Two Distinct Holidays: Celebrating Secular Xmas with Connor Ratliff

Connor Ratliff is a writer and improvisor in New York City. He is best known as a member of The Stepfathers, the warm-up comic for The Chris Gethard Show and the host of The George Lucas Talk Show. Ratliff’s holiday special (made with the help of Chris Gethard Show cohorts Keith Haskel and Rob Malone), The Spirit of Ratliff, goes online December 21. Ratliff is agnostic and perhaps the most passionate fan of Xmas I’ve ever met.

In your Tumblr post detailing the origins of the Spirit of Ratliff EP, you never spell out the word “Christmas.” When we transcribe this interview, should we do the same?

I think so. It’s funny, I was talking to someone last night and they were asking me about the whole special and the EP—I remember as a kid, people would say they didn’t like it when people spell “Christmas” with an X. I don’t know what the actual origin of it is, but I remember hearing so much the people didn’t like it because they felt it was X-ing out Christ, and they felt it was sacrilegious. That seems like a hostile act, whereas we were writing the songs I was making a point of what I celebrate being secular Xmas rather than the religious holiday. Even though they’re obviously connected, I do believe they are two distinct holidays that people celebrate.

It’s a visual shorthand, even though they’re pronounced the same way. I never say “Xmas” as a word. The X in Xmas is pronounced “Chris.”

The Spirit of Ratliff special is a spin-off of the Spirit of Gethard specials. In the past it has felt as though Chris [Gethard] was at the whim of whatever Keith Haskel and Rob Malone had planned, will this special have a similar feel or will it be entirely different?

I was making a joke that the first three Spirit of Gethard movies were like the first three movies in the Bourne Identity trilogy, and this one is like that fourth Bourne movie that Matt Damon wasn’t in and Jeremy Renner was. It’s of the world, but clearly not the same. Not a straight continuation.

During our first year at MNN when we were doing [The Chris Gethard Show], when it came time to take a break for the holidays Keith [Haskel] and Rob [Malone] said, “There should be a Xmas episode.” Those specials were shot in a way that Keith and Rob would do it, and I think Gethard’s involvement was that he would make himself available for the day they were filming. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have to do a bunch of extra planning or [Keith and Rob] would take advantage of his presence, put him through the paces, edit and finish it. It was a fun way of having a Xmas episode but it also meant for the most part that everybody else who worked on the show could have the week off. So they did three of those.

The show moved the Fusion this year, and Gethard is very busy and has a lot of things going on. I think they felt like it was time to try something different. Also, I’m much more easily available to film than Gethard is at this point.

Keith reached out to me a few months ago and said ,“We were thinking about doing a Spirit of Ratliff special as a spin-off to The Spirit of Gethard trilogy. I don’t know if you have any particular feeling about the holiday season or anything…” The first thing I said was, “I LOVE the holiday season!”

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I’m the kind of person who puts my Xmas tree up in my apartment in November. I have a little Xmas tree—you’ll see it in the special. I’ve had it for 15 years. I put it up on a table, and I put all my Xmas things down; I have ornaments that I’ve had since I was a small child. I’ll put it up in November, and I’ll keep it up until February. I don’t want to take it down in January. I start listening to Xmas music as soon as Halloween passes. So I have a lot of enthusiasm and also a lot of opinions about what I like and don’t like about the holiday season.

I immediately knew there were at least five things I wanted to do. I don’t think when they did The Spirit of Gethard [Chris] necessarily had an agenda with a bunch of stuff that he wanted to have happen. This one has been a little more of a three-way collaboration in terms of what was going to happen. In all three Spirit of Gethard specials they drive up to a Xmas tree farm and chop down a Xmas tree; that was part of the tradition. We were going to do that for this one, and Keith said, “We’re going have to rent a car because normally Gethard would drive in his car.” I was immediately like “Eh, that’s going to cost us money.” It didn’t feel to me like that was going to be as much fun once you started laying out $100 to rent a car.   

The [next] thing I said was that I wanted to write a bunch of Xmas songs with Mikey Erg. We’d been talking about getting together to collaborate on writing a song, and I said, “Wouldn’t it be great if Mikey and I got together and wrote a soundtrack for the special and we could make videos for the songs?” To me, that automatically connected to what Keith and Rob had done with Spirit of Gethard, to take the opportunity as someone who really likes a lot of classic Xmas specials and to do the closest thing possible to the kind of Xmas special I’d like to put my name on.

What was the highlight of making The Spirit of Ratliff?

It certainly was fun making the songs.

