The Bad Dad Christmas Phenomena
Updated: Dec 22, 2022
personal essay - nonfiction
Yesterday I received a Christmas package in the mail from my father. Since we live in different states and I won’t be home for the holidays this year, he mailed my gifts ahead of time (thoughtful!). I didn’t bother opening my gifts early (even though I’m an adult and I can) because I had sent my father direct links to the gifts I wanted a few weeks prior, per his request. Beneath the sparkling paper, that he most certainly didn’t wrap, lay absolutely no surprises. Except one. Nestled at the bottom of the mailing box was a red envelope with my name on the front...sort of. My father had spelled my name wrong, swapping two “n”s for the double e that has been present in my name since the day I was born 30 years ago.
You likely sense my annoyance. What’s wrong with this girl, you must be thinking. Does she hate Christmas? Does she hate her dad? I get it. How lucky am I to have a father in general, let alone one that mails me Christmas presents on time, who asks me what I want and delivers? I know I sound ungrateful. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel the absence of Christmas magic in my apartment last night. And it wasn’t because I wasn’t with my dad (or any of my family members for that matter), it was because I’ve watched enough Christmas movies over the past 29 years to know the truth: dads just don’t shine at Christmas.
Through extensive research, ie: sitting at home alone watching holiday films over and over, I have found that father representation in Christmas films fall into four categories: Unappreciative, Oblivious, Absent, and Garbage. Since I’ve been diagnosed with Daddy Issues by many ex-boyfriends, it’s clear that the only way to overcome this terrible disease is through the fantasy of cinema, AKA the belief that the power of Christmas magic will somehow turn my dad and dads everywhere into emotionally intelligent, appreciative, loving, self-aware men.
The Unappreciative Dad:
In The Family Man, Nicolas Cage’s character Jack learns how to be nice to his wife and children with the assistance of an angel’s Christmas spell. The film’s opening shows him as a cool business guy who gets laid a lot and makes people work on Christmas Eve. After he disarms a gunman in a liquor store holdup, he wakes up the next day in a messy house in the suburbs with his high school sweetheart wife and their two kids. Obviously Jack hates this at first, but over the holiday season he discovers that he actually loves his wife and likes being a dad and working at a tire store (?). One would think that a home and a family and health and happiness are worthy of celebration, but apparently for a man, you have to convince him that these things are valuable. Thank god for Christmas miracles.
In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey decides to kill himself on Christmas because his life is stressful! Luckily, we get another angel to show him what life in Bedford Falls would be like if George was never born, and after some heavy reflection and a strong sense of power, he decides to be nice to his wife and kids again too. Over the course of the film we see that George had dreams of seeing the world, but he instead takes over the family business at the bank and lives in a rundown house with his wife. Clearly a doting wife, healthy children, and a home to live in are not worth adding to the list of reasons to live for George. I’m not going to say that the situation at the bank isn’t rough, but Jesus Christ.
What’s the message? Yes, in theory, a loving family is more important than a lavish lifestyle or even financial security, but unless an angel forces you via Christmas magic to experience the opposite life you’ve been living, you will never sincerely appreciate or recognize what’s been right in front of you the whole time.
The Oblivious Dad:
In Home Alone and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, Peter McCallister forgets his son not once, but twice on Christmas vacation. In both films he opts for chilling in the hotel suite while his wife schlupps it through the airport and frantically searches around New York city to find their youngest son. He even has the audacity to scream at Kevin for using his credit card to purchase room service while he was LOST AND ALONE ON CHRISTMAS.
I feel that Jack Frost can fall into basically all four categories, but because of the “dad who’s in a band” element, I’m going to keep it here. Is there anything more tragic than a middle-aged rocker who can’t find time for his wife and kid because he still thinks his band is going to make it? The fact that Michael Keaton gets turned into a horrifying snowman honestly feels earned.
What’s the message? Give oblivious dads a second chance…? Perhaps they’ll go on yet another way-too-expensive vacation and ACTIVELY RUN AWAY FROM THEIR CHILD AT THE AIRPORT, or be turned into a sweet snowfather, but in all likelihood they’ll still be too distracted by their own lives to recognize they actually need to parent once in awhile anyway. At least we still have moms.
The Absent Dad:
In the live action version of the Dr. Seuss classic The Grinch, we get a little more of the Grinch’s origin story. While there is no direct storyline explaining whether or not the Grinch ever had a father, we discover that the Grinch was adopted by two nice lesbians (a quick Wikipedia search actually confirmed that they are sisters, but I prefer my storyline). They attempt to show him that Christmas is great, but his trauma is just too overpowering and he leaves Whoville with plans to thwart Christmas for everyone. So, it’s not really the Grinch’s fault his heart is two sizes too small, it’s his FATHER’S. I recognize that this one is a stretch but I'm keeping it.
