I had a dream last night. I’d woken up in the future, but it was a dystopian wasteland filled with hipsters and politicians fighting in a shimmering online battleground. Undead culture warriors shambled menacingly, chattering about rigged algorithms and “the media” to a roomful of monkeys.
And that’s when I started watching vintage Christmas videos on YouTube.
Next Stop: Nostaglia
It’s like a Twilight Zone episode where our bad future gets rolled back into a land of vintage electric trains. While there’s really nothing about Instant Maxwell House Coffee that screams “Christmas,” this nostalgic ad still takes me back to a more innocent time before special effects existed.
I want to believe they couldn’t find live actors, and were forced to improvise using nothing but clothespin dolls and a toy train set. And yet, there’s something oddly calming watching vintage videos, like we’re witnessing the past fading away in real-time.
Let’s see what else we can find…
Christmas Songs with David Cassidy
Just three weeks ago the world lost David Cassidy, who had been the coolest of the cool nearly half a century ago — a TV rock star for suburban kids in the 1970s too sheltered to join in the counterculture. Just one year before his death, he’d turned up on TV again, still singing in his own uniquely smarmy way at the age of 66, but this time the song was “Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town” — an aged former teen star making one last grasp at glory.
Reportedly his last words were “So much wasted time.”
But click on a few links, and he’s young and dreamy again — like a real ghost of Christmas past, reminding you to seize your dreams while ye may — and engaging in some grade-A Hollywood hokum. In a special Christmas episode of The Partridge Family TV show, there’s a flashback imagining the 1870s — in which 21-year-old David Cassidy plays “Sheriff Swell” (dressed in a mod pastel blue), to approving choruses of pre-recorded laughter. So much wasted time indeed.
And yet if you watch that episode all the way to its heart-warming conclusion, there’s a surprisingly poignant rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” at the end, in which Cassidy and his lovable TV family poignantly remind us that we all can be together through the years — if the fates allow.
And then they follow it with a mod, up-tempo version of “Winter Wonderland” where David Cassidy is young and cheery — as though the ’70s never ended.
When Pee-Wee Did Christmas
Once upon a time, Saturday morning TV was filled with magical and badly-animated cartoons for children — and even Pee-Wee Herman got a show of his own. It was so popular, he convinced the network to fund a prime time special all his own.
Nearly three decades later, it’s a real treat to discover this rare glimpse of Pee Wee at the peak of his game — shortly before his 1991 arrest, the cancellation of his series, and a long slog to rebuild his career over the decades to come.
“Christmas is that time of year when everybody just acts different,” he says innocently, to an interviewer from Entertainment Tonight.
“People notice more things. They’re a little bit more sensitive and just friendlier around Christmas… More tuned in to, you know, fellow man.”
Spelling with Razors
Sometimes YouTube videos feel like they’re creating an alternate timeline. And some vintage videos are like visiting old friends for the holidays — keeping one last moment of good will and charity for those nearly-forgotten fads of yester-year.
For example, I still can’t see the word “Noel” without remembering that surreal TV ad I saw as a kid with Santa gracefully rides on a three-headed Noelco razor over snowy hills — because, as their announcer explains, “Even our name says Merry Christmas.”
Though I never knew snowmen had such rigid gender roles…
How To Use Boxtops
60 years ago somebody somewhere actually thought it was a good idea to purchase national advertising to broadcast footage of a patronizing white man explaining how to mail in boxtops.
And if you successfully completed the procedure, Ivory Snow would send you some horrifically ugly Christmas ornaments.
Somehow I find the stupidity of this ad to be oddly reassuring. Because it’s an irrefutable reminder of just how very far we’ve come.
And that always gives me a glimmer of hope.
My Favorite Christmas Video
If there’s any way to re-purpose this holiday for our dystopian times, it’s as a reminder to take the long view, and hang on to your hopes like the light of a candle flickering in a stranger’s window. Change happens when you’re not looking — as the years keep on rolling by. As our mediums slowly evolve. As we grapple with who we wanted to be, and with who we’ve become — while yesterday’s broadcast sensations become tomorrow’s troubled former child stars.
Yes we’re now living in a strange new future, where last century’s spectacles are now pirated videos on forgotten corners on YouTube… And just one more thing to share with our copyright-ignoring friends.
In 1958 Walt Disney animated an hour-long Christmas special, and nearly half a century, the whole thing has resurfaced online. So for as long as it lasts — before it melts away like Frosty’s Christmas snow — you can watch the entire thing online, including the special’s grand finale, where all the Disney characters tenderly gather around just to hear Jiminy Cricket singing a special version of “When You Wish Upon a Star.”
I do believe that faith and hope are good things — and in troubled times, that’s when we need them most.
And if it takes a cartoon cricket from the 1950s to remind us of that, then so be it.