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 season to open one of our virtual doors and find out which holiday-themed entertainment we’re covering that day. This week’s theme: Christmas where you’d least expect it.
I am the product of indecision, the first-born son of a Catholic mother and a Jewish father who didn’t want to decide my faith for me. Instead, they sent me to the Confraternity Of Christian Doctrine on Sundays and Hebrew school on Wednesdays, which left me very confused as to what Christmas meant.
It had something to do with a savior being born, but also with said savior dying and being reborn, or so I thought, because I was 6 and clearly confused. That I spent Wednesdays in Hebrew school only compounded my confusion, because I learned about Hanukkah, the festival of fire overseen by the only man in the Hebrew Bible with a secret identity, Judah “The Hammer” Maccabee. (“Makkaba” is Aramaic for “hammer,” and I was taught a song whose chorus was “Judah, the Hammer, Judah Maccabee.” Apparently, no version of it exists online; however, there is a reason this exists.)
So of course I spent my childhood being wildly inappropriate. During Sunday mass, I would ask why the rabbi was playing with crackers, loudly, because I’m deaf. During Friday-night services, I would demand that the priest give me crackers, firmly, because I was convinced he was a spiritual Sysco representative who paid for my sins with his crackers.
After a while, my rabbi started stashing matzah on the bimah, and my priest could almost keep a straight face when I said “mazel tov” after taking communion. All of which is only to say that when December rolled around, the only idea about the holiday season I shared with the rest of the world was that it was cold. And what do you need when it’s cold? Fire.
I had plenty of it. I had boxes of Hanukkah candles stuffed with thin paraffin sticks that tasted of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and while resisting the urge to eat them, I celebrated the birth of the only Jewish superhero, Judah “The Hammer” Maccabee, who rose from the dead in Bethlehem the same year God made the calendar go to zero.
When I was 7, I found something that made sense of birth, death, fire, and crackers in a way that indulgent rabbis and polite priests never had: the Uncanny X-Men comics that made up Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s “Dark Phoenix Saga.” The narrative is as epic as it is convoluted, but broadly, it concerns the triumph, fall, and empty redemption of one of the original X-Men, Jean Grey, after she encounters “the Phoenix Force,” a primeval entity of great power and inexplicable mood swings.
The Phoenix first bonds with Grey to save her life, and with its power, she is able to save the universe by repairing the M’Kraan Crystal. But, like the Old Testament God, when the Phoenix feels betrayed, condemning an entire planet to death seems like an acceptable response. This is exactly what Phoenix does when she goes “dark”—she eats a star that provided light and heat to an inhabited system, destroying everyone and everything in it, without even sparing it a Noah.
Dark Phoenix is untrue to its namesake, a being of fire that rises from its own ashes, a symbol of both destruction and creation, and in the end, it—and Jean Grey, whose body it inhabits—is deemed too dangerous to be allowed to live. The Shi’ar Empire’s Imperial Guard challenges the X-Men to a moon-fight, the winner of which will decide Jean Grey’s fate. As the Shi’ar Empress Lilandra tells her underling as the fight begins, the X-Men will not win: They don’t have a chance.
To my mind, this sounded an awful lot like “their fire would be extinguished in one day—there was no way it could burn for eight, it only had enough oil for one.” Because at the time, all I understood was that Jean Grey had become the most powerful force in the universe—which I only knew because she ate one—and that she was made of fire and, at least initially, wanted to protect her friends. She was just like Jesus: all-powerful and mostly nice, which fit with my understanding of Catholicism and the condemnation it entailed. She was just like Yahweh: as powerful as she was petty and given to fits of spite and love and damnation. So I read and re-read Uncanny X-Men 129-138 every Christmas, because nothing else made as much sense.
This is what God does: He loves us, then we’re Job. He dies, then he rises, made of fire, like his tool “The Hammer,” who lit a fire that burned eight days longer than any Jew would expect it to. I know none of this is actually true, but every year, as the calendar turned to December and I was inundated with tales of violent revolt and virgin births, these are the panels I turned to.
I can tell you now why those panels gut-punched me come Christmastime, but then, I didn’t know what the words meant or why this sequence assaulted me. “Insane” was a state of life for me, confused as I was, so I sympathized with the giant angry fire bird. She seemed just as confused as I was. Her teacher in the second panel was trying to help her so hard he was crying, like that man hanging on the wall in CCD whom, I was repeatedly told, loved me so much it killed him.
Bald Jesus and the Flaming Hammer were locked in a “death-duel,” connected like “death” and “duel” by an awful hyphen, and their struggle was “EPIC,” which bald Jesus proved by crying he loved her fire so much. And this struggle wasn’t just happening in some remote place, it was “waged simultaneously on all the infinite planes of existence.” Which was a lot.
It encompassed the basement of the Catholic church around the corner, where the priest laughed when I piped up in Hebrew. It encompassed the wing of the synagogue that smelled of terrible diapers, where the rabbi stashed matzah in an unused cabinet.
Every December, the world struggled against the dying of its light, and every December, I have to remember that I once believed that “mangers” were shot forth from dying suns to land, with violence, in Bethlehem. None of it made any sense. Even now, I can’t map it into coherence. But you know what? It felt like fucking Christmas.
Tomorrow: A Christmas for all the freaks.