Every year, the American consumer gears up for another ride through the commercial funhouse known as the Christmas season, beginning a few days after Halloweeen, when orange and black store displays shift to red and green. But the shoppers shaking their heads and muttering to themselves how Christmas comes a little earlier each year have no idea of the dimensions of the machine which they've entered, a machine which runs all year long regardless of the date on the calendar. Nor do those hapless consumers realize how thoroughly they are enmeshed in its cogs and wheels.
Christmas comes not once but all year round; there is no period during which the industry is not at work, despite any illusions to the contrary on the part of the buying public. The consumer first comes into contact with one important component of this machine a few scant days after Thanksgiving, when Christmas specials by the score begin to bloom in the soft blue light shed by the televisions in most American living rooms. The movies won't start till the week before Christmas, or may even open on Christmas Day itself -- but the specials, slew after slew, come one after another as soon as the turkey enters the icebox, and with the advent of cable's 50+ channels, the individual watcher is exposed to countless repeats of these shows, whether they like it or not.
How do these specials function as part of the Christmas machine? What ideological underpinnings shape their content and presentation? In examining an example of one, can the canny reader gather some idea of how the Christmas machine functions? Certainly, in such an attempt, one must begin by separating the countless specials into different categories. I am not interested in looking at those shows which fit into slots such as musical Christmas specials where various guest stars gather together to carol gleefully on a stage sprinkled with false snow backed by a chorus of small boys, or "Christmas editions" of dramas or sit-coms in which the show remains the same but shifts its theme to some sort of moralistic narrative revolving around the Christmas spirit or else its "true meaning." A much richer source of texts with which to fiddle are the incessant narratives to which small children are exposed throughout the Christmas season: animated specials, and in particular one of the best known and most indispensable of these specials, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." What would the Christmas machine be like without his glowing signature?
It should be noted that"Rudolph" was firmly implicated in advertising from day one. The story and its accompanying catchy melody were commissioned from Robert May and Johnny Marks by a Philadelphia department store, who used it in conjunction with their Christmas window displays. The show first appeared in 1964, co-produced by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, Jr., who cornered the market on Christmas specials for the next decade, with Rudolph and others of his ilk, such as "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," "Frosty the Snowman," and "Rudolph's Shiny New Year."
The plot of "Rudolph" is straightforward. In a place called Christmastown and at a time identified by its narrator only as "a couple of years ago," a child, or rather a fawn, is born to Donner, one of Santas's reindeer (the name first appeared in Clement Moore's poem, "The Night Before Christmas," demonstrating how Christmas narratives tend to draw on each other for material). This fawn, the hero of the narrative, is named Rudolph. Early on in his existence, it becomes apparent that he has a radical deformity in the form of a red nose which periodically glows and emits an odd high-pitched sound, a process over which he has no control. His father attempts to disguise the nose's glow by covering it with a coating of mud. Nonetheless, when Rudolph is introduced to the other reindeer children, the mud covering falls off. The other reindeer laugh at him and refuse him inclusion into their ranks. Wandering dispiritedly through the Christmas tree forest after this rejection, he encounters Herbie, an elf with a similar problem, who doesn't fit into the elf norm since he would rather be a dentist than work at the traditional elf occupation of toy-making.
The reindeer and elf, deciding they are misfits, wander off into the snowy hinterlands outside Christmastown in search of social acceptance. They are befriended by Yukon Cornelius, an unsuccessful prospector, and with him they visit a strange island, populated by toys, unwanted because of some defect in their manufacture. First Rudolph's father, and then the women in Rudolph's life, his unnamed mother and beribboned girlfriend, Clarisse, come to search for him and are menaced by an Abominable Snowmonster. Rudolph tries to rescue them, fails, and is saved only by the appearance of Yukon Cornelius, who falls over a cliff with the Abominable. Although saddened by the loss of their friend, the others realize that "the best thing to do would be to get the women back to Christmastown," (the gender messages of this show are much as might be expected from a television special produced in 1964) and they proceed homeward. When a monstrous snowstorm threatens to keep Santa from delivering his payload to the good boys and girls of the world, Santa suddenly realizes Rudolph's nose may come in handy since it can light the way. Rudolph agrees to serve as lead reindeer but in exchange asks Santa to find homes for the misfit toys as well. This mission accomplished, everyone reunites around the Christmas tree, and Yukon Cornelius reappears with the tamed Snowmonster, whose teeth have been extracted by Herbie, and who now, Cornelius asserts, is a "reformed Bumble! He wants a job!" and can perform productive work in the shape of putting the star on the Christmas tree.
