Because I was visited by Krampus instead of Santa* and given the gift of miserable upper-respiratory illness and digestive malcontent for the holiday, I thought it might be nice to share a thought about two of my favorite approaches to the creepier side of Christmas, courtesy of the ol’ TV:
Supernatural, “A Very Supernatural Christmas”
There are a lot of things to appreciate about this episode from season 3 of Supernatural — the simultaneously nostalgic and ironic adaptation of the old CBS “special” animation, the really beautifully done exploration of the relationships (past and present) among the characters, Kripke’s gleeful plan to start the whole episode with the grisly murder of a dude in a Santa suit in front of his own family, you know — the good bits. A large part of the episode’s charm, though, lies in its antagonists, pagan gods parodying a kind of late 50s-early 60s suburban “normalcy” that perfectly camouflages their own ritual sacrifice.
The X-Files, “How The Ghosts Stole Christmas”
This season 6 episode is also just made by its antagonists — in this case, Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin, digging in with a kind of impish glee to their ghostly roles. In the spirit of the best of such episodes, it’s both gently self-critical and revealing in its exploration of the characters. This is exactly how we would expect Mulder to spend a Christmas eve, and we’re really not at all surprised when Scully — fresh off the present-shopping front lines — chooses to join him. When “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” comes up at the end (over a pretty bloody moment), it’s the perfect way for the scene to go.
What I love about these takes on the ubiquitous special Christmas/holiday episode is that in both cases, the story remains faithful to the world of the show. Mulder and Scully don’t suddenly get a special day free from X-files weirdness (indeed, it’s their own characters that drive them back to it); Sam and Dean, with Dean’s impending trip to Hell constantly on the horizon, don’t suddenly have a holiday free from the horror that is their lives. What’s special about the holiday for these people is small and personal and intimate, and it requires of each of them a certain amount of reflection and self-assessment.
The usual trope of Christmas episodes — in which a character typically must struggle to find something like “the Christmas spirit,” whatever that ultimately is — gets played out in these episodes as a sort of reaffirmation of the characters’ lives in each other’s company. Both episodes end in similar ways — their final scenes involve pretty humble gift exchanges among people who one doesn’t necessarily expect to be giving each other gifts, given all of the other things going on around (and inside) them, in which the fact of a shared experience turns out to be The Best Gift of All (TM). :) The usual need of Special Christmas Episodes to simultaneously subvert and affirm conspicuous consumption via an exploration of the politics of gift-giving is really sort of irrelevant for both of these shows, which feature characters whose lives are always a step or more outside of the “normal” world in which such concerns matter. The giving of any gift is significant to them because it is a small gesture in the direction of a world to which none of them really belong (although Scully and Sam are closer to it, and cling to that hope of it, in ways that are ultimately unavailable to Mulder and Dean).
I think it’s time to fire up the ol’ DVD player!
Edited to add (1/3/15): I think it might be interesting to do some sort of survey of creepy shows with Christmas episodes that use “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” in a sort of bittersweet way. Both of the episodes in this post certainly do!
* OK, in addition to — I did get to spend a lovely time with my family for the solstice!