Down with the Polar Express


Written last night but posted today. Sorry. fell asleep before I could hit paste.
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I save my Christmas spirit for my kids. I have to. There isn’t much of it to go around, they live in a Christian society (American South), and if I can pretend it’s not a shittyass time of year while they’re growing up, then for them, it won’t be.

But god DAMN the TV world challenges me when it comes to giving them the positive face. I just had to drink half a bottle of Riesling (which my wise husband went out and bought when he saw which way things were heading) to shut down a rant about the Polar Express. We’re at a hotel. And there’s no real way for me to turn that shit off without really letting on to my kids, who are oblivious to me cursing at the TV in the background (and no, it’s not in an undertone) that Christmas is the least magical time of year for me. (They are so used to my television hatred that they barely hear it when I bitch about the thing when it’s off, and when it’s on, I might as well be talking to their stuffed animals.) Let’s be clear. I like the book. It’s schmaltzy, but it’s OK. There’s Santa, but he’s not hideously overbearing. And the book is about childhood innocence and preserving it and stuff I can understand and appreciate. If it also means increased Santalove, eh, whatever. There’s an awesome train. Plus, the illustrations are irresistible.

The movie? Same theme, but oh so different. The movie is all about why I hate Santa Clause. It takes all the worst things about Christmas for me and packs them into one nasty barrel. You’ve got a kid who is used to crappy Christmases who gets an attitude adjustment, a token black girl who learns she can be a True Leader, and a skeptic who learns to believe (in the big fucking C).

First, the kid who says “Christmas just doesn’t work out for me”. Why can’t that kid be respected? Why does the movie have to be about proving to that kid that Christmas really is magic? It reinforces an unrealistic expectation. Why not let the kid just find peace? Why not teach kids to love without expectation? (And no, the glasses kid’s lesson in humility does not achieve that end.) Wouldn’t that be better? Why invalidate the emotions of those kids who see the movie whose Christmases will never improve.  Hey Disney, you can’t fix Christmas for everyone.  And pretending you can just makes it worse. Me? I’m an adult. I get pissed, and my heart hurts some, but it doesn’t break. But it would have done me in at nine or ten.

Second, let’s talk about that black kid. You want to go for diversity? Then you need more than one of her. You have three white boys and one black girl in your main character slots.  Why does only one kid have to be black? Why does only one kid have to be a girl? Why do these characters have to be the same person? Why does she HAVE to be the leader? (Exceeding expectations simply to fit in, methinks.) Fuck you, Disney, you have failed the equality test.

And finally, and most importantly, let’s talk about the skeptic who remembers to believe. (AKA, the main main character.) That one makes me more angry than all the rest. When I was a kid, my Mom told me the truth, and my Dad bent it to suit his own needs. Sorry Dad – you’ve gotten more honest since the divorce. When I was five, I knew Dad as the guy who claimed Mom didn’t need to know about his PO Box, the guy who had girlfriends and thought it was OK, and the guy who originated the claim ‘your Mother and I are just very good friends’. So when Dad said Santa was bullshit and Mom said Santa was real, guess who I believed?

And by the time I was eight (and by then I was advocating for divorce), and the score on the Clause hadn’t changed, guess who I continued to believe? My mother, the one who told me the truth about everything. She would never just say, “yeah, I’m the one who loves you enough to stay up late, when I already don’t get home until after midnight most Christmas eves, and put out presents and stockings”. No. She said (still says to this day) “Santa Clause is the spirit of loving and giving in all of us”. Oh man. What. A. Lie.

Yes, OK, if you want to go with the story of St. Nicholas and love and all that jazz, then yeah, OK, what she says is true. But I already knew that stuff. And at a basic level, at the level she knew  I was asking, the answer was “no, he’s not real”. But saying that, for Mom, would have been admitting Dad was right about something, and she still won’t do that.  

So I was about the same age as those kids in the movie (eight or so) when I was starting to piece together the truth for myself. But Mom insisted.  My best friend Jenny and I held a protest – complete with signs and a march through the house – to convince Dad Santa was real. That’s a memory that just makes me cringe. I had to stay up one Christmas Eve and see what went on for myself. (By which time I was an angry ten.)  And you want to talk about resentment? Then let’s talk about seeing a movie about a kid who was just exactly that age being forced back into the lie. Oh yeah. Fuck you Polar express. (If I seem to be losing cogency, it’s because we’ve finished the Riesling and moved on to the Chardonnay.)

I should note that my kids have chosen to believe in Santa.  We told Caroline the truth from a very young age because she thought Santa Clause was Santa Claws, and was certain he was coming to eat her.  But she later met a friend at school who spun a tale that made her happy, and she chose to believe it. I don’t really have a problem with that. I find it awkward that Sam now kind of has to believe. I know better than to try to tell him what’s what when he has a devout believer of a sibling. But in a year or two, Sis will be ready to deal with things, and Sam will be over it then by then, as well. And I can’t wait.

But that wait is seriously irksome, and it’s completely Disney’s fault.  Because Caroline was starting to reassemble the truth for herself this year, and then they watched the Polar Express at school.  Then Sam saw it with us at this hotel. Now, I have another year of having to pretend. It’s a tense game. One I don’t enjoy at all. And one that makes me resent the bullshit of Disney even more.

I never liked Christmas cartoon specials. Even Charlie Brown got on my nerves. The Year Without a Santa Clause (except the Heat and Freeze Meisters; they were awesome) annoyed me to no end. I hated that damned Rudolph thing, which was not about stopping bullying but about making Santa believe in you. (Irony much?) (My kids love Rudolph. They haven’t seen Year). I was OK with Frosty, because everybody knew where they stood with the snowman. Nobody pretended he was actual. (Although there, once again, Santa fucking saves the day. And my sweet daughter, who saw that one at a parents’ night out, absolutely loves the moral.) But the Polar Express goes beyond anything the networks produced in my youth.  It takes the worst of the worst and makes it badder. I’m very sorry both my kids saw it this year, and I hope never to own it on DVD.

Christmas really isn’t so bad for me anymore. Scott’s family is nice. Nice to me and nice to each other. Our gatherings are invariably peaceful. But seeing any of these TV specials (and movies brought to the small screen) just reinforces those years when the whole period of time from Thanksgiving through New Years meant trapped with my family in a house that was smaller than an apartment.  

Right now, I just have to get through this year and deal with the fact that, thanks to viewing the Polar Express, Caroline wants a reindeer-style jingle bell for Christmas. Scott’s in charge of that one. He doesn’t share my conflicts.  Me? I just got done taking Sam on a real train. And I’m gearing up to watch Caroline dance in The Nutcracker. Because those are Christmas specials no fucking television can replicate.

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9 thoughts on “Down with the Polar Express

    • I’m so grateful our TV doesn’t go out into the real world. Everything is on DVD. They wanted Rudolph last year, so I got it. Up until this year, our daughter was terrified of movies. (Asperger’s syndrome, sensory overload, and an unusual perspective about what’s scary.) Now that she’s over that, I suspect we’ll be getting more of these things.

    • I can handle Spongebob better than Phineas and Ferb, but I get you. And I agree. It’s good for my kids’ sakes that I watched the worst horrible programs, so I KNOW I have no room to talk about their awful (but harmless) viewing choices.

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