Nothing says Christmas like Donald Duck … if you’re Swedish. Every culture has its own holiday customs, and “partially lapsed-Jew” and non-Swede Jeremy Stahl stumbled upon an odd one during a trip to Sweden. In the article reprinted below, Stahl explains the Christmas cartoon tradition.
Three years ago, I went to Sweden with my then-girlfriend (now-wife), to meet her family and celebrate my first Christmas. As an only partially lapsed Jew, I was not well-versed in Christmas traditions, and I was completely ignorant of Swedish customs and culture. So I was prepared for surprises. I was not prepared for this: Every year on Dec. 24 at 3 p.m., half of Sweden sits down in front of the television for a family viewing of the 1958 Walt Disney Presents Christmas special, "From All of Us to All of You." Or as it is known in Sverige, Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul: "Donald Duck and his friends wish you a Merry Christmas."
Kalle Anka, for short, has been airing without commercial interruption at the same time on Sweden's main public-television channel, TV1, on Christmas Eve (when Swedes traditionally celebrate the holiday) since 1959. The show consists of Jiminy Cricket presenting about a dozen Disney cartoons from the '30s, '40s, '50s, and '60s, only a couple of which have anything to do with Christmas. There are "Silly Symphonies" shorts and clips from films like Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and The Jungle Book. The special is pretty much the same every year, except for the live introduction by a host (who plays the role of Walt Disney from the original Walt Disney Presents series) and the annual addition of one new snippet from the latest Disney-produced movie, which TV1's parent network, SVT, is contractually obligated by Disney to air.
Kalle Anka is typically one of the three most popular television events of the year, with between 40 and 50 percent of the country tuning in to watch. In 2008, the show had its lowest ratings in more than 15 years but was still taken in by 36 percent of the viewing public, some 3,213,000 people. Lines of dialogue from the cartoons have entered common Swedish parlance. Stockholm's Nordic Museum has a display in honor of the show in an exhibit titled "Traditions."Each time the network has attempted to cancel or alter the show, public backlash has been swift and fierce.
Kalle Anka (pronounced kah-lay ahn-kah) gets its name from the star of the show's second animated short, a 1944 cartoon called "Clown of the Jungle," in which Donald Duck is tormented by a demented Aracuan Bird during a luckless ornithological expedition. The short is typical of the random violence of many early Disney cartoons. The sadistic Aracuan (regularly mistaken in Sweden for Hacke Hackspett, or Woody Woodpecker) sprays Kalle with seltzer, bashes his head in with a mallet, blows him up with an exploding cigar, threatens to kill himself simultaneously by hanging and gunshot, and ultimately drives the infuriated Kalle insane.
Watching Kalle Anka for the first time, I was taken aback not only by the datedness of the clips (and the somewhat random dubbing) but also by how seriously my adoptive Swedish family took the show. Nobody talked, except to recite favorite lines along with the characters. My soon-to-be father-in-law, a burly man built like a Scandinavian spruce, laughed at jokes he had obviously heard scores of times before. Nobody blinked at the antiquated animation, the cheesiness of the stories, or even the good-old-fashioned '30s-era Disney-style racism. (In the 1932 "Silly Symphonies" short "Santa's Workshop," there is a scene involving a black doll who yells "Mammy" at the sight of Santa Claus then moons the screen. It was eventually censored from the American version of the cartoon but remains in Kalle Anka.)
The show's cultural significance cannot be overstated.* You do not tape or DVR Kalle Anka for later viewing. You do not eat or prepare dinner while watching Kalle Anka. Age does not matter—every member of the family is expected to sit quietly together and watch a program that generations of Swedes have been watching for 50 years. Most families plan their entire Christmas around Kalle Anka, from the Smörgåsbord at lunch to the post-Kalle visit from Jultomten. "At 3 o'clock in the afternoon, you can't to do anything else, because Sweden is closed," Lena Kättström Höök, a curator at the Nordic Museum who manages the "Traditions" exhibit, told me. "So even if you don't want to watch it yourself, you can't call anyone else or do anything else, because no one will do it with you."
To Kättström Höök, Sweden's affection for Kalle Anka is tied up with older holiday traditions. "It's the dream of the old peasant village before people moved to towns," she said. "Kalle Anka is almost like gathering around the fire in old times and listening to fairy tales."
