Selling The Bawdy Side Of Christmas Amid risque Santa suits and foul-mouthed holiday movies, is Christmas becoming more naughty than nice? Some people celebrate the season in provocative ways. Others look for deeper meaning despite the rowdy behavior around them.
NPR logo Selling The Bawdy Side Of Christmas

Selling The Bawdy Side Of Christmas

Singers Gabriela and Monica from The Cheeky Girls shoot a Christmas video from their single "Have A Cheeky Christmas." Dave Hogan/Gatty Images hide caption

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Dave Hogan/Gatty Images

First there was the nude model resembling the Virgin Mary on the cover of this month's Mexican edition of Playboy. Then there was the woman ejected from a New York Giants game on Sunday for wearing a suggestive Santa Claus costume — including fishnet stockings and high heel boots. And don't forget the myriad Naughty Santa contests being planned in establishments across the country — from the Pour House in Richmond, Va., to Sharkeez in Huntington Beach, Calif.

Everywhere you look, you see the naughtification of Christmas.

What started with Halloween — sexy princess gowns and racy French maid uniforms — is spilling over into the yuletide season. Target offers a skimpy Santa's Pet outfit for adult women, and features a panoply of provocative elf costumes.

You can listen to Madonna — the singer — purr about "Santa Baby." You can shop at Victoria's Secret, where you are urged to "Have a Very Sexy Christmas." Or you can watch Bad Santa, in which a bartender confesses to a potty-mouthed Santa Claus (played by Billy Bob Thornton) that she's always had a thing for St. Nick.

Sounding The Alarm

Some people are alarmed by the holiday's apparent transformation., a Web site based in St. Louis, is battling the adult-oriented commercialism with its own form of commercialism. The firm offers personalized video messages from Santa Claus that remind viewers of the religious roots of Christmas.

"Over the years," says company spokesman Karl Krummenacher, "the holiday has evolved; some may even say it was hijacked."

Krummenacher says it used to be a time for people to set aside their busy lives to make small sacrifices for each other, such as traveling home or making meaningful gifts.

Christmas today, he says, is often overwhelmed by the culture at large. The holiday "is less about truly loving each other and more about checking items off the list."

Daniel Howard, a professor of marketing at the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University, agrees that the true meaning of the celebration is getting lost in the blurring of the sacred and the secular.

"The Christmas season is historically a religious holiday," Howard says, "but over time people have separated the religious from the gift-giving and the fun — with greater emphasis placed on the latter. Today Christmas has come to be a holiday of self-gratification more than anything else."

And, he says, the lingerie and the lustiness fit in very nicely with that societal trend.

The Roots Of A Tradition

Originally, many scholars believe, the midwinter festival had its roots in a pagan observance of the winter solstice. Over time the holiday became a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. And for centuries it was a calendrical focal point —predictable and profound — for much of Western civilization.

That shifted in the early 20th century. The season took on secular meaning as a time of family-gathering and gift-giving. Merchants promoted — and profited from — the widespread largess. The centerpiece of nonreligious Christmas became Santa Claus — a jolly bearded fellow in a red suit — who was used to sell Coca-Colas in the 1930s and everything else since then.

Eventually, Christmas became an easy target for religious critics and cynics. And in the 1960s, says Daniel Howard, you could see the seeds of the holiday's metamorphosis in the cartoons of Playboy magazine and other places. Playboy has apologized for its Mexican-edition cover, but not for its annual Christmas gala issue in the United States.

Nowadays, Howard says, the profane approach to Christmas is out in the open.

The Naughty And The Nice

Some religious leaders think this development is not necessarily a bad thing. "Christmas was, from the beginning, both holy and horrible, sacred and scary," says Amy Laura Hall, a professor of theological ethics at Duke University. Referring to the biblical account of Jesus Christ's birth in a stable, she says, "There isn't an easy way to make it all hygienic, because the incarnation mixes God up with sheep poop and sinners."

The mysteries of Christmas, she continues, may explain why many mainstream Christians — as well as non-Christians — enjoy watching the seasonal movies, such as A Christmas Story, or reading secular tales like The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. "OK, full disclosure," Hall says, "I just read it for, like, the 20th time."

She says, "Some of us don't believe in Christmas unless we see that awful lamp made to look like a call girl's leg, or the dog eating the turkey, or that weird island of misfit toys."

In the end, she says, it's somewhat fitting that Christmas has become an admixture of naughtiness and niceness. The contemplation of the humanity of the holiday — as well as the holiness — may make it more real than ever. As Hall puts it, "We doubt, with Thomas the disciple, that a Jesus all spiffed up and safe is real."