The A.V. Club loves the holiday season, and we also love opening small doors and eating the stale chocolate lurking behind them. We’ve found a way to combine those things with our love of pop culture, and we’re hoping you’ll join us through the holiday to open one of our virtual doors and find out which holiday-themed entertainment we’re covering that day. This week’s theme: holiday classics, old and new.
When talking about the heyday of Nickelodeon, it’s typical to focus on the channel’s live-action programs. The early ’90s were a time when Clarissa explained it all, Pete & Pete fans wanted Petunia tattoos, and everyone was afraid of the dark. But it was actually the Nicktoons that ruled the world or, at the very least, so many living rooms. In some circles, it’s impossible to mention Nickelodeon without falling into a nostalgia trap (essentially the basis of the book Slimed!), but nostalgia isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There is a reason why these shows resonated with so many ’90s kids and why so many of us have a hard time letting go. Nostalgia makes us feel homesick, but it also reminds us of why we miss that home—and nostalgia tends to work overtime during the holidays.
Nickelodeon approached the holiday season with the same mix of eccentricity and earnestness that made Nicktoons so popular. Shows like Hey Arnold! and Doug leaned toward the sentimental; Ren & Stimpy and Rocko’s Modern Lifewere weirder and more surreal; Rugrats was sincere, but educational. All of them, however, had humor and sweetness buried underneath everything else.
This doesn’t mean that they were all perfect. There were missteps in the beginning, particularly with episodes that were overly sentimental or too emotionally manipulative. That’s forgivable, because this was at a time when Nickelodeon was still finding its footing (Nicktoons didn’t begin until the summer of 1991, with the first Christmas episode airing in the winter of 1992), and its shows were still trying to find a good balance. In 1993 and 1994 Doug and Rocko’s Modern Life aired their first Christmas episodes respectively, each with a similar sad-then-ultimately-celebratory theme, but with varying results.
Doug’s episode, in particular, was rough. The series started off promisingly, telling the story of an insecure 11-year-old with an overactive imagination, but his character and the various changes made throughout the series’ run (117 episodes spread out over two networks) didn’t age as well as one might hope. By the fourth season, the last before Doug got a makeover and jumped ship to Disney, the series was showing natural signs of wear that seeped into its Christmas episode. “Doug’s Christmas Story” suffered from a weird, dark storyline: Doug has to save his beloved dog Porkchop from being sentenced to a life in the dog pound (it’s implied Porkchop will be put to sleep; merry Christmas!). It’s a Christmas episode only in the sense that it takes place on Christmas Eve. Mostly, it’s a series of sad events: Porkchop being punished for saving a girl’s life, Porkchop being taken away in a Hannibal Lecter-esque get-up, and even Doug’s sister Judy turning on her own dog.
Rocko’s Modern Life tackled a slightly more universal feeling and created an episode that’s more relatable, especially impressive considering its protagonist is a wallaby. “Rocko’s Modern Christmas” focused on Rocko’s search for Christmas cheer. Christmas is a tough holiday, because more often than not, it’s spent trying to create some pitch-perfect yuletide feeling and ultimately falling short. Rocko just wants to see some snow (but the elf in charge of snow went missing in a blizzard), and he wants all of his buddies to hang out and celebrate the holidays together. No one else is into it. Even the elves he meets are cynical. His neighbors are worse and spread nasty rumors about the elves, leaving Rocko alone in his house during a party. The end is sugary enough to make your teeth hurt: An elf helps Rocko, because Rocko’s the only person who still believes in Christmas, everyone apologizes, it snows, and they all party together. It’s similar to the ending of Doug—Porkchop’s free, everyone apologizes, dogs get adopted, and they all party together—but it somehow feels more real with Rocko, even if the circumstances leading up to the ending were unquestionably weirder. It helps that Rocko doesn’t take itself too seriously. At the end, when the elf sweetly provides Mr. Bighead with an invitation to Rocko’s party, causing Mr. Bighead to tear up with joy, the elf undercuts the moment by smashing him in the foot with a hammer. It’s a good cartoon rule: You can be as sickeningly sweet as you want, but try to end with a laugh.
Doug wasn’t great, and Rocko’s Modern Life was shaky, but it didn’t take long for Nickelodeon to start rolling out some truly fantastic holiday programming. The network seemed to realize that it could celebrate its shows’ penchants for weirdness—this is a network that was built on slime—while also celebrating the beauty of the holiday season. Take Ren & Stimpy, arguably the most peculiar of all the Nicktoons and a cartoon that’s so fucking weird most viewers would agree that it would have been a better fit for one of Nick’s sibling networks, like MTV. Regardless, Ren & Stimpy happily grossed out and appalled parents during its five seasons on Nickelodeon, a run that included two Christmas specials.
The first of the two, 1993’s “Son Of Stimpy” was about as strange as it got. Similar to “Doug’s Christmas Story,” this episode was only tangentially related to Christmas in that it takes place during the holiday season. Outside of that, the episode was, to put it simply, a 22-minute-long fart joke. That’s the whole story. Stimpy farts for the first time and then spends the rest of the episode trying to find his “friend,” while leaving Ren behind. It is so odd, so gross, so un-Christmas, and so perfectly Nickelodeon. It’s full of juvenile humor and ultimately ends with a fart getting married to a rotten fish carcass. (The holidays are for bringing people together, after all!) But if you want an accurate summation of the eccentric blend of humor and heartstrings that Nickelodeon was trying to achieve in the early ’90s, look no further than the scene mixing fart sounds with a lovely orchestral version of “Silent Night.” I’m not saying it would induce more than chuckle if watching it today, but for a child the result is uproarious laughter.
