Christmas Cartoons’ Cultural Correlates

“Christmastime is here, happiness and cheer, fun for all, that children call, their favorite time of year” – the opening lines of my favorite Christmas song, also the theme song of Charles Schultz’s 1965 classic children’s Christmas television special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”  I still watch it every year, along with Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” which debuted in 1966, “Frosty the Snowman,” which debuted in 1969, and the special that started it all, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” masterfully narrated in speech and song by Burl Ives, which debuted in 1964.

In general, I haven’t been as impressed with the children’s Christmas specials debuting in more recent years, but when I ran across “The Flight Before Christmas” (2008) while flipping through my channels last weekend, I decided to give it a chance.  The program description said something about a young reindeer trying to overcome his fear of heights before Christmas Eve, so as both a psychologist and a Christmas-special aficionado, I saw potential.  Well, in the first few minutes of it, I realized two things:  1) how far we’ve climbed since the 1960s with respect to the high-tech animation of children’s Christmas stories, and 2) how far we’ve descended since the 1960s with respect to their story lines.

If you haven’t seen it, the actual premise of “The Flight Before Christmas” is that the young reindeer protagonist doesn’t know who his father is.  He’s been told that his father is one of Santa’s flying reindeer, and while the ability to fly is a hereditary trait passed from father to son, the young buck’s fear of heights has prevented him from thereby confirming his paternity.  So, he sets off on foot, accompanied by an adult flying squirrel, on a quest to find Santa’s workshop, and hopefully therein his father, braving forests full of hungry wolves along the way.

When he finally arrives at the North Pole, he catches up with Santa’s reindeer, who congregate in a bar-type setting over adult-reindeer-beverages, and asks whether any of them recalls a one-night-stand with the young reindeer’s mother.  They all deny the possibility and then put him through a flight test, which he fails.  It’s only when he overcomes his fear, finds his air legs, and swoops back in to save Santa’s workshop from being overrun by the wolves that one of Santa’s reindeer finally admits to being the father.

Everything looks great (for about five minutes) when the deadbeat deer offers his star-struck son a place on Santa’s sleigh team, but it’s not long before the young buck realizes there’s more to being a father.  He flies with Santa’s team just once, back home to his mother, and to the squirrel – the one who had assumed and faithfully executed the role and duties of a “father” figure in the deadbeat deer’s absence (as a psychologist, this recognition was the only part of the movie, other than its brilliant animation, that I liked).  In the end, the young reindeer agrees to visit the deadbeat deer regularly at the North Pole, and they all apparently live happily ever after.

So, in the 60s, we got Rudolph, who also leaves home on a quest, not for a father – Rudolph has married parents – but for acceptance, when he isn’t allowed to play any reindeer games because of his shiny red nose.  Everything ends happily – really happily – of course, when Rudolph’s shiny nose, front-and-center on Santa’s sleigh team, saves Christmas, and we’re all reminded not to dismiss differences as weaknesses when they can be profound strengths.

Now, contrast that to the 2000s, when, in the context of an “updated” Christmas story about a young misfit reindeer heading off on a quest, we (kids especially) get treated to one-night-stands, absentee fatherhood (with which Santa appears to have no problem, by the way), drinking games in place of reindeer games, the cowardly reluctance of a father to acknowledge his son, and in the end, a long-distance parental visitation arrangement.

If you get nostalgic at this time of year like I do, then as you watch children’s classics like “Charlie Brown,” the “Grinch,” and “Frosty” in the coming weeks, just ask yourself when our culture was healthier – back when theirs were the story lines that were animated and embraced in children’s Christmas television specials, or now, when the disintegration of the family is the premise of just such a “special”?  You can have the high-tech animation of “The Flight Before Christmas” any day – I’ll stick with good old-fashioned “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”  Merry Christmas!

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