From Matt Cost and family, I’d like to say happy holidays to all out there. It’s a time of joy and family. Relish in it. That said, I’d also like to take a glance at the mystery of Christmas.
There is something exotic about the word mystery. A mystique if you will. And this holds true for the celebration of the modern concept of Christmas. I will not wander into the reasons for, or the time period selected, that it took for December 25th to be settled upon as the day to recognize the birth of Jesus. This post will, rather, focus on popular Christmas traditions that are actually based on the mystery model.
Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was initially the idea of a catalog designer, Robert May, for Montgomery Ward in Chicago, back in 1939. It became immortalized by the Gene Autry song in 1949. Nobody thought much of this short story for many years, but it resounded with people, and has since become one of the most successful tales in history. Why?
Rudolph is based on the model that has made mysteries popular for many years. Beginning with Edgar Allen Poe (The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes—proceeding on through Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Elizabeth Daly, Raymond Chandler, and on into the modern era of mystery writers, mysteries have enthralled readers for quite some time.
What is that model? Well, you start with a hook. A reindeer with a red nose who is a loveable underdog. You set him a task, namely joining in with Santa’s reindeer, but then you throw up roadblocks. The other reindeer are mean to him. They won’t let him join in any reindeer games. No matter how hard he tries, he doesn’t fit in with the others.
And then one foggy Christmas Eve, that narrative suddenly changes, and Rudolph realizes that it is not about his acceptance, but rather saving Christmas. Santa Claus taps him to guide his sleigh that night, and he saves the day, overcoming all obstacles in his way. And then our hero flies off into the night.
This model is more clearly seen in Frosty the Snowman, initially recorded by Gene Autry in 1950, and then made into a television show in 1969. Frosty is brought to life by the villain, the magician Professor Hinkle, by mistake, who then tries to reclaim his hat. The children fight to keep Frosty alive, first by taking the hat back, and then boarding a train for the North Pole, all the while being chased by the evil Hinkle.
A typical motif of the mystery novel is to put your protagonist ‘up a tree’ at about the three-quarter segment of the story, and this happens when Hinkle finds Frosty and the children in the forest, extinguishes the fire, tries to reclaim the hat, and threatens their lives. Frost and Karen flee down the mountain, only to be caught and locked in a greenhouse in a late-story twist that would make mystery writers proud the world over, only to have Santa Claus come and save the day.
This mystery model can be found in It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, Home Alone, and so many more classics. The mystery novel is part of our everyday culture and pervades all nuances of our life, even popular Christmas entertainment. This year, as you enjoy your holiday entertainment, ponder whether or not what you are reading or watching is based on the mystery model.
Happy holidays to all, and sleuth on.