It’s not easy to make art about Christmas. Among other things, it’s easily the most garish and surreal time of year. The only thing obscuring that fact is that we’re so used to it.
But if you take a step back and think about it for a second, you’ll understand: multi-colored lights everywhere; ubiquitous representations of a giant, rotund elf outlandishly dressed in fire-engine red and creepily seating children on his knee promising to give them presents — not to mention claiming to watch them even when they’re sleeping; equally madcap depictions of reindeer (somewhere between a regular deer and a moose, I guess?)
Three allegedly “wise” men or kings (one thing we’ve been reminded of in recent years is that wisdom and power are not synonymous); babies lying in food troughs typically reserved for cattle or horses; young (typically) women or women-presenting beings with wings and yellow circles of light around their heads; various vegetation that most of us are not remotely interested in (i.e. pine trees, holly, mistletoe) the rest of the year; snowflakes, red-and-white-striped candy; snowmen that come to life; all presented in a patina of decidedly delirious “holiday cheer.”
Then there’s the music. The music you can’t escape. The music that threatens to make your brain crack open like an egg weeks before the big day ever happens, especially should you have the misfortune to work in retail or the service industry. Just the term “Christmas carol” is baffling to me, because I don’t know of any other kind of carol. There aren’t Halloween carols or Easter carols or Fourth of July carols or Tuesday carols. So what exactly makes something a carol? Especially since all songs written about or for Christmas seem to fall within that category and none that aren’t do.
With Christmas carols, songs move into the ether and become “classic” without ever passing through “good” or even “bearable.” Schmaltzy, comforting, manipulative, nostalgic, precious, joyful, cloying, haunting, and occasionally, even beautiful and soaring, Christmas music occupies a unique place in popular culture. Even people who love it secretly hate it, and people who hate it oftentimes have some positive association with it, even though they would never admit that fact in mixed company. If there’s one thing about Christmas that is inarguable come December, it’s that it’s ubiquitous. Accept it or go mad.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Christmas. I am long since indoctrinated into holiday cheer. Christmas was a very big deal in my family growing up, and some of our favorite familial memories are wrapped up in the holiday. My partner loves Christmas. But, as an adult, I can objectively step back and acknowledge this fact that is obvious to anyone with a brain: that Christmas is actually insane. And whether you celebrate it or not, you are either swept up in the madness or have to actively react against it, there is no ignoring it.
All of which makes it that much tougher to make art about it. Rather, it’s tougher to make good art. Christmas art abounds. There’s no medium or discipline it hasn’t infiltrated, infested, corrupted, compromised or inspired. But if you have any semblance of artistic integrity or discernment, Christmas can be a minefield not for the faint of heart.
My sister is one of the smartest, most together people I know. Yet, for reasons too dark and twisted to comprehend, she is intensely enamored with Hallmark Christmas movies. If you’re not familiar with this series of films, that’s probably for the best. On one hand, I respect Hallmark movies for their complete and utter disregard of any pretensions of making “art.” “Saccharine” is an aesthetic choice. “Formulaic” is a creative principle. The movies have titles like The Christmas Ornament, The Christmas House, The Christmas Card, and for variety, A Shoe Addict’s Christmas. The jokes make themselves.
There is a real bent toward royal fantasy, as well: One Royal Christmas (which is different from A Royal Christmas, which also exists), A Princess for Christmas, Christmas at the Palace, and Christmas at Pemberley Manor. Presumably these are different movies, but I can’t be sure. Don’t want the word Christmas in the actual title? How about Let It Snow, Holly & Ivy, The Mistletoe Promise and The December Bride.?(Oh yes, weddings are a big deal in Hallmark movies.) But who am I to poke fun? Hallmark movies have their formula, their audience, and I can just scroll on. They are part and parcel of the Christmas money-making machine, and they do their job well.
Nor are the ever-present “Christmas specials” necessarily a safe area to trod for the art-deprived during the holiday season. For every acknowledged classic like A Charlie Brown Christmas or How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the original, twenty-minute, cartoon version) there are dozens of The Little Drummer Boy, The Year Without Santa Claus, A Chipmunk Christmas, He-Man and She-Ra: A Christmas Special (I kid you not).
