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Santa vs. Jesus: Radio City Showdown

Any American Jew can tell you that Christmas is a schizophrenic holiday. There’s the Christmas of Santa, a six-week shopping festival in which the nation’s stores become temples where anyone with a credit card can come and worship. And then … Read More

By / November 17, 2006
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Any American Jew can tell you that Christmas is a schizophrenic holiday. There’s the Christmas of Santa, a six-week shopping festival in which the nation’s stores become temples where anyone with a credit card can come and worship. And then there’s the Christmas of Jesus, a day in late December that for those of us non-Christians is somewhat of a yawn. Santa Christmas is a national holiday; Jesus Christmas is a little more exclusive. Santa Christmas is all about Macy’s; Jesus Christmas is all about the hearth.

At Radio City Music Hall, they understand this split. They’ve organized their entire show around it. The Christmas Spectacular, now in its 73rd year, consists largely of a veneration of the god of toys and the magical gifts he bestows around the world, with a special emphasis on the glamour of the big city holiday season. Theirs is a Santa who loves New York City so much that he’s willing to imperil the entire Christmas operation by spending December 24th in midtown, shopping for Mrs. Claus’s favorite perfume.

The show opens with a 3D number in which Santa’s sleigh dips out of the sky and swoops over the city, passing Lady Liberty, ducking through the Washington Square arch, and finally coming to rest at Radio City. The local references return in “White Christmas in New York,” a long sequence about the virtues of snow featuring Manhattan’s weather forecasters, the skating rink at Rockefeller Center, a glowing Upper East Side department store, and a gorgeous neon city backdrop. A crowd of boys and girls in bright sweaters rush around the crowded streets in front of a storeBloomingdales, maybe? while in the windows, Rockettes dressed as mannequins prose and preen.

In the audience, we’re all flaneurs, observing the movement of the metropolis. You could even argue that the anonymity of the matching kickline dancers suggests the facelessness of city crowds. And in the middle of this, Santa Claus, incognito in a trench coat, carrying his wife’s perfume, reigns supreme. The message couldn’t be more clear: New York City and Christmas go together like white beards and red coats.

If you happen to think about it, you’ll notice something missing from this whole extravaganza. Not once in the hour-long show does anyone mention Jesus. You might be mulling over this as the curtain goes down, in which case your questions will soon be answered. When the applause ends, the curtain rises again. Suddenly you’re watching a totally different show, and this one appears to be directed by Mel Gibson.

There’s Marywas she one of the mannequins?and Joseph, and a giant glowing cloud on the LCD screen, and a bunch of wise men leading actual camels across the stage. Nobody is tap dancing. And then a screen descends from the ceiling, and a voice intones:

He was born in an obscure village

The child of a peasant woman.

He grew up in another obscure village…

He never had a family or owned a home.

He never set foot inside a big city.

Jesus, in other words, wants none of your Madison Avenue poofery. All that big city stuff that Santa loves so very much? Jesus is so much better than all that. Jesus would never go to Radio City Music Hall if he were still around, and for some reason Radio City Music Hall wants to make that very clear.

The nativity lasts for less than ten minutes, and then the audience—small-town tourists, big-city locals and allis swept out onto 6th Avenue, home to Santa but not Jesus. Is this confusing? Hell yes. But it's also totally consistent with the American approach to Christmas. The Santa holiday is about how much we love to shop; the Jesus holiday is something else entirely.

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