Editor's note: This is a special Wednesday morning issue, in an effort to get ahead of your holiday travel. We'll be back to our normal Tuesday/Thursday schedule next week.
Today in Tedium: Every year, I have a tradition that I've followed pretty religiously for more than a decade. Whether in its original form or in its Mystery Science Theater 3000 send-up, I'll watch the junk-culture film Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, despite knowing that the movie is perhaps one of the worst of all time. There's something about the film that warms my soul in a small way—the fact that the movie was clearly made on loosest of shoestring budgets, that it was clearly never designed to stand the test of time—that makes me keep going back to it. It's a dumb movie with bad sets and Pia Zadora, but it's one that survives to the modern day against the odds. Like a lot of holiday movies and cultural things, it may be the film's sheer disposability that makes it stick around. Let me explain how and why Christmas keeps junk culture alive. — Ernie @ Tedium
"Saying that Santa Claus Conquers The Martians is similar to Nightmare Before Christmas probably sounds like a statement explicitly designed to trigger nerd rage, but bear with us here. Pared down to their bare essentials, both are about the kidnapping of Santa, and both for the misguided purpose of bringing cheer to a benighted faraway land."
— Den of Geek writer Ryan Lambie, pointing out (like the evil geek culture writer he is) that Santa Claus Conquers the Martians plays on a well-tread trope, that being the kidnapping of Santa Claus for purposes of cultural indoctrination. More notably, the film also played an important role in introducing a common Christmas trope: It was the first appearance of Mrs. Claus in a television show or film, with the film's November release beating out the first broadcast of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer television special by about a month.
Why the holiday season is such an obvious nostalgia touchpoint
In the last few decades, we've become obsessed with nostalgia in a way that some could see as unhealthy, but is actually pretty therapeutic.
Think about this: When you watch Rudolph or Bad Santa or tune into one of the numerous showings of "24 Hours of A Christmas Story," what's floating through your brain as you're watching, knowing that you've watched this show or movie during a dozen or more holiday seasons in the past? Odds are that you're remembering how you felt those other times when you watched it, and the that feeling gets you into the mood for a holiday when you probably don't have to work and are able to finally veg out for the first time in however many years.
There's actually a variety of research to back this idea up.
Since 1999, University of Southampton researcher Constantine Sedikides has taken his nostalgic feelings about his time at the University of North Carolina and turned them into a full-fledged area of study in which he's the key expert.
“Nostalgia compensates for uncomfortable states, for example, people with feelings of meaninglessness or a discontinuity between past and present," explained Dr. Tim Wildschut, one of Sedikides' research partners, in an interview with The Guardian. "What we find in these cases is that nostalgia spontaneously rushes in and counteracts those things. It elevates meaningfulness, connectedness and continuity in the past. It is like a vitamin and an antidote to those states. It serves to promote emotional equilibrium, homeostasis.”
More specifically to television shows and movies, the 2012 research paper The Temporal and Focal Dynamics of Volitional Reconsumption: A Phenomenological Investigation of Repeated Hedonic Experiences, put together by American University's Cristel Antonia Russell and the University of Arizona's Sidney Levy, basically explains that the process of reliving artistic experiences repeatedly often is much more deep-seated than just reliving memories—and is often based on very specific, personal reasons, such as the emotions a work evokes and how we experience that work.
"The reasoning that people had for their repeat behaviors was far more complex than simply nostalgia," Levy said of the research. "For people to take time out of their busy lives to do something over and over again, the motivations required were usually deep-seated and poignant."
For me, watching Santa Claus Conquers the Martians isn't about watching the movie, really. It's a cultural marker, a line in the sand that reminds me of where I was each year. The first year I watched it, it was the first time that I lived by myself after graduating from college, and it wasn't a spectacular film by any means, but it touched my pop-culture qi—the things that I was interested in as a person and how much I enjoyed tuning in to the midnight movie simulcast where it was playing at 1:30 in the morning.
The thing is, we all have our ties to this content—whether it's Love Actually or Home Alone—and it doesn't have anything to do with whether it's good or bad. What matters is how we interacted with it in the past. In fact, a little schmaltz may make it more appealing.
The number of times that Turner-based networks, including TBS, TNT, and Turner Classic Movies have aired A Christmas Story since it first launched on the network in 1992. The number is based on an estimate from 2013 of the movie playing more than 275 times; since then, it has aired at least 36 more times, with the film airing 24 times last year alone, thanks to the decision to air "24 Hours of A Christmas Story" on both TNT and TBS last year. By Friday evening, the number will be up to approximately 335.
Retailers play Christmas music as an attempt to market to your nostalgia
So, fun fact about that "volitional reconsumption" study we mentioned above: That was not a study about psychology or your feelings. Rather, it was a study done by two marketing professors, with the goal of creating a touch point for nostalgic research. It'll come in handy for the advertising industry, which is trying to figure out how to have money come out of the nostalgia vending machine.
The holiday season is a really great opportunity to take advantage of such good cheer for totally selfish purposes. That's why Bing Crosby and José Feliciano are suddenly totally unavoidable when you're walking in the store or futzing with the radio: They know that when you hear their commercials or walk into their store, there's a chance that a song you hear might evoke a memory of a yule log or two and might make you nostalgic for your charge card.
It's also partly why shopping malls create giant displays to convince your kids to hang out with Santa Claus. While it gives kids something to do while parents shop, it also plays into a tradition that evokes something that your parents did for you, and so on.
Granted, retailers and radio stations can overplay their hands. The rise of "Christmas creep" is very much a sign that Christmas is a huge commercial holiday—and that Santa's sleigh is bringing gifts for more than just your kids.
And to be fair, not everyone is convinced of this idea: Motivational psychologist Ron Friedman argues that Christmas music has the opposite effect on some brains.
"While some shoppers adore holiday jingles, others find them utterly unbearable," he wrote on Forbes back in 2013. "And when the sounds we hear in a retail environment are perceived as unpleasant, we grow irritated and seek to cut our shopping trip short."
In a weird way, it kind of weaponizes nostalgia, doesn't it? Maybe that's a weird way to think about it, but we should probably admit that all this Christmas crap has a tendency to influence our decision-making, and we should at least be cognizant of that.
If you're a famous musician with even a tiny bit of mainstream success, one of the smartest things you can possibly do is to create a Christmas song or album that you write and produce by yourself. The tunes may not chart, but it's a long-term investment that could pay dividends for decades down the line.
Case in point: In 1979, Paul McCartney wrote a song called "Wonderful Christmastime," a tune with a rubbery, reverby synthesizer that Beatles fans generally hold up as the nadir of his Wings-era output. When Macca released the song, it was a decent-sized UK hit, but it didn't do much of anything in the U.S.
But you hear it every year, don't you? With radio stations looking to cash in on your nostalgia, they play the hell out of it, and as a result, Paul McCartney makes $400,000 to $600,000 on the song every single year.
By writing a song that he owned the complete rights for—from publishing on down—he basically built a nest egg of a song, you know, just in case those Beatles royalties dry up. He knew what he was doing, too.
You can create the worst movie or song ever, but if you make it about Christmas, there's a chance the nostalgia machine will put it through the spin cycle, and you'll look at it through rose-colored glasses. If you can pull it off, it's a gravy train, which is why even the late Scott Weiland made a Christmas album a couple years ago.
Christmas is the closest thing we have to a manufactured nostalgia machine—and it runs on your memories.