Star Wars has always had a powerful connection to Christmas. By age eight, most of us could identify a wrapped Star Wars figure at 20 paces or more. We could tell — just from the size and shape of the package — when only a thin layer of giftwrap separated us from vinyl Jedi robes. We just had a sense of these things. My mom also had a trick of giving hints in the gift tags. The Death Star playset my brother got one Christmas was marked “To: Chris, From: The Emperor.” Only now does that sound vaguely disturbing. When he opened it up, in a furious thrashing and rending of cardboard, the first thing we marveled at was how something made for trash disposal could look so orange and beautiful.
Star Wars has always been an easy fit for Christmas, partly because we all have some version of those kinds of memories. We all wanted the toys. We were kids — that’s how it goes. Mailboxes and newspapers were filled with tons of letters to Santa, just like these:
But it wasn’t just toys. Just as the merchandise was conquering store shelves, Star Wars was infiltrating other Christmas traditions. In my family, we would reluctantly get strapped into the Ford Crown Victoria station wagon to go downtown to see The Nutcracker. All over the country, other families did similar musical things, all dressed up in red coats and clip-on ties. But some were luckier than others. In Lowell, Massachusetts, the paper reported that the 1977 annual holiday concert would include “the score from Star Wars” as well as “Handel’s Messiah.” That same year, in Park Forest, Illinois, the local orchestra promised to play “traditional Christmas and Hanukkah music that will include ‘Silent Night,’ ‘The First Noel,’ ‘Siv ViVon,’ ‘Moot Tzur,’ and . . . the popular ‘Star Wars’ theme.”
What was going on back then that so inspired people to make Star Wars a part of the holidays? Was it the ongoing love affair between the public and a movie that had come out months ago? Was it the quasi-spiritual nature of the Force? Or was it Obi-Wan’s semi-Santa facial hair? Or was it just the obvious retail success of the films? It had to be something more. It had to be something more than just dollar signs. Right?
The answer might be found in the strangest Star Wars Christmas event I’ve ever heard of. It happened in Ukiah, California, less than two hours north of Marin County. In 1980, Frank Zeek Elementary School staged its annual holiday pageant. But the theme wasn’t a traditional one like “A Rockin’ Christmas!” or “Winter Wonderland” (or even “Christmas in Hawaii”), it was (you guessed it): Star Wars.
With an overflowing, non-union cast of 300 students (as if they could have kept anyone out) the “Star Wars Christmas” — a musical written by the principal! — must have been the coolest event in theater that season.
There must be a shaky VHS recording of this (wholly unauthorized) Christmas play in a closet somewhere. Somewhere. For now, all we can do is imagine what it might have looked like: at 7:00 on a Thursday night, the lights go down, the John Williams theme hits, and the bleachers explode in cheers. What was it like? Did they just re-tell the story of the movie? Did they sing traditional carols? Or did they add new Star Wars lyrics, like Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Tauntaun? (If so, some big kid in the back probably sang “Red-Guts” instead.) The end must have been spectacular: Vader and Luke going toe-toe-toe with glowing lightsabers in the darkened school gym, the light reflecting off the wrestling mats hung on the walls. Did they perform it for the rest of the school during the day? Did the kids call Matt “Luke” during recess? Did he sit behind Leia in Language Arts class and secretly like her? And, most importantly, did Craig Vader wear more than a white T-shirt? (let’s hope so).
That Christmas play was not about toys.
The amazing thing about the Ukiah Star Wars Christmas pageant is that it was not an isolated incident. Butler Elementary in Chalfont, Pennsylvania, also staged a Star Wars holiday show. The photo here is nothing but a smudge, but it is proof of some strange, past experience. Can you imagine what it felt like to get your picture in the paper as a Star Wars character?
I think that these pageants, and all the crazy stuff we can imagine about them, are why Star Wars has been so welcomed by the holiday season. Whatever your beliefs, Christmas is inherently about hope: whether it be for peace on earth and good will toward all, or just a new Y-wing fighter. Hopes can be small and big at the same time. They have to be, if we want to do anything real with them. I do know that wherever the actors in these school plays are now, I guarantee that they remember their experiences in these roles more than anything they got for Christmas that year.
Okay, unless they got a dog or something. Maybe.
Next year, Christmas will weigh heavy with Star Wars, as we look back, forward, and for the first time in years, directly at the present. Just like in A Christmas Carol. As we patiently wait for that, I’ll leave you with this, from Bob Dunning, a daily columnist for The Davis Enterprise. It ran in newspapers on December 24, 1978. You should totally read it aloud (trust me).
After I found this, I tracked down Bob and asked him where he got the idea. He said: “It wasn’t assigned by anybody, it just came to me through the usual pressure of a daily deadline. Star Wars was, of course, huge back then. At the time I was a single dad with a son, Ted (age four) and a daughter, Erin (age two). I wrote it as a Christmas present to them.”
Bob told me how this particular column, in the first year of his career, was picked up by UPI and subsequently ran in papers all over the country. He said: “I heard from a few folks in far off places who had read it, but in those days we didn’t have instant communication, so the only way people could contact me was by letter or phone. My son, Ted, (who was my ‘technical advisor’ on the piece) is now 40 years old and still has all his old Star Wars toys from that time long ago. He now has three little boys of his own who want to know all about it.”
Bob, who is still in the exact same job he had in 1978 when he wrote this, is now the writer of the current longest running daily newspaper column in America.
The last line is great, of course, but also says a lot about how this all fits together. It’s not about toys, not really. Not after all.
Brad Ricca is the author of Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster – The Creators of Superman, now in paperback. He also writes the comics column “Unassuming Barber Shop” at The Beat. Visit www.brad-ricca.com and follow him on Twitter at @BradJRicca.