What toys would the 3 Wise Men bring the infant Jesus today? Certainly not the body lotion, jewelry or cologne they gave upon that first Christmas night.
According to this short film report, from 1975, toy manufacturers would have a pretty good idea what to give, as they already know the kinds of gifts they will be foisting onto kiddies as Xmas presents years in advance.
But before we get too cynical, a newly published survey of British children has revealed that not all children are so predictable in their wishes. Top of UK children’s Christmas list was a baby brother or sister, next a reindeer, followed by a horse, and a car (ambitious little things aren’t they?). While a ‘Dad’ was number 10, and a ‘Mum’ was 23rd. It would seem for some children that good relationships with humans or animals are far more important than owning a ‘Gangnam’ Furby or a Doc McStuffin’s Time for Your Check-Up Doll, which let’s be honest can only be good for us all.
An inspired bit of Christmas fun from Terry Gilliam. This originally aired in 1968 on the British TV show for kids, Do Not Adjust Your Set.
Gilliam was asked to prepare something for a special show to be broadcast on Christmas day, 1968, called Do Not Adjust Your Stocking. Looking for inspiration, he decided to visit the Tate Gallery. In The Pythons: Autobiography by the Pythons, Gilliam remembered the project and how it figured into his emerging artistic style:
“I went down to the Tate and they’ve got a huge collection of Victorian Christmas cards so I went through the collection and photocopied things and started moving them around. So the style just developed out of that rather than any planning being involved. I never analysed the stuff, I just did it the quickest, easiest way. And I could use images I really loved.”
Despite adopting a policy of state atheism, the secularization project of the Soviet Union could do nothing to sever the cultural connection to Christmas.
Below are some “holiday” cards from the Soviet era, but one can easily detect efforts at sneaking familiar Christmas traditions into what had become a Soviet New Year celebration. You can see the character of Ded Moroz, formerly an evil sorcerer from Slavic mythology—he was said to freeze and kidnap children without conciliations from their parents. His striking resemblance to Santa is the result of a massive rebrand by the Orthodox Church to mimic the Dutch Saint Nicholas.
Of course, after the Russian Revolution, Ded Moroz was declared “an ally of the priest,” and was subsequently (somewhat awkwardly) retrofitted over the Soviet New Year holiday. In 1935, high-ranking Soviet politician (and primary facilitator of the famine-genocide in the Ukraine), Pavel Petrovich Postyshev spoke out in defense of Christmas, arguing that its pre-Christian origins and value to children should exempt it from condemnation as bourgeois or religious. This paved the way for a more lenient view on the holiday.
In 1937, Stalin even commissioned a Ded Moroz for public appearances, commanding, however, that they wear blue, so as not to be conflated with the Western Saint Nicholas. There were even Soviet Nativity Scenes with Ded Moroz as Joseph, a Snow Maiden (Ded Moroz’ helper) as Mary, and the baby New Year as Jesus.
As you can see below, Soviets fashioned some truly surreal feats of cultural synthesis with Ded Moroz, Communist iconography, and the USSR’s omnipresent symbol of ambitious futurism: space travel.
Rockets for speed, horses for nostalgia
Actually, screw the vestigial horses—they’re just bourgeois sentimentality
Note the icons of industrial economy in the tree—factory, bridge, dam, rocket, minecart, etc
A rather festive number, considering he’s best known for the most haunting rendition of an American murder ballad ever recorded… and his violent criminal record.
If you’re familiar with Leadbelly’s life, this isn’t actually very surprising. In addition to stabbing a man in a fight and killing a relative over a woman, he recorded a large repertoire of children’s music.
While I love my adopted home of Brooklyn, when I see stuff like this, I can’t help but get a little homesick. I got the tip-off on this beauty from a friend out of Louisville, Kentucky, which borders my own home state of Indiana, the plates of which are featured on this glorious vehicle. It was parked, but had been driven there. No cords were visible, leading us to logical conclusion that it is fully powered on holiday cheer.
Don’t get me wrong—New York most certainly has its own version of tacky, but it’s not the tacky of my beloved middle America.
