Arnold, Arnold's Christmas, Bailey, Christmas, Christmas cartoon, christmas shoes, christmas shopping, Craig Bartlett, family reunion, Gerald, Gerald Johanssen, Grandma, Grandpa Phil, Helga, Helga On The Couch, Helga Pataki, Hey Arnold, holiday special, Mr. Hyunh, nickelodeon, Nickelodeon Christmas, Nicktoon, Olga, Oskar Kokoschka, Seattle, The Patakis, tv special, vietnam, winter
In my last episode I talked about Rugrats and how big a part of my childhood it was. While nothing will ever change that, there’s one other Nicktoon that came out a few years later which certainly rose in my estimation as I got older.
Originally a character created by Craig Bartlett as a series of claymation shorts for Sesame Street, Hey Arnold was a show that brought us a colorful cast of characters and taught some surprisingly deep life lessons when not making us crack up. It centers around the titular Arnold, your seemingly average nice guy kid who’s the voice of reason among his group of eclectic friends and the kooky boardinghouse he calls home (and if it were up to me the complete series DVD set would come in a box shaped like that boardinghouse and have the stampede of animals from the into pop out when you open it, but we can still dream). Boasting a jazzy soundtrack, unique character designs, great voicework done by actual kids instead of adults posing as them, and some unforgettable moments of humor and heartbreak, it’s become a cult classic that 90’s kids like myself consider one of the very best of the original Nicktoons. And of course this past November, after fifteen agonizing years of wondering and waiting, we finally got the long-awaited Jungle Movie where the mystery of what the heck happened to Arnold’s parents was solved, so this is my one chance to hit on one of the standout entries to this classic series while the iron’s still hot. Let’s take a look at “Arnold’s Christmas”.
We open on a montage of people in Arnold’s city (which I was disappointed to learn is in fact NOT New York but somewhere in Washington) going skating, sledding and doing other wintry things backed by some soothing acoustic music while the snow falls around them. It’s perfect to get you in the holiday mood. Dare I say it, but the modern jazz fusion score could hold its own with the likes of A Charlie Brown Christmas. With Christmas vacation officially begun, the kids run out of P.S. 118 to begin their fun – all except Helga and her friend Phoebe who take their time meandering the decorated city streets. The two debate on which is the best part of Christmas, with Helga boldly declaring it’s the piling on of presents and nothing else. She’s not subtle about it either, going on a long list about, well, long lists. And like most of the other girls in the city, she craves the number one hot ticket item this year – a pair of stylish Nancy Spumoni snow boots.
Speaking of presents, Arnold and his cool-as-a-cucumber buddy Gerald are out doing some shopping. Gerald has settled for getting a tie for every single member of his family, even his little sister Timberly. Arnold reminds him that Christmas is a special occasion and everyone deserves a special unique present to show they care.
Helga catches Arnold walking home and takes a moment to wax philosophical about her unbridled loathing of him…and also her undying love. Yes, Helga’s scorn is only a mask for the deepest, most passionate and occasionally creepiest crush you’ll see one cartoon character have for another. It’s her defining characteristic that’s almost always played for laughs, but more on that later. Helga is determined to find Arnold the perfect present to show how much she really cares.
At Arnold’s boardinghouse the tenants are doing a Secret Santa that goes awry when they discover all their names have been switched out by nogoodnik Oskar Kokoschka and replaced with his. The names are put back in and Arnold picks Mr. Hyunh. Arnold admits to not knowing much about Mr. Hyunh, but he goes up to his apartment to glean what he might want. The answer, however, is much more complicated than he anticipated, as Mr. Hyuhn goes into a Vietnam flashback.
No, literally, he goes into a flashback about living in Vietnam during the war with his infant daughter Mai. They don’t say the country’s name out loud, but you can tell it’s Vietnam by how Mr. Hyuhn describes the encroaching violence and the art shifts into what an animated version of Miss Saigon might look like. They took a chance to escape to the US, but when they arrived at the embassy the last helicopter was about to leave and could only fit just one more person. Mr. Hyunh managed to pass Mai into the hands of a soldier as it took off, sacrificing his own dream of a better life to ensure she would have it. It took him twenty years to come to the US and locate the city where he was told she might live, yet he never found out what happened to his daughter. His one wish, as impossible as it is, is to see her again.
