered our lives in 1946 in what is likely one of the most celebrated holiday films of all time. It’s A Wonderful Life focuses on Bailey’s struggles as he considers taking his own life, thinking that the world would be a better place without him. What unfolds is a series of scenes that show what the world might have become if he had never been born. His guardian angel, Clarence, helps George to see that his life was worth living for. The movie closes as a bell rings on the family’s Christmas tree and George knows that Clarence got his angel wings. Though the movie is a worldwide success today, it was a box office flop, which lost money in its original run. There was even a FBI investigation into possible “Communist tendencies” – portraying the capitalist banker as a curmudgeon and “glorifying values or institutions judged to be particularly anti-American or pro-Communist” in reference to depression and mental health concerns of a so-called “common man” in society.
Just one year after It’s a Wonderful Life premiered, Kris Kringle hit the screen in Miracle on 34th Street. Kringle is hired to portray Santa in the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and his performance earns him the role in the flagship store. Susan, a young girl, visits Santa and notices that he can speak multiple languages and begins to wonder if he really is Santa Claus. Susan’s mother, Doris, becomes concerned and eventually Kringle is put on trial for his claim that he really is Santa. After the courthouse receives hundreds of letters addressed to Santa, the judge dismisses the case. In one final bit of magic, Kringle’s cane is seen leaning against the wall of Doris’ dream home. The film was colorized in 1985, one of the first full-length feature films to be colorized. The work took 45 days and cost around $2,000 per minute, though many film purists were unhappy with this decision.
In her autobiography, Maureen O’Hara nicely summed up what the film had come to mean to her over the years:
“Everyone felt the magic on the set and we all knew we were creating something special. I am very proud to have been part of a film that has been continually shown and loved all over the world for nearly sixty years. Miracle on 34th Street has endured all this time because of the special relationship of the cast and crew, the uplifting story and its message of hope and love, which steals hearts all over the world every year. I don’t think I will ever tire of children asking me, ‘Are you the lady who knows Santa Claus?’ I always answer, ‘Yes, I am. What would you like me to tell him?’”
In addition to heartwarming stories, Christmas movies also bring us some of the most well-known holiday songs. The MGM hit, Meet Me in St. Louis, tells the story of family life leading up to the 1904 World’s Fair. One of the movie’s most iconic moments is when Judy Garland sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” This song was written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine for the 1944 film and features relatively sad and bittersweet lyrics, something that most Christmas songs avoid.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
Next year all our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the Yuletide gay
Next year all our troubles will be miles away
Once again as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us will be near to us once more
Someday soon we all will be together
If the fates allow
Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now
Just ten years later, another film brought an equally famous song to the masses. While the song “White Christmas” did not actually premiere in the film, White Christmas, it certainly got its fame as Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen donned their red costumes around that large tree. The musical comedy highlighted the story of entertainment duo Wallace and Davis, two old Army pals who traveled with their revue, Playing Around. They run into Betty and Judy Haynes, sisters of another old Army pal, who have their own show. Hilarity ensues as the sisters escape a police officer looking for a rent payment and the guys don pieces of the ladies’ costumes to perform their rendition of “Sisters.” Both groups end up on the same train and fate lands them in Vermont at the Columbia Inn. Wallace and Davis discover that the owner of the inn is none other than their Army commander, General Waverly. The two decide to stage their show at the Inn and surprise the General with a reunion of his men. When Waverly enters the ballroom, in uniform, he is overwhelmed by the sentiment and begins inspecting his troops:
“I am not satisfied with the conduct of this division. Some of you men are under the impression having been at Anzio entitles you not to wear neckties. Well, you’re wrong. Neckties will be worn in this area! And look at the rest of your appearance. You’re a disgrace to the outfit. You’re soft! You’re sloppy! You’re unruly! You’re undisciplined!
And I never saw anything look so wonderful in my whole life! Thank you all.”
“Fraa-jeel-aay! It must be Italian.”
“You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!”