Or, Cricket On the Hearth. Never seen Cricket On the Hearth? Lucky you. This truly bizarre holiday offering is based on a Charles Dickens story, so you can tell why the creators thought they were on solid ground. But not every work of art made by even an extremely accomplished artist is necessarily a masterpiece. Cricket On a Hearth has a lot of Dickensian touches: tragedy, class tension, social commentary, mistaken identity and shameless use of deux ex machina.
But I can only assume, at least based on this ragged adaptation, that it’s not one of his better works. The story follows a young couple in Dickens days (mid-1800s) who get married, and then the husband goes off to sea. He is presumably lost at sea, and the young woman is so overcome with grief that she is struck blind.
It gets worse. Her father, a toymaker who she lives with, is so devastated by this turn of events that he can’t or doesn’t work anymore. He just takes care of her, so they burn through whatever money they have and lose their home. Homeless, they are taken in by a corrupt toy-making mogul who, somehow, doesn’t have any toymakers – he’s just magically, evilly rich. He hires the toymaker but doesn’t pay him for his services: Instead, he gives the toymaker and his daughter room and minimum board in a run-down rattrap of a room.
So that his blind daughter won’t know just how far they’ve fallen, our toymaker protagonist lies to her about the nature of his boss and employment, and the state of their living conditions. She, whose grief seemingly adversely affected not just her sight but all of her senses, totally buys all of this. So much so that when the evil, snaggle-toothed mogul decides he needs to marry her, she decides she owes it to him. And the father is unwilling to tell her the truth about the mogul, lest he break her heart by revealing the lie she’s been living for the last two years.
We’re not done yet. An old man comes into their lives and he has some big secret that he wants to tell our tragedy-laden heroine, but he decides not to once she tells him that she’s soon to marry the most wonderful man in the world. Alright, enough. Of course it turns out that the old man is actually her husband, who did not drown at sea but disguised himself as an old man because … well, I can’t remember why, but he finally reveals himself to her, she marries him instead, on Christmas Day to tie it back into the holiday somehow, and everybody lives happily ever after. Even though she stays blind. Now, I ask you: Is that not the darkest, grimmest excuse for a holiday special you’ve ever heard?
Where is the titular cricket in all this? Oh, he’s there all the time. He’s the narrator of the story and a compatriot of the beleaguered family. But I realized early on that you could take him out of the story and not skip a beat. There is a crow or some other kind of evil black bird that belongs to the evil mogul and does his bidding, and the crow tries to do bad things to the cricket, even kidnapping it at one point and sending it off to sea (as you do).
The cricket escapes, somehow makes it back to the family, and is the one responsible, in some hackneyed, labored way, for the young couple finding out the truth about each other in the nick of time. In the midst of all this madness is a scene with a stripper cat! Or at least, a burlesque cat, performing a truly mind-bending number in front of a bunch of leering animals.
The music in this adaptation is truly awful, and stands out in that regard even though music in Christmas specials is typically awful. I tend to think music in Christmas specials is what white music would be had it never encountered the blues. Like Hallmark movies, Cricket On a Hearth is favorite of my mother’s that I will never understand, and makes me question myself as an artist.
All to say, it’s tough to make art about Christmas. You would think, with the wellspring of iconography and mythology, that it would be easy, but it’s not. It might not even be worthwhile. Do the vast majority of audience and patrons give a damn if their seasonal art is nuanced, challenging, subtle, or even good? I doubt it.
You can see a variety of approaches to creating inventive art around the theme of Christmas in Portland Playhouse’s A Christmas Carol, or the Portland Center Stage version of It’s A Wonderful Life: A Radio Play, or Portland playwrights Jocelyn Seid and Sara Jean Accuardi’s Fezziwig’s Fortune; or Willamette Radio Workshop’s perhaps less dramaturgically ambitious but always creatively satisfying version of A Christmas Carol. But there’s a lot more out there. And for the Scrooges who are trying to avoid being inundated with Christmas, there is a significant amount of art that has nothing to do with all-encompassing holiday: Fuse’s Theatre Ensemble’s bound-to-be-exciting Our Town comes to mind.
But don’t take my word for it. Go out. Experience some Christmas. Or don’t. Either way, I don’t blame you. And trust me, I understand.