When I was a little girl, one of my favorite books was a collection of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. They were a bit toned down for a younger audience–the Little Mermaid’s feet didn’t bleed whenever she tried to walk on land, for instance–except for one, which maintained the relentlessly bleak tone of the original version. That would be “The Little Match Girl,” which I read once, but have never forgotten, largely because, at age six or so, I was shocked that a story about a child left penniless and alone on the streets didn’t end with a beautiful queen taking her home to a magical castle, where she would want for nothing ever again. That was how fairy tales were supposed to end, with the characters living happily ever after. What kind of sadist writes a story for children that ends with a child freezing to death, after she burns out all her matches trying to see the ghost of her dead grandmother?
Ever since then, I’ve had a dislike for children’s entertainment in which the specter of death lingers ominously in the background. Yes, yes, I realize that kids have to learn sometime, but there’s plenty of time for them to figure out that life is hard and unfair without a seemingly innocuous cartoon hammering it into them. This is especially true for Christmas specials–they’re usually maudlin enough as is, without inserting some sort of metaphor for the fleetingness of time. Nevertheless, get that spiked eggnog ready, because have I got a doozy for you–1992’s Noel, a heartwarming holiday special that teaches that time will have its way with us, leaving us abandoned and forgotten until we’re finally able to embrace the sweet release that only death can bring.
Narrated by Charlton Heston, Noel is about a jolly Christmas tree ornament of the same name, who possesses “a happiness” after a glassblower cries joyous tears while making him. Noel is stuck in a box with eleven other ornaments, all of whom are inexplicably miserable, and soon after they’re purchased and taken to “a thing called a house,” in which reside “parent-things” and “child-things.” Noel and the other ornaments are hung on a tree named Brutus, the only being who shows him kindness and patience, and who explains the meaning of Christmas, which is the birth of Jesus Christ, without ever actually mentioning the name “Jesus Christ.”
Noel delights in watching the family-thing celebrate Christmas, a week long bacchanalia of popcorn strings and sliced ham. “Then…it was January 2nd,” Heston says gravely, in the same tone of voice as a doctor calling to say that the test results are in and you need to come into the office immediately. The family-thing, relieved that Christmas is over, unceremoniously takes all the decorations down. Noel weeps as Brutus is dragged away like a prisoner on Death Row, while the unsmiling “father-thing” seals Noel and the other ornaments in their box, to be forgotten until next Christmas.
But, oh joy! Christmas does come again, and Noel meets a new tree, named Harold. Harold’s time is also brief, however, and soon he too is dragged out of the house, where one almost expects to hear the sound of a woodchipper and agonized shrieking. Noel is returned to his attic prison, glumly looking around until it’s time to be remembered again.
If that’s not depressing enough for you, Noel watches as the “children-things” grow up and leave home, and the aging “parent-things” decide it’s just not worth celebrating Christmas anymore. Forgotten by everyone he has ever encountered, Noel falls into a deep sleep, missing “the thing called heartbreak,” when the parent-things die and their house is sold, with everything left behind in the attic. “Noel never heard the terrible final sound a lock made as it shut off life and warmth and joy from the old empty house,” Heston intones. Isn’t this fun? I’m having fun.
Eventually, many years later, a new family moves into the home, and the box of ornaments is retrieved from the attic. While the rest of the ornaments are deemed too old and tossed out (“I never got a chance to say goodbye!” Noel sobs, in case you have one last heartstring that hasn’t been ferociously tugged), Noel is still in good enough shape to be on the new family’s tree. Though he misses his friends, Noel is delighted to start the whole celebrating Christmas process all over again, at peace in the place he truly belongs.
Oh, and then he falls to his death, shattering on the floor in front of the tree.
It’s okay, though! It’s okay, stop crying. Because, you see, set free of his earthly shackles, Noel will never be forgotten or abandoned again by cold-hearted humans who refuse to celebrate Christmas 365 days a year. He is now able to roam the world spreading the joy of the holiday, even to children wearing kimonos and turbans, who probably don’t celebrate Christmas.
Wow! I don’t know about you, but I could really go for a stop-motion reindeer right now. YouTube comments suggest that this was a beloved special for 90s kids, and yet I imagine most of them came away with it at least slightly traumatized, if not hysterically demanding reassurance that their parents will never, ever leave them.
Noel didn’t warm my heart, it left me wanting to curl up in my bed and cry over holidays past, when everyone I’ve ever loved was still alive, and life didn’t demand more of me than to make sure I put out cookies and room temperature milk for Santa Claus before I went to bed. It drips with mawkish sentiment, featuring a main character who is mocked for his guileless happiness, then forgotten, only to sacrifice himself so he can spread that happiness to the world at large. In writing that out, it just occurred to me that this was probably a ham-handed allegory for Jesus Christ Himself, and, man, now I hate it even more.
Original airdate: December 4, 1992
Watch it here