So Arnold has his work cut out for him, especially since there’s only one day until Christmas. But he is a deep believer in Christmas miracles and won’t let anything stand in his way. He drags Gerald to a government records building to look for answers but the employees have already quit working and begun their office party. Only a grumpy old man named Mr. Bailey (nice nod to “It’s a Wonderful Life” by the way) is at his desk. Arnold approaches him to ask for his help, but Mr. Bailey is swamped with work and still needs to finish his last-minute Christmas shopping. Arnold and Gerald offer to complete his shopping, and Mr. Bailey agrees to do what he can to find Mai if they return with everything by closing time.
While the boys rush from store to store, they bump into Helga who’s still been searching for the best gift for Arnold. She picks up Mr. Bailey’s list which Arnold unknowingly dropped and notices the last item is the pair of Nancy Spumoni boots. Unfortunately for Arnold, every shoe shop in the city is sold out. Even though they managed to find everything else Mr. Bailey asked for, he calls off the deal since they couldn’t get the boots.
Arnold is crushed in spite of Gerald reminding him he did the best anyone could do with what they were given; that what he tried to do for a poor lonely man is what Christmas is all about, and means more than a pair of fancy boots. Given what Gerald said earlier about going through the trouble of seeking something special as well as Helga’s rant about the joys of rampant materialism, it’s a nice thoughtful moment that sums up the entire episode. But it seems as though Arnold’s faith in miracles during the time of year he’s always believed they’re supposed to happen has been lost for good. Though some rag on Arnold for being a designated vanilla protagonist as opposed to the more interesting characters that make up his neighborhood, it’s that blind optimism that ties into Arnold’s loving nature and defines him; take that away from him and it’s like having your worldview shatter. Little do they know Helga has been tailing them from before and has overheard their conversation.
Helga returns home feeling depressed even as her family is happily celebrating. In a rare moment of perception, her mother Miriam notices her daughter looks blue and tries to cheer her up by telling her she can open a present early. Helga’s frown is wiped clean off her face when she sees what her mother got her – a pair of Nancy Spumoni boots. She immediately jams them on and dances joyfully in the street.
Her bliss is short lived however when Mr. Bailey’s list falls from her pocket. Helga realizes that now she has the power to make a Christmas miracle for Arnold. But in order to do that she would have to give up the one thing she wanted the most.
Now I may as well get this out of the way: Helga is my favorite character on Hey Arnold, in fact, maybe even one of my favorites of all time. On the surface she’s a callous tormentor of Arnold and anyone who crosses paths with her, she’s outspoken, brash and calculating, but unafraid to call bullshit on people enforcing flaky trends or bogus rules. Her crush on Arnold runs the full gamut adolescent romance almost bordering on stalkerdom, from notebooks full of love poems to a shrine in her closet. Yet when you learn more about her home life and how she was raised, you’ll find it’s just one facet of a flawed sensitive girl who’s internalizing the hell she goes through every day: Her father Big Bob is a boorish, emotionally abusive workaholic with anger problems, Miriam’s crippling alcoholism has never been stated as such because its a TV-Y show but it’s been heavily implied throughout, and her perfect older sister Olga is constantly smothered with attention and praise. One of my favorite episodes, “Helga On The Couch”, features Helga being made to see to a therapist after a scuffle at school and opening up about everything she’s had to deal with since preschool, and it is heartwrenching. So it comes as no surprise that she would gravitate towards the one person who’s ever shown her any bit of courtesy and kindness like Arnold has. The fact that she can never express how she feels due to the need to keep a tough front to cope with her crappy life adds a thick layer of depth and tragedy to a character who initially came across as a generic girl bully. And that’s what makes everything that follows pack that big a punch right to your heart.
Helga races to the office as Mr. Bailey is locking up and shoves the boots in his face demanding he go back in and start tracking down Mai. But Mr. Bailey is too tired and downtrodden to care and moves Helga aside. Helga is able to reach his better nature with a heartfelt speech and some damn fine acting on behalf of Helga’s original voice actress Francesca Marie Smith, going from frantic desperation to quiet pleading in the space of a minute.
Can’t you see?! It’s not about snow boots, it’s not about flashy expensive presents or getting yours before the other guy get his. It’s about showing people you really care about ’em. And most of all, it’s about a funny little football-headed kid with a good heart but no sense of reality whose entire worldview is at stake! […] For pity’s sake, are you that cold? Look into your heart, and we’ve got a choice here; either you and I work all night to find a certain lost daughter, or you can leave now. But if you leave now, that little football-headed kid will never believe in miracles again.
