Tag Archives: christmas

A Christmas Carol; an Atheist’s Perspective on Christmas

There’s an argument that this story is more responsible for the modern concept of Christmas than the Christian religion.  In brief, the Christmas holiday had actually gone somewhat out of fashion when Dickens wrote this novella, in no small part because fundamentalists had decided the holiday was too frivolous. There’s irony for you. It was a very common, folksy holiday that lots of people were above celebrating. This is why, while Scrooge asking his employees to work on Christmas was a bit mean-spirited, it wasn’t actually shocking. Dickens apparently did have a lot of affection for the holiday; A Christmas Carol is just the most famous of a series of short stories and novellas he wrote, all with the message that Christmas is a wonderful time of joy and goodwill that we should all celebrate more. And good god, did it work.

I was into Christmas specials before they were cool.
I was into Christmas specials before they were cool.

I’m sure most of you have seen any number of versions, from literal takes to one-off spoofs.  Two of my favorite versions are deliberately a bit silly; The Muppet Christmas Carol, and the Doctor Who special with Matt Smith. The formula is so simple, it’s easy to play around with and still produce something meaningful. Even Christmas stories that don’t follow the plot are often influenced by the story; what special doesn’t have a Christmas hating Scrooge?

One of the problems with so many modern Christmas stories is that the connection between the token Scrooge-stand-in’s meanness and their hatred of Christmas is tenuously established. The authors too often rely on genre convention rather than characterization. Dickens, being the originator of this trope, didn’t have this luxury. Instead, he uses Scrooge’s journey to the Christmases of his past to show how he grew up in relative isolation, and how Christmas has consistently been a time when he was offered chances to amend that, and connect to the people around him. Unfortunately, as life’s disappointments piled up and his business became the only meaningful part of his world, he fell into a habit of reflexively rejecting these outstretched hands. Dickens intuitively understood something that, years later, would become a key part of therapy; understanding where bad habits, broken thought patterns and faulty coping strategies came from is the first step in breaking them. That is why “tell me about your childhood” is a cliche of the first therapist session. It works.

While this understanding is still fresh in Scrooge’s mind, the Ghost of Christmas Present shows him the joy that is all around him. Whether poor or rich, all around him people are enjoying what they have, and most importantly, they are enjoying each other. Scrooge couldn’t see these scenes when he was a part of them. Like a physicist studying a quantum particle, his observations affected the results. Only by becoming an insubstantial, invisible, inaudible spectre could his cynicism be separated enough that he could truly understand what he was missing.

And then the Ghost of Christmas Future showed him what he was heading towards.

Christmas future

The nice thing about this is that he was not being threatened with death (it is inevitable for us all) or even with hell, at least not in Dante’s sense. He was simply being shown that if he died the way he was now, he would forever lose his opportunity to become someone different, someone who would be thought of in a different way. That’s what all of us are in danger of, all the time. There’s no way around it, being human.

Virtue is often taught as something reductive. It’s about avoiding this choice and not eating this food and resisting that temptation. Not so in this story. In fact, Scrooge is an extremely temperate and prudent man. You could even call him fair, in an extremely harsh, capitalistic sort of way. And yet, he is a mean-spirited, miserable old man. A Christmas Carol is designed to teach him additive virtues; to join in the celebrations and community, to waste money giving to somebody who might not be around forever, and do so precisely because they won’t be around forever. He didn’t need a lecture on the value of kindness. He needed to be shown why you would want to share in the experiences of others, and that made him want to be kind.

Alastair Sim
And dance around the room, naturally

That, I think, is the true meaning of Christmas. Christmas has different traditions all over the world, and it has cobbled together paraphenalia from various religions and mythologies, because what you celebrate matters less than that you celebrate. It’s an excuse to make us all call up friends and relatives who live far away, put hours into figuring out the gift that would make someone else’s face light up, and forget about the musical tastes that normally divide us in favor of joining together to belt “Jingle Bells.” It was said best in the Doctor Who version of A Christmas Carol; halfway through the dark, we need a bit of light to keep us going.

Doctor Who

Merry Christmas, and happy holidays, and have a wonderful season whatever you celebrate and wherever you are!

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!

Miracle on 34th Street; An Atheist’s Perspective on Santa

Kris and Susan
Best Christmas movie ever. Except The Christmas Carol, but I’ll get to that soon.

I should start by explaining that my parents never let us believe in Santa Claus. They were afraid that when they told us he wasn’t real, it would make us wondering if other mythological-sounding ideas might be questioned, like the entire Christian religion. It was a Nativity-only household. In retrospect, I still experienced the same story as my Santa-believer friends. We were both taught about a man who comes to bring wonderful gifts, but only if you’re very good and believe in him. Disbelief meant you were cynical and coldly logical, incapable of true joy and goodwill toward men. Disbelieving people like that are the whole reason the world sucks. If you don’t believe, it’s your own fault. Jesus/Santa loves you, and the fact that he won’t prove his existence but still will punish you for not living up to his standards in no way contradicts that.

Of course, the difference is that Santa is bringing toys that you want, but can live without, and kids aren’t actually expected to believe in Santa past early childhood. Still, I can’t shake the association. The parallels run too deep, and I have no nostalgia to fall back on. The first (and last) time I watched The Santa Clause with my boyfriend I think I ended up crying.

Gaslighting, non-consensual permanent bodily changes, effective slavery and a family torn asunder. For kids!
Gaslighting, non-consensual permanent bodily changes, effective slavery and a family torn asunder. For kids!

