“It’s hard to be a Jew at Christmas,” sings one of television’s great cartoon Hebrews, Kyle Broflovski (voiced by Matt Stone), in the classic South Park episode “Mr. Hankey, The Christmas Poo.” Amen, brother. Being the only one in your class not invited to Jesus’ birthday is hard, and it’s clearly not a unique feeling. Even the great Steven Spielberg touches on it in The Fabelmans. “I know what I want for Hanukkah,” Spielberg’s child surrogate Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) tells his parents. “Christmas lights!” Like Kyle, Sammy’s the only one on the block without a multi-colored string of bulbs decorating his gutter. It’s a feeling any American Jew could relate to.
Kyle’s ballad, “The Lonely Jew On Christmas,” wasn’t subtle, but the feelings around Yuletide rarely are. The ninth episode in South Park’s landmark first season stretched the show’s vocal cords, delivering the first of many musical eps in the show’s 25 years. Moreover, “Lonely Jew” injected “Mr. Hankey” with a unique form of holiday spirit, expressing how depressing the season can be for those not celebrating it. Through “Lonely Jew” and “Mr. Hankey,” South Park delivered one of television’s great Hanukkah episodes, not by retelling the story of the Maccabees but by focusing on the alienation Jewish kids feel during the holidays.
Like every other fourth grader in my class, I was a South Park obsessive. There was simply no escaping the infective strain of raunchy culture foisted upon kids of the period. WWE (then-WWF) was about to enter its “Attitude Era” when “Stone Cold” Steve Austin wore the gold, and D-Generation X suggested just about everyone “suck it.” What’s a 10-year-old boy supposed to do? We were powerless to stop it.
That’s not to say we didn’t have help. When a camp counselor at the local Jewish Community Center gave me a taped VHS copy of Monty Python And The Holy Grail, he told me to check out a new show called South Park coming to Comedy Central. I had my dad tape the episode “Cartman Gets An Anal Probe” and was immediately hooked—I mean, there was a satellite dish coming straight out of that kid’s ass. By the time Christmas rolled around, there was nary a kid in class without some piece of merch emblazoned with the immortal words, “Oh, my God! They killed Kenny.”
But the interest in the darker, more slapstick edges of the show, the areas where a child is brutally murdered and Step By Step’s Patrick Duffy could play a monster’s leg, gave way to an emotional attachment with the show’s first Christmas episode, “Mr. Hankey, The Christmas Poo.” Its message of seasonal affective disorder resonated with me, a 10-year-old Jewish kid from New Jersey who loved Christmas enough to decorate a ficus in hopes that Santa’s blatant antisemitism was just some lunchroom rumor. Needless to say, Kyle’s ballad “The Lonely Jew On Christmas” was speaking my language. Kyle sings:
“It’s hard to be a Jew on Christmas / My friends won’t let me join in any games / And I can’t sing Christmas songs or decorate a Christmas tree / Or leave water out for Rudolph ’cause there is something wrong with me / My people don’t believe in Jesus Christ’s divinity!”
Willing to play the role of equal opportunity offender, South Park holds some responsibility for keeping antisemitism on television over these last 25 years. “The Joozians” are a particularly disgusting form of this that kept the “Jewish-controlled media” in the public consciousness long enough for the current crop of anti-Jew celebrities to weaponize these hack conspiracy theories for their own enrichment. In 1997, though, creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker did their homework. For American Jews raised on TNT’s “24 hours of A Christmas Story,” Rankin and Bass specials, and the Hess truck, there was nothing more enviable than Christmas morning. Hanukkah’s great and all, but it lacks the romanization of pagan rituals that Hollywood has been so good at codifying and selling back to us. So yeah, like Sammy Fabelman, “Christmas lights” would’ve been a great Hanukkah gift for me in 1997.