Turkey Day has passed, and it is officially the Christmas season. As the Pamplona of Black Friday reminded us, this means an onslaught of fevered consumerism and fetishizaton of commodities and conspicuous consumption and all that other stuff that turns our stomachs. The complement to that consumerism is the hallmark corniness. “Peace on earth and goodwill towards men” can feel so cliche and forced when contrasted with the materialism of the spectacle. It’s easy to get a little contemptuous at Christmas.
It’s all reminiscent of an essay by (self-identified socialist) George Orwell, “Why Socialists Don’t Believe in Fun.” Writing under a pen name, Orwell starts the piece with an anecdote on Lenin reading Dickens’ A Christmas Carol; Lenin was on his death bed, and dismissed the feel-good classic as full of “bourgeois sentimentality.”
Orwell goes on to bemoan the cynicism of the anti-capitalist, how we can’t seem to enjoy anything too steeped in sentimentality, and I’d say he was pretty dead-on. So in the interest of avoiding our fuddy-duddy tendencies, allow me to show you one of my favorite Christmas genres: The Afrocentric Christmas Song.
Now when I say “Afrocentric” I am not talking about something performed by a black artist, or even a Christmas song in a traditionally Afrocentric genre. I’m talking about a song that portrays Christmas as explicitly black. Let’s start with “The Be-Bop Santa Claus,” by Babs Gonzalez.
This update of T’was the Night Before Christmas starts out with the line, “T’was the black before Christmas.” Now Babs was a bebop pioneer and poet, and used to go by the name “Ricardo Gonzalez” in an attempt to get into hotels that discriminated against black people; the line is an incredibly personal artistic comment. What follows is a perfectly painted picture primed for Reaganite propaganda: suede shoes, Cadillacs, applejack—it’s fantastically subversive, unapologetic, and self-aware.
Of course, I can’t resist including what’s essentially the white hipster version of the same artistic statement.
If “The Be-Bop Santa Claus” alludes to urban poverty, James Brown’s “Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto” leaves nothing to the imagination.
“Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud” had already come out by the time this song was released, so James Brown was already a floating signifier for the Black Power Movement. There are two reasons this is such an interesting extension of his career. First, it acknowledges black poverty as a pressing matter of social justice in a seemingly incongruously celebratory song. Second, the song applies Black Power politics to something as traditional as Christmas. (If I could add a third, I’d also say that this is just a sick jam, but I digress.)
This one, though, is my absolute favorite.
Performed by Teddy Vann and his daughter, Akim, “Santa Claus is a Black Man” is arguably the most adorable product of Black Power. I mean Jesus, look at that album cover! Look at her wee little black power fist and listen to her sweet, spastic, bubbly little voice!
Politically, it’s a perfect delivery. You have a black child taking a spin on “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” with hook of, “and he’s handsome, like my Daddy, too.” Aiming something specifically at children to counteract racist depictions of blackness is particularly salient when delivered by a child.
Interestingly, towards the end, Akim says, “I want to wish everybody Happy Kwanzaa.” Kwanzaa had been introduced in 1966, and the song came out in 1973. At first, Kwanzaa founder and activist Maulana Karenga posited Kwanzaa as a way to “give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.” After realizing that American black people were rarely willing to give up the holiday of the oppressor, Karenga softened his position to allow Kwanzaa to be celebrated alongside Christmas—no need to be sectarian when it comes to Santa Claus!
Now, none of these songs succeed in making Christmas “cool”- just the opposite, in fact; they’re as rife with schlocky sentimentality as any Christmas song, even though they’re great songs. But what’s so bad about sentimental and schlocky, anyway? Does Wal-Mart win if we enjoy a little syrupy holiday cheer? These songs are still doing something beautiful by using a traditional event as a site of counter-hegemony. They represent the underrepresented and condemn racism and poverty, and they do it all with a little bit of mawkish sincerity and delight.
This Christmas, why not resist our inner-Lenins and wallow in a little sentimentalism? It was good enough for James Brown.
