What makes something a Christmas Story? This question – often been asked in connection to perennial favorite Die Hard – bears asking at this time of year. After all, there isn’t much of an ideological through-line for what, exactly, a Christmas story is; with the field of Christmas fiction including stories with morals like “Do a little good and the world will return it in kind,” “Deviation from the norm will be ostracized unless it can be exploited,” and “Obey the surveillance state for it is always watching you.” (Admittedly, a particularly intense take on The Elf of the Shelf. But not an inaccurate one.)
Perhaps the closest thing to an answer would be spotlighting a sense of familial bond for the sake of the season, but even that feels hollow, not to mention ignoring Hans Christian Anderson’s classic story The Little Match Girl, wherein her isolation and suffering is rewarded with a hope for heaven, making those who aren’t on the streets feel better about their lives. At least they aren’t a poor little girl dying alone in the streets instead of being beaten to death by her abusive father.
It is tempting to respond with the religious aspects of the season. After all, Christmas is a Christian holiday based around the birth of Jesus Christ. (We’ll just smooth over the various pagan holidays that Christmas took over as a means of appealing to the various non-Christians the Holy Roman Empire contained once it declared Christianity its official religion, not to mention the several non-Christian holidays celebrated on and around this time of year.) However, this attitude resulted in, at best, stories which extoll the worst sides of Christianity, while also coming off as awkward and hamfisted.
Perhaps what Christmas is, in terms of fiction, is simply set dressing –an aesthetic to be worn while the larger narrative takes place. At best, themes of the camaraderie of humanity sing through, not necessarily core to the stories being told. For stories of Christmas, like any other kind of story, are full of multitudes, an infinity of possibilities just waiting to be explored. Yet, as with many infinities, there is a desire for homogeneity, to make the stories of Christmas fall in line with but one singular vision of what Christmas “ought to be”– to make the brand of Christmas easier to sell to the masses. Christmas, in this view, becomes nothing more than another commodity to be bought and sold for the masses.
Christmas, especially our modern conception of it, is a time highly tied to the system of capitalism. The season is awash with people trying to buy various gifts, solicit funds for charity, and visits with otherwise seldom-seen family members. Our fictions too are full of stories of the relationship between capitalism and Christmas, from Clark Griswold not getting his christmas bonus in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation to Howard Langston and Myron Larabee fighting over an action figure in Jingle All The Way.
Perhaps the most famous of these stories is A Christmas Carol. Written by Charles Dickens (pictured above), A Christmas Carol is the story of an old man confronting his fear of karma and mortality. Specifically, it deals with a rather cruel moneylender by the name of Ebenezer Scrooge being haunted by three specters that show him his past, present, and future.
Out of all Christmas narratives, it is perhaps A Christmas Carol that has been remixed, reconfigured, and reconstructed the most. [Countless television shows, comics, and video games have taken the Christmas Carol premise and turned it into something else. There have been Christmas Carols set on Halloween, Christmas Carols where the Ghostbusters bust the three spirits, and Christmas Carols where the moral is rejected in favor of being an even larger git.
It is fitting, given this tendency towards recontextualizing popular culture towards more absurdist ends, that [the best of these neo-Christmas Carols would be A Muppet Christmas Carol. The first Muppet movie made after the death of Jim Henson, A Muppet Christmas Carol marks the start of a trilogy of Muppet productions riffing on works of classic literature, but unlike the other two installments, however, A Muppet Christmas Carol plays the events of A Christmas Carol completely straight. There are no anachronistic references to vacation cruises, no cameos from Quentin Tarantino, not even the chaotic whimsy of a production on the brink of collapse that the Muppets are known for. Instead, we get an extremely faithful production of A Christmas Carol narrated by one of cinema’s greatest double acts: Charles Dickens and Rizzo the Rat.
By taking such a faithful adaptation of the material, core elements typically lost by other productions become highlighted, such as the sheer isolation and coldness at the heart of Ebenezer Scrooge. In many an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, the creative teams will often focus heavily on either Scrooge’s cruelty as part of his being a general asshole who needs to learn a lesson, played to a hilt by someone like Bill Murray or Rowan Atkinson such that we prefer Scrooge prior to his redemption or highlights aspects of the money lender that make his redemption implausible, if not laughable. (Not to mention the ones that are just unreconstructed anti-Semitism.)
