Common Problems In Christmas Stories

So, there's a lot I unironically love about Christmas - growing up, I loved watching Rankin-Bass's Christmas specials, and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was one of the first songs I ever learned to sing. But it's been impossible not to notice that Christmas is also a space where we enshrine some of our worst impulses, nastiest prejudices, and coldest apathies. In this article, I'm going to talk about some of the things I've noticed so that hopefully, we can address them and do better going forward.

First uploaded: December 07, 2021.

Table of Contents

Christmas stories often belittle people's minds and feelings.

You've probably noticed that Christmas fantasy stories treat it as a terrible, awful thing when people don't believe in Santa. Reasons for this vary, but it often comes down to some kind of disappointment. For example, in the 1996 film The Santa Clause, the character of Doctor Neal Miller stopped believing in Santa as a child when Santa failed to deliver him an Oscar Meyer weenie whistle one Christmas.

For those of you who haven't been paying attention, this is just the "bitter atheist" narrative with a fantasy paint job. This narrative basically assumes that the main reason people don't believe in God is because God failed to answer their prayers at some point, or because they're angry at God for not preventing something bad from happening to them. The atheist is always accused of being resentful and refusing to let go of their anger and accept God's will. Maybe this happens for some people, but it's definitely not always the reason people become atheists. And even if it was the catalyst for someone's atheism, it doesn't mean they haven't since developed new reasons for disbelieving in God.

And then there's the film One Magic Christmas. In the story, a mother named Ginny is having a hard time holding onto any Christmas spirit because her husband Jack hasn't had a job in months, and they have to move out of their company-owned house. Her husband wants to peruse his dreams of opening a bike shop, but she wishes he'd just get a job. Now, I think many of us would find Ginny's position perfectly understandable. Following one's dreams is nice and all, but there's no guarantee things will work out, and when you're in a tough financial situation risks are, well, extra risky. But the film treats Ginny as a Debbie Downer, and the plot effectively guilt trips her into being thankful for what she has by essentially making her think Jack and her children are dead. To me, the film feels extremely misogynist in its implications that a woman should always support her husband, even if his choices aren't really sound. I think one could easily argue that it's Jack who lacks Christmas spirit, as evidenced by his selfish behavior.

The overall trend of acting like disbelief is somehow a willful act of cruelty toward others is actually very hurtful. I think something that more people need to acknowledge is the fact that belief is not a choice; at least, not in the way most people imagine. People tend to believe in things either when they feel like they have good reasons to believe, or when they feel like they don't have any good reason not to believe. When someone has what seems like strong reasons not to believe, then belief is pretty much impossible. And when that's where you are, trying to force yourself to believe can just make you feel like a fraud or a failure. In other words, it's not healthy.

Someone can choose to seek out reasons to believe, but it doesn't necessarily follow that they'll be able to find reasons they find convincing. We can grant that believing in Santa is often used as a metaphor for believing in the goodness of humanity, or believing that things can get better. For those whose worlds are crumbling around them, who suffer traumatizing loss and face constant instability, who struggle with depression, that kind of belief can be incredibly difficult, if not impossible to cultivate and maintain, because their life experience and their feelings are constantly telling them otherwise. And to just demand that people who are suffering should just be able to conjure themselves up some belief is like demanding that someone with a twisted ankle should just get up and run.

If we look at it from the perspective that Santa is basically God Lite or Jesus Lite, then... well, once again, belief is not a matter of choice in the way many people imagine. Many religious believers feel like they have strong evidence that their beliefs are true, often to the point they see their beliefs as self-evident. The trouble is, many of them are unaware of just how unconvincing their "evidence" is when you look at things from a broader standpoint, or an outsider's view.

