An otherworldly adventure from start to finish, Toller Cranston's 1985 CBC special "The True Gift Of Christmas" is at turns whimsical, dark and inspiring but never managed to be anything less than spellbinding. Full of the same imaginative dream like archetypes and choreographic concepts that made Strawberry Ice such a roaring success, "The True Gift Of Christmas" is compelling not only in its writing and performance but also in the folklore represented in the underlying story.
The story opens with a young runaway named Chris (played by child actor David Hebert) stumbling upon a ceremonial rite portrayed on ice by an ensemble cast including 1980 Olympic Gold Medallist Robin Cousins and 1984 Olympic Silver Medallists Kitty Carruthers. Wearing elaborate theatrical masks and bearing torches, the eerie scene pays tribute to the first Christmas tree which according to folklore came to be in the eighth century A.D. when St. Boniface was converting Germanic tribes to Christianity. These tribes worshipped oak trees and decorated them in celebration of the Winter Solstice. St. Boniface is storied to have cut down one an enormous oak tree that was central to the tribe's worship and instead, a fir tree grew in its place. The evergreen was then seen as a symbol of Christianity and the converted Germans decorated the tree in celebration of Christmas.
In the dreamlike fog, Chris meets and befriends a woman named Befana (played by Gemini award winning actress Martha Gibson) and quickly learns that she is stuck in a kind of limbo or "purgatory" where every year from midnight on Christmas Eve until dawn she roams this dreamland in search of a "true gift". Her character and back story is elaborated on and we learn that Befana is THE Befana of Italian folklore and holiday tradition. Her story is well explained on the website Italian-Link: "Legend has it that on the 12th night of Christmas (January 5th) the 3 Wise Men, on their search for the baby Jesus, asked 'La Befana' to join them in their quest. She initially declined, stating she had too much housework to do. She later changed her mind and went looking for the 3 Wise Men and the baby Jesus, but was unable to find them. Therefore, every year, on the night of January 5th, 'La Befana', will travel on her magic broom, to every house in Italy in search of the baby Jesus bringing gifts. Climbing down the chimneys, she brings candy (“caramele”) or fruit to the children that were good and black coal ('carbone'), onions or garlic to the children that were naughty. The children will leave out their stockings, and even their shoes, hoping to awake on the morning of January 6th to some 'caramele'. Similar to the Santa Claus tradition, many of the children will write notes to 'La Befana' and even leave out food and wine for her (sausages and broccoli in some parts of Italy). It is a tradition that is still strong in Italy with many stores selling stockings, mostly red, but sometimes even sand-colored, for the children to leave out for 'La Befana'. It is a fairy-tale story of the good witch/bad witch, depending on how you behaved during the past year. After her arrival, there are many parties and Italians will celebrate going from house to house celebrating the bonds of family and friends." Befana's freedom from this limbo (and we soon learn Chris' as well) hinges of Befana's ability to find and give a "true gift" and the various characters they meet along the way all seem to provide a piece of to the puzzle of what "a true gift" means, although Chris is much more adept at picking up on (or choosing to hear) the not so subtle clues along the way. Noting the mystique of their dreamlike environment, Befana exclaims "once you end up here, time and place don't mean anything". Their goal is to find the three wise men and 'the child king' and give them this "true gift".
They are first interrupted by Krampus, a beast-like creature who in Austrian folklore is said to reward good children but punish bad ones by putting them in his sack, carrying them back to his lair and having them for supper. They don't screw around over there, do they? Like the first story depicted on ice, Krampus also has his roots in early Germanic tribal culture. Before long, Chris (who being a runaway is 'bad') is saved by a Danish elf played by Sarah Kawahara and Befana and Chris continue on their not so merry way.
They next encounter "The Spirit Of Christmas", a recurring narrator like character played by Toller Cranston who is very reminiscent of Pan from A Midsummer Night's Dream in a way and speaks in cryptic rhymes illustrating the lessons to be learned about what a "true gift" is along the way. They then meet these psychedelic optical illusion skating canes and Saint Nicholas and his companion Black Peter (Zwarte Piet). In Charles Truehart's 1999 Washington Post article "Dutch uestion St. Nick's Sidekick", he explains the Black Peter tradition in the Netherlands: "Black Peter has for centuries terrified Dutch children as the ultimate boogeyman of nightmares and parental threats. He is Sinterklaas's dark alter ego, his enforcer and his bagman. If you have been a good child, Black Peter will give you goodies from his bag. If you have been a naughty child, Black Peter will put you in his sack and take you away - to Spain!"