But how did these tales become part of Sweden's folklore? It was largely an accident of history, specifically the history of television in Sweden. The show first aired in 1959, when Swedes were just starting to own televisions. "You couldn't have done this in 1970," said Charlotte Hagström, an ethnology professor at Lund University and archivist of the university's Folk Life Archives. "It had to be 1960 when television was new." The fact that there was only one channel in Sweden until 1969 and only two—both public-service stations run by Sweden's equivalent of the BBC—until 1987 helped, too. As did the fact that, for years, Christmas was the only time when Swedes could see Disney animation—or any American cartoons—on television.
Over the last half-century, the characters and sketches have become as much a part of the holiday as the Christmas tree, so much so that each time TV1 has suggested modifying the schedule, public outcry has forced the network to back down. In the 1970s, Helena Sandblad, then head of children's programming, attempted to pull the show off of the air because broadcasting a Disney program didn't jibe with the prevailing political ethos. "Everything was pretty serious in the '70s and anything that was commercial, or considered commercial, was not good, was considered an ugly word," said SVT publicity officer Ursula Haegerström. After newspapers got wind of the plans to cancel the show, the station was bombarded with letters, phone calls, and negative press. Sandblad received personal threats. "That was one of the worst audience storms in our history," Haegerström told me.
SVT ultimately gave in, and Kalle was saved. In 1982, the network made the seemingly innocuous decision to replace one of the special's most beloved cartoons, the 1938 Oscar-winning short "Ferdinand the Bull," with "The Ugly Duckling." Again newspapers picked up the story and public outcry ensued. Munro Leaf's famous tale of a bull who would rather smell flowers than fight in a Spanish coliseum was touted by leftists during the Spanish Civil War and World War II as a parable of pacifism. That the message resonates with a nation defined by a centuries-long policy of neutrality shouldn't come as a big surprise. Since 1983, when Ferdinand was returned to its rightful place in the lineup, the program has remained largely unaltered.
Kalle Anke and Friends has made national icons out of its cartoon characters—Kalle, Ferdinand, Piff och Puff (Chip and Dale), Musse Pigg (Mickey Mouse), Långben (Goofy), Pluto—but also its Swedish stars. Arne Weise, who hosted the show live from 1972 to 2002, personified Christmas to two generations of Swedes. In 1992, when he attempted to get the network to record his portion of the program in advance so that he could spend Christmas with his family, newspapers got a hold of the story and helped scuttle the change. "We had recorded everything, but no way," SVT's Haegerström said. "[The] host was supposed to sit there in some sort of vigil over Christmas."
Weise claims that Sweden's stubborn insistence that he record live every year destroyed his personal life, blaming the show for his three divorces. "I wasn't easy to live with—I was in a bad mood out of nervousness before going on air, and tired afterwards. That doesn't help to make you a good father or lover," he told the newspaper Aftonbladet in 2007. During his final taping of the show, in 2002, Weise—whose history of alcohol problems is well-known to Swedes—claimed to have been "high as a kite" on the morphine pills he was taking at the time for psoriasis. The other popular national figure to emerge from the program is Bengt Feldreich, the Swedish voice of Jiminy Cricket and narrator of much of the program. Feldreich, a Swedish television reporter who built his name interviewing Nobel Laureates for SVT's news division, is now most famous for his impromptu rendition of "When You Wish Upon a Star" during the original taping of the show.
Lund University's Hagström faced her own Kalle Anka backlash in 2004 when she gave an interview to the Swedish news agency TT, suggesting that the widespread popularity of DVDs and cable television had changed the meaning of Kalle Anka for younger Swedes. The Swedish media sensationalized the story. The headline in the popular tabloid Expressen read "Is Kalle Anka on His Way out of Christmas?" Critical comments soon flooded online messageboards. But the next generation of Swedes may not quite have the same dedication to the special. Despite the consistently strong ratings, SVT's Haegerström could not predict how much longer Kalle Anka will last as a national institution. "I think that we will probably hang in there for a few more years at least. I see my grandchildren, you know, they're not as attached to it as their parents," she told me.
For the time being, though, Kalle Anka is safe. Sweden's staunch defense of Kalle against all attackers, perceived and real, suggests an affection that has long since transcended the circumstances that first made it popular. For many Swedes, there is something comforting about knowing that every year there is one hour, on one day, when you sit down with everyone in your family and just be together. "People always want to change everything, and make everything new," Feldreich, Sweden's Jiminy Cricket, told the Swedish newspaper Länstidningen in 2008. "And then, like in a fairy tale from when we were kids, there's something familiar." Kalle Anka, he said, "offers security in a confusing world."
Correction, Dec. 27, 2011: This article originally purported that the cultural significance of Kalle Anke could not be understated. (Return to the corrected sentence.)