The subversive charm of 'Santa Claus is Comin' to Town' - Off-Ramp for December 15, 2012

Looking for a good Hanukkah TV special? Try 'Santa Claus is Comin' to Town'

Santa Claus is Comin' to Town

Burgermesiter Meisterburger. What else can he be but a Nazi?

I used to feel sorry for my Jewish friends at Christmastime, and not just during the slightly sad Christmas dinners we sometimes shared down in Chinatown.

What got to me more was the sense of encirclement I was sure they felt, as White Christmas, Silent Night, Adeste Fidelis and all the usual suspects erupted from every speaker in America, while Rudolph, Charlie Brown, and the Grinch invaded every TV screen. I was raised a Catholic, and sometimes all that makes me feel encircled too.

On TV, there was virtually nothing Hanukkah-related to compare to the annual Christmas hits. And when I thought about Jewish families, and especially their kids, this seemed like a serious lack. Because TV? It's still our communal hearth this time of year, and the essence of community is inclusion.

Well, despair not, children of Abraham, because I'm here to share an epiphany I had maybe 15 years ago, when I watched the big holiday specials with similar thoughts in mind. It turns out Hanukkah has its own annual TV celebration. A richly beloved program that's a cultural institution, and easily the coolest holiday show of all -- because it's gently subversive, and it hides in plain sight.

Ladies and (merry) gentlemen, I give you: Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass' 1970 masterwork Santa Claus is Comin' to Town:  an origin myth for Santa, and almost as Jewish thematically as the annual Chabad telethon.


To begin with--the villains. They're Nazis, okay? They wear Kaiser Wilhelm Pickelhaube helmets, and their leader is called Burgermesiter Meisterburger, and the accent it straight out of Stalag 17.

The scariest moments in the special are when the Burgermeister's minions gather up Santa's first toys just after they're delivered and then burn them in front of the children they were meant for, the way the Nazis burned books at Wartburg.

By this point in the film, here's what we know about Santa: he's a foundling, who was delivered to his destiny on a winter wind the way Moses was carried by the Nile in the bulrushes. The elves who adopted him are ruled by a matriarch: Tante Kringle -- the Yiddish word for "aunt."

So Santa? He's a Jew.

And he's increasingly a freedom fighter, bringing toys to the children despite the Burgermeister's anti-toy decrees.

Important to note: the Burgermeister is one of the few villains ever created by teleplay writer Romeo Mueller who isn't redeemed in some way. Mueller wrote the script for the Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer special too, and you probably remember what a softie the abominable snowman turned out to be. But even cartoon Nazis couldn't be forgiven so easily. So it's only when time marches on and history rounds a few more bends that the Burgermeister is forgotten.

And Santa and his ragged band? Why, they leave the land of their sorrows and trials, and make what can only be called an Exodus, across trackless wastes, to found their own Promised Land at the North Pole.

Call it Santa's Village, or call it Israel. What I call it is an ingenious exploration of one religious community's core foundation myths, using the syntax of another's.

It makes Santa Claus is Comin' to Town a rich, cross-cultural experience if you know where to look.

Just like a good Christmas dinner.

In Chinatown.

(RH Greene is a writer and filmmaker. His latest film is Vampira and Me.)


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