Have Yourself a Very Troubling Christmas

It’s that time of year again. During the holidays, we gather with family, friends, and pets. We hang out with folks we haven’t seen since last year, don sweaters that have inexplicably shrunk over the past eleven months, and eat and drink like we have no sense of propriety.

The end of the calendar year is also packed with a lineup of Christmas-themed movies and television specials. By their final acts, most of these programs will leave you feeling warm and optimistic about humanity, but it’s easy to miss some of the more disturbing undertones and subplots. Kris Kringle drops the ball in The Year Without a Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman learns the drawbacks of hanging out in a hothouse, and Clark Griswold has a mental breakdown in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

Here are a few of my favorite Christmas specials with problematic elements.    

A Charlie Brown Christmas

If you’ve ever watched a Peanuts special, you know Charlie Brown has a rough time of it all year round. In October, he gets rocks instead of candy at Halloween, and in November, he’s berated for preparing substandard Thanksgiving fare. To hear his friends tell it, he can’t do anything right. Even his dog doesn’t really like him most of the time.

It’s easy to remember the final scenes in A Charlie Brown Christmas. Charlie, at the end of his rope, asks about the true meaning of Christmas. Linus tells the story of the birth of Christ. The Peanuts gang performs restorative surgery on Charlie’s pitiful little tree, and everyone stands around singing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” It’s a nice ending, but let’s remember why Charlie was at his wits’ end to begin with: His friends treated him like crap. Sure, he’s a little neurotic, but who among us isn’t, especially at Christmas? (Two words: Credit cards.)

Every Peanuts installment ends with Charlie gaining some kind of acceptance from his sociopathic friends, but even then, it’s only granted begrudgingly. Linus is usually the one who facilitates the reconciliation, and it’s always clear the gang is really doing Charlie a favor by accepting him. 

Stay tuned for the Peanuts sequel, A Charlie Brown Christmas II: Chuck’s Revenge

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Back in 1939, the department store Montgomery Ward published Robert L. May’s book Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and the character has been a hit ever since. Not only is Rudolph the only creature who can show up with a red nose during the holidays without raising uncomfortable questions about alcohol consumption, he’s one of the few Christmas dignitaries whose name contains a reference to a body part. He’s also the go-to guy when it comes to guiding Santa’s sleigh through inclement weather conditions.  

Rudolph wasn’t always a hero. Early on, he was ostracized for his glowing nose, and even his parents were ashamed of him. Inspired to go on the road with a rebellious elf, Rudolph runs into life-threatening situations and nearly loses his life a few times. Once he finally makes it back to Christmastown, Santa suddenly decides he needs him as a guide. It’s difficult to not see Santa as an opportunist here. 

Someone has to ask the difficult questions: Why is there no discipline among the adolescent reindeer? Why is that coach reindeer such a bully? What if another red-nosed reindeer comes along? (This ignores the question of what caused Rudolph’s glowing-nose mutation in the first place. Radiation? Toxic waste?) What if Rudolph reaches middle age and his nose doesn’t perform like it did when he was younger? Based on Santa’s past performance, it’s reasonable to assume he’ll ditch Rudolph for a re-purposed landing light from a Boeing 747.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

In the time-honored tradition of Jerk-Becomes-Good Guy Christmas stories, Dr. Seuss’s Grinch expends unbelievable amounts of energy stealing Christmas from the unsuspecting residents of Whoville, only to undergo a radical change in the third act. It’s beautiful: He learns to love Christmas, others, and himself. Smiles all around. Mission accomplished.

Well, sure, but think for a moment about how the Grinch goes about accomplishing his dastardly deeds. Sure, he’s mean and spiteful, but he doesn’t go it alone. He exploits the physical labor of his terrified and unwilling dog, Max. He straps a fake reindeer horn to Max’s head, lashes him to a sleigh, and drags and dangles him all over Mount Crumpit. After the Grinch’s conversion, other than giving the dog a slice of roast beast, there are never any reparations for poor Max.

Look, I know the story is all about the Grinch’s character breakthrough. He’s the star of the show, and his name is in the title. And okay, it’s implied that everyone forgives the Grinch, and I suppose that includes Max. Still, it would’ve been nice if Dr. Seuss had added a scene in which the Grinch treats Max to a doggie spa day and officially apologizes for his jerkiness.

* * * 

Christmas is the time for forgiveness, and these characters have a lot to forgive. They do a good job of it, too—better than I would, anyway. Maybe that’s why no one’s ever made a Rankin-Bass holiday special about me.

Not yet, anyway.

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