For example, many Christians believe that if you just read the Bible, and particularly the the New Testament, you'd have to see that Jesus is clearly the Messiah, and God's only begotton son, or God Himself. They don't really appreciate how Christianity looks when you aren't particularly invested in reading Christian Messianic theology into certain passages in the Hebrew Bible, or when you are aware of mystical experiences outside of Christianity, or when you're open to the possibility that the Gospels are embellished history, rather than purely factual history. They don't understand how Christianity looks when you're actually aware of the broader socio-political context of the 1st century and the development of apocalyptic tradition in the preceeding centuries, or when the idea that sin is this corrupting supernatural force that cannot be removed except through blood sacrifice is simply not part of your metaphysical understanding. And I realize I'm going on a bit here, but I want to demonstrate that most of the things Christians take for granted as self-evident, simply aren't.

Thus the idea that someone can simply decide to believe is rooted in extreme ignorance; as is the idea that what you consider to be compelling evidence will be perceived as such by someone else. And this is why moralizing belief and treating a lack of belief as moral failure is such an irrational and ultimately unhelpful approach. It's kinda funny that for all our Christmas media focuses on showing how important it is to get into "the Christmas spirit" by being more generous and giving, we overlook our own entitlement in expecting people to just be able to conjure up Christmas spirit on a dime.

Christmas stories are often colonialist.

The 2018 film The Christmas Chronicles claims that without Santa, there will be catastrophic consequences - the story blames the Dark Ages and various wars on Santa being unable to deliver presents. In fact, Santa's failure to deliver gifts on his usual schedule causes an immediate drop in "Christmas cheer" (never mind that it's still the middle of the night and most people wouldn't even be up to notice anything off), and criminal activity spikes right then and there.

One might argue that this kind of thing is meant to inject a sense of stakes into the story. But we can't overlook the sinister implication it creates: that many of the world's problems stem from other people not celebrating the exact same holidays the exact same way we do. It suggests that cultures who don't celebrate Christmas, or don't believe in Santa, must be lacking in joy, warmth, and good morals. This in turn suggests that we'd be doing them a favor if we imposed our Christmas on them. This implication is very pro-colonialist, pro-assimiationist.

We also have numerous films that imply that the assimilation has already taken place; IE, any film that makes it clear that Santa delivers all over the entire world on Christmas Eve. Again, not every culture celebrates Christmas, whether in a religious or secular sense. Not everyone celebrates Christmas (or a comparable holiday) on December 25th. Additionally, many cultures who celebrate Christmas (or a comparable holiday) don't have Santa as part of the holiday's mythology or lore. Many have other figures that play into wintertime celebrations in various ways. For example, Italy has La Befana, a broom-riding witch. Russia has Ded Moroz. Protestant Germans, who didn't recognize Saint Nicholas as a holy figure, developed the Christkind. Siberia has quite a range of figures comparable to Santa.

Christmas stories are often classist.

Narratives that make a life-and-death drama out of whether Santa can deliver his presents to every child in the world ultimately asks us to just go along with the idea that children really do receive gifts based on how good they are, and not on how much money their parents have, or how much they're willing to spend on them. We don't have to consider how if a lack of Christmas presents causes a lack of Christmas spirit, then the biggest real life reason the world lacks Christmas spirit would be the existence of poverty.

Most Christmas films focus on middle to upper class people - the kind who will pretty much always have enough money to afford presents in real life. In general, Christmas fantasy films don't really ask us to consider what Santa's existence means in a world where systemic inequality exists. We don't have to ask ourselves exactly how complicit this godlike being is in perpetuating the suffering of millions, and whether that should make us rethink how much we idealize him.

The Polar Express introduces us to a child named Billy, who sadly informs others that Christmas has never really "worked out" for him. Based on the home we saw Billy come from, and the fact that he wore galoshes instead of winter boots, we can easily infer that his parents are poor. But at the end of the film, Santa delivers a tree and a gift to his home. This effectively asks us to ignore the socioeconomic troubles Billy's family likely endures, and also raises the uncomfortable question of why Santa only just now did something for Billy.