Basically, there’s three parts. One was the day Mikey and I got together. We had about three hours together that day. We blew the first hour just talking about Elvis Costello and other musical things, then we were like, “Oh man, we wasted an hour! We should’ve been writing songs!” We would get caught in the same conversation where we were talking about The Beatles and The Velvet Underground, and then we had two hours [left]. Mikey and I banged out about eight and a half different songs during that time. We recorded guitar parts for each of the songs we were writing and then a couple that had guide vocals on them. I went home and finished the songs—some songs, we would only have an outline together and I would have to add a verse here or lyrics for something here. That was the first day, and that was really fun.

The second day, Keith, Rob and I just went around Manhattan filming the special. The third leg is the part where the three of us are editing various parts of the special that will combine together to make the final special.

All parts of it were fun. If I had to pick a favorite it would probably be the third aspect of us assembling it together. I’m working with the songs I made with Mikey; I’m editing the music video portions of the special; Keith and Rob are taking their portions.

I just saw the first 15 minutes that Rob cut together, and it’s very fun to see what he did with the footage. In some sense, there were parts where it was just me wandering around Manhattan, and it’s fun to see what someone like Rob Malone can do with a few of hours of footage of just me wandering the streets of Manhattan. I think that’s my favorite part: I’m coming up with stuff that I’m showing to them, and they’re surprised by it, and they’re coming up with stuff and showing it to me. What we’ll have at the end will be a real collaboration of everybody putting in their segments of the show. What we’ll have is a very unified whole.

You mentioned that it’s specifically a secular Xmas special. Do you find any particular benefits to keeping Christ out of Christmas?

For me, I’m agnostic—proudly agnostic, in a sense that, to me, it seems like everything’s very mysterious. I don’t know what’s going on. I know for a lot of people faith is a real comfort, but to me I don’t find it comforting because it always seems like if you have a faction, particularly one you happen to be born into, it just bugs me too much that if you’re born in a family they believe one thing and their parents believe one thing and that’s where you were born, it feels to me that if I was born somewhere else I’d believe something else and we’d think that was correct.

Every year there’s this “war on Xmas” thing, this fake outrage that comes up about people saying “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings.” People who are devout Christians who might be angry—“Why can’t I say Merry Christmas?” There are people who aren’t religious who feel like there’s this massive religious holiday being forced down their throats. To me, it seems like the reality of it is that the Xmas that is most popular is secular Xmas. The things that are everywhere don’t seem to have a lot to do with Christmas, beyond the basic[s]: you have this time of the year where you celebrate with your friends and family, you exchange gifts, you’re together, and it’s a celebration of your loved ones. There’s something about that feels like, “Oh! This doesn’t feel religious at all to me.” Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, all these big things are so disconnected from the religious holiday that I feel like there should be some acknowledgment of the fact that there is this holiday that is non-religious…closely affiliated with this religious holiday. They’re linked, but I don’t feel like they’re the same holiday…you can celebrate secular Xmas and not consider that an endorsement of the religious aspect.Peanuts Text

A Charlie Brown Christmas is a good example of it. I love A Charlie Brown Christmas, and I do have a certain respect for the kind of ballsiness of Charles Schulz just insisting, “I want to have Linus read this passage of Scripture at the end.” There is something about that that I think is cool. However, I’ve never actually understood what it has to do with anything else that happens in that special. It’s always, to me, feels like a non-sequitur. You have this Xmas pageant that Charlie Brown has become the director of, [nobody] is paying attention, the play’s a disaster, they ask him to go get a tree, he goes to get a tree, and he buys the most decrepit looking tree in the Xmas tree lot, and when he brings it back everyone’s mad at him! Linus then says, “Lights, please.” They turn on the lights. It’s always seemed a little weird to me that there’s a tech in the booth. It’s a rehearsal, there’s no audience there but he delivers it out to us the viewers, it’s a very meta moment, and he then reads this passage from scripture and then he goes over to Charlie Brown and says, “That’s the real meaning of Christmas, Charlie Brown.” It baffles me—it’s this weirdly poetic moment but I feel like it really doesn’t change any of the facts on the ground for Charlie Brown. He still bought a rotten tree, everyone’s still pretty mad at him, they basically go and look at the tree and decide to make the tree look the nice, [and] they magically make it look nicer. There’s a little bit of mysteriousness in terms of where I’m watching that special if I actually choose to accept everything that happens in it, but to me the last five minutes of A Charlie Brown Christmas are baffling.

