A Newer, Sleeker Santa

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If you’ve had your fill of Christmas movies involving “Bad Santa,” “Bad Moms,” bad romances, bad vacations, bad neighbors, and bad families, move over. I’m with you. And don’t get me started on the pseudo-romantic claptrap that passes for Christmas music these days. If I have to hear one more diva warbling her new rendition of “Silent Night” as though it was the National Anthem at a basketball game or one more ingénue singing that all she wants for Christmas is a new boyfriend, I’ll, I’ll — well let’s put it this way: I’ll deserve that lump of coal in my stocking.

But just when I despaired of ever again seeing a worthy Christmas movie, along came a superb film in the unlikeliest of places: a made-for-Netflix production starring Kurt Russell as that right jolly old elf — only don’t call him “old,” and don’t call him fat!

The film begins with a video montage of joyful Christmases Past enjoyed by Doug (Oliver Hudson) and Claire (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) and their two children, Teddy (Judah Lewis) and Kate (Darby Camp). But this is not going to be a joyful Christmas. It’s the first one without Doug, a firefighter who lost his life by saving someone else’s. Kate, 10, still possesses an innocent belief in the magic of Christmas, but Teddy, 15, is at that age when it isn’t cool to believe in anything or like anyone in one’s family, and his cynicism is worsened by the recent loss of his father.

If I have to hear one more diva warbling her new rendition of “Silent Night” or one more ingénue singing that all she wants for Christmas is a new boyfriend, I’ll deserve that lump of coal in my stocking.

When Claire has to work at the hospital on Christmas Eve, Teddy is assigned to watch over his sister, and the Adventures in Babysitting begin. Kate, an avid videographer (as all young women seem to be these days) hatches a plan to catch Santa (Kurt Russell) on film, and through a series of unfortunate events they end upnot only stowing away on Santa’s souped-up sleigh but also causing him to crash the sleigh and lose his hat, his toy bag, and his reindeer. Unless they can fix the sleigh, corral the reindeer, recover the presents, and deliver them before sunrise, Teddy and Kate will have ruined Christmas. For everyone.

Kurt Russell is a delightful Santa. He isn’t all-knowing. He isn’t all-powerful. He isn’t fat (as he tells anyone who’ll listen), and he sings a mean bluesy “Santa Claus is Back in Town” while he’s sitting in a jail cell. In fact, he’s kind of like the perfect dad. Wink wink.

While Santa is busy saving souls and restoring the spirit of Christmas at the police precinct, the kids have to save the reindeer, the presents, the elves — and each other.

Vivacious, 10-year-old Kate has the innocent glow and easy wonder of childhood. Nothing is beyond her ability to believe, so she has nothing to fear — not when she’s clinging to a flying reindeer, not when she’s trapped inside a toy bag, and not even when she’s surrounded by a hoard of creepy elves. She’s sweet, spunky, and endearing.

Unless they can fix the sleigh, corral the reindeer, recover the presents, and deliver them before sunrise, Teddy and Kate will have ruined Christmas. For everyone.

Teddy is endearing too, but for different reasons. He has lost not only his belief in Santa but also his belief in God. He is lost and broken, and you just want to reach out and fix him. On the steps of a church where a choir is singing his father’s favorite hymn, “Oh Christmas Tree,” Teddy questions the meaning of sacrifice. “He had a wife and two kids, and he gave it all up to help some random strangers,” he laments bitterly, remembering how his father lost his life running into a burning house. I couldn’t help but think of Brent Taylor, the National Guardsman who left his wife and seven young children behind in Utah to serve a fourth tour of duty in the Middle East and was killed by an Afghan infiltrator last month. Shouldn’t some choices and responsibilities preclude other choices and responsibilities? When you choose to have children, especially that many children, shouldn’t you give up risky behaviors like skydiving, motorcycle riding, and fighting a war in some random nation on the other side of the world?

Of course, everything turns out right in the end. Christmas isn’t ruined, and we have a touching, sentimental moment to remind us of the true meaning of Christmas. Unfortunately, many a harried mother has been heard to utter those infelicitous words sometime during December: “You’ve ruined Christmas!” (I might have uttered them myself a time or two over the course of producing 45 Christmases for my family.) It stings, and children feel it. Moms feel it even more. But Christmas is a time for binding wounds, not picking at scabs. We all have the power to ruin Christmas, or to save it. The Christmas Chronicles prepares us to understand the truth about Santa — that his helpers don’t all live at the North Pole. They live in every house, every family, and in every heart where love is.

