Please Note: If you’re in the mood for Christmas stories, check out the two books I just released: The Happy Squire: MORE Christmas stories to encourage and inspire and A Christmas Carol 2. Both can be downloaded for free or purchased at www.chaddavid.ca/books/.
Thirty years ago that title would’ve enraged a lot of Christians. Now, in our almost anti-religious culture, I’m more likely to upset crazy Mickey fans: “How dare you associate our beloved Mickey to the religious establishment!” It’s such a strange reality to me where I’m more likely to face prejudice for saying I’m a Christian than for saying… something else. I’m actually afraid of making a comparison for the potential of a passive aggressive attack: “How dare you suggest that this thing I do is somehow not right! You’re a shamer. I shame you for suggesting I should feel shame, and I’ll try to ruin your life for having a different opinion than I do.” (Is my view of society a little negative?)
For a good chunk of my life I’ve had two big loves: Jesus and Mickey. My love has been with a man and mouse… who wears pants because I like my mice sophisticated. I was recently watching the new documentary on Disney+, Mickey: The story of a mouse, and the idea hit me that Mickey is a lot like Jesus. The obvious similarity was how people being interviewed shared that Mickey gave them hope and that he was an example of goodness. On another level, Mickey is arguably the most recognizable figure/character from the 20th century. Part of his fame connects to his simple shape – 3 circles. It’s amazing how simple it is to make him recognizable. He’s the perfect marketing character. On top of this, real people can’t compete. For instance, Jim Carrey was massive in the 90s, but how many kids care about him now? There will even be kids who will see his star on the Walk of Fame, and be like, “Who’s that?” What’s popular for awhile soon fades; what was once relevant is soon replaced and forgotten. Even more, one of the weird realities of this Western culture is we don’t make celebrities the way we used to. There are so many options, nothing stands out the way it used to. For instance, name a band or singer who has come out in the last ten years who will have merchandise in stores thirty years from now like Gun’n Roses or KISS. Name a singer who is as recognizable as Brittany Spears. Taylor Swift has done well, but she started in the early 2000s. But even with her, I couldn’t tell you a single song lyric she’s done. I just know her name. I find our culture is in a form of Dark Ages for creativity because there are no universal leaders outside of some billionaire tec guys. In our over media-ed world, there’s too much information to really care about anyone that much.
There are many reasons for the fame of Mickey Mouse, but nothing was more important than timing. When Mickey came out, there were very limited options for viewers. In 1928, you had to go to the movies because TV wasn’t invented yet, and Saturday mornings the theater was full of kids. This led to universal excitement for characters like Charlie Chaplin who was the big name at the time. The second important factor for Mickey was “Steamboat Willie.” Walt and Roy Disney mortgaged their houses and cars betting on this film. It’s considered a landmark in animation because it was the first cartoon released with synchronized sound, which means Mickey wasn’t just for kids; he was huge for adults, especially tech nerds. Mickey was like the IPhone of his generation accept there wasn’t an Android to really compete with him or split interest. It didn’t matter who you were or what age you might have been, Mickey was universally loved. He was a comedian who had more versatility than any real person could have at a time when cartoons weren’t just for kids; they were part of the exciting technological advancements.
Just as Mickey’s fame reached the top of Hollywood, the depression hit, and he quickly adapted and became a symbol of hope and perseverance. Add in the fact that the theater was the cheapest entertainment and the movies continued to be strong. To add to his stardom, there weren’t any real language barriers when he first came out. He was loved all over the world by people from all different languages. Apparently even Hitler loved him… until Mickey claimed Hitler was the enemy – that puts a damper on someone liking you even if you are a mouse.
The second most important factor for Mickey’s success was merchandising started around the same time that “Steamboat Willie” came out. This meant Mickey became all the more famous by people buying whatever toys and costumes they could find. Even if you didn’t believe in going to the movies, you’d soon see his merchandise everywhere you went.