A Muppet Christmas Carol, by contrast, walks that fine line expertly. Michael Caine’s Scrooge simultaneously shows the bitter cruelty at the heart of such men as well as the vulnerability that makes this man change his ways. Among the more subtle bits is the decision to have Scrooge never sing in this musical until after his visit from the three spirits. When we do see him change into a better man, his voice is brimming with musicality (albeit limited in its range given Michael Caine’s capabilities).
And yet, there’s a degree to this more faithful version of A Christmas Carol that makes things feel… awkward; primarily through the nature of the story: a rich man only being able to change his ways through supernatural means. While this is perhaps a realistic view on capitalist excess, there’s also a degree of naiveté to it all.
Consider Scrooge’s nephew, Fred. Within the context of this and many adaptations, Fred is presented as a preferred alternative to Scrooge: a caring, giving man who has a love for everyone, filled with a kind of infectious love that one can’t help but sing along to. And yet, within this Muppet adaptation of the material, there’s a slight edge (intentional or not) to the character. When we visit the man alongside the Ghost of Christmas Present (in contrast to the previous Disney adaptation of A Christmas Carol where he was played by the affably working class Donald Duck), we bear witness to his lavish lifestyle resulting from his association with the wealthy, which pushes past the life of squalor of the Cratchit family. For all his wealth, Scrooge rarely flaunts it, opting to instead horde it as if the money itself was important.
A message is clear, if perhaps unintentional: the problem isn’t that the rich can afford to live in such luxury while people like Tiny Tim or Bean Bunny live in misery and squalor, often lucky to even have a roof above their heads, but rather that it’s the individual flaws of Ebenezer Scrooge that are the problem. There’s nothing wrong with being rich, as long as you give some of your pocket lint to a charity.
A more honest portrayal of the capitalist upper class during Christmas can be seen in the third season of the FX television series Fargo. Fargo, for those unaware, is an anthology series based on the Coen Brothers’ film of the same name about crime in the American midwest. Its third season tells of a set of twin brothers embroiled in a rivalry whose implications are being felt to this day; it is also (predominantly) set around the Christmas season.
Being a show about the criminal underpinnings of the American Midwest, Fargo pushes past what is expected from a traditional Christmas story. The families at the heart of this season do not come together in the bonds of brotherhood, there’s little to hope for in the future, and the color palette is bleakly saturated. In short, it’s the perfect rejection of the homogeneity many a Christmas story falls under – something that the show itself seems self-aware of.
Throughout the third season’s ten episodes, we are shown a world where it doesn’t matter if you’re kind or generous or decent, because the bastards will find a way to win. The most obvious place to look is within the relationship between the aforementioned twin brothers, Emmit and Ray Stussy, both played brilliantly by Ewan McGregor. The brothers’ feud started out when, as children, Emmit tricked his slightly younger twin into giving him his inherited stamp collection, which was valuable enough to become rich.
Over the course of the season, the pair proceed to fight over the last remaining stamp in ways that destroy their respective lives, leading to Emmit trying to be the bigger man and just give his brother the stamp. It’s abundantly clear that this isn’t done out of a desire to be better, however; rather, it’s because this feud is affecting his business.
It’s not clear what business, exactly, is being done on Stussy’s parking lots, but it involves people dying horribly to make sure no one ever finds out. Emmit positions himself as a decent man, someone who tries to do the right thing for his family, but over the course of the season, it’s apparent that his conception of decency is a self-serving one, that frames him as the bereaved party in every situation.
Such self-serving decency is, ultimately, easily consumed by the cruel forces that essentially run the world. Just look at what it’s done for Christmas. Good will for all men has been turned into a slogan to sell Coca-Cola bottles, the Salvation Army uses its ubiquitous nature to shield their cruelty towards the queer homeless in need of shelter, and men like Emmit Stussy can act as if donating to charity and helping the occasional family is enough to make up for the cruelty by which they made their money.
Let us return to A Christmas Carol. The story hinges on a man like Scrooge being taught to be good to everyone, but… will it actually matter in the long run? Sure, one money lender has forsaken his cruelty for the goodness of all mankind, but what of the others? What of the men who own the prisons or the Union workhouses? Such places many would rather die than go to? Places run by men like Emmit Stussy who see the loss of life as a secondary concern to the loss of profit. Will the salvation of just one man be enough to make up for the damnation of countless others?
