Theater and the Christmas Season
By Casey Bell
The pandemic (I know, you’re over hearing that word) has either caused the theater world to pivot or shut down completely. Either or, the theater world is not the same as it once was. Theater has always been that subject considered not a necessity, in the school system, and not a real job, in the world system. But, in this season, the Christmas season, we must not forget, without theatre we wouldn’t have many traditions we still have today. Theater has forever been an influence in the world, but did you know some of your favorite Christmas traditions began in the theater?
Let’s begin with some songs.
My Favorite Things
“My Favorite Things” is not a Christmas song, but many people believe it is. It is a song that has been covered, I am sure, thousands of times, most notably, The Supremes’ version. This song originates from the Broadway musical The Sound of Music. This musical is based on a true story and takes place during the late 1930s. During the show the main character, Maria, explains (in song) to the children (her students) that in sad times, she usually thinks of her favorite things and it causes her to not feel so bad. One of her favorite things is “brown paper packages tied up in strings,” so people assume that is about Christmas. But if you ever had a birthday party, baby shower, wedding, retirement party, or any other special occasion, you should know that gift gifting happens in other occasions other than Christmas.
We Need A Little Christmas
Speaking of sad times and Broadway “We Need a Little Christmas” is technically not a Christmas song, but instead a song about Christmas. However, it is a song that has been covered hundreds, probably thousands of times by musical artists of all genres. The song originates from the Broadway musical Mame. The main character Mame loses her money in the Wall Street Crash in 1929 and to raise her spirits she decided to pretend it’s Christmas (because Christmas seems to raise everyone’s spirits). She then begins to sing the song to tell her servants to “Haul out the Holly,” in other words, even though it is not time to decorate for Christmas, let’s do so, so I don’t feel so bad about losing my money. In the script one of the maids yell out, “but it’s only a week past Thanksgiving.” It has been said this was the start of Americans starting to decorate for Christmas after Thanksgiving. So, if you think decorating for Christmas in November is too soon, then you can blame musical theater.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Meet Me in St. Louis is where this iconic song originates. Although not originally a theatre musical, Broadway was the influence for Hollywood films from 1920s-1960s. It wasn’t until the 70s when films began to be made more without dancing and singing. This song was sung by Judy Garland, who was said to change some of the lyrics because she disliked them. With thousands of covers, Mel Torme’s is the most memorable due to the Christmas film Home Alone.
Another film inspired by the singing and dancing of Broadway, Holiday Inn brought this iconic song to the American Christmas tradition. This is another song that gets covered every year and is played on many radio station from November to January 1.
Not only has theatre influenced Christmas songs, but also influenced Christmas theatre traditions. One tradition is 95 years old and the other 128 years old.
The Rockettes was founded in 1925 and has been a staple of American Christmas tradition since then. I worked at The Radio City Music Hall one season and could tell people traveled to New York City from every country and every continent (well, maybe not Antarctica), just to experience those long-legged kicking ladies. I even spoke with patrons who had been going every year for twenty plus years and shared how each year there was something different about the show. They even shared which year was their favorite. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, this year, the show did not go on and the ladies weren’t kicking so much (they did get a chance to kick in The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade). Hopefully next year or 2022, they’ll be back kicking and bringing in the 90 plus year old American tradition.
Walnuts, Pecans, Brazil, and More
I am not talking about nuts, but the cracker used to get them open. Since 1892, The Nutcracker has been dancing into Christmas traditions all over the world. The Nutcracker was born in in Russia by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov (Choreographers) and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Composer) and has been a Christmas tradition all around the world since the 1960s. It has also seen many adaptions, from Debbie Allen’s Hot Chocolate Nutcracker to Mikhail Baryshnikov’s iconic Nutcracker. The pandemic has not stopped this cracker from cracking nuts. Theaters continued either with a small audience, a live virtual show, or a reshowing of past Nutcrackers.
The performing arts has made a wonderful contribution not only to the Christmas season, but to the world. Hopefully during this pandemic and after, more holiday traditions can be started to remind us that November is not the only time to be thankful and December is not the only time to be joyful. Every day is a day of thanksgiving and every season is a joyous occasion.
Have yourself a merry day and a happy season.