The Covert War on Christmas

Friday A/V Club: That time Orson Welles tried to assassinate St. Nick


When radio was king, Norman Corwin's The Plot To Overthrow Christmas was a perennial holiday favorite, not unlike A Charlie Brown Christmas or How the Grinch Stole Christmas! in the TV era. In his great broadcasting history The Golden Web, Erik Barnouw calls the play "a holiday prank" with "one foot in the world of international plots, conspiracies, and coups d'état"; with the other foot, "it was an experiment in—and a playful comment on—the radio medium."

The setup is simple: Mephistopheles wants to destroy Christmas once and for all, because "as long as this continues to be/The race of man will not belong to me." So he gathers a gallery of rogues worthy of the jury box in The Devil and Daniel Webster and asks them for ideas. Caligula proposes poisoning Christmas candies. Simon Legree suggests bribing Congress to ban Christmas. My favorite idea comes from Emperor Nero, who declares:

I've heard just lately that men are giving the razz
to classical music by making it jazz.
They're swinging Bach and what is keener,
they're doing the shag to Palestrina.
As a connoisseur of music, of course I love
the works of Rimsky-Korsakov.
But today I note, with a bitter shrug,
they've made Scheherazade a jitter-bug….

If you take and swing all the Christmas carols,
why think of the evil! Just barrels and barrels
of sacrilege every time you play
a pious song in a profane way.
Why, once you entice them to swing Noel
then victory belongs to us, fiends. Well?

But the plan that carries the day comes from Lucrezia Borgia, who suggests that they assassinate Santa Claus. Nero gets the assignment and is dispatched to the North Pole, where—spoiler alert—he instead learns the true meaning of Christmas:

SANTA: Have you ever seen the beauty of a sprig of holly,
or felt for a moment how it feels to be jolly?

NERO: Golly!

Santa has a lot more to say about the spirit of the season—none of which, you'll notice, involves Jesus at all. This is every bit as secular a tribute to Christmas as those jazzy arrangements in Nero's discarded plan, a fact that I'm sure Corwin recognized when he wrote it.

The Plot To Overthrow Christmas was first performed on December 25, 1938, and new productions were periodically mounted in the ensuing years. The one below was broadcast in 1944, with Orson Welles as Nero. Pour yourself an eggnog and enjoy:

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. For other Christmas editions, go here, here, here, and here. For other editions featuring Orson Welles, go here, here, and here.)