Another form of classism is ignoring how capitalism systemically creates the very problems the stories allegedly oppose in favor of placing individual blame. In the 1996 film Mrs. Santa Claus, the antagonist uses child labor to produce badly-made toys that will quickly fall apart as a kind of displaced revenge for the time his brother ruined his Christmas teddy bear. Near the end of the story, Mrs. Claus replaces his teddy bear, and he decides to stop his evil ways.

Of course, the real reason bosses and business owners abuse their workers and offer inferior goods and services isn't because they're sad and hurting inside. It's because capitalism incentivizes, rewards, and sometimes even demands ruthless practices. Remaining competitive in business means maximizing profits, and maximizing profits means finding ways to cut down on costs. The reason there are so many callous, selfish jerks in charge is because the system is designed to reward this kind of behavior. If they didn't start out this way, then they'll have to learn to be that way to get ahead. It's a vicious system that often only allows the vicious to survive.

Christmas stories are often misogynist.

Christmas romance movies in particular tend to have a very nasty streak of misogyny in them.

They often follow a formula that goes more or less like this: A woman with a good career has to leave the city where she works for some reason (sometimes it's related to her job, sometimes she's visiting her family for Christmas). She meets a conventionally attractive man she finds attractive enough, but doesn't want to have a relationship with for some reason. The story will practically fall over itself as it attempts to telegraph what an amazing man this guy is - EG, we might learn that he's some kind of artist, that he does stuff for charity, or that he basically shows up to help literally anyone and everyone all the time.

Friends and family will pressure her into a relationship in a number of little ways, such as asking her if she's found a boyfriend/fiance yet, telling her that money isn't everything, telling her how they'd met their own spouses, telling her how hot he is, telling her that she should give him a chance, telling her how she's obviously in love with him, or making inappropriate comments about how they make such a cute couple.

Now, the problem isn't that these stories simply depict people falling in love and getting together. That isn't a problem at all. Rather, the main problem is how they act as if everyone has to be in a relationship to be truly fulfilled and happy, sometimes to the point of making relationships and marriage feel like a kind of obligation. There's also a strong implication that careers are distractions that prevent women from getting married. And let's be real, this is some rank patriarchal nonsense.

Another thing I think is worth examining more critically is the way these films try to sell us on the idea that the love interests are marriage material. The thing is, many of the things the love interests do that are supposed to show us that they're good people are also the same kind of grand gestures that abusers and predators might do in order to convince communities that they're fine upstanding citizens. I'm not saying that means all of these love interests are secretly all horrible people, but rather that none of this stuff actually proves that they're good people to be in close relationships with.

The thing is, these kinds of gestures don't tell you how someone is going to behave when things don't go their way, let alone how they'll act when they feel like they're losing control - which is when abusive people are at their most dangerous. I think it would do a lot more to establish these people as good romantic partners by showing us that they can handle setbacks and being told no without reacting like a douche.

If we assume that in the world of these romance films that the gals just never say no and therefore never find out what their men are like when they try and set boundaries with them, then we're assuming that they're all set in a patriarchal society, which is, well, yikes.

There are so many alternatives to the formula I described above, because the only thing you have to do in order to write a Christmas romance is to write a romance that involves Christmas somehow. The sky's the limit, so why not go for it?

Christmas stories are often fixed on unrealistic expectations.

Many Christmas stories cultivate the impression that Christmas only comes in two flavors: ideal and ruined. In the ideal Christmas, everyone is fully invested in the joy and wonder of the event; nothing spoils or diminishes it. There's probably also snow, even if snow is unlikely for the local climate. Whatever problems the characters faced before this point are miraculously tied up with no loose ends. And of course, in most Christmas fantasy films, Santa must come on time.

You might even have a narrator who declares that this was the best Christmas ever, which is kind of a bummer when you think about it because it means that every subsequent Christmas will never be able to live up to this one single Christmas.

Now of course, it's understandable that someone writing a Christmas movie is going to want to end things on a high note. But I think it's worth asking why our idea of a high note must set the bar so high.

