Traditional American Christmas stories are very disturbing

But don’t despair.
But don’t despair.
Image: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer
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“Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy,” says Charlie Brown, blinking. “I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy.”

“I always end up feeling depressed.”

In the US, it’s time for the Peanuts Christmas special, and America’s favorite child underachiever will once again face holiday cheer and find only existential despondence. As December 25 approaches, the year-round dejection of the beloved comic’s anti-hero spreads like a virus across American TV specials and winter holiday stories. Rudolph, the Grinch, and George Bailey bear the bleak tidings of loneliness. These classic Christmas loners express fears of isolation, failure, and even doubts about our purpose; just turn on the TV this week and see for yourself.

For children, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer came to life in 1939 in a story, as part of an ad campaign for retailer Montgomery Ward. Rudolph is a social outcast whose unusual red nose makes him the object of ridicule. In the later TV version, a rejected Rudolph declares himself an “independent” misfit, and defects from Santa’s camp. Another American misfit created for children is “The Little Drummer Boy,” a song and TV special based on a Czech carol in which a poor drummer comes to sing for the baby Jesus. Unlike in the carol, in the American TV version, the boy is a misanthrope, whose only friends are three animals who like hearing him drum.

In the US, the most famous Christmas misfit of all is a green-furred monster living at the top of a mountain. In 1957, Dr. Seuss published the book How the Grinch Stole Christmas!—later a TV special, live-action movie, and Broadway show—about a misanthrope who steals presents. The Grinch has grumpy English forebears: The Father of Hating Christmas of course is Ebenezer Scrooge, from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the miserly businessman who hates people and, obviously, Christmas.

“These are all stories about a male character who experiences a rebirth and becomes part of his society,” says Maureen Furniss, director of experimental animation at the California Institute of the Arts. “This narrative is especially appealing to children, who have many fears and lack power.”

In this trope, a boy goes on a solitary adventure and then transforms with the support of his community. A feel-good resolution is key, she says. This is especially true for ad-driven television specials, she notes, as advertisers want to be associated with a positive lifestyle and outlook.

For American adults, too, loneliness and isolation are consistent themes in holiday fiction. The American classic film It’s a Wonderful Life is about George Bailey, a suicidal man who needs the interference of a guardian angel on Christmas Eve to see the value of his own life. And in the 2012 Christmas/New Year’s episode of Louie, a semi-autobiographical show starring comedian Louis CK, the protagonist tries scene after scene to connect with others—his daughters, his sister, and then a lost love—and fails. Just as things seem to be looking up, a character collapses just as they’re about to embrace, and dies in the next scene.

These stories share one lesson: Being alone is unbearable, but can be avoided. When much of the country plunged into bitter cold, they teach us, other people are the cozy antidote—even if you’ve previously mutually rejected each other.

Togetherness redeems: Rudolph’s physical aberrance saves the day and makes him a hero; Cindy Lou melts the Grinch’s heart and he joins Whoville; Scrooge becomes a philanthropist and father figure to Tiny Tim. Louie finds himself eating dinner in rural China, laughing with people whose language he can’t understand. Even Kevin McCallister in Home Alone, a movie about the joy of being left to your own devices, is glad to reunite with his mother by the end of the film. And Charlie Brown and his friends create a Christmas tree worthy of love and hymnal praise.

The Christmas cranks make us feel better about the families we have. They encourage haters and college students to seek out relatives and mates to stay cozy in the darkest, shortest days of the year. Of course, the classic Christmas loner also gives a boost to businesses by pushing togetherness, which encourages spending on plane tickets, movie outings, big dinners, Christmas trees, and presents.

But after a year of fiercely divisive politics, at a time when many US families will only warily reunite, perhaps the happy ending is a welcome distraction. It seems to say: Let’s rest for a moment, be together for a second, before we get back to it.