What’s worse: a dad who gets you shitty presents or a dad that left when you were too young to remember and burned your mom so bad that she tells you repeatedly Santa Claus doesn’t exist? In Miracle on 34th Street, young Susan isn’t as outwardly affected by her father’s absence, but her mother is clearly going through it. Not only does she push away an extremely hot lawyer due to her bad dad PTSD, she spends 90% of the film being cold, distant, and mean to Santa! This story could easily be renamed “Men Are Trash” and would still hold up.
What’s the message? Despite what American parental leave laws and society at large may tell us, the presence of a father or at least a father figure are quite important, particularly during the holidays. If you don’t have a dad during the holiday season, you’re at higher risk for living alone on a hill or developing a strange obsession with a mall Santa.
The Shit Dad:
Within the first ten minutes of The Santa Clause, Scott Calvin cuts off a woman of color during her speech at the work holiday party and lies about traffic to his ex wife, so you know you’ve got a winner on your hands here. After taking his son to Denny’s on Christmas Eve, Scott indirectly kills the real Santa Claus and is contractually obligated to take his place. The audience gets to watch Tim Allen’s character not only don a fat suit, but become a nicer, more present father as he transforms into Santa. Had Scott Calvin not been forced into the role of Father Christmas, it is likely that he would continue to harass his son’s new stepfather, Neil, never learn how to cook a turkey, and yell that he likes to sleep BUCK NAKED outside his house in front of children.
In Elf, Buddy’s dad doesn’t eat dinner with his family, is actively hostile towards nuns, sends Buddy to the mailroom, and just generally sucks. He’s not even nice to the kid he knows for sure is his! When Walter is forced to acknowledge that this giant elf man is indeed his paternal son, he eventually decides to lighten up a little and sing a Christmas carol. Had Buddy not come into the picture he’d likely still be taking books away from orphans. What a guy.
I would venture to say that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character of Howard in Jingle All the Way is the absolute worst father. Is he a provider? Yes. Does he make a top notch Turboman in the Wintertainment Parade? Sure. But that does not negate the fact that he missed Jamie’s karate class, ditched his family on Christmas Eve to find a gift his wife told him about MONTHS ago, disrespected law enforcement on multiple occasions, assaulted a toddler at the Mall of America, engaged in shady business with an underground Santa mob, impersonated a detective, broke into a neighbor’s house to steal the gift he forgot to buy, and punched a reindeer in the face. Did you know that Christmas falls on the same day every year? It’s the 25th. Why are you still shopping on Christmas Eve? This movie has a bonus trash dad Myron Larabee who also can’t manage to get his son a gift on time and threatens a radio station with a bomb before trying to actively kill Jamie for this stupid toy. What’s most disappointing about this film is watching Howard being carried off into the crowd at the end while Jamie proudly declares: “That’s my dad!”, as if we don’t all have that sinking feeling that his father will likely be outside the toy store on the 24th again next year. Everyone who thinks Liz and Howard are headed for divorce raise your hands.
What’s the message? Aside from blatant and terrifying representations of toxic masculinity (Scott Calvin hates that Neil is a psychiatrist who talks about feelings, Walter won’t cuddle with his own son, and Howard is routinely disgusted by neighbor Ted’s “domestic” behaviors), these men all value their jobs and position in society far more than the health and happiness of their own families. They don’t have the foresight to plan ahead for Christmas Day, they play the victim when things disrupt their (often shady) plans, and don’t show any active signs of growth or change following December 25th unless bound by a clause to do so. Oh, I’m sorry, the message? I don’t even know anymore.
So, as I change into my comfy clothes, plug in the lights on my tree, and settle in to choose what Christmas movie to watch tonight, I can’t help but wonder what I’ve learned over the years about my own father. My dad has always loved me, he never needed to learn how to do that. He gave up the dream that he’d be a famous drummer, he’s never forgotten me on vacation, and he’s always been in my life, especially when I’ve needed him most. He’s a good dad. Is he soft and sensitive and creative when it comes to gift giving? Perhaps not. He might spell my name wrong from time to time. But, unlike the fathers of Christmas films past, my dad is doing alright. And isn’t that what Christmas is about in the end? The things we’re grateful for, the people who love us and try their best to make Christmas magical without the help of angels and spells and action figures? I’ll take it.
Here’s to you, Dad. Merry Christmas.