The story is narrated by Sam the Snowman, voice courtesy of folksinger Burl Ives, whose introductory song, "Silver and Gold," as well as the fact that he is a manufactured object, alerts the wary mythologist to the fact that this special may well be about something other than a reindeer's shiny schnoz. The snowman displays his class allegiances by resembling nothing so much as a plump upper-class Englishman, complete with trim goatee and moustache, holly-adorned bowler hat, plaid waistcoat with a watch-fob strung across it and white shirt fastened with cuff-links. The homodiegetic narrator is placed firmly within the world constructed by his story. References to what he was doing at various times within the story, or to his reactions to its various events happen throughout the show (as in shivering and hiding behind his umbrella at the mention of the Snowmonster), as do his continual references to the participants of the story as "we," as though those who inhabit Christmastown are a homogenous population. And Sam the snowman is a citizen of Christmastown, the center of production for the whole Christmas season where they even produce the Christmas trees to fill America's living rooms.
What might this story involve beyond the simple tale of reindeer and elf struggling to find their place in society? The snowman's song "Silver and Gold" provides a clue -- the story is about the economy of Christmas as much as anything else, an economy which disguises the economic base of the larger society in which the narrative has been constructed. Although Sam pretends not to realize this, he slips at times, speaking in terms of "business going on as usual" and Christmas coming and going "on schedule." His song, into which he launches as a couple of Christmas seals bring him his banjo, links the Christmas economy with the monetary system, describing how lumps of ore should be measured in terms of the pleasure they provide, rather than their physical characteristics. "Silver and gold," he warbles, "means so much more to me when I see silver and gold decorations on a Christmas tree."
At first glance, though, it all seems so innocent. Deep in Santa's castle ("the first castle on the left," Sam says at the beginning of the program), Santa's elves produce countless toys which are distributed to the good little girls and boys of the world in an endless one way flow which seems to demand no raw materials whatsoever, as though the toys were being manufactured from thin air. The audience of the program, as constructed by the snowman's address, is clearly at the receiving end of this flow, identifying with the children who anxiously wait to receive their rightful due in the form of a sackful of toys.
Yet the elves who make these toys materialize reveal that perhaps there is something more to this economy than meets the eye. Clad in their identical elfish costumes, blue for the male elves, pink for the girls, they resemble nothing so much as the uniform wearing employees of some service industry. Within the ranks of these identical workers, there is no room for those who aspire to bourgeoise occupations such as dentistry. Upon learning his ambitions, Herbie's shop foreman laughs at him and orders him to return to his alloted quota of toy making. Similarly, the reindeer are trained to work in the form of pulling Santa's sleigh, an opportunity denied Rudolph. It is established early in the show that this work is the be-all and end-all of a (male) reindeer's life when Santa comes to visit the newborn. Kris Kringle justifies his visit by saying "If he's going to be on my team someday, he'll have to get to know me" and proceeding to sing a short song about harnessing reindeer while placing a string of bells around Donner's neck, a string which the infant Rudolph staggers to wear around his own neck in a moment reminiscent of a small child playing with his father's tools.
Rudolph's story is clearly not one of good versus evil. The other reindeer aren't evil, just insensitive, as they engage in their jockish activities of head butting and other forms of male bonding, which are, as Fireball chortles to Rudolph, "a great way to show off in front of the does" under the watchful eyes of their baseball capped and whistle tooting coach reindeer. The theme, like so many texts before it, is how an individual gains social acceptance, but the emphasis on how the social activities the reindeer children perform prepare them for entrance into the labor force makes it clear that this acceptance and work are somehow inextricably linked. Rudolph's elf companion in misfittery, Herbie, is also deeply involved in the world of work from the outset. When we first see him, he is painting a small wooden wagon, but is unable to complete it, having produced only a small red splotch which indicates his general incompetence. When asked what's wrong, he sighs and replies "Not happy in my work, I guess." "You're an elf," his foreman replies, "and elves make toys." But Herbie wants more than to "sing and chuckle and go ho-ho and hee-hee." He wants to move from the ranks of the proletariat to that of the bourgeoise: he wants to be a dentist. His Aryan physical characteristics as well as his yearnings distinguish him from his fellow elves: he sports an elaborate wave of blond hair as opposed to the hairlessness of the others and possesses rounded ears where theirs are pointed. And his social ambitions govern his existence. When he initially encounters Rudolph in the Christmas tree forest, he tries to establish Rudolph's economic position vis-a-vis property, asking, "Oh! Is this your snow bank?" and then identifies himself in terms of the social position he wants to achieve. Rather than introducing himself by name, he says, "Actually, I'm a dentist." Impressed by Herbie's high brow vocabulary and his assertion "I'm independent," Rudolph agrees to join forces with him -- "It's a deal!" he declares. Together the two wander off into the world outside Christmastown, singing of their desire for "Fame and Fortune."
They encounter another participant in the story, Yukon Cornelius, who is no worker but a capitalist wanna-be, searching throughout the North Pole for gold. He is, however, a failure at achieveing wealth, perhaps because he believes financial success is attainable through physical labor. The mistakeness of this notion is underscored by the fact that he can't even get his dogs to pull his dogsled, but is forced to pick up the traces and show them how to do it, unlike the successful boss, Santa Claus, who has no difficulty coercing reindeer to pull his own sled.
