What day is this? December 14th. Thank God! There’s still four more days ’til Christmas. If the Ghost of Christmas Present actually brought Christmas presents, The Simpsons would hold a family séance and trim the tree with ectoplasmic residue. Christmas is the time of year when people of all religions come together to worship Jesus Christ, but the Simpsons are perennial irreverents. While the series follows the tradition of the anti-commercialization of Christmas set forth by Peanuts, even Millhouse van Houten knows that Christmas didn’t get to be the No. 1 holiday by being about love. The Simpson family also finds the seasonal spirituality more than a little spooky.
The Simpsons are highly celebrated for their “Treehouse of Horrors” Halloween celebrations. Springfield is well-suited for the creepier seasons, but the family Simpson is also a little creeped out by Christmas. Not all of Christmas. Like most Americans, they love the tinsel, wrapping paper, and spray-on artificial snow covering for the Christmas tree. Who wants to see all that green all the time? They already live on Evergreen Terrace. It’s when the holidays dip into all the reverence that things get uncomfortable.
It’s not like they sing happy birthday to Jesus and are done with it, like the marines in Full Metal Jacket, by perennial Simpsons muse Stanley Kubrick. The Simpsons love the first verses of Christmas carols, but balk at the unfamiliar second verses where they get all weird and religiousy. Except for King Whatshislips, which starts off creepy. They can barely name the eight reindeers – Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Nixon, Comet, Cupid and Donna Dixon – much less the Ten Commandments. When the family wakes up to find out, wrongly, that they were robbed on Christmas eve in the season 9 episode “Miracle On Evergreen Terrace,” Homer looks to the comfort of skipping church.
The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror” episodes are an annual tradition that has never been skipped. They’ve only done 13 Christmas episodes. The Simpsons saved three Christmases, ruined eight, and two were kind of a draw. There are 17 episodes that are called Christmas episodes, but some don’t really count. There have been episodes set around the holiday and, as far as I’m concerned, any day they show “Mr. Plow” is Christmas morning, but it hasn’t risen to a yearly thing.
Yet, The Simpsons were first unleashed on American TV with a Christmas special. Sure, some people knew about The Simpsons from The Tracey Ullman Show and some people even knew Matt Groening’s Life in Hell comic, but they came on full blast and fully formed as a Christmas present. There was only one fat guy on Evergreen Terrace who brought the family presents and his name wasn’t Santa.
Unless television has betrayed me, The “Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire” episode reinforced the teachings that miracles always happen to poor kids at Christmas. It happened to Tiny Tim. It happened to Charlie Brown. It happened to The Smurfs. The very first Simpsons episode, Christmas or otherwise, finds the Simpsons broke. Mr. Burns cancels the nuclear plant workers’ Christmas bonuses and Marge spends all the family’s skrimpings on a tattoo removal for Bart. The episode establishes that this is a truly loving family. Homer loves the family so much that he is willing to sink so low as to get a second job as a department store Santa.
These weren’t The Flintstones, even if Fred’s future mother-in-law told Wilma that if being poor was a crime her father would be public enemy No. 1. At least Fred could rely on the family dinosaur for balance against a row of ribs. Even the Simpson family dog, the Christmas miracle himself, Santa’s Little Helper, is a loser. He’s pathetic. He’s a Simpson. Their cat Snowball, we learn from the annual seasonal letter Marge sends to the family, died during the year, but the family rallies around a gift that can’t be bought in stores.
In “White Christmas Blues,” Marge realizes the family can’t afford Christmas. And when you can’t afford Christmas, you’ve failed as a family, at least according to the big stores. If we’ve learned nothing from Krusty the clown, and we haven’t, we know that the spirit of the season is awakened when people start shopping and not through donations to a non-tax deductible charity. Krusty knows that’s why Santa went bust after years of giving away free toys and getting cookies in return. It’s not a sustainable business model.
Every Christmas, Krusty pledges every dollar spent on Krusty merchandise, like the “Tickle Me Krusty” doll that imparts such wondrous messages as “Hey kid, get your finger out of there,” will be matched by him personally being nice to a sick kid or a hooker with a cold. That’s more than Mr. Burns gives. The old Scrooge has been known to release the hounds on every charity that comes to his door: Feed The Children, Save The Whales, even Release The Hounds.
Christian Charity isn’t just a cool name for a porn star. In “I Won’t Be Home For Christmas,” Homer misses Christmas dinner to spend time with the much much less fortunate Moe, possibly saving him from his almost annual suicide attempt. In “The Fight Before Christmas” from Season 22, Moe trades in the noose for a chance to suckle Katy Perry’s rosebud. In “Kill Gill Volumes I & II,” the family puts up with gainfully unemployable Gil Gunderson for a year.