But then, are we falling into the trap that stories lend us, that these things are based on the actions of individuals, rather than systems too vast and horrific to comprehend? To place the blame only on people, ultimately, benefits the system, forcing one to not think in terms of systemic cruelty, but in bad apples and perseverance. It is easier to imagine a little girl freezing to death and going to heaven than the end of capitalism.
That line was a riff on a quote from Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism and is the main fixture of our final Christmas story, 2017’s comic book one-shot Klaus and the Crisis in Xmasville .
Much like the other two Christmas stories we have explored, Klaus is a story being told to us by a character within the story itself.
Specifically, it is told from the perspective of a minor character who is recounting her 80s childhood trauma of being sold to aliens by a stand-in for the Coca Cola company so her imagination could be sucked out and smoked like a drug as a children’s comic.
There are many implications to that sentence alone that are worth unpacking.
For starters, the Coca Cola company is perhaps among the more famous corporations to co-opt the Christmas idea. Its usage of Santa Claus within various advertisements has solidified the Santa image with the Coca Cola for generations. In the context of Klaus, however, the titular Santa has been at war with the corporation (referred to as the Pola-Cola Corp) to stay free from their grasp; indeed, the reason behind selling the imagination of children to aliens as drugs was to slander the Santa brand in favor of replacing it with a more corporately approved model.
It’s also worth considering when the story is taking place: the 1980s. At this time, capitalistic excesses in the Western world have reached dizzying heights, with U.S. President Ronald Regan having just won his second term in office with the second most lopsided presidential election in history, while British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was preparing to win a third term in two years’ time. Meanwhile, the economy was skyrocketing to catastrophic heights. The fictions children consumed during this period were freed from the standards and practices that prevented toy companies from making shows as advertisements. It was an era where nothing mattered saved the high, be it cocaine or nostalgia for a mythic past where America was great.
That high would ultimately lead to a generation of disaffected children trying desperately to figure out how to survive in a cruel and miserable future where there seems to be no hope in escaping, because there is no future out there where we can overthrow the capitalist systems we find ourselves trapped within. We burned the possibility for an alternative in favor of the end of history. An alternative to capitalism is simply impossible.
Which, ultimately, is what Klaus suggests we do: Imagine the impossible. The titular Klaus urges the children captured by the alien yuppies to imagine a way out. The strength of our fictions, our story suggests, comes from their impossibility.
The antagonists use the children’s lack of belief in Santa (due to their lack of an imagination) to weaken the jolly winter warrior. And yet, through it all, that possibility remains. As our narrator puts it, “It felt like we were falling forever in darkness. We were caught in the inescapable drag of a cosmic whirlpool that wanted to crush us all down, smaller than a dot on a page. But that was only because we couldn’t imagine a way out. Until we heard his voice, urging us on. Urging us to remember that if we tried hard enough. If we never forgot what we’d always been capable of…”
For all that the systems tell us that there is no future beyond the dreadful one we find ourselves in, that’s just a story. Christmas stories often offer alternatives to bleak narratives, even if they’re ones that enrich the powers that be rather than work against them. Rarely do they challenge the system’s base assumptions that someone needs to be poor in order for someone to be rich.
Perhaps an alternative narrative, one that can work outside of the cage capitalism has ensnared us within, is provided by Fargo’s third season. In the penultimate episode, Gloria Burgle, our lead detective, finds herself adrift at a bar with a fellow cop, a low level traffic cop named Winnie Lopez. The crime Burgle has spent the entire season chasing, trying to solve, is going to end with the guilty parties getting away with it scot free. All her efforts at trying to help have ended up in failure. And it feels as if she doesn’t even exist. That she is so small in this world, that she can be discarded in favor of a more streamlined approach.
Lopez, in response, hugs Burgle. It’s a small, inconsequential moment. But it’s also the most important thing in the world. At the heart of all Christmas stories (the good ones at least) is the belief in the better angels of mankind. December is a time of darkness. A cold, bitter season where things are dark and dreary. The stories of Christmas tell that we should all come together and make things just a little bit brighter. That we can be there for each other. Among the cruel and vicious things Capitalism does is make us think the only way forward is alone. The simple fact of it is Capitalism is just too big to be dealt with all on our own.
Yes, there are times in which the world may seem bleak, hopeless, and miserable. Times when one wonders what the point of a season of gift giving in a world of such cruelty. That there is nothing worth being around to see. But, to quote one of our time’s greatest satirists Terry Pratchett, “There’s no better present than a future.” The trick, then, is to make it one worth living in. It is, after all, just a story.