The director of the 1997 episode complained that TV executives are being "too sensitive."
If there’s one thing Scandinavians take seriously, it’s Christmas. And over the past half-century, in addition to all the family and religious traditions, most Nordic countries share a passion for what's known as the "TV Christmas calendar": 24 nightly television episodes that air between Dec. 1 and Christmas Eve.
Originally, the programs were strictly aimed at children; but over the years, the stories evolved more towards family entertainment, with some Christmas calendars becoming classics that generations of Swedes, Danes, Norwegians and others have watched each year as national and family traditions in their own right.
But this year in Denmark, one vintage episode has been pulled from the air because of a blackface scene.
First, for the context. Denmark's first Christmas calendar aired in 1962 on DR1, at a time where public television still had a monopoly. Since the introduction of the private TV channel TV2 in 1988, part of the competition between the national public broadcaster, Danmarks Radio, and its private competitor has, among other, relied on creating the most popular Christmas calendar.
A few years ago, both channels started producing a new Christmas calendar only every second year and recycling old calendars by reshowing them to reduce production costs.
Santa Claus for the ages
But this year, which also happens to mark the 60-year jubilee of the Christmas calendar in Denmark, a controversy involving this tradition is roiling Danish traditions.
Mette Nelund, the head of fiction at TV2, officially announced that the channel had decided to drop the Christmas calendar called Alletiders Julemand ("Santa Claus for the Ages"), originally produced in 1997, after rewatching it with a “fresh look.”
The episode is part of the so-called “Pyrus Series”, a four seasons ensemble from the 1990s that tells the story of Pyrus, a Christmas elf who lives inside of a box in the National Archives of Denmark with his elf friends Kandis and Gyldengrød. Together, they explore Denmark’s history, especially in connection with the traditions around Christmas.
In its statement, TV2 stated that “the Christmas calendar contains outdated depictions of people and culture,” with one scene in particular that might be perceived as offensive in today’s context: When a white boy, who has been painted black, is teased by some white children. In reaction, they are dipped in black ink and turn black.
“We take responsibility now, because we don't want to risk some children sitting out there feeling it's wrong to have dark skin,” said Nelund.
Marshmallows covered in chocolate
TV2’s official statement said the call was made after a long internal debate, but it might also have been spurred by a previous controversy. When this same Christmas show was last shown in 2014, the channel received a complaint about a scene in which the main character Pyrus sings and dances with three children who are dressed as marshmallows covered in chocolate, and therefore have black paint on their faces. Up until the late 1980s, this popular piece of confectionery used to be called “N-word bun."
We have a tendency to be too sensitive.
In an interview with Danmarks Radio, Martin Miehe-Renard, the director of the series, expressed his disappointment over the decision, arguing it would have been possible to edit out scenes perceived as problematic, a suggestion that was ruled out by TV2. The filmmaker added that “we just have a tendency to be too sensitive these days.”
The European controversy linked to Christmas recalls the heated debate in the Netherlands, where Santa Claus has a traditional blackface sidekick named Zwarte Piet, or “Black Pete,” who usually appears as a blackface character with large gold earrings and oversized lips. Activists in recent years have called on local parades to ban the character's appearance.
In the meantime in Denmark, TV2 already found a replacement for the Christmas calendar, and “Fairytale for the Ages”, the next calendar in the Pyrus series, will be shown this year. In one of the scenes, there is a holiday song that goes: "In China they say 'pingeling' (it's all good) every time they get rice." Hmmm? Seems Christmas sensitivities only go so far...