I always hated going to midnight mass on Xmas Eve. One of the first lines in the soundtrack EP in the first song is “No more midnight mass for me because I don’t believe in God.” That’s not me trying to be a smartass so much as that’s a genuine thing. There was a point where I was going to midnight mass, and it always felt like the one thing that stuck out is that I hate this part of Xmas. At midnight we go to church and church is packed; we don’t even know all these people who are going, because there are all these people who don’t usually go. I always felt like what does this have to do with anything that I like about Xmas? I never felt that connection. But I’ve always felt a connection to Xmas. To me, Xmas has been about family and friends and a way of marking the end of the year with a celebration.

I also love the weather in the winter, particularly in New York City. People also get mad at me because I lump in Thanksgiving as a sort of pre-Xmas—“we’re in the Xmas mode, we [have] a Xmas dinner a month before we have Xmas dinner”—the difference being that it’s just an American holiday, and pretty much everyone in America celebrates Thanksgiving, regardless of religion. Thanksgiving, to me, feels like it’s linked as a part of secular Xmas but it’s not linked to religious Xmas.

What’s one of your favorite Xmas memories?

I grew up in Jefferson City, Missouri, and that’s where I spent most of my Xmases, with one or two exceptions. Every family has a different pattern of how they do things. We always had a pattern which was we would open some of the gifts on Xmas Eve and then some of the gifts on Xmas morning. When we were kids it was divided up so presents from other family members were on Xmas Eve, and on Xmas morning Santa delivered presents. When we were little, we’d go out to eat at a nice restaurant on Xmas Eve. There’s a Holiday Inn in my hometown that has a restaurant that’s high up—it’s a restaurant in the round, the windows look out over downtown, there was an old man who would play the piano [and] sing Xmas carols—it was all very festive. After Xmas dinner we would drive around town and look at Xmas lights. As a kid my sister and I would get very frustrated—we just wanted to get home and open presents! Something switched once I turned 16 and I was able to drive. I took over being the person who would drive. By that point Xmas has a different feeling, when you’re a teenager becoming an adult. At that point, I liked driving around and looking at the Xmas lights. Now the tradition has reversed itself in that I still do that—I just want to drive around and look at all the Xmas lights, and everyone else in the car is saying, “Enough! We want to go home.” I have fond memories of that ritual from both angles—being the kid in back saying, “I want to go home and have presents,” and now being an adult who wants to see more of my hometown and the Xmas decorations while my parents and my sister are all wanting it to end.

There’s one street in my hometown called “Christmas Card Lane,” which is a bunch of older, single-level houses. They look like the kind of house that were probably built in the 1950s. Everyone on the street has an oversized Xmas card display, like a giant Xmas card, almost a mini-billboard that looks like a Xmas card. Everyone’s is personalized, like “Season’s Greeting from The Johnson Family.” I find a real charm to things like that. If you live on Christmas Card Lane, this is what everyone in this neighborhood does and people drive slow down this street for a month. I love stuff like that.

Do you think Spirit of Ratliff could expand into a trilogy?

I don’t know. Part of me wonders whether I may have used up all the big Xmas themes that I wanted to explore. I don’t know what a second one would even look like. It’s possible. I didn’t realize, until I was describing it to someone, just how opinionated the EP and the special are.Snowmen copy

I’m the founder of the hashtag #TeamEndlessWinter on Twitter, which is sort of a provocation because I like winter. It feels like everybody else likes summer, but I sweat all summer. I hate it. I hate summertime. I’m fine with fall and spring, but I’ve taken on the mantle of Team Endless Winter, sort of as a negotiating point. I’m not going to negotiate from autumn or spring weather, because then I’ll end up with a mild summer. I’m just going hardcore—that I want winter to last forever. That ended up becoming one of the songs on the EP. It also ended up becoming a sequence in the special where it was sunny on the day that we filmed it, and I hated it. There’s nothing that ruins a nice winter feeling like direct sunlight. It’s cold outside, but it makes everything look washed out and miserable. A cloudy sky in winter, New York City looks perfect. The buildings looks like they’re supposed to at Xmas time.

The last song on the EP is basically advocating for people to keep Xmas lights up until Valentine’s Day. Once you get through the 12 days of Xmas and New Year’s Day, I think it’s totally normal and fine to take down any Xmas related decorations. But I wish that in January and early February we kept winter decorations up—lights that look like snowflakes, white lights, things like that that aren’t specifically related to December and Xmas. One of the things that makes people so depressed in January is that everything looks so shiny and bright, and then, all of a sudden, it all gets ripped away and you have this very grey, bleak month of January. Sometimes when I’ll walk, there’s a street near the Upright Citizens Brigade theatre in Chelsea, right next to F.I.T. where they have white lights on the trees all year. I love walking by it, it’s there the whole year, it looks nice, it doesn’t feel like they left their Xmas lights up, it’s just pretty lights on the trees.

