South Park famously began as a video Christmas card, so it should come as no surprise that the television series (which just concluded its 17th season) has spawned many Christmas specials of its own. Series creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone actually haven’t done a new one since 2004’s Woodland Critter Christmas, but still have output seven Christmas specials which have been conveniently compiled for the DVD release Christmas Time in South Park. The first run of Christmas specials for the show actually felt connected to one another as they all explored the spirit of Christmas: what is it? What does Christmas mean? Of course, this being South Park, don’t expect a lot of feel-good and overly sentimental holiday themes as is found in most Christmas specials, though surprisingly some of these episodes echo their tamer counterparts and some even have a good heart at the center of the story.
Lets talk about these episodes, and specifically, the DVD release of Christmas Time in South Park. The DVD case and menus echo those Little Golden Book releases you may remember from your childhood. The menus are animated and the characters will berate you for taking too long to select a feature. The cursor of your DVD player, naturally, is represented by a smear of Mr. Hankey leavings. All seven Christmas specials are featured in chronological order. Unfortunately, all seven are also censored like their season release counterparts (for South Park’s older episodes, uncensored versions do not exist as no one anticipated there being a huge market for full seasons of TV shows) which means you’ll be hearing beeps whenever the characters utter a colorful phrase. Also missing, is the short that started it all: The Spirit of Christmas. This seems like a huge and careless omission to me. Why go through the effort of putting out a compilation of Christmas specials and leave out the very first one? My only guess is that the studio felt that The Spirit of Christmas was too strong a selling point for releases like South Park: The Hits and its inclusion would harm other DVD sales. Quite possibly, it was just forgotten as this DVD was slapped together quickly to cash-in on the holiday season.
At least there are still seven, mostly excellent, Christmas episodes for your viewing pleasure. The first being Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo. This was South Park’s first Christmas special and apparently Parker and Stone wanted to create a new Christmas icon for the world they created so they turned to a talking piece of shit. Parker and Stone hold nothing back when it comes to Mr. Hankey. He’s disgusting, and they don’t want you to forget that so we get bits of him leaving poo trails everywhere he goes and even bathing in Mr. Mackey’s coffee, while he sips it. The framework of the episode is Kyle feeling excluded from all of the Christmas excitement on account of him being Jewish. Simultaneously, Kyle’s mother (the Jewish community) is upset about the inclusion of the nativity in a school Christmas play. Her complaining to the mayor sets off a chain reaction where in response the devout Catholics in town demand to see Santa removed from the play, hippies want to get rid of Christmas trees, epileptics demand the removal of Christmas lights, and the virgins (presumably) want to get rid of mistletoe. The show is clearly poking fun at all of the people that get uptight over Christmas, and Mr. Hankey is called on to save the day. That the town needs to listen to crap in order to see the error of its ways is probably a commentary on something too. Everyone thinks Kyle is insane for seeing and believing in Mr. Hankey, until the boys find out Chef does as well. Once everyone believes, Mr. Hankey reminds everyone that Christmas is a time to be nice to one another, forget about all of the bad stuff in the world, and bake cookies. Kyle is released from the nut house, and Kenny lives to see the end credits for the first time. It’s a wacky Christmas special, that may still be the show’s best, with tons of gross-out and hilarious moments.
Merry Christmas, Charlie Manson! is the second season’s Christmas special and it’s subversive in a different way. Rather than try to be absurd and gross people out with singing poop, Parker and Stone decided to use an unlikely character and have him saved by Christmas. Enter mass-murderer Charlie Manson, faithfully depicted with a swastika tattooed on his forehead. Cartman and his mom are heading to Nebraska to visit family for Christmas, and the boys have been invited along. Kyle is allowed to go presumably because his family is Jewish and couldn’t care less that it’s Christmas while Kenny’s family is sending him on a mission to bring back leftovers. Stan’s mom is the only one who has a problem with her son being away from the family at Christmas, so Stan sneaks out and tells the Cartmans that his family is dead. When the boys get to Nebraska (after a long and torturous car ride full of singing) they find that a house full of Cartmans is a horrible place to be as all of them basically act just like their own Eric Cartman. They soon find out that Cartman has an incarcerated Uncle Howard, as he breaks out of jail and (stupidly) returns to hide-out in his parent’s basement. He brings along his buddy, Charlie Manson, whom the boys are ignorant of. When no one will take them to the mall to see Mr. Hankey, Manson offers to do it himself to avoid sitting and watching Christmas specials all day. At the mall though, he watches a poop version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and begins to see the light. He gets his tattoo altered into a smiley face, and takes the kids home, but not before attracting the attention of the local police. They’re soon all trapped in the house as Uncle Howard takes the family hostage. Manson, now full of Christmas spirit, convinces Howard to surrender and even reminds Stan that Christmas is a time for family. The episode ends with the characters from the episode in Manson’s jail cell wishing him a merry Christmas, Charlie Brown style. As Stan reminds us, this is some pretty fucked up shit right here.
Season Three’s Christmas special is Mr. Hankey’s Christmas Classics. It’s just a collection of songs, some traditional and some new, sung by the characters of South Park. It’s kind of a love it or hate it episode, and one I’m not really fond of. However, Mr. Hankey instructs the audience during the intro that if we don’t like it we can suck his tiny little balls. As small as they may be, I don’t want to suck any poo balls so I’ll cease to speak of this episode right here.
