Because we always want what is impossible, we are transfixed by the past. Around the holidays we become fascinated by “tradition.” We use it to sell 7-year-old books and movies set in the 1940s that were made in 1980s. It’s a misty-eyed racket that sells well, and every passing year grows the tradition a bit more. It doesn’t hurt that DVDs are fairly easy to wrap.
Our love of the past is as simple as it is misguided. A look behind us is always easily explained. There is a line of cause and effect in the events, a clear view of what happened and why. When things look that logical it’s easy to long for the past, a world that makes sense and reminds us of what we already know.
What we forget, of course, is how awful the past can be. We forget social progress or emotional growth. We ignore the mistakes of youth and focus on its easy aspects. Out of a history full of ignorance and bigotry and an early death we choose to cherish simplicity and the joys of a sitcom’s nuclear family as evidence of a happier time.
We romanticize history with fuzzy camera filters and melded memories, but we add the unnatural sheen of possibility to the future as well. We can also spend far too much time worrying about the present. Our perspective is totally screwed up, but the lens with which we view things is important. Oftentimes I think we spend too much time worrying about what we see and not enough time wondering why we see it.
My two favorite Christmas specials are both cartoons. This is because I have the maturity of an eight-year-old boy, but also because I think cartoons can make the most of a Christmas plot. There are plenty of cartoons where the main character helps Santa deliver presents or, better yet, incapacitates Santa and has to assume his responsibilities. Those are fine, but all of those classic Christmas stories do nothing to add to the show itself. It’s wacky hijinks in a fake beard or A Christmas Carol with the smallest character playing Tiny Tim.
The episodes I like use the holiday as a foil to show you something new, to add another dimension to a character that maybe you can’t manage with an ordinary episode. I want Christmas in canon, and some shows really pull it off well.
In Hey Arnold, for example, the main character learns the background of a quiet man who lives in his boarding house. Mr. Hyunh, who most viewers knew as the guy with the funny accent, lost his daughter during the Fall of Saigon. It gets heavy in a hurry, and years later it still resonates with viewers who got their first taste of Vietnam on a cartoon.
Adventure Time is one of the smartest, most self-aware shows currently on television and its Christmas episode is no exception. If anything, the lone contrast with its usual 11-minute vignettes is that it’s one of the most depressing things I’ve ever seen on a children’s cartoon network. In fact, midway through the episode they throw up a “Merry Christmas from Adventure Time!” banner on the bottom of the screen just to remind confused viewers that they are watching the right channel.
The episode itself, subject material aside, is a brilliant example of using a holiday setting to expand the cannon. It firmly establishes a time period for the show and gives the main villain a thorough history. It’s heartbreaking, really, and once you see the Christmas episode of Adventure Time you never look at the show the same way again. It’s an awesome use of the 22 minutes a network gives you a half-dozen times in December. A year later, it still stuns me when I watch it.
Every December I re-read this post. As much as I want to go back and fix the clunky sentences and style errors of my younger self, I never do. It took me three years to write about my worst Christmas, and I think it’s important to leave that moment as it stands. Over the years it’s become a part of the holiday, an idle minute or two brings it all back to sober a happy moment and steels the resolve to have the best Christmas yet.
I hate that post. It’s a bit too personal and irrational for the worldview of my current self. A few weeks ago I wrote that I could live without rooting for the Bills, and I still believe that. Having on record that the team once saved Christmas is a tough fit for that narrative, though.
Staying in canon is something I used to worry about quite a bit. I have years of opinions cataloged on this site, and at first I thought I could keep it all in line. You like or dislike a certain player or team or concept. Pick a side of the fence and stay there no matter what happens because, eventually, someone is going to call you on it if you change your mind.
That’s stupid. We change our minds all the time because we get new information added to the pile as we are helplessly hurled into the future. The cannon is always changing because future is constantly becoming past and the variables of our lives are always in flux.
That’s why I think holidays are important: they put a timestamp on our lives that’s easy to remember. It gives us a chance to reflect on how things have changed and realize what we’d like to change about the next one. New Year’s Day is full of resolutions and reflection as well, it just doesn’t have nearly as many Very Special Episodes attached.
So sometimes Christmas is bad news and funerals. Sometimes it’s board games and just what everyone wanted. Sometimes it even has that perfect snowfall that makes everything look brand new, and most times it’s so busy we sleep through gatherings and don’t have time to write about it all until January 4.
The one thing every holiday has is something new, and that’s a very good thing indeed. Each year you get new memories that create your expectations for the next one. Maybe, if we have enough tries at it, we can finally get it just right.
The holidays change just like you do. The best we can hope for is a tradition to hold dear.