The American entertainment establishment has never been great at catering to the smattering of American Jews looking for anything on television that resembled their holiday experience. At the time, the two most prominent pieces of Hanukkah pop culture were Adam Sandler’s “The Hanukkah Song” and “A Rugrats Chanukah.” Released only a year apart, both opted for different forms of Semitic celebration. Rugrats went for Bible stories, and Sandler offered commiseration, assuming Jews would feel less lonely if they knew that Bowser from Sha Na Na and Arthur Fonzerelli ate pastrami sandwiches together. Sandler and Rugrats hoped to make Hanukkah more attractive to the kids celebrating it. It’s hard enough to fill eight crazy nights, but at least there was a soundtrack to seeing your entire synagogue at Blockbuster every Christmas Eve.
However, it was the alienation South Park was interested in. Channeling their breakthrough cartoon short, “The Spirit Of Christmas,” “Mr. Hankey The Christmas Poo” opens with the South Park Elementary chorus singing “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” There’s no opening theme, just a quick shot at A Charlie Brown Christmas’ closing prayer before launching into a Nativity scene starring the show’s Chosen child. In the episode, Kyle’s mother, Sheila (Mary Kay Bergman), criticizes the religious nature of the elementary school Christmas pageant. Rather than help her son feel more included, Shelia humiliates Kyle, leaving him to sing his ballad alone as his friends catch snowflakes on their tongues. Kyle’s frustration manifests in Mr. Hankey, a sentient piece of shit wearing a red stocking cap, whom Kyle insists is a crucial Christmas player on par with Santa. Unfortunately, no one else can see Hankey, nor do they believe he’s real.
Kyle’s loneliness becomes a game of “Is Santa Claus real?” played through the lovable character of Mr. Hankey. Throughout the episode, Parker and Stone get a lot of mileage out of whether or not the poop is alive, particularly as it exacerbates the perception that Kyle is mentally ill. In that way, “Mr. Hankey” resembles an early version of Community’s beloved stop-motion episode, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” in which a Christmas outcast pushes his holiday hallucinations on his friends, and it takes over the episode.
Seeing spirits or imaginary ethereal beings is a classic Christmas trope, from Scrooge to derivatives of Scrooge. It’s a way for characters to engage with intangibles, like a feeling of Christmas cheer. Kyle channels his spirit through Mr. Hankey, but everyone else focuses on the things that divide them. The adults in town begin fighting about the most secular way to celebrate the holidays. Mr. Garrison hires minimalist composer Philip Glass to compose a book that gives off the essence of Christmas but without the lights, tinsel, or mistletoe, and the more Kyle tries to refocus the town on Mr. Hankey, the more they push him away.
The thing is, everyone lives through Christmas whether they celebrate it or not. Especially for kids who might not understand why Santa doesn’t visit Jewish homes, joining a celebration and being invited to enjoy some of the holiday is enough. “You people focus so hard on the things wrong with Christmas that you’ve forgotten what’s so right about it,” says Mr. Hankey. “This is the one time of year we’re s’posed to forget all the bad stuff, to stop worrying and being sad about the state of the world, and for just one day say, ‘Aw, the heck with it! Let’s sing and dance and bake cookies.’” Kyle’s father is the first to applaud because Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanza all serve the same purpose: to provide a little cheer, warmth, and togetherness at the darkest, coldest time of the year, when the nights are longest and days are hardest.
The episode doesn’t land the archetypal South Park lesson, but you could borrow the one from the “The Spirit Of Christmas” short, which applies here. “I learned something today, it doesn’t matter if you’re Christian or Jewish or atheist or Hindu,” Stan says. “Christmas still is about one very important thing […] Presents.”
“Hey man, if you’re Jewish, you get presents for eight days,” Kyle responds, and the kids walk off singing “The Dreidel Song,” and all is right with the world.
“Mr. Hankey, The Christmas Poo” doesn’t retell the story of Hanukkah or bother selling us on eight whole nights of presents. Instead, it expresses the jealousy, estrangement, and sadness of the holidays, particularly for children. Unlike Rudolph or Charlie Brown, there’s nothing Kyle can do to prove his worth. Everyone else has to change; the town has to accept him. After all, like Mr. Hankey, this Christmas crap can be for everyone.