The third most important factor for Mickey’s success is over the decades he’s adapted to the needs of the culture. Whether it was adjusting to the depression, the war effort, and television, Mickey has adapted. TV was a major help as Mickey went from shorts in the theater to having his own official Mickey Mouse Club show, which ran from 1955 to 1996. This was the show that helped Brittany Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Ryan Gosling get into Hollywood. Despite the Mickey Mouse Club, there was a dead zone for Mickey being in films and when Mickey’s Christmas Carol came out in 1983, he hadn’t been in a film for 30 years. Even after that he continued to be more of a corporate symbol. I remember as a kid being excited to see Mickey’s face before a movie, but besides Mickey’s Christmas Carol, I didn’t really know he was in films. The main problem was there had become so many rules trying to protect his image that it prevented him from being used. In the early 2000s that all changed as Mickey was brought back to life with a bunch of different options like the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Mickey’s Roadster Racers, and The Wonderful World of Mickey Mouse, the latter being quite enjoyable as an adult.
Ultimately, Mickey has been able to adapt to the needs of cultures because he’s had teams of people finding new ways to use and promote him. He’s also the symbol of one of the largest corporations in the world. Having 12 Disney Parks in six different parts of the world also helps (Can you guess all six? Disneyland California 1955, Disney World Florida 1971, Tokyo 1983, Paris 1992, Hong Kong 2005, Shanghai 2016)
The story of Mickey himself is incredible. No other person or character has been close to maintaining their popularity for so long, and that’s just 100 years. Jesus’ popularity has lasted over 2000 years. Let me repeat that: over 2000 years. What’s even crazier is the message of Jesus has stayed the same. Sure, the specifics of how people worship Him has changed like the styles of music are very diverse today, but that’s a minor detail. Jesus and His message haven’t had to adapt to culture the way Mickey has. Instead, the message of Jesus has transformed cultures. It’s not even a very nice message: “Take up your cross and follow me.” (Mat 16:24b) Take up your cross? That’s not very inspiring. Maybe it’s a different message Jesus gave that stands out: “But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!” (Mat 5:44) Love your enemies? That doesn’t sound fun. What’s a third option: “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” (Mark 2:17) Who is this guy? He basically wanted losers to follow him. Is that why He’s been so successful? The most famous Bible verse, John 3:16 says, “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” Talk about a message that shouldn’t appeal to today’s culture. When it comes to appeal, Jesus is no Mickey Mouse.
From a marketing standpoint, Jesus had some good things going for Him. For instance, He has both the cross and Jesus fish as His symbols. Even more important was the timing of the story of Jesus. (It’s like it was planned). The success and organization of Rome was crucial to the story of Jesus. Rome had unified much of Europe and they helped develop roads and trade between different areas. The value of trade also improved many language barriers. Education had also improved and there was a general interest in knowledge as the development of cities (Rome created aqueducts that helped cities be larger) allowed people to care more about higher level things and not just surviving. It was also at a time where people weren’t comfortable (e.g. they didn’t have dentists or chiropractors) and they were well aware of the reality of death and needing to prepare for the next life (and probably looked forward to it because they didn’t have dentists and chiropractors).
What’s crazy is many people have done terrible things in the name of Jesus, things Jesus would’ve hated, yet billions of people still remain believers. And that’s billions of believers that were started from just Jesus preaching for three years and then His followers sharing about Him after He died and rose again. In Christianity we talk about the Holy Spirit speaking and guiding hearts. Either the Spirit is real and working or the message of Jesus was just that inspiring and the apostles were that good of salesmen. Either way, Holy Spirit led or not, whether it’s a true message or not, Jesus has remained the most famous person in the world for over two millennia. There’s got to be something there besides coincidence.
This Christmas, may you consider whether Jesus’ story and Christmas have truth to them or if it is the greatest hoax of all time.
Rev. Chad David, ChadDavid.ca, learning to love dumb people (like me)