It's telling that in all three hours of Syfy's night of special Christmas episodes (air date: December 6, 2011 on Syfy), the idea that not everyone celebrates Christmas gets exactly three seconds of air time: as Pete wanders down the Christmas aisle in Warehouse 13, we get a brief shot of a dreidel artifact. It's an insert shot, so it may even have been an afterthought, but what's most interesting about this incidental gesture to other holiday traditions is the fact that the dreidel artifact is being stored ... in the Christmas aisle.
Cultural insensitivity? Not exactly. On television, even more than in real life, Christmas has nothing to do with that fellow from Nazareth that some people -- but hardly everyone -- acknowledge as the Messiah. No, on television, Christmas is an idea, a code word for a set of behaviors, and nothing makes that more clear than watching a night of Christmas episodes (and in both their marketing and in-story iconography they are explicitly Christmas, not "holiday," episodes). So the question becomes: If Christmas isn't about Christ in the alternate reality of television, what is it about?
'Eureka': Holiday Nostalgia
The Christmas episode of Eureka, "Do You See What I See," involves Jack Carter (Colin Ferguson) and the folks in this peculiar little town of tech geniuses looking to make the holiday even more festive with a high-powered, proton-driven device to cover the town in snow. But a present for Allison's daughter Jenna, a holographic book with a wonky power source, ends up hooking up with the proton accelerator to convert the entire town and its cast of heroes into cartoons of various styles and formats.
This set-up is an engraved invitation to indulge in Christmas nostalgia, as the folks who make Eureka get a chance to pay homage to the snowy hot-cocoa holidays of yore: the heart of the episode is spent in claymation, of a sort instantly recognizable to those who grew up associating Christmas with the bittersweet Rankin-Bass classics like Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It's in this form that the key characters come face to face with their Christmas problems, which are as always a case of self-misalignment -- not to mention the gentle fixer of Noel normality, Eureka's Santa figure (Dr. Drummer, played again by Chris Parnell).
But having gotten their stars into cartoon form, the show's creators don't limit themselves to Christmas, having Jenna and her temporary minders Kevin and Zoe (Trevor Jackson and Jordan Hinson), as they play around with the book, switch everyone to goofy Hanna-Barbara 2-D, and, later, a hilarious evocation of Japanese anime. Through all three formats, though, the main characters are rendered as their essential elements -- not, interestingly enough, according to their self-perception of their own characters but at least partly in the way that others see them. So Taggart (Matt Frewer), so associated with the chaotic animal world, becomes a penguin-eating polar bear; Jo (Erica Cerra), who isolates herself from others at holidays even more than usual, becomes a Snow-White princess; Fargo (Neil Grayston) becomes a bobble-head; and so on. All of these folks are smart enough and self-aware enough to recognize the forms they've been shifted into, and why. Holiday lessons are imparted: the android Deputy Andy (Kavan Smith) has a Christmas wish that he realizes is misguided, Allison (Salli Richardson-Whitfield) realizes she's been caught up in trying to make a perfect Christmas, and so on.
The Eureka story seems most concerned with emphasizing the importance of reveling in family and love, with family here spelled out as a hybrid of blood relatives and the people you love around you. The perfect Christmas involves setting aside both crazy-making ambitions to create an ideal Christmas event and grudges against the holiday rooted in difficult, long-past family dynamics, and instead sharing warmth and cheer with the people around you that you know in your heart love you. It's instructive that Eureka's St. Nick is not so much jolly as very mellow: Eureka, like modern urban life, is normally hectic and frenzied, and Christmas there is about dialing down and enjoying human interaction -- even if you're an android, or a talking house.
'Warehouse 13': What If?
The other pillar of television Christmas for those growing up a few decades ago is It's a Wonderful Life, and Warehouse 13 routes itself in this direction, taking its cue from the short story on which that film was based, "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern.
The Warehouse 13 installment takes its name from Stern's story and, inevitably, involves an artifact connected to him. In the episode, Pete Lattimer (Eddie McClintock) is "whammied" by said artifact into an alternate reality from which he has been removed -- i.e., he was never born. The consequences of his omission from reality include the events of the pilot going differently, so that Myka (Joanne Kelly), instead of being helping recover an artifact threatening the president and being inducted into the Warehouse team, arrests Artie (Saul Rubinek), mistakenly accusing him of attempted assassination. This led in turn to McPherson (Roger Rees) taking charge of the Warehouse.
It takes Pete, who can, on occasion, be a bit thick, a little while to cotton onto this, but Artie, naturally, sees it right away, and the methodical Myka, improbably, veers from recoiling from Pete as a stalker to innately trusting him as a partner in almost record time (he's a good talker). This is, in fact, the theme of the story: each of the characters, scattered into isolation by the whammy and Pete's subtraction from their world, must take a leap of faith that they're better off drawn together as a team than isolated and alone.