Springfield always appears to be in recession and the town relies on the holiday season to bring in revenue. The ever-embattled family on Evergreen Terrace has often had to save the community from itself. In “Grift of the Magi,” Springfield Elementary is coopted by Kid First Industries who swap edumacation for market research and brainstorm the Funzo doll, a cute stocking stuffer programmed to destroy all competition. Homer breaks into all his neighbors’ homes to steal the dolls while Lisa and Bart cover for him by shrieking “Silent Night” at the top of their lungs. Ultimately Gary Coleman keeps the world safe for commerce.
Holiday shopping is stressful. In “Simpsons Christmas Stories,” the skewering of Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, from season 15, Homer forgets that he’s Lenny’s Secret Santa and gives him a thoughtful last-minute pack of Certs. It may seem like Homer only thinks about himself when Christmas is a time to think of others, but he does care what Marge thinks after she finds out he blew tree money on something for himself. Marge ultimately gives herself the best present that can be had: a pre-wrapped, personally chosen, gift from Homer.
Lisa gets sick of the over-commercialization of Christmas and her church in particular in the Christmas episode “She of Little Faith.” Reverend Lovejoy sometimes cheats on his flock with the episcopalians, with their bright, airy narthex and light, flaky Eucharist, but who wouldn’t mind dipping their hand in that font? In not-so-quiet desperation, the saddest little girl in grade number two converts to Buddhism.
Lisa doesn’t turn her back on her church. She just needs to find a temple that’s free of corruption. Her family’s church is suffering from a debt hole so deep even David Bowie won’t cover it and Reverend Lovejoy decides to take money from Mr. Burns and rebrand the old church to a faith-based emporium teeming with impulse buy items. The reverend has learned you can save more souls with roller skates and Easy-Bake ovens than with the 2,000-page sleeping pill called The Holy Bible.
Marge, who eavesdrops on Lisa’s prayers, worries about her soul because she wants at least one person from the family to go to Heaven and tries to bribe Lisa back to Christianity with a pony Christmas present. But Lisa has foresworn all gifts, or in this case regifts because this isnt’ the first gift horse she’s looked in the mouth.
Lisa is put straight by the world’s most famous Buddhist. Not the Dalai Lama, the 14th Reincarnation of Buddha, but actor Richard Gere, who happens to worship at Springfield’s Buddhist temple. The middle Simpson child believes Buddhism will free her from desire and abandons the holidays to further that aim. But the wise former officer and gentleman, who could only really do one sit-up at a time, explains that Buddhists respect all religions and traditions. He frees Lisa to celebrate any holiday and reminds her that his birthday is August 31st.
Lisa isn’t the only Simpson who is rejuvenated by the season of Christmas. Bart also feels its reformative powers. All those temptations of the Christmas season can get to a kid. Bart isn’t really naughty, at least not by modern standards. He doesn’t get anybody pregnant. He never Facebooks a kid to death. But he hasn’t learned much from that guy who gives those sermons at church, Captain Whatshisname.
In the series’ second Christmas episode, “Marge Be Not Proud,” from season 7, yes, after the pilot “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” The Simpsons skipped Christmas for six years, Bart is peer-pressured into shoplifting a totally awesome Bonestorm video game the family won’t be able to afford. He also ruins the family Christmas card photo. Homer punishes the boy by taking away not only his egg nog, but all nog and forbids Bart from stealing for three months. Bart redeems himself by paying for his own portrait and is rewarded with a totally lame Lee Carvallo golfing video game.
The Simpsons even have an ambiguous relationship with Santa, who screwed Grandpa over back in WWII when he was a navy pilot in the Pacific. Though Abe Simpson can be more than a little annoying, in the Christmas episode “Holidays of Future Past,” he was kept cryogenically frozen long after the disease he was suffering from had been cured. Bart also threatens Santa over a dirt bike, man. Ay Caramba.
Winter itself is a little more frightening than Halloween. Springfield has had to come together often during the holidays. In “Skinner’s Sense of Snow,” all the area schools are closed for a reported upcoming blizzard, except for Springfield Elementary. The kids get snowed in while Skinner slaps his Willie around and Ned and the former Mr. Plow have to save the day without airbags, which the church opposes for some reason.
Let’s face it, Christmas shopping is scary. Malls can be agony and getting the right gift is a lot of pressure. There are a lot of holiday suicides. But Christmas itself is also spooky. A pregnant virgin? That’s every man’s worst nightmare. Baby Jesus, who grew up to be Jesus (weird, right?), was born on the lam in a stable with lambs and they all could have been slaughtered at any time. In Season 23’s “Holidays Of Future Passed,” Maude Flanders spills the meaning of Christmas, which schools will be forbidden to tell: There is no God, it’s just an empty, meaningless void. Or, as Homer learns from the magical creatures of the mall: The place to get drunk is at home. I know the brochure promised you a happy Christmas, so I’ll leave you with the words Marge told her bed and breakfast guests in “White Christmas Blues,” “My uncle died in your bed.” Merry Christmas!
Editor’s note: This article first ran in 2015 and has been repromoted for the holiday season.