My other issue with Santa Claus movies is that the moral is usually that life is meaningless and depressing if fairy tales aren’t true. Unfortunately, once the credits roll we return to a world where they aren’t. The ultimate message of such stories is that if we aren’t delusional, we are nihilists.

The only Santa movie I can appreciate is The Miracle on 34th Street, because at least that way I can pretend there is no magic and Kris Kringle is just a high-functioning schizophrenic. Wait, wait, bear with me. That’s not as awful as it sounds.

For those who haven’t seen it (and you really should), Miracle on 34th Street is about a kindly old man, an old man, Kris Kringle, is hired as a last minute replacement to be Macy’s Santa Claus. He turns out to believe he really is Santa, Father Christmas, Sinterclaas, Saint Nicholas, the whole mythology wrapped into one person. The movie opens with Kris discovering that the man hired to play Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade is intoxicated. He immediately finds the organizer, Doris Walker, informs her of the problem, and despite his reluctance is talked into being the replacement. In his words, “the children mustn’t be disappointed.” This establishes him as a kindly, responsible person; if you have a soul, he’s nigh impossible to dislike.

When that same organizer offers him a job being a full-time mall Santa, he can’t resist the opportunity to, as he says, combat some of the commercialism that has taken over Christmas. While on his throne, instead of recommending nothing but Macy’s toys, he informs customers of other chains that can provide what they really want. Oh, he’ll shill Macy’s when they’ve really got the product the kids want, but if he knows a better deal can be found somewhere else, nothing can convince him to hide that fact.

His employers are upset by this, for all of about ten seconds. Then they realize the kind of publicity their new Santa is bringing them, and suddenly he’s their most valuable employee. This becomes a problem when Doris discovers Kris’ delusion.

Doris is a very nuanced character. She is a single mother in the 40s who, contrary to what you might expect of that era, is portrayed as both a professional employee and an attentive, caring mother. Her only flaw is that she insists her daughter Susan be raised in an entirely practical way. This means not only no Santa Claus, but no fairy tales, tooth fairies or fantasies of any kind. Doris’ reasons are sympathetic. What happened to Susan’s father is never explained, but it seems he abandoned the family in some traumatic way, and that Doris blames fairy tales for giving her an unrealistic image of the knight in shining armor. She’s trying to protect her daughter from that. Instead of letting us assume that of course Doris is wrong, despite her good intentions, the movie bothers to show us the effects of this on Susan. She’s a very nice, intelligent girl, but her social life is stunted because she doesn’t know how to engage in imaginative play, even at a developmentally appropriate level. This means she’s missing out on creative and social skills that will be important later on in her life.

In addition to changing things at Macy’s Kris has another mission. He wants to teach Doris and Susan to open up. Doris is wounded by her loss of faith in people, and Susan is learning a reflexively cynical attitude from her. The interesting thing is that while he insists he is Santa Claus, he also doesn’t seem to care too much whether or not other people believe him. If other people believe in him, that’s a nice bonus, but its more important that they believe in what he stands for. His interventions with Susan aren’t centered around proving his reality, but on giving her imagination lessons. The scene where he teaches her to pretend to be a monkey is one of the most delightful things I’ve ever seen.

The Monkey Lesson
The Monkey Lesson

While Kris is trying to spread joy, optimism, childish creativity and the giving spirit, the department store psychologist is trying to get him committed as a lunatic. This movie has a remarkably nuanced approach to psychology. Unlike some movies, where the medical professionals would be creatures of unadulterated evil for daring to convince children that they shouldn’t believe in fantasies past when it’s developmentally appropriate (the nerve of them!), this film has two doctors. One, Dr. Sawyer, has clearly entered the profession because it gives him license to see the worst in everyone, which distracts him from his own small, petty character. A bit of an exaggeration, but we’ve all met people like this.

The other works at the nursing home where Kris lived previously. Dr. Pierce also believes Kris is delusional, but he doesn’t think Kris should be locked up. As he explains, mental illnesses don’t make someone inherently dangerous. Kris is gentle, intelligent, and his whole psychosis is centered around a desire to help people. All he needs is someone to keep an eye on him in case he takes a bad turn, and otherwise he should be treated just like anyone else. This is completely accurate. Mental health is complex, and the real world has many people whose situation is similar to Kris’s. Dr. Pierce’s reaction is not only humanitarian, but practical, especially in a world just prior to the invention of effective antipsychotic medication. An asylum couldn’t do much for him, so why not let him have the best quality of life that he can?

I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s a delightfully happy one… and also lacks convincing proof that Kris really is Santa Claus. There’s a minor miracle, but one that has potential mundane explanations. Many of the good characters end up believing in him, but not all, and several seem to be at a point of agnosticism, or tell him they believe he is Santa Claus but seem to mean that metaphorically. The real lesson of the film is in the triumph of optimism and kindness over cynical self-interest, and whether characters end up believing in Santa as fact or as a metaphor for the Christmas spirit is not really important. The standard interpretation, that Kris Kringle was Santa all along, is fine if you prefer that, but it is based more in genre conventions than anything else.

Peace, joy and family for everyone
Peace, joy and family for everyone

So why don’t I find the interpretation that Kris Kringle is mentally ill depressing? Because even if he is, it means he’s a mentally ill person who still leads a fulfilling, happy life surrounded by people who care about him. It means that even in a world without magic, pragmatists and capitalists can see the value of kindness, cynics can rediscover hope, mean spirited trolls can lose and love can win. It means that even without fairy tales being real, imagination and joy can triumph.

Why would anybody want it any other way?