Nothin’ says Christmas like anti-communist propaganda—or so I discovered this year.
My brother, sister and I did not have a normal ‘90s/early 2000s kids’ childhood. While our friends grew up watching the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, had PlayStation consoles and played Neopets, we (rarely) watched TV on a tiny old black and white set. We owned another (colour!) TV set from the ‘70s that had belonged to our great-grandmother, but it had wide black lines that obstructed the picture, so we used it for sound and played the black and white TV on mute for the picture. We didn’t watch current shows, either—Hogan’s Heroes, The Andy Griffith Show, I Love Lucy, Mary Tyler Moore and M*A*S*H* were all we really knew. Heck, I didn’t find out what a PlayStation was until 2004. I had always assumed it was some type of elaborate board game (I also initially thought that a GameCube was a light-up cube you threw around like a ball). Let’s just say that my brother, sister and I were a little out of the loop with our own generation.
But for me, my favourite type of entertainment as a child was old time radio. My dad was a big fan, and so I grew up listening to George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jack Benny, The Bickersons, Abbott and Costello, and Red Skelton. At the time, I didn’t realize that these shows were from my grandparents’ generation; I assumed I was up with the times. I would recite “T-I-D-E: Tide!”, “Maxwell House Coffee—Good ‘til the last… drop!”, and commercials for Raleigh cigarettes to impress my friends, but they never seemed to get it—so our love of radio shows became sort of a shared bond between my brother, sister and me. Our favourite show by far was Red Skelton.
Every Christmas, my dad would dig out a well-worn cassette tape that featured all of Red Skelton’s Christmas skits from 1945-52. We would play it non-stop in the family van throughout December until we memorized the exact moment to flip the tape, the lines of George Appleby, Clem Kadiddlehopper, Cauliflower McPugg, Willie Lump Lump and Junior the Mean Widdle Kid (Oh you dreamer you!), and the music of David Rose and his orchestra. We would listen with suspense to Junior’s hijinks and the antics of all the other characters. Christmas wasn’t Christmas without it.
By Christmas 2004, though, my family had a new car—one that no longer played cassettes. As we traded the Red Skelton Christmas cassette for CDs featuring holiday music by modern artists, old traditions faded into new ones. While I still looked back fondly on Red Skelton’s skits, I never got a chance to listen to them again until this year.
On a procrastination-induced whim at the beginning of November, I typed “Red Skelton Christmas” into the YouTube search bar. I was hoping to find a few of the radio skits to look back on with nostalgia, but only one turned up in the results: it was the story of the Little Christmas Tree. I clicked on the link and settled back to listen to the tales of my childhood. The intro music was just as I remembered; the opening narration was comfortingly familiar and so was the titular character’s voice. The story went along with the tree as confused about his purpose as ever; Santa Claus, when he appeared, was just as shocked to hear the tree speak as he’d always been and the reindeer on the roof sounded the same as always. As my mind drifted back to the memories of car rides tucked safely in the back seat of the family van, I was unprepared to hear Santa utter the words “two of my reindeer were knocked out cold…by an Iron Curtain.”
Startled, I paused the video, clicked back a few seconds and replayed it. Sure enough, I’d heard right the first time. As the story went on, it became obvious that the skit had a very clear political message: Communists are heathens and Americans are the last ones to uphold those good Christian values. I was stunned. This wasn’t at all the narrative I’d remembered from my childhood. And so I did a little research. Apparently, Red Skelton’s Christmas Tree skit was included on First Christmas Record for Children, which came out in 1954. When the album was released for a second time a few years later, “The Little Christmas Tree” was not included because it was deemed too political for younger audiences.
I did some more digging and turned up many other radio skits that I’d grown up hearing. Listening with new ears, I found stories and dialogue completely different from what I had remembered. Some of them were sexist, racist, thoroughly politically incorrect by today’s standards—and were those unabashed commercials for cigarettes!? I hadn’t remembered any of that. What I had remembered hearing and what I had actually heard as a child were drastically different.
This discrepancy between what is remembered from the past and what actually happened is a defining characteristic in how we consider politics and current events today, and always have. While some want to “Make America Great Again,” long for the “good ol’ days” and the golden times of before, we forget that we are looking back through the rose-coloured glasses of nostalgia. I look back on my childhood with only fond memories of the radio shows that, in turn, look back to a time much longer ago—when there was still racial segregation, LBGTQ+ rights were non-existent, fears during the Cold War caused tens of thousands of Americans to lose their jobs in the “Red Scare,” women were expected to stay at home and be good housewives, and I could go on. These were not really “golden years” at all.
And it’s important not to get caught up in this rhetoric. While the world today is certainly in a mess (understatement of the year?), it’s not as if what we had before was any better. Everyone has hopes that things will get better, but how can we call it moving forward when all we’re trying to do is get to where we were before?
Editor’s note: After this week, the Brunswickan will cease publishing until the start of the winter term so that our staff can focus on their exams and final projects. We will keep you up to date on any breaking news that may happen during this period, but be prepared to go without your weekly digest of the Fredericton arts scene, V-Reds action and campus and community events until January. We thank you for understanding.
On behalf of the Brunswickan I would like to wish you all good luck on your exams and final projects, as well as a very happy and relaxing holiday season.
Emma McPhee, Editor-in-Chief, The Brunswickan