The 1950s Holiday Classic You Won't Hear at the Mall This Year

New York Public Library

Starting around Thanksgiving, one can hardly run an errand or ride an elevator without being serenaded by Christmas music. The songs cover familiar seasonal territory—silver bells, open sleighs, roasting chestnuts—as well as a timeless emotion: desire. Just think of Eartha Kitt flirting with “Santa Baby,” Mariah Carey donning a Santa hat to sing “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” or George Michael pining for a lost love in “Last Christmas,” by Wham! But all of those romantic lyrics about wanting and wishing also happen to tap into a different, but no less powerful desire: the urge to shop.

Which is one reason there’s a holiday classic that those racing to finish their gift shopping won’t hear this year: “Green Christmas,” by Stan Freberg. When it was released by Capitol Records 60 years ago, the song caused a huge backlash from major advertisers, many of whom threatened to pull radio ads in protest. A young DJ at the time—one George Carlin—was almost fired for playing it on the air. “Green Christmas” (originally styled “Green Chri$tma$”) can best be described as a holiday choral jazz parody inspired by the narrative of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Updated from 1840s England to 1950s America, the 1958 track is set in an advertising agency where the company chairman is named Mr. Scrooge, and a client named Bob Cratchit wants to devise a purely humanitarian holiday message for his small spice company.

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In Freberg’s recording—which is part song, part extended skit—the color green refers not to environmental concerns but to cold, hard cash. At a meeting where clients have been invited to propose Christmas advertising gambits, one describes a plan to put up billboards of Santa Claus smoking his brand’s cigarettes and flexing a pair of toned biceps—one with a tattoo that says “Merry Christmas,” the other sporting ink that says “Less Tar.” When Bob Cratchit says he plans to send his customers cards featuring the three wise men following the star of Bethlehem, Scrooge at first thinks he understands the ploy: “I get it! And they’re bearing your spices. Now, that’s perfect.” When Cratchit says the card will just say “Peace on Earth,  goodwill toward men,” a fellow executive at the table mutters, “Well, that’s a peculiar slogan.”

As in a Broadway musical, the dialogue in “Green Christmas” is frequently interrupted by people bursting into song. When the chorus sings “Deck the Halls With Advertising,” an announcer promoting the fictional Tiny Tim Chestnuts intones, “Tiny Tim’s roast hot like a chestnut ought!” echoing the famous slogan “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” Mr. Scrooge laments that Christmas comes but once a year, adding that it’s incumbent upon businesses to seize the shopping season. Cratchit tells Scrooge that “people keep hoping you’ll remember” whose birthday Christmas celebrates, but no one listens. The song closes with a chorus of “Jingle Bells” highlighted with the sound of a ringing cash register. Cratchit’s disappointment echoes that of his namesake in A Christmas Carol, but instead of worrying for his own family, this Cratchit is concerned about the disdain with which Scrooge and his company seem to treat the buying public—which is to say, everyone. And unlike Dickens’s Scrooge, this one experiences no Christmas awakening.

Freberg, who was born in 1926 and died only a few years ago, knew whereof he wrote. In addition to being a successful voice artist, comedian, and writer, he was also a creative director who was widely credited with helping introduce satire to the previously irony-free world of advertising. He won 21 Clio Awards over the course of his career, during which he created successful ads for Heinz, Sunsweet Prunes, Jeno’s Pizza Rolls, Encyclopedia Britannica, and scores of others. One product you won’t find on Freberg’s credit list is tobacco: He was steadfast in his objection to advertising cigarettes. And there was, in fact, a Stan Freberg Show, which premiered on CBS Radio in 1957 as a replacement for Jack Benny’s program. Freberg’s stance on tobacco resulted in the show’s failing to attract a sponsor; it lasted only 15 episodes. In other words, the fact that you might not be familiar with Freberg’s work underscores the message of “Green Christmas.”

When the song was first released, Freberg was told by a Capitol executive that he’d never work in advertising again. The record was lambasted in advertising trade magazines, and caused advertisers to demand that their segments be played with a buffer of at least 15 minutes from the song. A station manager at KCBS-TV in Los Angeles described “Green Christmas”—apparently without irony—as “sacrilegious.” But Freberg wrote in his 1988 autobiography, It Only Hurts When I Laugh, that despite the attempts to limit the exposure of “Green Christmas,” he got loads of fan mail about the record, much of which came from members of the clergy who admired its message. About six months after the song’s release, Coca-Cola and Marlboro both approached Freberg to work on satirical ads, and though he rejected Marlboro, he ended up worked with Coca-Cola on a successful campaign. Despite (or perhaps because) of the controversy, Freberg’s career as an adman spanned decades.