This whole idea that a good Christmas is a Christmas that is unflinchingly merry and bright means that Christmas cannot be allowed to hold space for grief. At the same time, we constantly insist that Christmas is about friends and family. In my opinion, these two viewpoints are very much at odds with each other. Many of us have lost friends and family one way or another, whether because they've passed on, moved away, just outright rejected us. Christmas can be a stark reminder of what we've lost and dredge up painful memories and feelings.

The idea that those of us who are in pain must put on a smile and play along or else we're "ruining Christmas" is so incredibly callous and selfish. Sometimes, caring means being present with another person's suffering and sitting with it for awhile, without trying to plaster it over with sugar, smiles, and shallow platitudes.

Sometimes, people need validation that life is sometimes painful and unfair for no good reason. Many people seem to have a reflexive need to find redemption and meaning in suffering. And if this works for you, then that's fine and good. But we have to remember that this won't work for everyone, and trying to make others see their suffering as meaningful can be insensitive and demeaning. Everyone has the right to make of their suffering what they will, and more of us need to respect that.

Trying to use "Christmas spirit" as an emotional painkiller or balm is just another form of spiritual bypassing. It's not healthy; in fact, it's quite damaging - both to the individual doing the bypassing, and to everyone who will be affected when that person's cork finally pops. So let's dispense with the idea that cheer is mandatory already.

The way we view "the true spirit of Christmas" actually reinforces our worst impulses.

Christmas media constantly reminds us that Christmas is the time for kindness and generosity. All of these things are all fine and good, of course. The problem is, singling out Christmastime as the time for these things basically means that it's okay to be a selfish dillweed the rest of the year.

The thing is, the supposed virtues of Christmastime are things that we should be striving for each and every day of our lives. People suffer from loneliness, hunger, violence, illness, and everything else each and every day of the year, not just in December. Making the holiday season a time of "peace on Earth and goodwill toward men" turns basic human decency into a seasonal activity; a sort of game to make one feel better about oneself without actually doing anything substantial to alleviate other people's suffering.

Christmas as we know it appears to take many cues either from Saturnalia, a Roman inversion festival, or Sol Invicta, another holiday that was celebrated pretty much the same way. During Saturnalia, masters would exchange roles with slaves, gifts would be given, and criminals would be pardoned. Inversion festivals might appear to challenge society's status norms, but they actually serve to reaffirm then by casting the opposite as weird or wacky. Therefore, the ultimate purpose of Christmas as we conceive of it is not to challenge or undermine the norms and systems that cause so much suffering, but to reaffirm and reinforce them.

In Christmas romance movies, male love interests are often supposed to be seen as good people because they do so much charity work around Christmastime. We aren't supposed to ask ourselves what they're doing the rest of the year, let alone what this says about their character. If they care so much about the poor, why aren't they trying to dismantle and replace the systems that force so many people into poverty in the first place? A prince with a passion for helping orphans only sounds good until you actually stop and ask yourself why there are so many kids in orphanages in the first place. Just why does this country have so many dead parents and/or broken homes? These are the kinds of problems you see in countries where healthcare is largely inaccessible or unaffordable, and where systemic support for struggling families is nigh nonexistent. At this point, one is forced to acknowledge that said prince is not actually a particularly good person, but is rather a complicit party in a dystopian government.

I suggest giving How Philanthropy Benefits The Rich, The Philanthropy Con, and 4 Ways Humanitarian Work Abroad Reinforces the Oppression It Should Be Fighting a read. While I'm not saying that no one benefits from charity, it's simply not the solution that some people make it out to be, and in many ways simply reinforces the problems it allegedly fixes.

There's a lot of weird hand-wringing over belief.

A trope in some Christmas fantasies is that Santa must come on time or else catastrophe will occur. In films like The Christmas Chronicles and Rise of the Guardians (technically the film is set around Easter, not Christmas, but Christmas things are still present enough for it to count), we're informed that if Santa fails to arrive just once, children will stop believing in Santa, and when children stop believing in Santa, chaos and fear will reign for one reason or another.