On Christmas morning Mr. Hyunh finds he’s the only one without a Christmas present, which he takes very well. There’s no screaming or ranting, not even tears, he’s just resigned to it, and, like Arnold, has lost hope that he could be given the one thing he needs.
Then someone appears at the door.
It’s an Asian girl a little over twenty who addresses Mr. Hyunh as “dad”.
Mai has come home at last.
Arnold is astounded how this miracle could have happened after all and Gerald says maybe it’s something he shouldn’t question, that Arnold must have some kind of Christmas angel watching over him.
Outside, Helga watches the scene alone and tearfully whispers “Merry Christmas, Arnold.”
I only thought this special was all right when I was younger and I think that’s because where most other specials would reward Helga in some way, say, give her another pair of boots to make up for the ones she gave up or have Arnold learn about what she did and find some way to thank her, she is left holding nothing but the knowledge of the good deed she’s done. Now I proudly admire this special for doing just that. They let this selfless act be just that, no backsies, no instant karma. That makes it all the more emotionally powerful and genuine compared to other shows that try to cash in on the holiday. There’s still a few funny moments throughout the episode like Oskar’s Secret Santa switch, Gerald’s conversation about the ties and Helga’s initial ideas for a present for Arnold, not to mention this episode started the grand tradition of Arnold’s Grandma mixing up holiday traditions with others (if you thought dressing up like a Native American and playing Yankee Doodle Dandy on the piano is weird on Christmas, just wait until the Thanksgiving episode), but it doesn’t deter from the fact that this still manages to squeeze the feels from me every time I watch it. The Vietnam flashbacks are heartbreaking, far from the kind of things you normally see or would want to at Christmastime, but they succeed in playing an integral part of the story and are told in a way that kids can understand. The little touches such as Mr. Hyuhn stopping at the door when he thinks he hears Mai calling for him early on and seeing Arnold and Helga go through their ups and downs, well, what else can I say about that? They pay off so well, eschewing every bit of cynicism that Helga began with and Arnold fought against throughout so that have love untarnished by time and selfishness comes through in the end.
And I think there’s one more reason why this special holds up as it is.
With the exception of Marge Be Not Proud, the holiday specials I looked at this year fall into the two categories that Christmas episodes for children usually fall into; Saving Christmas and Meeting Santa (ok, Marge Be Not Proud kind of falls into the former category and Christmas Who and The Santa Experience have their feet pretty firmly in both, but you get the idea). Arnold’s Christmas is the only one that dares to not follow any of those cliches. And I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I applaud it for how realistic it is. 2017 has been no walk through the park, and I for one have tried to avoid facing as much reality as possible through escapist entertainment because anytime I would even glance at the news, it seemed like everything in the world was just growing worse. Arnold’s Christmas, on the other hand, features the repercussions of families torn apart by war, the shopping madness that consumes everyone as the holidays draw closer, and shows how even the people with the best intentions can get bogged down by the pressure of living up to the ideal of giving someone a perfect Christmas. But why it holds up and why it feels especially relevant today is because while it acknowledges all those things, it still remains optimistic in a way that’s not blindingly naive or simplistic. It’s unafraid to show that sometimes no matter how hard you try at something you can still fail, that sometimes people can’t always follow through on the promises they make; But miracles can still happen, even from a place you’d least expect. And if they don’t, the world will still go on, and those who care about you will love you just the same. It fully embraces the ideal that Christmas can still bring out the best in people in ways you wouldn’t expect, and that Christmas is a time when people can change the world around them, not by going all out on presents but by merely they caring about someone other than themselves, even if no one ever knows they do.
Nearly twenty years later, “Arnold’s Christmas” has every right to hold the title as the best Christmas special Nickelodeon has ever produced. At the very least it’s a better Christmas story involving the gift of shoes than The Christmas Shoes will ever, ever be.
I don’t want to end on a cynical joke, so, Merry Christmas, wherever you are, whoever you are. Show the people you love, even those you don’t know, why this is the time of year miracles can happen.
Paul Astell said:
Great review of a truly inspiring Christmas special! I wish more people could watch this one, it really gets what Christmas is supposed to be about. I did a review of it myself last month and I agree with you about Helga – best character in the show, hands down.
LikeLiked by 1 person