My parents were observant modern Orthodox Jews, but they instilled in me the need to respect other religions. They led by example: On the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, where the tradition is to eat outdoors in flimsy shacks in remembrance of the Israelites who wandered in the desert for 40 years, my parents always invited our Catholic neighbors to join us for a meal. In December, I would visit our neighbors and help them decorate their Christmas tree.
Christmas was always a special day in the Starkman home, in part because my mother and Jesus shared a common birthday. (My mother would have turned 97 today if she were alive.) My mother loved Christmas and the joyous spirit it once represented, and both she and my father loved listening to and singing Christmas carols. One of my vivid memories of my Dad was him belting out “Good King Wenceslas,” way off tune but he took such delight in singing it.
I, too, love carols and for more than 20 years I’ve maintained a tradition of listening to New York’s Lite FM on Christmas, which plays all the great holiday songs with little commercial interruption. The music evokes memories of my childhood growing up in Toronto, when few took offense if someone wished them a “Merry Christmas” even if they weren’t Christian.
Listening to “Deck the Halls” last night I wondered how it was possible that radio stations were still playing versions of the classic with the original lyrics, “Don we now our gay apparel.” I thought the cancel crowd would take issue with lyrics that might be misconstrued as a reference to clothing worn my homosexuals, and demand the lyrics be changed to “Don we now our ‘festive’ apparel,” which is what gay referred to when the carol was written.
Turns out the folks at Hallmark, a company whose branding prowess I’ve long admired, attempted to address the issue in 2013 when it offered a holiday sweater ornament emblazoned with, “Don we now our FUN apparel.” Hallmark got pounded but reading up on the issue I was surprised to learn it was the far-left media who attacked the company’s decision.
“Despite the fact that “gay” is not a slur, everyone knows what “gay” means in the context of “Deck the Halls,” and being in close proximity to the word “gay” will not turn your little children into little gay guys (not that it would matter if it did, but that would be weird as balls),” opined Lindy West on the feminist website Jezebel.
“Homophobic?” asked CNN anchor Carol Costello on Facebook, and then answered her question. “I say yes you are.”
Mike Pearl in Vice, who dismissed Hallmark as “bullshit sentimentality for the lowest common denominator,” posited, “Is the joke that ugly sweaters are flamboyant, and thus ‘gay,’ and now that we’ve changed the word to ‘fun,’ you don’t have to be gay to enjoy them? I’m seriously asking.”
Hallmark did receive some support in some left-wing quarters. Dan Amira in New York’s Intelligencer column declared, “There’s also nothing homophobic about acquiescing to the evolution of language in the same way everyone else has in their everyday speech.”
Hallmark issued a thoughtful explanation of the rationale for its decision. The company said in a statement that it created the holiday sweater ornament “in the spirit of fun. When the lyrics to ‘Deck the Halls’ were translated from Gaelic and published in English back in the 1800s, the word ‘gay’ meant festive or merry. Today it has multiple meanings, which we though could leave our intent open to misinterpretation.”
The statement didn’t quell the controversy, so Hallmark simply apologized.
“We’ve been surprised at the wide range of reactions expressed about the change of lyrics on this ornament, and we’re sorry to have caused so much concern,” Hallmark said. “We never intend to offend or make political statements with our products, and in hindsight, we realize we shouldn’t have changed the lyrics on the ornament.”
The family-owned company managed to avoid controversy until 2020, when it was revealed that Bill Abbott, who headed Hallmark’s flagship cable TV channel, had pulled an ad featuring a same-sex couple. Abbott left the company and was replaced by Wonya Lucas, who has initiated a remarkable diversification of Hallmark’s programming without offending anyone.
As reported by Emily Bobrow in a Wall Street Journal feature posted on Christmas Eve, under Lucas’s leadership Hallmark has made its first films featuring a plus-size heroine, a gay couple and a romance between people with Down syndrome, as well as its first Kwanzaa movie and a couple of Hanukkah films. The programming has been well received; in the fourth quarter of 2022, Hallmark remained the most watched entertainment cable network in the U.S., reaching over 44 million unique viewers, according to Nielsen data.
Hallmark’s recent “Three Wise Men and a Baby” ranks as the most-watched cable TV movie of 2022. Lucas achieved her programming feat because of her singular focus on creating movies that people can relate to and feel good about, regardless of their political views and values.
“For us it is about showing that there are common elements to every love story, regardless of who you are,” Lucas told the Journal. “I mean, we all want love, right?”
Lucas, 61, is the rare U.S. CEO who doesn’t seek to promote themself rather than the organizations whose stewardship they are entrusted with. Despite her programming accomplishments, Lucas emphasized that Hallmark embraced diversity long before she arrived.
“This 112-year-old brand leaned into diversity very early,” Lucas told the Journal, noting that Hallmark introduced Spanish-language cards and its Mahogany line for African Americans 35 years ago and sold same-sex marriage cards as early as 2008. “I’m just translating the essence of the brand into media.”
Lucas’s lack of self-promotion is what makes her so fascinating, particularly given her background. Her father, Bill DeVaughn Lucas, was an infielder with the Atlanta Braves and later was named the team’s general manager, the first Black GM in major league baseball. Lucas’s uncle was baseball legend Hank Aaron, who taught her to handle difficult situations with “calm and grace.”
Lucas’s mother was an elementary school teacher who later served on the board of Turner Broadcasting System. Lucas’s parents both attended college and expected her to follow their examples. According to the Journal, Lucas was a cheerleader who competed in math competitions and served as co-president of her high school senior class. Lucas had planned to attend MIT but opted to stay close to home and study industrial and systems engineering at Georgia Tech after her father died three weeks before she graduated from high school.
“My mother wasn’t in good shape, and I wasn’t in good shape either,” she said.
Lucas’s program diversity accomplishments without sparking controversy is in sharp contrast to what’s taken place at Disney, a company whose brand was once as revered as Hallmark’s but has declined markedly in recent years. Former Disney CEO Bob Chapek thought it a good idea to stick his nose in Florida’s politics and protest popular legislation prohibiting lessons about sexual orientation from kindergarten to third grade, but that misguided move cost the company millions in tax breaks and further alienated a big swath of Disney’s customer base.
Chapek was recently fired, but the Wall Street Journal’s accounting of the events and circumstances leading to his termination easily ranked among the most distasteful corporate stories I’ve ever read. The Journal provided considerable evidence that Chapek was stabbed in the back by Bob Iger, Disney’s former CEO who literally refused to sail into the sunset, and CFO Christine McCarthy, who the Journal made clear is quite the corporate operator.
Disney’s board is also despicable. Board chair Susan Arnold heeded McCarthy’s urging to fire Chapek just months after the board unanimously voted to renew his contract through 2024. Another Disney director is GM CEO Mary Barra, which shows the company isn’t all that committed to increasing shareholder value. Since Barra became GM’s CEO on January 15, 2014, the stock has consistently traded below the $40 it opened at when she assumed command of the company. GM’s stock closed Friday at $33.83. Disney’s stock this year has lost more than 40 percent of its value.
Multiple media reports have speculated that Iger’s end game is to merge Disney with Apple, which would net him tens of millions of dollars more to add to the estimated $350 million fortune he racked up working at Disney. The deal would ensure that Iger fostered the impression that no one could fill his CEO shoes at Disney. The company’s board will do what Iger tells them to do.
In a fair and just corporate world, Hallmark would be the more worthy acquirer of Disney, but as a private company it doesn’t have the stock currency to do such a massive deal. Sadly, in America, a corporate story where good triumphed over evil could only happen in a Hallmark movie.