It’s a funny thing: I knew this episode was coming and I was bummed. As a kid, this was one of my least liked episodes. Art Carney, who I loved in The Honeymooners with Jackie Gleason, stars as Henry Corwin, a drunk Santa Claus. It’s a little depressing too and Carney plays the drunk almost too well. John Fiedler, who seemed to turn up in everything back in the day, plays his annoying boss, Mr. Dundee. I guess I wanted monsters in my Twilight Zone, not this! But I’m not a kid anymore and tastes change as we age and we come to an understanding about the way things are. Sometimes those things are unpleasant.
This was a Christmas episode, released on December 23rd, 1960. I can see why we didn’t get the monsters – life can be hard. It has a way of beating on us, especially when we don’t expect it. Corwin is a soft-hearted man who just wants to make people happy. When two children come up to him and ask him for Christmas gifts, he holds them and cries. I’m not sure many parents would be ok with a drunk old man hugging their children, but we can tell Corwin is a sweet man who perhaps cares too much. He says he drinks so he won’t cry. He reminds his boss, who is rightfully annoyed at him for coming to work drunk, that Christmas should be about caring and loving one another and forgiveness and all manner of wholesome things, not the financially motivated purchasing of stuff. What he says rings so true. Dundee just wants to make money. However, I did still find him relatable because, he’s not wrong in some ways: he really just wants to do his job; it’s what he gets paid for. He loses some of that sympathy when he takes such delight in trying to get Corwin arrested for stealing from his store. One would expect inventory to be missing before accusing someone of stealing, but maybe that’s just me.
See, Corwin wanted to be Santa and that’s a nice thing. Wanting to bring joy to your fellow man is a wonderful, much-needed desire. He lives the motto that “giving is better than receiving”. After giving loads of gifts to everyone around town, one old timer comments that after all he’s done for everyone, there was nothing for him. Corwin says all he’d really want is to be Santa every year. He didn’t want stuff. He wanted to bring joy! And after making his wish, a sleigh appears complete with reindeer and an elf. Maybe that’s him up in the sky each Christmas. Maybe we can imagine that every so many years, a new Santa is chosen; someone who has a heart and a childlike wish to be kind and bring a smile to those less fortunate. Who knows, maybe this is where the idea came from for the Tim Allen movie The Santa Claus? There are far worse sources of inspiration!
I’m not sure that there should be a positive message about a man who goes to work inebriated, especially around children, but somehow I was happy for him. I struggled to have a negative feeling about him, even though I didn’t agree with his approach to work. But there’s something about Christmas that just warms the heart. The episode even ends with a message about the magic of Christmas. “There’s a wondrous magic to Christmas and there’s a special power reserved for little people…” For the first time in my life, I felt like I found an episode that should be watched every year, right up there with the silliness of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and the ever-heartwarming joy of It’s a Wonderful Life. There is a magic to Christmas and part of that magic was bringing me characters I liked in a story I could appreciate. Life is hard and we need some of that magic from time to time. I’m very glad that I was able to find a nice dose of it in the Twilight Zone… ML
The view from across the pond:
The Twilight Zone is so often about impossible things happening, or somebody’s wildest dreams or most terrifying nightmares coming true, that it is perfectly suited to a Christmas special episode. It is one of the few times of the year when people allow themselves to get swept up in the magic of the moment and perhaps even dare to believe that magic could happen. It is a time when we lie to our children, maybe allowing ourselves a glimmer of hope that we might be telling them the truth after all. The Night of the Meek is about the magic of Christmas, but this is also a drama, so before the magic must come the sadness.
Henry Corwin is a very sad man. For those who have never been a slave to a bottle of anything, it is all too easy to stand in judgement over a man like Henry. How could he get drunk at the one time of year when his life actually has some value and meaning? How could he risk disillusioning so many children who are eagerly looking forward to a meeting with Santa Claus? How could he make them think Santa isn’t real after all, and is just a drunkard with an ill-fitting fake beard? What a disgrace, eh? And then we realise what has driven him to this lowest of low points, and for most of us it is something that is mercifully beyond our own experiences: he sees poverty all around him; he sees unemployed fathers and hungry children, whose greatest wish to Santa is for their fathers to get a job, and years of witnessing that deprivation while being a part of it himself and therefore unable to help has broken his spirit.
“I find of late that I have very little choice in the matter of expressing emotions. I can either drink or I can weep.”
… and then, once a year, he has to sit in a department store, away from the have-nots, and surrounded by the haves. From there, it’s not too huge a mental leap to understand why this might not be the one moment of triumph in the year when he is actually useful and doing some good, because it is tainted by the consumerism that never notices the poverty on the streets outside the store.
“Christmas is more than barging up and down department store aisles and pushing people out of the way… It should come with patience and love, charity and compassion.”
Suddenly it’s not quite so easy for us to stand in judgement over Henry any more. Rod Serling is teaching us a lesson here. Henry is working to please spoilt kids like Percival Smithers, who has everything in life, including a bad attitude, and he really wants to help the kids who wouldn’t even set foot in the store because seeing all the things they will never own would hurt too much. And then a sack full of presents falls from the sky and he gets his wish. The magic of Christmas happens.
The twist is heart-warming, of course. Henry wants nothing for himself. He just wants to be able to do the same thing again every year, and in doing so he proves himself to be entirely selfless and the perfect person to fulfil one particular job vacancy. Life isn’t really like this though, is it, and maybe the magic is part of the problem for so many people at Christmas. We allow ourselves to believe in a magical gift-giver or an otherworldly righter of wrongs for one moment in time, and then we go back to our plentiful life without thinking about righting those wrongs ourselves. The magic will do that for us, after all.
This year, perhaps it’s time to make that magic happen ourselves instead. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: Dust
A special magic reserved for little people feels like a most reassuring message in times of need and not just for Christmas. Feeling like a little person myself much of my life, I can very easily appreciate this. Art Carney would of course make a good TZ guest star to enrich such a story, joined by talents like John Fiedler, Val Avery and Meg Wyllie (Star Trek: The Cage/Menagerie’s The Keeper). Christmas, for all its stresses, should indeed come with patience and love, charity and compassion. The magic is therefore the kind that we can always create for ourselves and each other so long as our hearts are in the right places. Thank you both for your reviews on this one. 🎄
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