The second episode, “A Scooter For Yaksmas” is also the last episode of the show’s Nickelodeon run. It’s hard to say which one is better. “Yaksmas” is more a straightforward holiday episode and more in tune with the spirit of the season, but—and I can’t believe I’m about to type this—it lacks the emotional resonance of the fart episode. “Son Of Stimpy” remarked on friendship and loss; “Yaksmas” is about Stimpy wanting a scooter.
Still, “Yaksmas” is more fun. It’s the grosser version of Christmas, where Stinky Wizzleteats takes the place of Santa and old tires take the place of Christmas wreaths. The animation is hard to watch—as many times as I’ve seen Ren & Stimpy, I’ll always feel uncomfortable about close-ups of veins in eyeballs—and the musical number goes on a bit too long, but it’s still funny and creative. I’ve always loved the idea of creating one’s own holiday, and I’m sure it resonates with those who don’t celebrate Christmas, but instead start their own traditions. The writers created something totally weird that feels totally normal within this world. There is even an album, one that was actually released prior to this episode, called Ren & Stimpy’s Crock O’ Christmas that’s full of disgusting Christmas carols; it definitely annoyed the hell out of my parents when I was 10.
The year after, Nickelodeon went back to its sentimental roots with Hey Arnold!, a show that has always been fearless about taking the dramatic approach to holidays. This meant that “Arnold’s Christmas” ran the risk of falling into the same trap as “Doug’s Christmas Story,” but Hey Arnold!’s writers always found a way to effortlessly break viewers’ hearts without an abundance of pain. In this first season episode, Arnold is tasked with getting a secret Santa gift for a fellow boarder, Mr. Hyunh. Because Arnold is Arnold—an eternal optimist who wants nothing more than to greatly improve the lives of everyone around him—he won’t settle for a typical gift, but instead decides to try to reunite Mr. Hyunh with his long-lost daughter. It’s heavy content for a children’s show—Mr. Hyunh lost track of his daughter during the end of the Vietnam War, as shown in a particularly gut-wrenching scene—but the episode has a light air that prevents it from collapsing under its own weight. “Arnold’s Christmas” does have a lot of typical Nickelodeon elements: a happy ending, the mean girl showing she has a heart of gold (Helga bears a lot of similarities to Rugrats’ Angelica), and a celebration at the end. But the episode managed to stick out in its own way by being the best example of Nickelodeon’s ability to blend humor and pathos.
Arguably the most memorable holiday episodes on Nickelodeon were from Rugrats. Rugrats was the simplest of the Nicktoons bunch, a cartoon where the Christmas episodes were just Christmas episodes. They weren’t particularly heavy, and, for the most part, the Christmas specials were all straightforward. The babies looked forward to the holidays, they met Santa Claus, and they played in the snow. They went on adventures and unwrapped gifts, and maybe Angelica learned a lesson or two about being such a bully. The beauty of Rugrats wasn’t in its Christmas episodes (“The Santa Experience” is too predictable and “Babies In Toyland” is fun but runs far too long), but was actually when it branched out to include other holidays like Kwanzaa and Chanukah.
Television was a fairly important part of my household—maybe it wasn’t a parent, but it sure was a great babysitter—so it wouldn’t be a huge exaggeration to say I probably learned more from television than I did from elementary school. Indeed, the first time I learned about Chanukah was because of Rugrats. The series had already produced a Passover episode, but for some reason “Chanukah” is the one that really stuck with me (and most of my peers). It was one of those episodes that suckered viewers into learning. On the surface, the babies are living a fantasy, acting out a story about “King Antonica” and the “Meany Of Chanukah,” but underneath, the episode actually tells the story of Chanukah, teaching both the Rugrats and the viewers. It’s an episode that’s entertaining in and of itself, and it was sly about slipping in some education in between the jokes about the children’s misunderstandings—at first, they thought the menorah was to celebrate Tommy’s birthday—and the subplot about Grandpa and his rival fighting over a role in the synagogue’s yearly play.
Later in the series, Rugrats did the same with Kwanzaa. “A Rugrats Kwanzaa” centered on the Carmichaels, using Susie’s insecurity about measuring up to her family as a means to explain Kwanzaa to the rest of the babies. A blackout results in Great Aunt T telling stories about how and why they celebrate Kwanzaa, while also slipping in facts about Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement. There is a lot to admire about the episode. It’s the first time I can remember Kwanzaa being depicted in a show as something other than a punchline, and it explored Susie’s feelings of exclusion without being too heavy. It managed to remain interesting throughout the whole episode, even with flashbacks and historical lessons. It also put Susie and her family at the foreground of an episode that meant tons of viewers, including myself, finally saw someone like themselves on television—something that was incredibly important for a network that has always struggled with diversity. What’s most admirable about “A Rugrats Kwanzaa” is that the rest of the Rugrats immediately accept the Carmichaels’ holiday and beliefs and are enthusiastic about joining the celebration. Sure, they’re into the idea because it’s a party, and what kid doesn’t love a party? But it’s also part of the beauty and innocence of being a child: immediately accepting other cultures without a second thought.
That wide-eyed enthusiasm was the backbone of Rugrats, a show based on Tommy’s fearlessness and the friends’ endless support of each other, but it’s also the backbone of Nicktoons as a whole. The enthusiasm Nickelodeon had for its programming shone on every show, but especially so during the holidays.
Tomorrow: Santa brings gifts and gifts and gifts—over and over and over again.