While Christmas movies are known for their emotion, recently comedy has taken over. One of the first films to flip the script on holiday movies was A Christmas Story. This 1983 classic takes place in the 1940s and tells the story of 9-year-old Ralphie. All he wants for Christmas is a Red Ryder Carbine Action Air Rifle! The movie highlights the ups and downs of childhood wrapped up in the story of family. The film offers a series of recognizable images – the leg lamp, the pink rabbit onesie, and a tongue painfully connected to a frozen pole.
In 1989 another Christmas comedy hit the big screen as the Griswold family returned in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Clark, his wife Ellen, and their kids await the arrival of extended family and just about everything that can go wrong goes wrong. The giant tree, roots and all, bursts out of the living room windows, 25,000 Christmas lights cause a short city-wide power outage, and poor Aunt Bethany’s cat gets electrocuted. Their neighbors, uptight Todd and Margo, are exceedingly annoyed as each of these events occurs. Clark has waited all year for a Christmas bonus in the hopes that he can buy his family a swimming pool – but the bonus never comes. Cousin Eddie kidnaps Clark’s boss and a SWAT team storms the Griswold house. The kidnapped Frank Shirley gives in and reinstates the bonuses. In the end, an unfortunate explosion sends the Santa and reindeer decorations into the sky as Aunt Bethany sings The Star Spangled Banner.
“And why is the carpet all wet, Todd?”
“I don’t know, Margo.”
“Keep the change, you filthy animal.’
“You’re what the French call ‘les incompetents’.”
Over the years, hundreds of holiday comedies have told various stories of family togetherness, but one film does exactly the opposite. Home Alone tells the story of the McCallister family and their trip to France. Everything was going according to plan until they realize that they left their youngest son, Kevin, at home. The tale is as old as time – Kevin is terrified by a neighbor he thinks might be a serial killer, two thieves case the house, Kevin stages an all-out war against the thieves, the neighbor turns out to be a good guy, and Kevin makes sure he gets the fabric softener for his mom when she returns home. Complete with flying paint cans, live tarantulas, one single rusty nail, and that classic cologne scene, the film was an instant classic. It stayed at the top of the charts for 12 weeks and was the highest grossing film of 1990. It was even the highest-grossing domestic live-action comedy until 2017! Given its lasting legacy it might be difficult to believe that the script came together in just about 10 days.
In addition to live-action films, animated works have long been a staple of the Christmas season. Classics like Frosty the Snowman and A Charlie Brown Christmas have aired on TV for decades. Stop-motion puppets gave us gems like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in 1964 and The Year Without Santa Claus in 1974. More recently, films like The Polar Express have taken classic children’s stories to the big screen. Many of these works have inspired numerous versions, both on big and small screens and on the stage. One of those multifaceted works is How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss. The book premiered in 1957 and the first animated version hit TV in 1966. In 2000, the story went live-action with comedian Jim Carrey playing the title role. This version examines the Grinch’s backstory, his childhood, and a lost love.
“The nerve of those Whos. Inviting me down there-on such short notice! Even if I wanted to go, my schedule wouldn’t allow it. 4:00, wallow in self-pity; 4:30, stare into the abyss; 5:00, solve world hunger, tell no one; 5:30, jazzercise; 6:30, dinner with me – I can’t cancel that again; 7:00, wrestle with my self-loathing…I’m booked. Of course, if I bump the loathing to 9, I could still be done in time to lay in bed, stare at the ceiling and slip slowly into madness. But what would I wear?”
Christmas has permeated pop culture in countless ways. Most people who celebrate the holiday have their own likes and dislikes when it comes to the season’s offerings. Some may tend towards the sentimental while others enjoy the laughs, still others may seek out new works each year and pop culture is always adding more (especially when you consider the dozens of new Hallmark Christmas movies each year!). TV channels dedicate their entire lineups to holiday films, like Freeform’s Kickoff to Christmas and 25 Days of Christmas. TBS and TNT even air full 24-hour loops of A Christmas Story. Radio stations begin to play a mind-blowing repertoire of Christmas music sometime around Thanksgiving (sometimes even before that!). There is no question that Christmas is a powerful part of our culture today. Be sure to share with us at MVHS the pop culture traditions that you enjoy.