In the Eby household, holiday television watching is both a joyful and fraught endeavor. My dad and younger brothers love action movies and car chases, while my Mom can’t stop raving about the endless genius of Cars and The Help. Finding a middle ground between the endless tinseled treacle on tap on every channel and a darker, slightly more cynical take on Christmas, one that sees the holiday as a horrible capitalist black hole, is an annual challenge.
But this year, I was reminded of a Christmas episode that fits the bill: The Twilight Zone’s “The Night Of The Meek,” which first aired during the show’s second season in 1960, and which I first saw plopped on my grandmother’s floor in a post-Thanksgiving, turkey-stuffed stupor. It’s sweet but not saccharine, and it gives a healthy dose of holiday spirit without being oblivious to the depressing, consumer-centric culture that we’re saturated in from Halloween onward. It begins in a department store decked out with holiday ornaments where Santa Claus is conspicuously absent from the cheerful scene. We find him, played by The Honeymooners’ Art Carney, in a bar, bedraggled, dirty, and drunk, bargaining with a fed-up bartender to go “double or nothing” for the cost of six drinks and a sandwich.
The conceit of a Santa Claus with a less-than-pure motive has become fairly ubiquitous in Christmas films, most memorably with Billy Bob Thornton as the hedonistic, perpetually soused St. Nick in Bad Santa. But the difference here is that this Santa—real name Henry Corwin—really does want to be generous and good; he just can’t. In his heart of hearts, as he explains to Mr. Dundee, the store manager who fires him for visible inebriation on the job, all he wants is for people to recognize that the holiday is more than pushy shoppers and entitled children. He struggles to explain to the woman who calls him out on his disorderly conduct that his drinking is just a mask for his own failures, but his intentions are good. “Someone has to tell her that Christmas is another thing finer than that. Richer, finer, truer, and should come with patience and love,” he tearfully explains as the harried Mr. Dundee hastens to push him out into the snow. It’s cheesy, and none too subtle, but there’s something earnest about that moment that manages to cut through the sugary coating. The darkness here isn’t about evil moneygrubbers and hearts clotted with greed; it’s the regular old horror of human frailty, and the inability to have our best intentions match our actions.
Corwin’s wish, you see, is that he could be the real Santa Claus, really give presents to the impoverished little boys and girls from the tenements that come racing after him down the street, asking him for toy guns and jobs for their fathers. Well, ask from The Twilight Zone, and ye shall receive.
Corwin stumbles upon a magical bag full of toys and sets about distributing the spoils to everyone, starting with the Delancey Street Mission House, where a group of similarly down-and-out men sing along to carols at the top of their voices. Alarmed at Corwin’s sudden good fortune and joyful giving out of smoking jackets and walking canes, the nun in charge fetches a policeman who drags Corwin down to the office to account for a bag full of stolen goods.
It’s this scene, in the police office, that makes “Night Of The Meek” both softer and kinder than you might expect from a Twilight Zone episode. The police officer brings in a self-satisfied Mr. Dundee, who looks absolutely delighted at the prospect of his former employee, that “moth-eaten Robin Hood,” being sent up the river for stealing. He reaches into the bag to rummage for the goods and comes out with two empty tin cans and a live alley cat. Of course he does. Every Christmas bad guy has to have a similar comeuppance, and this one is provided by the magical bag itself, which knows when producing trash will help its bearer out (or however that works). But the best part of the scene is when Corwin, apparently unfazed by the incident, asks Dundee what he’d like for the holidays. “Oh, I suppose a bottle of cherry brandy. Vintage 1902.” Corwin furrows his brow, and proclaims “That’s a good year,” before fishing it out of his bag.
In most Christmas specials, the villains would get roundly punished before encountering this kind of gesture. But in The Twilight Zone, of all places, the complexity of human relationships gets revealed, if only a little bit, in this interaction. This could have ended any number of ways—the bag eats Mr. Dundee, the policeman instead arrests the store manager, both get sent up the river for believing a homeless man’s story, etc. But here, Mr. Dundee gets brandy. Exactly the brandy he wanted, too. Then again, there’s also something deeply sad and dark about Mr. Corwin handing the tool of his own demise on to Mr. Dundee. Maybe it isn’t such a great gift after all.
After binge-giving his gifts all over town, Corwin sits on the steps of the Mission House, pleased and exhausted. Burt, one of the halfway house’s residents, remarks that Corwin didn’t get a thing for himself out of all that. Anyone who’s ever watched a movie about the holidays can guess his reply: Corwin got the gift of giving. When he returns to the spot where he found the magical bag of toys in the first place, he finds a sleigh and reindeer waiting for him, as well as a chipper elf (who’s played by a kid and had maybe been hiding behind the garbage cans the whole time). Just as Tim Allen would later accidentally do in The Santa Clause, Corwin has unknowingly become the heir presumptive to the Claus name.
At first, I wasn’t in love with the ending. Whenever I watched it, I thought that surely Corwin would wake up with a massive hangover to realize that the whole thing was an elaborate fantasy. But the more I’ve seen this ending, the more the idea of Corwin’s wish-fulfillment grew on me. Unlike many Twilight Zone episodes, where the revelation and closing twist brings viewers to a darker place, this episode goes from positively bleak to joyful. As Dundee remarks to the policeman, walking down the street below Corwin’s newfound sleigh jingling along high above, “Let’s thank God for miracles,” a sentiment that manages to pervade even the darker corners of The Twilight Zone.
Tomorrow: A visit from another sort of magical Christmas spirit.