The ruthlessly commodified landscape that Freberg warned about hasn’t gone away. If anything, it has only grown more insidious: Social media, smart devices, and native-ad content have made Christmas commerce impossible to avoid. The low-key, conversational tone of much contemporary advertising allows it to fade seamlessly into the background noise of daily life. The Mr. Scrooge of “Green Christmas” would be positively giddy at the idea of digital beacons that track your movements via your smartphone, then creepily show you online ads for the very thing you just shopped for in real life. And the fact that you tend to hear cheery Christmas songs while shopping is not an accident: Retail “soundtracks” have been a fixture of the holiday season in America since Muzak went mainstream in the 1950s. But retailers also understand that there’s a fine line between setting a festive tone in stores and driving shoppers crazy. Over and above sheer auditory annoyance, the tension between loving and loathing holiday tunes is just one facet of a long-standing ambivalence about Christmas and consumerism.

One vein of Christmas commentary holds that the holiday has become much more businesslike than it used to be. However one might feel about the ways in which the holiday today differs from that of a fondly remembered childhood, modern Christmas itself is as old as Americans’ anxieties about its alleged commercialization.

The way Christmas is now celebrated, with its twin focus on retail and childhood, is a cultural tradition that dates back less than 200 years. Even the way one imagines Santa’s workshop, which is superficially rustic but conceptually modern, contains a subtle critique of 19th-century capitalism. One classic depiction comes from an 1866 Harper’s Weekly illustration by Thomas Nast called Santa Claus and His Works, which shows Saint Nick sewing clothing for dolls, finishing wooden toys by hand, and consulting a hefty Record of Behavior—presumably to prepare for the big December 24 toy run. Santa’s portrayal here is like the Christmas equivalent of a Craftsman-style bungalow, or a 19th-century Gothic Revival building: It employs the imagery of a romanticized medieval past to disguise the guts of a rapidly industrializing consumer culture.

As soon as Christmas was transformed from a feast day—with festivities more akin to the carousing that now happens on New Year’s Eve—into a cozy domestic holiday geared toward children, adults became concerned that the focus on gift-giving would spoil children. Stephen Nissenbaum, the author of The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Our Most Cherished Holiday, notes that the publisher Horace Greeley took to the pages of the New-York Tribune (the paper he founded) in the 1840s, right around the time that Americans were reading A Christmas Carol, to admonish readers about consumerism defiling Christmas. The historically thrifty culture of the U.S. was being steered toward a new kind of consumerism, and direct connections between the figure of Santa Claus and a patriotic duty to shop during economic lean times were being made in print ads regularly by the middle of the 19th century. Promoted as a wholesome, preindustrial figure who makes toys by hand, Santa was the ideal figure to divert attention away from mass production; in some ways, he helped comfort a public uneasy about industrialization.

This kind of anti-commercial critique was all over the place during the economic boom time of the 1950s and ’60s—when “Green Christmas” came out. In Dr. Seuss’s 1957 How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the Whos of Whoville proved that the Grinch couldn’t steal their Christmas spirit, because it’s not a commodity that can be given or taken away. And in A Charlie Brown Christmas, which premiered in 1965, Charlie and Linus turned their backs on Lucy’s gaudy forest of pink aluminum Christmas trees, and celebrated the message of “peace and goodwill towards men” with a forlorn, nearly bare pine tree that sagged under the weight of a single ornament. This idea—that we need only one another, standing firm inside the eye of a powerful retail hurricane—is presented anew in some form each December, revealing something about a given era’s particular relationship with consumerism.

“Green Christmas” would have been a kind of thinking person’s Christmas classic had it been widely shared when it first debuted. Perhaps because Charlie Brown and the Grinch delivered their versions of the “Green Christmas” message in a softer voice—aimed (like the holiday itself) at children, and without taking such direct aim at business and advertising—adults were more receptive to it. After all, kids are usually not the ones making purchasing decisions, which leaves grown-ups to wrestle with the question of whether to indulge in a festive retail splurge or to adopt a more austere, buy-nothing ethos and suffer the consequences on Christmas morning. No store would dare play anything as gauche as “Deck the Halls With Advertising,” but Freberg’s holiday masterpiece is a timely reminder this season, not necessarily to abstain from shopping altogether, but maybe to at least think before we buy.