Philosophically Animating Christmas
by David Kyle Johnson
Christmas time is upon us again and so it’s once again the time for the animated Christmas special. Things have changed considerably in the 50 years since the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer animated special originally aired. Indeed, many animated Christmas specials today are irreverent and profane; but they also raise interesting philosophical questions. Last year, Seth McFarlane and Family Guy had a special that featured Krampus (pictured), the European St. Nicholas’ demonic punishment helper. It turns out, McFarlane suggested through the show, that Krampus is actually the good guy – wanting to discipline children for their own good as opposed to making them into spoiled brats like Santa Claus.
This year, Seth Green and Robot Chicken (Green also voices Family Guy’s Chris) are offering up their own animated special where – among other things – Santa learns that his naughty and nice list is woefully inadequate to its task. Morality is never cut and dried; some actions can be both good and bad, and morality itself is a vague, unclear, and uncertain concept. Indeed, not only has morality defied clear definition for at least 2500 years, but finding truth makers for such statements is equally problematic, and many philosophers maintain that morality is a fiction – along with perhaps personhood, the mind, and free will itself. Merry Christmas!
But according to Neil Genzlinger of the New York Times, the more disturbing question may be raised by this year’s Toy Story Christmas special, when Woody and the gang have to try to convince some dinosaur toys that they are toys and not actual dinosaurs. “Think about that for a minute. Is it better to have a mind of your own, even if that mind is immersed in evil, or to be owned by someone else who determines the parameters of your existence?” Neil calls for us to “ignore the existential questions.” Apparently, he thinks Christmas is not a time for intellectual reflection. But I wholeheartedly disagree!
In fact, a lack of philosophical reflection has largely contributed to Christmas becoming—at least for some people – one of the most dreaded holidays of the year. As Bill Maher put at the end of his last episode this year:
So, how did we fuck it up? When did [Christmas} become such a chore? Look at all these books and movies with titles like: How to Survive Christmas, Christmas Sucks, Skipping Christmas, Surviving Christmas. And what do people say when it’s over? “Hey, did you make it through the holidays?” Christmas shouldn’t be something you make it through, like basic training or a colonoscopy…You shouldn’t be looking at the open oven and thinking “Hmm, should I take the sugar cookies out or stick my head in?”
How indeed? By refusing to think, and reflect, and question, and challenge tradition instead of just mindlessly continuing them. Next year I release my book, The Myths That Stole Christmas where I challenge us to do just that. But in the meantime, engage in a little philosophical reflection of your own, perhaps motivated by some cute (or not so cute) animated Christmas specials.