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Mr. Jolly: Entertainer hosts party to get back to 'traditional' Christmastime.

by Joshua Tehee
The Fresno Bee CityView
Thursday, December 19, 2002

Nate Butler may not be the real jolly ol' St. Nick, but come Christmastime in Fresno, he's pretty close.
Just ask anyone who's heard his answering machine recently -- it's heavy on the jingling bells and the ho, ho, ho's.

At Nate Butler's Christmas party, it doesn't matter if guests don't remember the words to traditional holiday songs. That's exactly how his party, Mmm Mmm Christmas, got its name. Or better yet, ask anyone who's joined him at Club Fred for his annual "Mmm Mmm Christmas" celebration.

It's the final stage of Butler's Christmastime transformation.

Butler's wife, Cindy, who helps organize the Mmm Mmm Christmas event each year, said she's watched her husband become more like Santa than ever before.

The show has been an 11-year evolution for the 37-year-old Fresno performer.

The show used to be called "Christmas with Nate Butler," or "Nate Butler's Christmas" with a focus on Butler playing Christmas-themed music and inviting fellow musicians on stage to join him. But when the audience started taking an active role in the show, Butler knew the name and format of his yearly celebration had to change.

"People would hoot and holler through the performances and want to sing along," Butler said. Even though they didn't know the words, they would hum along at the parts they didn't know.

And so Mmm Mmm Christmas was born.

Now Butler is militant about keeping that audience participation a mandatory part of the night. It helps sustain the carefree, lose-yourself-in-the-spirit attitude of the night.

"And if you don't sing along ... time out!" Butler said.

The show always starts the same way. Before the singing even begins, Butler plays old television Christmas specials on a giant screen onstage. He loved watching the specials as a child. The old cartoon or choppy clay-animation takes on classic Christmas tales like "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer," or "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," hold the key to the whole night -- a symbol of how things used to be.

His Santa Claus transformation is more than mere jolliness and red clothes. At the heart is the opportunity to give people something they may have lost in all the hustle and bustle of Christmases past -- their childhood.

Mmm Mmm Christmas is a regression to that childhood, the innocence that Christmas once held. Along with the sing-alongs, audience members are urged to make Christmas tree decorations out of construction paper, paste and safety scissors, which Butler provides.
And suitably, the show culminates at midnight with the "Peanuts' Dance," when the audience re-enacts a scene from "A Charlie Brown Christmas," dancing and singing, becoming children again.

"The 'Peanuts' Dance' is a measure of how much you're willing to let go and be a kid," Butler said.

"If we did the 'Peanuts' Dance' and a majority of the people didn't get up and dance, I'd think I've failed," he said.

But Cindy Butler says she sees the success of Mmm Mmm Christmas on the faces of the people who attend. Even those who are notoriously anti-Christmas come away with a sense of joy from the event.

"Even they get a twinkle in their eyes," she said.

And for Butler, that is all that matters. "At the end of the night, I have a warm fuzzy," he said.
Doing "The Peanuts Dance" at
Nate Butler's

Mmm Mmm Christmas,
Club Fred, Dec. 1994.
To see more photos of Mmm-Mmm Christmas' Past, and see when this year's event is, click here.

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