The Dark Side of Christmas

I must confess that I really like stories of the Yule season that are tainted with the bittersweet flavor of the macabre, much more than the sugar-saturated milk chocolate Santas of mainstream entertainment.

I can understand the self-absorbed, self-made miser who needs to be haunted by a departed partner and led to the cemetery that is the natural conclusion to his ungenerous life.

I can identify with the building and loan patron saint who has been robbed and defrauded, despondent and in need of rescue by a third-class angel sponsored by eerie-sounding disembodied friends.

I even like brief moments such as the glimpse of a huge Christmas tree in the background with a young wizard apprentice poignantly sitting mostly alone in the Great Hall of Hogwarts while his classmates go home for the holidays … the well-timed appearance of the holiday saint in the world of the wardrobe to give gifts that are weapons of war to children who will need them … the fall from the rooftop of the current jolly old elf and his subsequent demise, requiring the recruitment of a new one.

I’m especially fond of tales like the latter, old or new, of unlikely souls filling the shoes of a missing Santa.

So it was a foregone conclusion that I would enjoy Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather (rentable at most Blockbuster locations), the 2006 made-for-British-television 189-minute two-parter. The story takes place on Discworld, which is a great flat stone of a planet, gliding through space on the backs of four elephants who are, in turn, on the back of the great sea turtle A’Tuin. That’s not particularly germane to the story, but serves to let you know that you are definitely elsewhere.

On Discworld, the pooled belief of its denizens can actually cause a real person to exist, personifying such concepts as Death, or the Bogeyman, or the Tooth Fairy. Dark forces have gone to the twin cities of Ankh-Morpork and have hired a professional assassin from the local guild to eliminate the local version of Father Christmas, who is known as the Hogfather. The assassin, Mr. Teatime (pronounced Tay-Ah-Tah-May), has an ingenious plan. His foil is Death – the classic Grim Reaper – who, while making his rounds on Hogswatch Eve, has become aware that the Hogfather is missing in action, due to the disbelief of children everywhere.

Death puts on the Hogfather’s empty red-and-white fur cloak and resumes making deliveries from the boar-driven sleigh -including a humorous public appearance or two. At the same time, he recruits his granddaughter-by-adoption Susan, to become a reluctant warrior in the pursuit of Teatime – operating in the one place where Death cannot go. Susan is a governess to two children who have reached the end of their faith in the Hogfather, but are perplexed that their imaginary fears have become quite real monsters in closets, which Susan has become skilled at dispatching with a hearth poker.

It requires the help of a thinking machine created by the bumbling wizards of the Unseen University to compute that the lack of faith in the existence of the Hogfather has been responsible for the surplus of belief creating unexpected monsters under the bed and bathroom elves and sock-eaters and oh-gods of hangovers. Ultimately, while Death is filling in for the Hogfather, it is up to Susan to stop Teatime and his employers, and rescue the swine-saint from nonexistence.

Absurd? Of course. But what incredible production values for a made-for-television miniseries!

And an incisive insight or two from a very humanist writer. (Though I completely disagree with his choice of words. What he calls the great lies – justice, for example – are in fact the great, though intangible, truths without which society cannot exist.)

In fact, I would say that most of the recruited Santa stories I like so much are based on the very humanist presumption that it is culturally necessary for a loving and generous Santa to exist; therefore, we have created him. And that within us is the innate ability to become that Santa when called to the task.

Which is, of course, completely backward from the truth: that there is a loving and generous God who exists; therefore, it was necessary for Him to create us … then to rescue us from our selfishness, not with an old saint who brings tangible gifts, but with an Infant Son in a manger who will bring eternal gifts to all who will take them and become them.

That’s the short version, to be sure.

Yet it’s not a stretch to say that the original Christmas story has that dark bittersweet flavor of truth. Some time after the Infant was born, an evil king learned of it through Magi and saw a threat to his throne, ordering the slaughter of all baby boys in Bethlehem. The path from the manger would lead to a cross – but it would not stop there.

The battle was engaged: the battle between self and selfless, between greed and generosity, between despondence and hope.

It continues, every moment, every year, every season – Halloween or All Saint’s Day; Dia de los Muertos or Christmas. And if there are not warriors, reluctant or willing, who will take up the spiritual hearth poker … then the great irony of Hogfather is that our planet will also become a world where assassination is a highly-respected, guilded profession.

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