It is well known that the holidays can cause or exacerbate feelings of sadness, loneliness or depression in certain people. And it isn’t just confined to the unfortunates watching A Family Circus Christmas either. The holiday blues also has the Family Circus itself awaiting Christmas on a knife’s edge, perched precariously between the illusion of the tranquil domestic bliss depicted in the creaky, unfunny decades old comic strip and the building pressure of the repressed mental illness much of the family exhibits during this, one of its three animated forays into the holiday special genre.
Oldest boy Billy is an obnoxious know-it-all, prone to filling younger brother Jeffy’s head with dangerous fantasies such as Santa being all powerful, including having the ability to stop time. Sister Dolly is a self-centered greed monster who sees Christmas as a Golden Ticket to accumulate more material goods, while youngest brat PJ is so neglected that on Christmas Eve no one even notices him stealing the snacks left out for Santa, the embryonic stages of binge eating and self loathing, being his big present that Christmas.
But it is middle child Jeffy (isn’t it always the middle child? ) who really seems to inherits his father’s scary mental problems as he begins to hallucinate and see a God-like Santa watching everything he does while being convinced that Santa will use his all powerful nature to somehow bring his grandfather back from heaven for Christmas. And if you’ve ever doubted that your kids pay attention to how emotionally disturbed you might be, Jeffy is a prime example of a kid who needs to be taken into state custody until his father gets his mental illness treated.
Most of us growing up with fathers recall the holidays as a time to bond with our father over great traditions of him getting buzzed watching football as a way to cope with annoying in-laws and lots of cursing as he attempts to set up the Christmas tree. Despite what this Christmas special would have you believe at first glance, Jeffy isn’t lucky enough to experience such a Norman Rockwell childhood with his father, especially once dad can’t find the Christmas star to put on top of the tree.
The Christmas star was his father’s and dad is so upset that he can’t locate it that he almost cannot conceal from his children the crying jags he’s surely secretly having over the death of his father as they comment about how his eyes got moist when the star came up missing.
In a disturbing sign that he is sinking further into the abyss and causing the observant viewer to put dad and his family on murder-suicide alert, a quick trip to the store to buy a tree topper yields only his stubborn refusal to use anything but his dad’s decoration. For the love of God, can someone throw out all the alcohol in the house and lock up the guns!
Jeffy dreams about hanging out with Santa at the North Pole where he learns about how they farm candy canes and manufacture a special kind of snow to make snowmen. Dream Santa brags about how he can do anything which prompts Jeffy to ask for a present for his father – to bring grandpa back from beyond the grave!
What sounds like the set up for a delightfully deranged EC horror comics holiday special, instead becomes an uncomfortable study of Jeffy’s descent into madness as he reiterates his unnatural request to a department store Santa. (Instead of having an elf assistant discuss this concerning situation with Jeffy’s parents so that he can get into counseling, Department Store Santa simply gives him the “we’ll see” blow off thus becoming another of Jeffy’s enablers. Crazy doesn’t happen in a vacuum.)
Jeffy’s insanity intensifies when after everyone is asleep he sees the ghost of his grandfather who leads him to where the star is. Obviously one of Jeffy’s personalities hid the star in an effort to gaslight his dad for reasons that aren’t spelled out.
Jeffy almost breaks his neck standing on a rickety assortment of things to reach the top shelf in the closet that contains the star before his father appears and helps him. Proving the human mind’s capability to deceive itself into thinking that every thing is fine when it is clearly a freaking dumpster fire, everyone accepts that Jeffy just magically found the star and Christmas is saved! (To be fair to the family though, they are probably just relieved that dad’s mental problems will be kept at bay, at least until a booze-soaked New Year’s Eve turns into an incident that leaves the neighbors giving disbelieving interviews to the local news.)
Certainly an odd Christmas special whose talk of heaven, sad parents and ghosts of relatives will make you long for such feel good holiday tales as Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey whose mom sacrificed herself so that Nestor could survive to save the Messiah from a sandstorm. Even if you foolishly choose to overlook the deranged household the Family Circus inhabits, it’s still just a show about a misplaced Christmas decoration! What am I supposed to learn about the Christmas spirit from that? Closet organization?
Even for us hardcore Family Circus fans who grew up reading the comic strip, there is very little recommend here, the best parts of the strip, inexplicably being left out or downplayed. A show about imaginary spirits hanging around the house and fan favorite gremlin Not Me is nowhere to be seen? And why is there no scene of the kids running around the neighborhood, their journey illustrated by a big dotted line? That’s what made the Sunday strips classics! And why wasn’t Barfy the dog featured more prominently? Why did their other dog, the lame Sam get so much air time? For obvious reasons, I am almost too scared to watch A Special Valentine with the Family Circus!
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