Season Four brings us A Very Crappy Christmas and it could basically be re-titled as The Story of South Park. That’s because in it the boys actually create and animate The Spirit of Christmas just like their creators. Following the events of the first two Christmas specials, the people of South Park now understand that Christmas is a time for being merry and spending with one’s family. The commercialism is gone, and the boys are pretty pissed off about not getting presents so they go looking for a strangely absent Mr. Hankey. They find their favorite piece of crap has been MIA because he now has a wife and turds of his own. As the boys lament the absence of what they perceive to be the Christmas spirit, they get the idea to make their very own Christmas special. The mayor, who needs the commercialism to spur the economy, agrees to fund their little project. Nothing goes right, but when Kyle channels his own inner Christmas spirit (and the Rankin/Bass feature Twas the Night Before Christmas) he gets everyone back on track. Most of the episode is a parody of Twas the Night Before Christmas while also containing numerous in-jokes for longtime South Park fans. In the end, they’re able to show the town The Spirit of Christmas and everyone realizes that Christmas is about one thing: presents. Everyone starts shopping immediately and the town’s economy is saved. Yay!
Season Five was the first to not feature a Christmas episode, but season six restored order with Red Sleigh Down, a parody of Black Hawk Down and the conclusion of what I see as the Christmas story started in season one. In it, Cartman desperately wants some slick new toy but realizes he’s been far too naughty to hope to get anything from Santa so he goes all out to be nice at the last minute. His scheming leads him to believe that if he helps Santa bring Christmas to Iraq that will be enough, so he enlists the help of Stan and Kyle (Kenny’s been dead all season) and eventually Mr. Hankey in order to do so. Mr. Hankey is thrilled at Cartman’s Christmas spirit and agrees to help by taking the boys to the North Pole aboard the Poo-Choo Express (it’s just as disgusting as you imagine). Santa agrees that Christmas should be brought to Iraq, and the boys watch from the North Pole as Santa’s sleigh is shot down by an RPG over Iraq. Now feeling guilty and terrified by the prospects of no more Christmas presents, the boys enlist the help of the one man who can save Santa: Jesus. They all take Santa’s back-up sleigh to Iraq where Jesus becomes a one-man death machine as he takes out numerous soldiers to save Santa. Their escape goes wrong when Jesus is shot from behind and dies in Santa’s arms. They’re able to escape, but not before a vengeful Claus does finally bring Christmas to Iraq. Back in South Park, the townspeople have been distracted by the speech impediment of Jimmy who’s attempting to recite The Twelve Days of Christmas, an episode-long gag. Santa lights the town tree and addresses the crowd telling them that Christmas should be a day to reflect on the sacrifice one man-made to save Christmas: Jesus. And with that, the spirit of Christmas is modified once again in the South Park canon to be a day dedicated to Jesus.
With the spirit of Christmas now fully defined, Parker and Stone decided to take the boys on a Christmas adventure to Canada, of all places. The new Canadian Prime Minister has decided that all Canadian born children be returned to Canada, which means Kyle’s adopted brother Ike is required to go. Kyle enlists the help of his friends to go appeal to the Prime Minister, though they’re all reluctant to risk missing Christmas. They go anyway, and in Canada they find a world not unlike Oz where the locals instruct them to “follow the only road.” Just like The Wizard of Oz, the boys encounter other Canadian citizens looking to appeal to the Prime Minister about something, while the villainous Scott, from the Terence and Philip special, makes a return. In the end, they discover the new Prime Minister is actually Saddam Hussein in hiding, and his new laws are overturned while the boys do in fact miss Christmas. Cartman is unable to see the bright-side in Kyle getting his brother back, while Stan laments on missing out on a Christmas adventure, oblivious to what just happened. It’s Christmas in Canada is not one of my favorites, and it’s probably the weak link on this DVD, though I do know more than one person who finds the episode hilarious. I think I would like it more if it had more to do with Christmas. It’s not really a Christmas special, just an episode that takes place during Christmas.
This brings me to the last episode on the DVD, and so far, the last Christmas episode South Park has done: Woodland Critter Christmas. Seemingly out of ideas for a Christmas special, Parker and Stone decide to just completely subvert the idea of a Christmas special. In this episode we have an innocent sounding narrator tell the story of a boy trying to help a group of talking woodland critters so that they can have a merry Christmas. The critters are intentionally made to seem sterile and innocent while the episode is also intended to appear to be a cookie-cutter Christmas special with little thought or effort (the main character has no name, all of the animals names are just the name of the animal with a long “e” sound at the end, such as Deery the deer, Rabbity the rabbit, and so on). Of course, the catch is that these animals are trying to bring about the birth of their lord and saviour. Porcupinie has been impregnated by their god, but a mean old mountain lion wants to kill her, so the boy (Stan) is enlisted to help. He succeeds by killing the mountain lion, who also happened to be a mother to three cubs, only to find out the critters worship Satan and the porcupine is set to deliver the anti-christ. The tables are turned and soon Stan is left trying to prevent the coming of the anti-christ and he’ll receive help from Santa and a little thing called abortion. Woodland Critter Christmas basically sets out to be the most obscene Christmas special one could dream up. It’s almost as if Parker and Stone just wanted to top their prior specials in terms of shock-appeal and perhaps because they haven’t thought up a way to top this one is why we haven’t seen any new Christmas specials from South Park. If this is the type of thing you can laugh at, then Woodland Critter Christmas should do the trick. It’s ridiculous, but also pretty damn hilarious.
These specials are a big part of my memories growing up, even into college. It seemed like each one was a topic of conversation when it originally aired because people generally couldn’t believe what they just saw. South Park has had a lot of moments like that over the years, and for whatever reason, Christmas seems to bring out the best in it. I love the sappy, sentimental Christmas specials that dominate the air during this time of year, but sometimes it’s nice to watch something that is decidedly less reverential towards the holiday season. South Park does the trick, and Christmas Time in South Park is a convenient release and a suitable way to get my laugh on during the month of December.