No, this isn’t a joke. This is official Slayer merchandise, available from backstreet-merch.com, and a snip at only £49.99. It’s only available in the UK, mind you, but if you’re really really nice, Santa might be good to you.
Since department stores and drug stores decided to pump out their Christmas tunes during Halloween (WTF?), this ill-fitting, acrylic Merry Krampus sweater sends a message I agree with:
This is a limited quantity item! Krampus is the anti-Santa Claus from Europe who punishes the naughty girls and boys on Christmas Eve. If you’re bad, instead of bringing you presents, Krampus stuffs you into a sack so that he can eat you for dinner. This sweater tells the world that even though you weren’t on your best behavior this year, you’re still in the Christmas spirit. It’s the perfect look for an ugly sweater party this holiday season.
Ex-editor of the sadly defunct Melody Maker, author of Nirvana: The Biography and now proprietor of the excellent Collapse Board website, Everett True has not one but two Christmas mixtapes available to download just now. They covers all bases from the popular to the obscure, from funk to country to punk to indie(ish) and everything in-between. Everett himself says:
I spend great chunks of early December arranging and rearranging the 1,500+ Christmas songs in my iTunes folder into various playlists: for family, for friends, not for the children, and so on. Odd that I do so, as I’m really not fond of this time of year otherwise (although that feeling is changing as our family increases). This year, my task has been somewhat hampered by Daniel (aged 2) destroying the external hard drive, just two weeks after I’d transferred my entire cache of 2011 music onto it.
I suspend most of my regular aesthetic values when it comes to this season. As long as there’s a sleigh bell or an overtly schmaltzy production or a smart-ass lyric decrying the fact Santa NEVER BRINGS ANY FUCKING PRESENTS or some soulful heartfelt emotion or … well, anything to do with the season, really … I’m happy. I do have limits of course: Fiona Apple, that excrescence of a Bob Dylan Christmas album that appeared a while back, most of the She And Him Christmas album (although they still manage to sneak onto the collection below), most of X Factor (but not all), anything too self-consciously smart and/or indie. But really. Where else are you going to find a compilation that boasts Mariah Carey, The Moonbears, Willie Nelson, Can and Wild Billy Childish’s killer cut ‘Christmas 1979′?
As ever, the following restrictions apply:
The track-listing on the mix-tapes differs slightly to the one below. Copyright considerations, and all that. Also, the compilations will be available for a limited period only. If you like any of the featured artists, please track back to their MySpace sites, record company home pages and the like, and show support by purchasing their music direct.
Download A Christmas Gift from Everett True 2011, part onehere.
Download A Christmas Gift from Everett True 2011, part twohere.
As he says, download these now as they’ll be taken down very soon.
Shonen Knife’s “Space Christmas” (as featured on ACGFET2011 vol two):
Alfred Hitchcock Presents…Back for Christmas, based on John Collier‘s story of a man who plans to murder his wife, and bury her in the cellar. Collier’s short story was originally printed in the New Yorker magazine in 1939, this was the story’s first TV outing, there were 3 different versions made for radio, including one with Peter Lorre, and was latter remade for Roald Dahl’s series Tales of the Unexpected in the 1970s.
Collier wrote dozens of stories, many of which were successfully produced for various radio, TV and film productions - including “Green Thoughts”, the basis for Roger Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors. He also contributed to such screenplays as the Humphrey Bogart / Katharine Hepburn movie The African Queen and the play based on Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories” I Am A Camera. Towards the end of his life, Collier jokingly said of himself:
“I sometimes marvel that a third-rate writer like me has been able to palm himself off as a second-rate writer.”
Hitchock’s version of Back for Christmas stars John Williams as Herbert Carpenter and Isobel Elsom as Hermione Carpenter, and was first broadcast in March 1956.
Dangerous Minds is a compendium of oddities, pop culture treasures, high weirdness, punk rock and politics drawn from the outer reaches of pop culture. Our editorial policy, such that it is, reflects the interests, whimsies and peculiarities of the individual writers. And sometimes it doesn't. Very often the idea is just "Here's what so and so said, take a look and see what you think."
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