Veggietales’ The Toy That Saved Christmas; An Atheist’s Perspective on the Nativity

Christmas is a time of traditions. For some it’s touring the neighborhood lights displays. For some it’s putting on Christmas tunes the day after Thanksgiving. One friend of mine does not consider the season real until they have drunk spiked eggnog while watching Ralphie get his Red Rider BB gun with this thing that tells time. Traditions have many uses. They invoke nostalgia, provide a sense of stability, and often exist as a reminder of some deeper value. That last one is especially true of Christmas. Every other song and TV special is about finding its true meaning, which I suppose means one tradition is going a hunt for the point behind the traditions. Truly, it is the most meta of the holidays.

This episode has George the scallion telling his granddaughter a story about a town that didn’t get Christmas. Not in the Narnia cursed by the White Witch sense, but in the sense that they didn’t understand its true meaning. The little veggies all whine about toys and beg for more, because evil toymaker Mr. Nezzar is indoctrinating them through commercials to think that the whole point of life is to have more stuff than other kids. So, basically a documentary so far.

All that changes when one of Mr. Nezzar’s toys, Buzz-saw Louis, starts to feel that they are missing something.

Yes, you read that right. Buzz-saw Louis.
Yes, you read that right. Buzz-saw Louis.

There isn’t really any reason for this. Narrator George speculates that his wiring was a little off. In any case, he breaks free, teams up with Larry, Bob and Jr Asparagus, and they all go looking for someone to tell them the true meaning of Christmas. This person turns out to be Grandpa George, who tells them the Nativity story.

Actually, he just does that thing Linus does in the Peanuts special, where he starts from “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby…” and stops just after the angels show up, which always struck me as odd. Explaining the true meaning of Christmas by quoting those seven verses is like explaining the Hero’s Journey by describing that time Han Solo got frozen in carbonite. Sure, it’s intriguing, but you don’t really come close to grasping the real point without knowing the whole of Empire Strikes Back, and ideally you should have seen A New Hope and Return of the Jedi as well. And yes, in this metaphor episodes IV to VI of Star Wars correspond to Adam and Eve, the Nativity and the Passion of the Christ respectively.

At least in the Peanuts special, there was room for Charlie Brown to have been familiar with the whole story from another source, and Linus was just reminding him after the guy had a rough time. In this case, Louis has just been manufactured, and as for Larry, Bob and Jr., all it took was a few commercials to completely obliterate any sense of deeper meaning behind the holiday. Clearly they haven’t been living in “inundate our children with messages about the various origins of the holiday” land. Despite their ignorance, George just has to follow those verses up with “you see, Christmas isn’t about getting. It’s about giving,” and they have a total change of heart. Even though the verses he quoted don’t say anything about getting OR giving, and you have to be fairly familiar with Christianity to see the connections between those two messages. It should all sound like a chain of non-sequiters to these characters.

Just nod and smile at the crazy old man. Coming here was a terrible, terrible mistake.
Just nod and smile at the crazy old man. Coming here was a terrible, terrible mistake.

Of course, they immediate vow to reform and also feel an urgent need to get the message out, so they sneak back into Mr. Nezzar’s factory, where they put together their own commercial and broadcast it into everyone’s home. And naturally, all the kids immediately stop whining, families start cuddling and all is well.

If you’ve read my previous Veggietales posts, you know that every episode featuring Mr. Nezzar has him threaten somebody with death, only to be redeemed at the last minute, at which point everyone acts like he wasn’t just on the verge of not only being a murder, but being extremely gleeful about this. This is no exception. Mr. Nezzar is angry that they’ve ruined his moneymaking scheme and prepares to send the protagonists all over a cliff, taunting them with their imminent death, until the villagers surprise him with a Christmas present and the holiday spirit overtakes him. Mr. Nezzar rescues Buzz-saw Louis and friends in an epic sled-chase, and all is better. For the record, of all the Nezzar redemption arcs this the one I like best, because at least he does something to show his change of heart is genuine, as opposed to just saying he’s totally not a psychopath anymore.

A brief summary like this can’t help but leave out all the jokes that make this episode, as usual, charming. I mean, Mr. Nezzar’s minions are penguins. Penguins!

pennnnguiiiiiiiins
pennnnguiiiiiiiins

But the advantage of a summary is that it lays out the weaknesses of the plot, without anything to disguise it. Characters are farcically impressionable, swayed this way and that by whatever commercial or story they last heard. There isn’t anything meaningful at the heart of this story, for a very simple reason. The Nativity is just like any other Christmas tradition. It is a series of symbols, and needs active interpretation to uncover the point beneath it all.

As in so many things Christian, I don’t actually have a problem with the story of Christ’s birth, just the assumption that anyone who doesn’t make it the center of their holiday is missing the entire point of everything. Contrary to many people’s beliefs, it isn’t even the entire point of Christmas; the holiday has roots in virtually every pagan winter solstice celebration from Iceland to Russia. The traditions carry history, but the meaning is something we rediscover and reinvent with every new generation. You can’t find Christmas by narrowing in on one story. You pick what you think it should mean, and you home in on the traditions that bring those to life for you.

Tune in tomorrow for the conclusion of my Christmas trilogy!

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