The unlikely duo of Chris and Befana next face a scene of British soldiers and Befana explains that the scene depicts a two hundred year period in British history when as a result of Oliver Cromwell's rule Christmas was in fact prohibited. The Cromwell Association elaborates and explains that this isn't exactly the whole story: ""It is a common myth that Cromwell personally ‘banned’ Christmas during the mid seventeenth century. Instead, it was the broader Godly or parliamentary party, working through and within the elected parliament, which in the 1640s clamped down on the celebration of Christmas and other saints’ and holy days, a prohibition which remained in force on paper and more fitfully in practice until the Restoration of 1660. There is no sign that Cromwell personally played a particularly large or prominent role in formulating or advancing the various pieces of legislation and other documents which restricted the celebration of Christmas, though from what we know of his faith and beliefs it is likely that he was sympathetic towards and supported such measures, and as Lord Protector from December 1653 until his death in September 1658 he supported the enforcement of the existing measures... Although in theory and on paper the celebration of Christmas had been abolished, in practice it seems that many people continued to mark 25 December as a day of religious significance and as a secular holiday. Semi-clandestine religious services marking Christ’s nativity continued to be held on 25 December, and the secular elements of the day also continued to occur – on 25 December 1656 MPs were unhappy because they had got little sleep the previous night through the noise of their neighbours’ ‘preparations for this foolish day’s solemnity’ and because as they walked in that morning they had seen ‘not a shop open, nor a creature stirring’ in London. During the late 1640s attempts to prevent public celebrations and to force shops and businesses to stay open had led to violent confrontations between supporters and opponents of Christmas in many towns, including London, Canterbury, Bury St Edmunds and Norwich. Many writers continued to argue in print (usually anonymously) that it was proper to mark Christ’s birth on 25 December and that the secular government had no right to interfere, and it is likely that in practice many people in mid seventeenth century England and Wales continued to mark both the religious and the secular aspects of the Christmas holiday. At the Restoration not only the Directory of Public Worship but also all the other legislation of the period 1642-60 was declared null and void and swept away, and both the religious and the secular elements of the full Twelve Days of Christmas could once again be celebrated openly, in public and with renewed exuberance and wide popular support. The attack on Christmas had failed." Lightening the mood significantly in perhaps one of the more memorable scenes in the entire production, Befana and Chris meet two British merrymakers who sing and skate to a nonsensical song about food and Christmas meals called "Nothing Matters". It is comical, truly bizarre and absolutely unforgettable.
A brief scene develops with these beautiful faceless skating poinsettias! Sarah Kawahara talked about this scene in my March 2014 interview with her: "It was an out of body experience for Jojo Starbuck and I to be poinsettia flowers with our heads as portions of the stamen and our arms, the petals." It's truly just beautiful. In the final main scene before a storm stirred up by Toller's Pan-like character, we are taken to an early Russian Christmas scene with some beautiful skating by Kitty and Peter Carruthers and Kawahara. In this storm, Befana loses her bag of gifts that she's been almost obsessive over collecting in search of a "true gift" to give "the child King" and Befana and Chris encounter a frozen girl who Chris recognizes as The Little Match Girl. "The Little Match Girl", a story written by Danish children's author Hans Christian Andersen, tells the tale of a poor girl selling matches in the street who is already suffering from early hypothermia but is afraid to go home because her father will beat her for not selling any matches. She lights the matches to warm herself and as she slowly dies, sees many Christmas related visions and finally her deceased grandmother. She strikes match after match to keep the vision of her grandmother alive for as long as possible until her grandmother takes her soul to heaven. Passersby take pity on the poor girl when they find her dead in a nook the following morning. Drawing from this city, Chris finally gets through to Befana that a "true gift" is one given unselfishly without one expected in return and she wraps her shawl around the frozen girl who comes to life and skates brilliantly.
A final banquet scene set to "O Holy Night" features Chris, Befana and the entire skating cast - Cranston, Cousins, Kawahara, the Carruthers', Starbuck and partner Ken Shelley, Norbert Schramm, Simone Grigorescu-Alexander and Shelley MacLeod and John S. Rait. The skating itself in this scene is wonderfully choreographed by Cranston and Kawahara and brings a joyous conclusion to an at times dark but wonderfully told plot line. Kawahara looked back fondly on Cranston's vision for the production: "He was very driven by music, although the story always came first. Toller has a wonderful sense of humor and loves the absurd. I'll never forget when he wanted to have synchronized swimmers as shrimp in the tomato soup at the Christmas banquet". Following the final scene, as Befana has given her "true gift" she is freed from her holiday limbo and Chris awakens in the bedroom that he ran away from in wonder and no doubt more appreciation for what the real holiday spirit is all about.
It's no secret I am a huge fan of Toller's body of work as a skater and artist, but I'm hardly the only one. In Kelli Lawrence's book "Skating On Air: The Broadcast History Of An Olympic Marquee Sport", even Kurt Browning talks about the impact of Toller's early TV specials: "My mother and I enjoyed watching his specials and were amazed by everything about them. They were an adventure in skating!" With cinematography, choreography and concepts far beyond their time and creatively far superior to the majority of televised holiday figure skating fare that hits our televisions these days, "The True Gift Of Christmas" was an absolute treasure and is one worth taking the time to revisit and celebrate. It's a gift in itself!
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