When I bought my first Christmas tree as an adult in 1992 – I was technically an adult for about a decade before that but it took some money and a mindset change before I got around to acquiring my own tree; for years, in my mind at least, the only valid tree was the one at my parents’ place – I grabbed a demure 4 foot tall plastic pine tree (we love artificial trees here in Australia), some cheap colourful pieces of tinsel, a smattering of baubles and 4 or 5 Hallmark ornaments.
None of them were particularly pop culture-oriented but that was OK with me – I was happy just to have a tree up and decorated in my own apartment, just like a real grown up.
But as time went on, and I acquired more and more ornaments (and more and more and more ornaments …. you get the idea), I began to oh so subtlely and then with quite deliberate intent, buy ornaments that reflected my interests which were, and are, heavily weighted to TV, movies, books and music.
That’s not to say I didn’t start without any pop culture ornaments – Ernie and Bert, Big Bird and Grover were there from the word go, and remain with me still – but the collection increasingly came to be dominated by ornaments that featured characters from cartoons I watched growing up (lots of Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera characters) and movies and TV shows I watched now, and it felt like a natural evolution even if it didn’t divulge from the look and feel of a traditional Christmas tree.
Once I got over the fact that it wasn’t going ever to be a traditional tree largely because I am not, in most respects, a traditional person – save for my sentimental attachment to Christmas, the devotion to which knows no bounds – I became obsessed with tracking down Star Wars and The Muppets and Peanuts ornaments, Sesame Street tree toppers and stocking holders and Christmas plush toys from a host of retro and up to the minute cartoons.
I expected no one but myself to really enjoy the direction my tree decorating had taken but to my surprise people who visited my apartment during the festive period, which often included a New Year’s Eve party, loved the concept, partly due to nostalgia I suppose but also because the tree just looked like an immense amount of insanely-colourful fun.
Now I have in all actuality, decorated the tree long before this – as soon as my birthday is celebrated in late November, it’s time to “Deck the Halls, the tree, anything that moves and doesn’t” – but as in previous years, I thought I’d feature five of the ornaments and talk about why I love them, why the characters matter to me and how they came to be on the tree.
One of the first shows I ever watched on my return to Australia in mid-1970 – I came back from Bangladesh, where my parents had been stationed as missionaries, at the age of 4 1/2 and had no idea what TV even was; I was even, believe or not, scared of it at first! – was Sesame Street, a then-relatively brand new educational show for children, having only broadcast its first show on November 10, 1969.
Ernie and Bert actually pre-date the public launch of the show, having appeared in the pilot episode of the show in July 1969, which didn’t test well with audiences save for the cheeky rapport between the two best friends and housemates who naturally enough stayed for the first official episode and never left.
While I always felt a little sad for poor Bert who could never catch a break, and had a unnatural attachment to his pigeons, I couldn’t help but laugh at Ernie’s cheeky, blissfully unaware of the consequences antics, probably because my personality, though hemmed in at the time by the demands of being a Baptist minister’s son (trust me even then my true personality was curtailed!), very much matched his exuberant persona.
They were in fact one of the first characters to make their way onto my tree, or at least near it, after I discovered a delightful stocking holder of the pair sitting on a sleigh; but they found their own special place on the tree itself when I discovered these Grolier ornaments via Ebay which perfectly encapsulated the personalities and instructive mishaps of the hilarious twosome.
Thanks to the sheer number of ornaments I own, not every ornament makes it onto the tree every year; the exception, along with some other special characters, are these two which make it onto my tree year after year without fail.
JOE COOL aka SNOOPY
Snoopy is a bona fide legend.
One of the stars of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip, which began publication on October 2, 1950 – it had its origins in an earlier panel strip called L’il Folks in the 1940s which featured a prototype of Snoopy and multiple anonymous characters called Charlie Brown depending on the day – he pretty much stole the show on many occasions with his refusal to act like a garden variety, everyday dog.
Gifted in 1952, after being silent for the first two years in the comic strip, with the ability to think and “verbalise” his thoughts – he never spoke out loud but everyone seemed to know what he was thinking and saying – he soon took on all manner of eccentric, anthropomorphic qualities including a vividly imaginative fantasy life where he embodied characters like a World War 1 Flying Ace forever battling the Red Baron, a “World Famous” writer (“It was a dark and stormy night …”), grocery clerk and Olympic figure skater, and of course, Joe Cool.
I loved pretty much every persona that Snoopy adopted – Charles Schulz noted in a 1997 interview with Comics Journal that he took on these fanciful identities due to the fact that “He has to retreat into his fanciful world in order to survive. Otherwise, he leads kind of a dull, miserable life. I don’t envy dogs the lives they have to live.” – but one of my great favourites, apart from the writer one naturally, was Joe Cool.