It is not till Yukon Cornelius encounters and conquers his shadow figure in the Abominable Snowmonster that he can realize he's been going about the process all wrong -- that to try to acquire gold through one's own labor is an inadequate and futile attempt. What is truly necessary for the capitalist is to find a worker to generate surplus value, and such a worker occurs in the figure of the Abominable. The Snowmonster is from the beginning outside the Christmas economy, identified as a creature that is "mean, nasty, and hates everything to do with Christmas." And in the end the savage figure is tamed by the forces of civilization when it turns out that the source of his ferocity is his teeth. Once the miracles of modern dental technology have been exercised on him by Herbie, excising these vestiges of his savage nature, he is harmless and able to enter the Christmas economy by performing labor. He functions in much the same way that the Gu does in Ariel Dorfman's reading of the ideological underpinnings of Disney comics:Among all the child-noble savages, none is more exaggerated than the Gu . . . a brainless, feeble-minded Mongolian type . . . Vulgar, uncivilized, he speaks in a babble of inarticulate baby- noises; "Gu." . . . Obstacles are overcome once Gu (innocent child-monstrous animal -- underdeveloped Third Worldling) realizes that they only want to take something that is no use to him, and that in exchange he will be given a fantastic and mysterious piece of technology (a watch) which he can use as a plaything. What is extracted is gold, a raw material; he who surrenders it is mentally underdeveloped and physically over- developed. The gigantic physique of Gu, and of all other marginal savages, is the model of a physical strength suited only for physical labor. (49)
The Abominable Snowman also represents these raw materials in an odd way through his linkage with the forces of Nature. Throughout the special, whenever he appears, the first thing the viewer's eyes are drawn to are the immense white teeth shining in his dark mouth, teeth which mirror the jagged rocks of the world of the North Pole which exists outside Christmastown. In order for the Christmas economy to perpetuate itself these forces must be tamed, first the Abominable by Yukon Cornelius and later the snowstorm itself by Rudolph.
The adventurers also encounter the Island of Misfit Toys, ruled by King Moonracer, a large black-maned lion with wings and a crown, whose resemblance to a creature on a medieval emblem implies that he may well be the remnant of a pre-capitalist feudal economy. The toys on the Island are unwanted because they, like Rudolph and Herbie, are misfits: an elephant with spots, a toy train whose caboose has square wheels, a Jack-in-the-Box named Charlie, etc. But the toys desperately yearn to return to the Christmas economy and assert its importance, emphasizing how much pleasure children take in the toys themselves with a song celebrating consumption: "Toys galore -- scattered on the floor -- there's no room for more -- and it's all because of Santa Claus." "No toy is truly happy," Moonracer tells Rudolph, "until it is loved by a child," a love that cannot be achieved until the toys are allowed to exist once again within the confines of the Christmas economy.
This celebration, running throughout the show, reassures the viewer that the act of consumption is one enjoyed by consumer and commodity alike. But when the snowstorm springs up, this economy is menaced and the pleasurable act of consumption threatens to be deferred. A dour Santa enters the shop to announce that "Christmas is canceled!" Yet Rudolph saves the day. How can we read this? The connection is clear once we listen to Santa's words, repeated twice as the sled launches into the sky: "Full power!" "Yes, sir!" Rudolph replies, and switches on his nose, over which he has gained mastery. And the glow of that nose, cutting through the fog of confusion, becomes the glow of a neon sign, or the television screen, or the fluorescent effluvium of a mall's lights. Rudolph is the force which enables the Christmas economy to exist, which brings consumer and consumed together: he stands for the power of advertising, justifying his own existence in a perverse way, for how could the Christmas machine exist without its representations in the media?
Christmas specials are, one might argue, an example of what Dorfman calls recuperation: "The utilization of a potentially dangerous phenomenon in such a way that it serves to justify the continued need of the social system and its value." (56) For what would subvert capitalism more than a season in which gifts were exchanged and no surplus value whatsoever generated by these transactions? Although some shows seek to mask the centrality of consumption to Christmas, pretending that homemade gifts are just as good, if not better, than those which come in shiny packages from the malls, "Rudolph" makes it clear that the real goal of Christmas is that pile of shiny packages, and the crisis of the season would be their failure to manifest. "Rudolph" and the other Christmas specials keep the Christmas economy running on the track on which it belongs, bolstering the machinery of the capitalist system.
The fantasy of Santa overseeing a force of gleeful elves magically producing toys from nothing allows the Christmas machine to continue functioning by allowing the consumer to overlook the true nature of the goods they are putting under their Christmas trees. Those goods are, in the vast majority, mass-produced with cheap labor in Third World countries where the factory workers, unlike the elves, do not have happily singing and dancing written into their job descriptions. And the idea that Christmas decorations are somehow spontaneously generated, actually growing on the trees in the groves outside Christmastown, denies the tremendous amount of waste generated by Christmas. The Christmas machine operates by celebrating the act of consumption while denying its origin and aftereffects and condemning those who fail to participate as being like Scrooge, a figure whose censure for his failure to function in the machine has been acted out for literally hundreds of forms. Bah, humbug, indeed.
Works cited:Dorfman, Ariel and Armand Mattelart. How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic. International General; New York, 1984.