But it feels like I burned through the things that I had to say about Xmas. One of the songs is “Forty Year of Christmas.” To do a special next year is just an extra year. I don’t know whether I’ll have that much more to say a year from now than I have right now.

Part of me feels like I want this one to be definitive so that rather than doing another one next year, people might revisit this one. That’s my hope. They did a sequel to A Charlie Brown Christmas, and I don’t think anyone ever talks about it because you don’t need it. My real hope is that with holiday stuff, if you get it right, people like returning to it. No one wants a sequel to Nightmare Before Christmas. They made a sequel to A Christmas Story—again, no one ever talks about it. That must be a short list, Xmas sequels that people like. This isn’t a Xmas one, but there’s an obscure Dr. Suess special called The Grinch Grinches The Cat in the Hat. Have you ever heard of that?

Yeah, I saw it once on VHS.

Again, it’s not a beloved special. My memory of it as a kid who was seeking out obscure stuff was “Hm, that’s interesting.” But that’s a perilously short list—Xmas sequels that people have a fondness for. Usually you forget about the special or it becomes a classic, but it’s rare that a franchise starts. Part of Xmas has to do with nostalgia and thinking back to Xmases past. Everybody likes to do their version of A Christmas Carol—that’s probably the closest thing to a holiday franchise, but again, we like that it skews to the same formula. No one wants to know what’s the next chapter for Ebenezer Scrooge. They just want to hear that story over again.

Connor Ratliff's Xmas Cam (Spirit of Ratliff Still)
Connor Ratliff’s Xmas Cam (Spirit of Ratliff Still)

If people watch only one Xmas special this year, why should it The Spirit of Ratliff?

That’s a rough question because Bill Murray has a Xmas special out this year on Netflix, so I’m reluctant to even approach. That particular task would be a losing battle for me. I wouldn’t have done this if I didn’t think it was going to be different. Part of what excited me about it was that I felt like in writing these songs and doing this special, it was a very personal and interesting take on the holiday while still being in line with celebrating the holiday. That’s what’s great about pretty much any Xmas special I can think of, whether it’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, Nightmare Before Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, or, I’m sure—I haven’t seen it yet—A Very Murray Christmas, is that what we like about these specials is they’re all a very specific and personal kind of take. No one else other than Tim Burton and Henry Sellick is going to come up with something quite like Nightmare Before Christmas. You’re watching it and it’s like, “Of course this is how Tim Burton would approach Xmas, through a town of monsters that ruin it while trying to do it their way.” Of course Charles Schulz is going to create a melancholy Xmas special that has a little bit of hope at the end but still maintains that kind of sweetness and sadness. Dr. Suess is going to come up with something that has a moral to it but also goes in some dark and weird places.

Before you asked me this question this wasn’t something that occurred to me—that the point of any Xmas special is “Oh what’s this guy’s take on it? What’s this person’s take on it? What’s it going to be like to do A Christmas Carol but Mickey Mouse is Bob Cratchit and Uncle Scrooge is Ebenezer Scrooge?” We want to see these things filtered through a personal take. Not just for me but for Rob and Keith, a lot of the contents of the special are coming from my personal take on Xmas. The way that it’s expressed, Rob and Keith have their own personal style of humor. It’s not going to be like any other Xmas special you’ve seen, including The Spirit of Gethard. In those, Keith and Rob were behind the scenes and filming and editing them. Those specials were very much infused with Gethard, and in the case of the second one, The Hintmaster Hologram. These are things that were very much capturing the take of the individuals involved.  PortraitText

I can’t think of another special that’s going to have the same take on this holiday that I have. Just listening to the songs from it, you get a sense of “Oh, right, this is not Bing Crosby!” You can run it through the filter of “what are the other Xmas specials?” and I don’t think you’d find a match. Yet, it’s a piece of those specials, and they all have this shared thing in common:  at a base level, there’s a genuine enthusiasm and excitement for this time of year.

The Spirit of Ratliff launches on YouTube December 21st. Click here to like the special on Facebook.

You can learn more about Connor Ratliff by visiting his website and following him on Twitter @ConnorRatliff.

Interview conducted by Kevin Cole
Artwork by Kevin Cole and Briana Haynie

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