If you’re yearning for a Christmas movie that isn’t treacly and childish, isn’t cynical and offensive, isn’t about falling in love, and isn’t about dysfunctional families (all families have troubles, but that doesn’t mean they’re “dysfunctional”), this one is for you. It’s witty, sophisticated, adventurous, uplifting, and fun. Better yet, this first-rate, first-run film is available on Netflix in the privacy of your own home. I hope its title, The Christmas Chronicles, suggests another installment next year. Kurt Russell is a Santa to be reckoned with.

Just don’t call him fat.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Christmas Chronicles," directed by Clay Kaytis. Netflix, 2018, 144 minutes.



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Santa’s Not-so-Secret Spy Network

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Have you ever wondered exactly how Santa knows who is naughty, and who is nice? In 2005, a mother-daughter team wrote and self-published a book, ostensibly for kids, that set out to answer just that question. That book, The Elf on the Shelf, is both a smash-hit bestseller and a creepily straightforward symbol of our overreaching national security state.

Here’s how it works. Parents buy the Elf on the Shelf kit, which comes with a copy of the book, as well as their very own elf doll (available in both sexes and diverse shades, the better to maximize marketing potential). The parents read their children the book, which outlines how it is precisely this elf who informs Santa when they’ve been bad and when they’ve been good. Every night, in fact, when they’re sleeping, the elf flies from the kid’s home up to the North Pole and passes along the fruits of its surveillance, and then flies right back so as not to miss a minute of potential misbehavior.

The sign that the elf is making this trek is that every morning, it’s moved to a different location in the house. I leave it to the reader to divine what sophisticated method produces the elf’s locomotion — as far as the kids are concerned, though, the one hard and fast rule in the Elf on the Shelf state is “Don’t touch the elf.” You can talk to it — tell it your deepest desires — confess to it — reveal to it the misdeeds of siblings or parents — but don’t you dare lay a finger on it, or else, as it notes in plaintive verse, “My magic might go, and Santa won’t hear all I’ve seen or know.”

Yet this is precisely the demand the American surveillance state makes on us: to respect above all else its presence, its wisdom, its necessity. And this demand becomes ever more pressing; as the Wall Street Journal recently revealed, the National Counterterrorism Center [NCTC] now claims the right (backed by the signature of the attorney general) to “examine the government files of U.S. citizens for possible criminal behavior, even if there is no reason to suspect them.” Moreover, they can store this data for up to five years (with longer durations doubtlessly on the way, if not already de facto present) and share with any foreign government for joint investigations.

While Santa always represented unimpeachable extrajudicial authority, it wasn’t as if he had a uniformed agent present inside the house itself.

As the WSJ article shows, anyone speaking out against this new regime from within was purged from the ranks — their meddling potentially preventing Santa from hearing all that the elves had seen, and thus endangering the magic of the entire system. Those left to oversee the activities of the NCTC are the same ones who were gung-ho for it in the first place — those falling all over themselves to put an elf on every shelf, the better to have minutely detailed lists of the naughty and the nice (or, more accurately, the naughty and those who might yet prove naughty, if only we survey them long enough).

The Elf on the Shelf fad might seem innocuous — in most cases, is innocuous: a little bit of wonder added to the days leading up to Christmas. Still I can’t help but wonder myself about anything that encourages citizens, and especially children, to recognize the validity of an arbitrary authority; still more, to internalize that authority, by conducting themselves by thinking first and foremost about what that authority will report to its higher-ups.

Is this really such a big revision of the much older and still creepy idea that Santa (or some other omniscient white-bearded figure) is keeping tabs on you? I would argue yes; while Santa always represented unimpeachable extrajudicial authority, it wasn’t as if he had a uniformed agent present inside the house itself. And you could petition him directly, making the case for your goodness by letter. Now, a kid hoping to sway the balance to “nice” has to appeal to Santa’s intermediary, and hope nothing gets lost on the way through the North Pole bureaucracy.

I’m sure there’s no causal connection here. It’s not as if the DHS or CIA or anyone is funding Elf on the Shelf as part of some grand conspiracy to produce a more compliant citizenry. They don’t have to: as the Journal report and the deafening lack of protest shows, we’re already compliant enough. Rather, games like this — and often the sillier, the better — help prepare children for the age in which they will live; it’s a form of socialization that doesn’t have to evade resistance because it doesn’t seem like there’s anything to resist. It’s just natural that there’s a spy in your midst, the public face of a distant organization whose power you can’t imagine; it’s just natural that this power must go unquestioned and even unexamined. Because that’s the fundamental assumption of American and much other modern governance today — and any who dare resist will find themselves on the naughty list. And as a recent Christmas release, Zero Dark Thirty, taught us: we have ways of dealing with the naughty. If contemporary America excels at anything, it’s in its many and various ways of dealing with the naughty.



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The Epistemology of Christmas: Advanced Course

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