It's in Warehouse 13, this year as last, that we get our only allusions to Judaism, but this time even Artie isn't allowed to actually be Jewish: he talks about dreading being with his father (played last year by Judd Hirsh, but not seen this time around) for "the holidays" but never objects to everyone else's discussion of where he should be "for Christmas." One by-product of the redefinition of Christmas as a secular idea is that diverse traditions tend to interfere with the lessons being explored; it's understandable in that context, but it's still unease-inducing for Judaism to be made to seem so taboo that even the Jews literally aren't allowed to talk about it.
The episode's connection to The Greatest Gift is the mechanism, but not the set-up: the ebullient and gregarious Pete, unlike George Pratt in the story, is hardly one to doubt his own worth. But he may be one to misunderstand it. The thrust of this episode would seem to be that people tend to withdraw into their own worlds, and that there are people like Pete who are naturals at bringing people together; the upshot is, when we meet people like that, we should let them, because we're better off together, creating families of loved ones rather than being alone. Or, apparently, being with our actual blood relations: strangely enough, all of the Warehouse folks are thrilled to end up with each other for Christmas instead of with their actual parents and siblings. For Warehouse 13, much more than in Eureka, family is the people around you that you take for granted most of the time -- until they're suddenly not there. So go and give your buddies a big hug, before the artifact gets 'em.
'Haven': What If, in Spades
Haven has always been interested in edging a little bit closer to the thriller edge of fantasy than Syfy's other scripted series, and its Christmas story, "Silent Night," takes the subtraction idea to its logical extreme: Everyone in Haven starts to disappear, and Audrey (Emily Rose), the only person immune from the Troubles, ends up being the only person left to fix the rapid conversion of this quiet Maine hamlet into a permanently unreal desolation.
Apart from recalling the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Remember Me," "Silent Night" is an even more urgent invocation of the idea that disconnecting ourselves from the people around us can have drastic consequences. The Troubled person at the heart of the story has withdrawn into a fantasy world because of an increasing conviction that people are unreliable, mirroring Audrey's own difficulties making friends thanks to her childhood as an orphan and her sense of being odd-woman-out in Haven -- her Trouble is being unTroubled and, indeed, unTroubleable.
It isn't just the possibility that Nathan (Lucas Bryant) and Duke (Eric Balfour), hitherto her only friends despite their being estranged from each other, might vanish that threatens her -- the whole town needing her has made her resist including herself among them, and their wholesale erasure is more unsettling for her than she might have thought. Unlike Pete, who's subtracted from reality accidentally, Audrey is made to realize that her biggest peril is the walls she's put up herself. Ironically, considering that fantasy television is generally escapist, Audrey is confronted with the greatest danger of withdrawing into a fantasy world -- that you'll be successful in your unconscious goal of having no one around you who can hurt you by leaving, because there's no one there to leave.
The episode title, "Silent Night," relates both to the silence that falls over the unpeopled town and the actual song, which is heard recurrently through the episode. All three of these Christmas stories employ Christmas songs as part of the furniture of the holiday, alongside the candy canes, garlands, Christmas trees, well-wrapped presents with big bows, and so forth. Most of that stuff is pagan enough that it meshes well with the TV-secular Christmas idea; but using songs like "Silent Night" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem" -- reverent carols to the birth of Jesus Christ as Savior -- serves to underline the fact that the idea of Christmas has been totally reappropriated. All these characters know the words to "O Holy Night", but ask them why that night is "holy" and you'd get an uncomfortable silence, and then the film would snap and flap around in the projector, followed by a white screen and the silence of a broken reality.
What, then, is the secular meaning of Christmas? From Eureka, Warehouse 13, and Haven we get a set of fascinatingly multifaceted explorations of the human need for emotive companionship and our tendency in this loud and garish world to resist it, all told with a great deal of imagination and a minimum of cloying sentiment. Each of us, in the way we think others think of us, sees our disconnects with those around us so much more easily than the connections. We worry about proving ourselves, we worry about being hurt if we allow ourselves into someone else's embrace, we worry about the things that make us different rather than what we have in common.
These are not new ideas, of course. But science-fiction and fantasy are in a unique position to keep trying to remind us of them in innovative and provocative ways, and the diversity of approach between these three different series is, in a way, entirely apt. There can be no doubt that people in this 21st-century world, more materialist and fractured than ever, need these reminders, and so it's a good thing that the secular-Christmas universe occasionally contrives these entertaining ways of reminding us.