I am a sucker for Christmas. I love decorating the tree, filling my children’s Advent calendar, wrapping presents, baking cookies, watching Christmas specials on television, hosting holiday parties, and making and sending my annual Christmas card.
But there is another reason I love Christmas that has little to do with my personal traditions. I love it because during this season iconic Christmas characters (like Santa, Rudolph, and Frosty) as well as pundits, preachers, and journalists engage in some surprisingly frank discussions of work, capitalism, and the working class.
Let us start with Bass/Rankin classic, Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer, which first aired in 1964. Some have argued that it is an allegory for the Cold War, with the Bumble representing the Soviet Union, who is tamed by the ultimate American Yukon Cornelius. Others have argued that Rudolph represents the “Red Scare,” which is interesting, because Burl Ives (the show’s narrator, Sam the Snowman), was blacklisted in 1950 in the anti-communist smear pamphlet Red Channels. Unfortunately, Burl Ives cooperated with the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) when he told them that he used to attend union meetings with Pete Seeger in order to “stay in touch with working folk.”
My recent viewing of the Christmas classic suggests a slightly different take. The elves in Rudolph are apparently happy on the job. They sing: “We work hard all day/But our work is play.” Hmmmmm. This is the essential myth of the Christmas elf, right? Making Christmas toys is work, but the work is play.
On the other hand, not everyone who wants to work is allowed to work in Rudolph’s world. Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer is a story about workplace discrimination. Hermey the elf, played with what we now interpret as a “gay” voice, doesn’t fit in with the other toy-making elves. Is he discriminated against for being gay? Or because wants to be a dentist? In his signature song he says, “You can’t fire me, I quit.” Rudolph is similarly cheated out of a chance to work for Santa, and all because of his shiny red nose.
Workplace discrimination in Rudolph has a gendered component as well. Rudolph’s mother and his girlfriend Clarice are told by Donner and Santa that looking for Rudolph is “man’s work.” The misfit toys are also deprived of a chance to serve as joy filled bundles on Christmas morning because they have manufacturing defects. Rudolph, Hermey, and Yukon Cornelius rescue the misfit toys by convincing Santa to give them as gifts. Even the Bumble is simply an underutilized employee. When Yukon Cornelius tames the Bumble he explains: “I’ve reformed the Bumble. He wants a job! Look what he can do!” At the sound of these magic words the Bumble tops the Christmas tree with a star. Indeed, conflicts over imports and fair trade (the embargo on toy imports in Santa Claus is Coming to Town), work stoppages (Santa’s “sickout” in The Year Without a Santa Claus), and working conditions (the life of a clockmaker in The Night Before Christmas) are at or near the center of almost every one of the Bass/Rankin holiday productions.
And how about Dicken’s A Christmas Carol? If ever there was a workplace holiday tale, this is it. Scrooge is a miser who nearly drives his clerk’s family to the poor house. My favorite adaptation of the tale, Scrooged  starring Bill Murray, hits all the right working-class themes. Murray plays a television executive who fires one of his employees, Eliot Loudermilk, in the first scene. Loudermilk goes on to become homeless and comes back to terrorize Murray’s Christmas Carol production with a shot gun. The character of Bob Cratchit is transformed into the character “Grace Cooley,” Murray’s executive secretary. The awesome African American actress Alfe Woodward plays Grace as a single mother who brilliantly makes up for her boss’s shortcomings.
In recent months the character of Scrooge has been called upon to describe the “1%” who control much of the wealth in the US, as identified by the Occupy Wall Street movement. When Jay-Z marketed OWS t-shirts but declined to share any those profits with the movement, a group of artsy jokesters made a statue of Jay-Z in the form of Ebenezer Scrooge.
After Scrooge, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas is most often associated with the figure of the miserly malcontent. Just last month President Obama told a rally in Ohio that he hoped Congress would extend the payroll tax rather than play the role of “Grinch.” Shockingly, the now extremely beloved original animated version of Dr. Suess’s popular children’s book, animated by Chuck Jones, was turned down in 1966 by 25 potential television sponsors. Jones remembers that even he was surprised when the show was finally sponsored by the Foundation for Commercial Banks. Jones speculates that the bankers must have missed the moment when the Grinch realizes that “perhaps Christmas doesn’t come from a store.”
Each of these Christmas stories highlights the plight of the downtrodden, the outsider, or the misfit, what Jones called the “slave” or the “reindeer dog” in the Grinch tale. But how far does that critique extend? While Scrooge and the Grinch eventually realize that the “true meaning” of Christmas cannot be bought, when these tales are rebroadcast on television they are sandwiched between dozens of commercials for cars, cell phones, diamonds, slippers, gloves, and video games. Linus may end The Charlie Brown Christmas Special with a passage from the Bible describing the angel telling the shepherds about Jesus’s birth, but you can buy the Deluxe Peanuts Christmas Holiday Specials at Costco right now for under $30.00. I did last month.
In the end, though, the icons of Christmas are highly plastic and can be easily mutated to call for social change. In Denver this month Occupiers were invited to participate in an “Elf Revolt.” The facebook page Occupy Christmas has been active since early November. References to Christmas elves on strike, Scrooge, and the Grinch abound in humor blogs and labor coverage during the holiday season.
And, as much as Fox News broadcasters worry about the “war on Christmas,” the rest of us know that the real war on US soil is being waged by the super rich on the working and middle classes. And we know that on December 26th it is back to work for those of us who still dream of a merrier, more equal society that could bring us glad tidings and figgy pudding 365 days a year.
Kathy M. Newman