First of all, belief just isn't that fragile for most people. Early Christianity is a great example of this; if you read the New Testament you can see a group of people who initially expected Jesus to return within the next few to several years, and when that failed to happen, created a number of rationalizations to account for this; EG, 2 Peter 3. Anyone who's studied cults and oddball religious groups can tell you that belief is actually extremely tenacious; people will often tenaciously hang on even in the face of failed prophecies.

So, the idea that massive numbers of children would just stop believing over one year's failure when Santa has evidenced his existence for every year before that point is absurd. Christmas fantasy stories like this never consider that if Santa fails to make it one year, the kids might have a fairly disappointing Christmas but any doubts they have can be resolved come next Christmas, particularly if the presents come with an apology note explaining last year's absence.

I think the most absurd thing about acting as if Santa's absence would ruin everything forever is that if Santa stopped coming, you'd basically just have the world as it is now. Maybe some people find it fun to imagine an alternate world where Santa is real and has a measurable impact on our lives, but to me it mostly feels like a bunch of hand-wringing over nothing. It also feels like a cynical effort to squeeze a few more years of wide-eyed belief out of the kids before they have to admit once and for all that Santa isn't real - cynical, because of the implicit message that it's impossible for those of us in the real world to evoke that kind of sense of wonder and magic.

I also think there might be a more sinister side to this trope. Keeping in mind that Santa is often functionally Jesus Lite, this trope mirrors and reifies conservative scaremongering that if people don't believe their way, then chaos and evil will run rampant. This is used to justify marginalizing and demonizing minority religions, or people who consider themselves agnostics or atheists.

Finally, I have one last thing to quibble about regarding belief in Christmas fantasy media. Many films act as if it's a matter of inevitability that most adults will stop believing in Santa at some point. How the adults rationalize all the gifts that turn up under the tree and in their children's stockings is never explained. You might argue that there's some kind of magic that forces the adults to explain it all away or something, but I really think that would be a cowardly approach. Maybe writers could just try letting adults accept Santa's existence, and see what happens, because it has the potential to take stories in unexplored directions.

In closing.

In a nutshell, Christmas stories often reflect and amplify many of our society's issues, which is pretty ironic for a holiday that's supposed to be about love and peace. Instead of encouraging us to do something about poverty on the systemic level, they often fetishize helping impoverished people as a seasonal activity, as if they are simply NPCs in one's personal path to salvation or redemption. They often subtly imply that people who don't celebrate Christmas must be miserable, immoral people while cultivating a kind of entitlement toward having the "perfect" Christmas experience. They often refuse to genuinely respect people's trauma, but instead prescribe toxic positivity. The formulaic plots of Christmas romance movies are so reflective of patriarchal norms that they have been compared to fascist propaganda. And in many ways, Christmas stories serve as training wheels for shallow, toxic forms of faith and spirituality.

I don't have all the answers to these problems right now, but I do know that if we're going to progress as a society we do, in general, need to work on respecting people's beliefs and feelings a lot more, and realize that charity isn't a substitute for fixing systemic issues. And of course, we can't fix society's issues just by writing better stories, but we can at least write stories that don't enshrine and amplify them.

At the very least, acknowledging that these things are ridiculously prevalent and don't have to be there can enable us to make different choices that lead to more original and more thoughtful storytelling, and potentially create work that feels like a breath of fresh air to a lot of people.

I hope you enjoyed this article and found something useful in it. If you did, then I hope you consider sharing it with your friends and on your social media, and consider supporting me on Patreon. And I hope you have yourself some happy holidays and a blessed new year!

Other pages you might enjoy:

Basic Tips To Create Better Characters With Tragic & Traumatic Backstories
On Writing & Roleplaying Wise Characters
How Myths & Lore Don't Originate - And How They Do

Christmas Elf Name Generator
Yulepunk Outfit Generator
Christmas Tree Generator
Christmas Ornament Generator

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