Sunday Stupid: Get in the holiday spirit by watching a 1953 Christmas short that will forever haunt your nightmares!
You know the big ones when it comes to holiday viewing tradition. A Charlie Brown Christmas. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Frosty the Snowman. Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. There’s now such a set rotation of TV Christmas classics, it’s hard to believe that there were once antecedents to their yuletide primacy. But there were — the Christmas cheer equivalent of cave paintings. And it turns some of these ancient specials were absolutely terrifying, Loverctaftian echoes of a time before time.
In 1953 a half hour program entitled The Spirit of Christmas aired for the very first time. It contained two segments of marionette puppet stories — think the old-timey Punch and Judy stories, but with Christmas themes. One was a dramatization of the hallowed poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” and the other tackled the Nativity. While the latter has its issues, it’s the former that’s earned our attention today. Because this version of “Twas the night before Christmas…” gives Hansel and Gretel a run for their money. Pediophobes beware.
It all starts out innocently enough, with a pan of the doll-house living room set that’s going to be receiving a visit from Santa Claus this Christmas Eve — though the tolling bells might as well be tolling for thee, considering the horror we’re about to witness. Cute mice, also waiting for Santa. Kids nestled snugly in beds, visions of Nutcracker sugar plums, et cetera, et cetera.
You start to feel that something’s amiss when the father/narrator springs from his bed to see what’s the matter. He moves with all the life of Bernie of Weekend at Bernie’s fame. He’s not a puppet, he’s a corpse with someone jerking his limbs. And he’s somewhere right in the deepest Mariana Trench of the Uncanny Valley.
Then at 2:53 we get a look at pissed-off, drunk St. Nick. When he calls out his reindeer by name, it’s not whimsy that you see before you, but a deranged madman wildly gesticulating outside a subway station while wearing a stolen Salvation Army Santa Claus costume. Which reeks. Of urine.
From there I’ll let you discover the remaining horrors for yourself. Let me just make clear that I appreciate the creativity and effort put in by the makers of this special — Mabel and Les Beaton, two veterans of marionette puppetry who published a book on the subject. That it became an annual holiday rite, until others came along to elbow it aside, testifies to its connection with a good chunk of people. But make no mistake, when you see smoke rising from Santa, it’s not a charming effect meant to convey him puffing his pipe. It’s actually brimstone, which clung to him as he crawled from the fiendish hell-pit whence he came.