by Kevin Burton
Released just in time for Christmas season 1958 was the greatest Christmas record you’ve never heard.
“Green Christmas” was the inspired seven-minute response to the commercialization of Christmas by American media man Stan Freberg.
At various times in his long career, Freberg was an author, actor, recording artist, voiceover artist, comedian, radio personality, puppeteer and advertising creative director.
There could be no doubt about his scathing indictment. On his song’s title, wherever an S shows up in the word Christmas, Freberg replaces it with a dollar sign, as in “Green Chri$tma$.”
I found this gem not by doing research for the Flying Colors series (see Christmas Songs With Colors In The Title, Dec. 22), but because I am reading “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s,” by Gerald Nachman.
Nachman writes that Freberg was a Christian, the son of a minister, who deeply resented how Christmas had been taken over by merchants. He chose a hilarious way to make his point.
In the book Nachman quotes Freberg on the subject, “Outrage in its natural state is not too salable. The hard part comes in covering the social message with a candy coating of humor. Otherwise you end up as just another crackpot on a soapbox,”
Exactly. That’s what makes this parody so perfect.
The record portrays a meeting between ad execs, comparing notes on how to maximize profits by aligning their products with Christmas. Freberg borrows characters from A Christmas Carol. He refashions Ebenezer Scrooge as a wily ad executive schooling his clients and Bob Cratchit as the owner of a spice company in New Jersey.
Cratchit is the holdout who wants to help his customers celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, without cashing in on it.
“Christmas is something to take advantage of. A red and green bandwagon to jump on. A sentimental shot in the arm for sales,” is the rebuke from Scrooge.
From a chorus you hear snippets such as, “Deck the halls with advertising fa la la la la, la la la la. Tis the time for merchandising fa la la la la, la la la la,” and “We wish you a Merry Christmas…and please buy our beer!”
Those chestnuts roasting on an open fire?
“Say mother, as sure as there’s an X in Christmas you can be sure those chestnuts are Tiny Tim Chestnuts,” booms a voice, before extolling the virtues of the product.
Freberg made a living as a satirist. But the hostile reaction from the advertising industry to this record was immediate.
Initially Freberg’s label, Capital Records, refused to release it. When Freberg found another label willing to release it, Capital relented, but label President Lloyd Dunn asked Freberg to remove the name of Jesus Christ from the record and the sound of cash registers serving as jingle bells near the end.
According to the book Freberg stuck to his guns and Capital released it as it was, but put not one ounce of the company’s promotional might behind it.
Martin Block, the leading DJ in New York at the time, played the song twice. His station’s sales department threatened to fire him if he played it again.
George Carlin, working as a DJ in Shreveport, Louisiana at the time, was also threatened for playing it. Carlin reportedly told his boss “Green Christmas” was “the most moral record ever made.”
A Time Magazine writer told Freberg her article written in praise of the song was killed on orders from the sales department, according to Nachman.
Robert Wood, station manager at KCBS TV in Los Angeles, cancelled an interview with Freberg because the record was “sacrilegious” and he did not need to hear it because he had read about it. This according to Wikipedia.
But the mail Freberg got was overwhelmingly positive. And, within six months of the controversy, both Coca Cola and Marlboro cigarettes sought to hire Freberg to do ad campaigns for them.
Incidentally, the version of Green Christmas I found on You Tube has the cash register sounds but does not name the name of Jesus, only referring to “remembering whose birthday we’re celebrating.”
So today we remember the birth of Jesus and applaud Stan Freberg for trying to help steer the conversation from commerce to eternal salvation.