Oh to have his confidence, his cool factor, his ability to be the centre of attention and not feel the least bit self-conscious (by contrast, living in the goldfish bowl of pastoral life, I was acutely self-aware every minute of my existence) – oh how I envied him!
So there was no discussion to be entered into when Hallmark came out with a Joe Cool ornament in 2012.
He might have been too cool to sit chemistry exams as hung around the Student Union but he looks perfectly at home on my tree.
I cannot express how I love the child-like joyful goofiness of Fozzie Bear.
There are many members of The Muppets of whom I am most fond – Animal, Gonzo, Kermit and Beaker to name a very few – but somehow I keep coming back to Fozzie (created and developed by the legendary Jim Henson and Frank Oz), would be Vaudevillian stand-up comedian and goofball supreme, who first appeared on the debut season of The Muppet Show in 1976, instantly winning hearts everywhere with his folk-ish charm, and sweet enthusiasm for his chosen profession, even if truth be told he wasn’t really that good at it.
No one cared really, beyond Statler and Waldorf, how funny he was or wasn’t when he performed his routine since he was, hands down, one of the sweetest, most likeable, loyal and endlessly optimistic characters that Jim Henson and his amazingly talented crew ever produced.
Having him on the tree was a non-negotiable but finding just the right ornament took some time until one day on Ebay, a collection of The Muppets characters appeared – no maker noted nor box supplied so to this day I have no idea how to track down more of the series – including Animal and Gonzo (who I also snapped up), and my beloved Fozzie.
As per usual when these one-of-a-kind opportunities present themselves I didn’t have a lot of spare cash but there was no way this ornament, which channels the joyful can-do spirit of Fozzie better than any other I have seen, wasn’t going on my tree.
Among my most cherished childhood memories are the visits my family used to make once or twice a year to visit my grandparents who lived about 11-12 hours away from us (we were in Alstonville NSW, a small town 20 minutes south of Byron Bay), first in Sydney and the on the Central Coast.
While the drive getting there wasn’t a whole lot of fun – I am a destination kind of person, not so much a lover of the journey to get there – the idyllic ten days or so we would spend there would be filled with BBQ fish, chips (fries) and salad, Sara Lee Cheesecakes, long swims at the beach … and early morning cartoons starting at 6am that included The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show (1959-1964).
The brainchild of Jay Ward Productions, it featured a cast of delightfully offbeat, one-liner rich characters such as Dudley Do-Right, Mr. Peabody and Sherman (“Peabody’s Improbable History”), and of course the titular protagonists Rocky the squirrel and Bullwinkle the moose who were forever being unsuccessfully chased by Eastern European-esque spies Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale.
The animation was brisk and colourful, the humour insanely clever and all it was all I could do not to laugh out loud when my sister and I were watching the show, especially when well-meaning but a tad clueless Bullwinkle was having to be saved yet again by the more astute and capable Rocky.
My delight then in finding that Carlton Cards had released a Rocky and Bullwinkle ornament – this was way back in 1997 which seems so long ago now – was thus beyond measure.
The only problem was that I was in Australia and the ornaments were in Canada in an era before e-commerce had really taken off so I did what any self-repsecting Christmas obsessive would do and I flew to Vancouver for a holiday.
Kidding. I was going anyway but getting this ornament was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.
Back when I was a kid, everyone still fully believed that by the then far-off year of 2014, we would be living in futuristic towers, have robots at our beck and call, and travel everywhere by rocket pack or fast-as-lightning spaceships.
Sadly this didn’t come to pass in all its retro-futuristic glory but I always soothed my disappointment with the idea that I could always watch Hanna-Barbera’s The Jetsons (1962-63, 1985-87), the original series of which was composed of just 24 episodes (although another 51 were made in the ’80s) and imagine what might have been.
Watching George and Jane Jetson, their kids Elroy and Judy, dog Astro and Rosie the Robot living an unimaginably exotic life in the far future was a fun way to escape the fact that I still have to walk everywhere, didn’t have a hoverboard to my name and had to wait for the food to be cooked rather simply have it pop out of a machine (oh the indignities!).
And even though the future may not have arrived in quite the form I had expected it to, there was no reason I couldn’t have it just as Hanna-Barbera had imagined it by picking up the ornament Hallmark produced in its honour in 1996 (I later acquired Rosie the Robot too making the set complete), and so I did.
Now if I could just get the tree to decorate itself … kidding again … there is no way I would forgo decorating the tree, one of the highlights of any year, which has become not simply a way to mark “the most wonderful time of the year” but to celebrate all the joy and happiness that all these pop culture have brought my way.
HAPPY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE!