The (not so) universal holiday

This morning, it occurred to me for the first time to wonder: why is it that every show feels compelled to do Christmas specials? Every year, we get inundated with scenes of our favorite characters angsting over gifts, gearing up for fraught family reunions, and learning the true meaning of Christmas.

Which, if you think about it, is really, really weird on every level. First, most of the characters don’t think about their faith at any other point in the season: it’s not central to who they are or what drives the plot of the show.

Second, you can find these episodes even on shows created and run by Jews. So it’s not like management has a deep, emotional need for these episodes either.

And third, a decent chunk of the population watching the shows isn’t Christian, so 15% or so of us get inundated with episodes that are putting forth this holiday we don’t celebrate as a universal event. If you really want those elements of fraught family reunions and ambivalent feelings about a universal holiday, why not have a Thanksgiving episode instead? (Which I think only Buffy has done.)

Look at the standard plot arc for these episodes: Some of the characters are really excited for the holiday. Some are stressed by the demands of buying presents, party planning, etc. And some have negative associations with the holiday and don’t want to participate at all. Discord ensues. But in the end, the characters bridge the gap: the excited ones show empathy for the ones who feel stressed or disconnected, and everyone comes together for the happy ending, singing carols, working in a soup kitchen, or opening presents at the big party. The real message is that no matter how stressed or unhappy Christmas makes you, if you buy in, you’ll reap happiness and connection in the end.

Which is why it’s always Christmas and not Thanksgiving: it’s not about writing an episode that resonates with either the characters or the audience, it’s writing for the sake of the commercial vendors. People exchange presents on Christmas, often more than they can afford. The Christmas episodes maintain a culture that encourages that spending, making it seem universal, something you can’t opt out of, something that–despite the stress and unhappiness–will be worth it in the end. It’s a particularly skeezy piece of manipulation, using much-loved characters to try and warp people’s choices.

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