Friday, November 26, 2004

What stays.

I can’t address Christmas as a media event or a marketing strategy, despite the fact that undeniably it is both of those things. It’s been a cliché for generations to say that Christmas. It’s easy to paint something with a broad brush, and that it the brush is sopped-up with paint resting in the corner in every room where a treatise on Christmas is considered.

Like any other exercise in virtue, the Christmas holiday is perfect as a manipulative tool. The expression “C’mon, it’s Christmas” is as overused as “But I love you, doesn’t that matter?” or “I thought we were friends, isn’t that something?” So let’s get it out of the way early- yes, all things associated with Christmas can all skewed wrong. Countless memories and associations with the holiday are the result of somebody telling you the way things should be (anyone who has ever endured a pre-Christmas shopping crush or preachy ‘the way it should be…’ speech understands this).

In an effort to avoid this trap, I have no convictions about what Christmas should or should not be. The only venue for my recollections is to put them into a much smaller context, into the box of perceptions and memories that is collected in childhood. The box is filled with fewer and few items later in life- perhaps, like any childhood collection, the true value or lack of value of once-loved trinkets becomes evident with age and experience.

But the items remaining in that box were, at one time, sacrosanct. This is the melancholy and glory of things past. The box remains, as do the items within. The box is never overflowing, and there must be some reason, in emotional or psychological terms why it is filled with anything at all.
I want to start with Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales because its the most impressive of the cultural touchstones that I associate with the. Bringing up ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ will leave the gentle readers thinking that this is all either camp or elaborate sarcasm, although the association with Snoopy & the gang is no less intense in my Christmas past than Thomas’ ”wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea.”

I don’t defend this or say it makes any sense, it’s just what has happened. This is the shifting, unreliable nature of memory- the exquisite childhood recollections of a genuine master of the English language (and a drunk, if you want to get snippy about it) and a full colour cartoon of arguably the most commercialized comic strip known to man, vying for space in my memories of a holiday designed to honour the birth of Christ. Yes, it’s nuts.

So why not accept it as nuts? The appeal to one over the other is the same impulse that makes you crave a simple plate of pasta and olive oil rather than an elaborate 5 course French meal, or sheepishly covet a cheeseburger when a healthy, nutritious and rather tasty collection of stir-friend vegetables is available for the same price next door.

But I digress…we were getting into the intellectually acceptable Christmas chestnut. If you haven’t read A Child’s Christmas in Wales, don’t. Find a recording of Dylan Thomas reading it (Richard Burton would do in a pinch, as would Anthony Hopkins if such a recording exists) and listen to the booming, Welsh bass before you take on the text itself. It’s one of the few examples of true oratory, the kind of delivery that probably died in days when Victoria reigned, or at least muttered itself to death because nobody could get away with it. Thomas can.

The piece itself is a short series of Christmas related scenes, sometimes narrated to a listening child:

“But here a small boy says: "It snowed last year, too. I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea."
"But that was not the same snow," I say. "Our snow was not only shaken from white wash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely -ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunder-storm of white, torn Christmas cards."

My mother, who has a touch of Welsh in her, would take out the worn and scratchy record usually on Christmas eve. It became a tradition rather late in my childhood and I didn’t care for it at first. My sister (an anglophile) and mother took particular delight in Thomas’ descriptions of his family, which get a bit twee (Auntie Hannah gets into the Elderberry wine, the dog was sick). But as I grew older, it was the lilting Welsh accent and the respect for things past that brought me back to the recording and the prose repeatedly.
"Were there postmen then, too?"
"With sprinkling eyes and wind-cherried noses, on spread, frozen feet they crunched up to the doors and mittened on them manfully. But all that the children could hear was a ringing of bells."
"You mean that the postman went rat-a-tat-tat and the doors rang?"
"I mean that the bells the children could hear were inside them."
"I only hear thunder sometimes, never bells."

So it is part of Christmas, due to its respect and affectionate longing for that sense of those snippets that remain, all parts of Thomas’ own box of half-wrapped memories.
I stole a piece of Thomas for my own father’s eulogy. It suited so well his actions during his final days, those stretched hours where, as his mind and body stilled, he spoke to and answered people who were not in the room. Those voices were real to him, in both his distant past and in his glimpses behind the curtain that divides us from those things gone which we hold dear. I said that my father was aware of the voices, of the sound “out of all sound, except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep.”

From tragedy to cartoons. A necessary leap.
The notorious Charlie Brown Christmas Special has a weird history- Schulz’s Peanuts gang might have been immortalized on T shirts and posters in the 60’s, but cartoons were another matter. His syndicate wasn’t interested in animation- it was expensive, hard to book, and mostly drawn overseas at the time. But Schulz had written the material for his friend Lee Mendelson, a producer who wanted a crack at animating it. Coca-Cola ponied up the dough, and immediately regretted it since they couldn’t sell it to a network. They subsequently ponied up less dough, right in the middle of production, requiring longer hours and less pay. Bill Mendelez animated it, painstakingly drawing a Coca-Cola billboard around the ice rink (since removed from later screenings).

The voice talent was even more complicated- Mendelson and Schulz agreed that they wanted real children to be the voices in the film, so they auditioned kids for their personality and the tone of their voices. Very young kids. Young enough that when the actual recording session began, many of them could not deliver pages of dialogue, let alone paragraphs. Eventually, a frustrated Mendelson took line-by-line readings and spliced them together. This explains the distinct, slightly ‘off’ readings in the film- their intonation isn't quite conversational, and the result might stay in your head because doesn't quite sound the way people speak (to be fair, it also doesn't have the halting quality of bad acting).

By the time it was done, and Schulz had convinced a jazz trio he liked to record the music (Vince Guaraldi did it more or less for free- they were allowed to keep royalties since nobody involved thought it would make a dime), CBS agreed to show it. Then the balked at the lack of laugh track and the religious overtones (even in ‘64- I guess it wasn’t Frosty). Then they relented. Balked. Relented. And finally broadcast it.
This is the part where you’re supposed to read that it’s entered television history, which is where I lose interest. I just know the broad story- Schulz’s work is held in usually high regard among cartoonists because it was genuinely cynical and philosophical in its early years, and did things that were not ‘cartooney’ per ce. He was eulogized by unlikely sources after his death in 2002, including Garry Trudeau (Doonesbury), Berke Breathed (Bloom County) and Bill Waterson (Calvin and Hobbes), all of whom have a greater cachet as ‘artists’ than Schulz ever did.

But something about his work (both cartoonists cited his earlier years in particular) obviously had enough kind of resonance to influence a Pulitzer Prize winners. In the realm of Christmas’ past, what matters is what remains- I don’t remember my Sunday school lessons from 1975, but I do remember a scratchy print of ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ and appreciate it even today. Not quite camp. Downright quaint and quietly religious, a simple just-on-this-side-of-the-border-from-preachy lesson about the ‘real’ meaning of Christmas that somehow avoids the clichéd whining that starts up at the start of December.

Not to say that Schulz nailed something that theologians have not, but as simplicity goes, there’s something almost musical in Linus’ line-by-line reading of the passage from the book of Luke- “And it came to pass, in those days…” etc. The rest of it feels like a security blanket where projects just feel like so much window dressing.

I sneak off sheepishly to watch the special because I saw it and liked that scratchy print at the age of 8, and still was young enough to think that the word ‘special’ and ‘television’ together was somehow sincere. The screening was special. The screening represented the wider Christmas and all things that followed.

And all commercialism complaints are duly noted, but so what if it was sponsored by Coca-Cola? Dylan Thomas was sponsored by Guinness in a somewhat unofficial capacity, but the influence is undeniable.


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