Christmas is a time for generosity and charity. It’s when we renew ties with family and friends. But there are those, for whom the holiday is nothing but “humbug”. Since stories are the essence of the holiday, we have a long tradition of Christmas villains. The nativity story itself has perhaps the vilest of them all, the baby killing King Herod.
Contemporary Christmas celebrations owe a large debt to Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol and his immortal characterization of Ebenezer Scrooge. This tale highlights the ever present possibility of redemption and Scrooge is the first of a long series of villains, who are redeemed by the spirit of the season. This plot has been repeated in numerous radio, film, and television adaptations.
Some psychologists have compared Scrooge’s transformation to what happens in successful psychotherapy, with insight triumphing over childhood trauma and alienation. The same could be argued for the film “A Wonderful Life”, where being able to see one’s life in a broader context, can even overcome suicidal depression. Mr. Potter, this movie’s villain, falls into the class of unredeemed antagonists. He refuses change and is eventually consigned to being irrelevant, which may be his perfect punishment, given the extent of his narcissism.
In Christmas media offerings we see a variety of familiar villains. In the horror-action genre there is Billy, the serial killer of Silent Night, Deadly Night, who goes on a Yuletide killing spree, wearing a Santa suit. He is finally stopped by being artfully skewered by a Christmas tree. And we have Bruce Willis facing down Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) the smarmy Christmas terrorist in Die Hard.
Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol is considered by many baby boomers to be the definitive version of Dicken’s classic. We of the Bugs Bunny-Huckleberry Hound generation, identify more with Jim Backus’ Scrooge than with Alistair Sim or George C. Scott.
Of course Dr. Seuss’ imaginative How the Grinch Stole Christmas gives us a another villain who rivals Scrooge. This fuzzy green misanthrope is, as the song puts it, “a three decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce”.
Most Christmas villains are larger than life, with the possible exception of Scut Farkas, the coonskin cap wearing bully, in Jean Shepherd’s Christmas Story. With his sinister yellow eyes and green teeth, he pushes little Ralphie too far and gets a well-deserved beating for his trouble. As a child I had my own Scut Farkas, by the name of Marlin. I’m withholding his last name, just in case he is still around somewhere, waiting for me. Whenever I rode my bicycle, Marlin would pop out of nowhere to torment me. I would often go blocks out of my way to avoid him. Marlin never got his just desserts, which is maybe why I get such vicarious satisfaction watching Raphie beat the snot out of Farkus. My real life Farkus just disappeared one day, probably recalled to the hellish nether regions from whence he came.
In recent years we have been appalled by Willie T. Stokes as portrayed by Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa. Stokes is a degenerate alcoholic safecracker, who in the guise of a department store Santa, specializes in Christmas Eve burglaries, with his elf-impersonating accomplice. Bad Santa is not everyone’s cup of tea, although I admit I loved the scene in which Thorton, in a drunken frenzy, eats all the chocolates from a kid’s advent calendar. Feeling guilty, he Scotch tapes the calendar back together, filling it with anything he can find. When the kid gets an aspirin tablet, instead of a chocolate, the next day, Stokes says, “They can’t all be winners, kid”. This movie’s disturbing grittiness may have something to do with Thornton’s admission that he was drunk throughout the filming. The Stokes’ character has sunk so low that his redemption must, of necessity, be relatively modest.
In a lighter vein, there are Harry and Marv, the comically inept “Wet Bandits, violently abused by young Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) in Home Alone. This movie must address some deep-seated psychological need of children to get back at adults. Kids watched the original movie so many times that it became the third highest grossing film ever. Like Farkas, Kevin’s bullying brother– Buzz, rings true to anyone who had to contend with an older sibling. My older brother Norman made Buzz look like a choirboy.
Martin Short chews up the scenery as Jack Frost in the undistinguished Santa Claus 3: The Escape Clause. Speaking of this film and Tim Allen’s performance as Santa, one critic said “This Christmas we are treated to both a turkey (the film) and a ham (Allen).
Quirky, funny, and scary Steven Spielberg’s intense 1984 Christmas film, Gremlins featured the demonic chainsaw-wielding gremlin, Stripe, who like a vampire, is finally destroyed by exposure to sunlight. The microwave scene in this movie still gives me nightmares.
Animated television specials have also given us a wealth of memorable villains. There is crabby Lucy in a Charlie Brown Christmas, and in Santa Claus is Coming to Town there is the grouchy Burgermeister who bans all toys in Sombertown and the malevolent wizard Winter Warlock, who is redeemed by the gift of a toy train. Professor Hinkle, the evil magician, mugs in Frosty the Snowman, and Bumble the abominable snowman, from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, turns from his evil ways, only after Herbie the Elf pulls all of his teeth.
I find Oogie Boogey in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare before Christmas especially frightening, but my favorite animated villain has to be Heat Miser (“I’m Mr. 101”) from The Year Without a Santa Claus. For some reason I never found his stepbrother, Snow Miser (Mr. Ten Below) very appealing. This year there is big news for all us unrepentant fans. ABC Family plans to have the Miser Brothers team up to save Christmas in a long awaited sequel.
All things considered however, my vote for the best Christmas villain goes to Granville Sawyer. You may not recognized the name, but he is the twitchy and pompous store psychologist in the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street. Sawyer is the one who gets Santa Claus committed to a mental institution. By maltreating the store’s naive teenage janitor, Alfred, the Grinchy Sawyer so infuriates Mr. Kringle, that he gets cracked on the head with Santa’s cane. This movie was remade several times, but Sawyer doesn’t fair any better in any version. The best line is when store owner R.H. Macy’s says in a voice dripping with contempt, “Psy-chol-o-gist! Where did you get your degree, correspondence school? You’re fired.” Finally a CEO we can admire.
Based on a column originially published in the in the New Albany Tribune