What does an animated Christmas comedy have to do with our current pandemic? I’m glad you asked, my hypothetical friend!
I recently watched Arthur Christmas for the, oh, 30th time? 40th? I forget. It’s a great, touching, and hilarious Christmas film that deserves to be a new classic, alongside Home Alone, Rudolph, and the like. The titular Arthur is the youngest son of Santa Clause. When a child is accidentally missed by Santa, Arthur embarks on a frantic and hysterical quest to deliver the present before sunup.
And this time, I noticed something powerful, something that could speak to our current coronavirus woes.
But to explain it, I must first explain Arthur’s older brother, Steve.
All About Steve
In the world of Arthur Christmas, “Santa” is a title passed down to the eldest son, like a royal line. Steve is next in line, and in many ways, this is a good thing. Steve is a logistical and managerial genius. He crafted a present-delivery system of elves and machinery, Rube-Goldbergian in complexity, yet it functions with radical efficiency, delivering over two billion presents in one knight.
Unfortunately, this efficient mind is also Steve’s weakness. When he realizes that his perfect system missed a child, Steve downplays it. He doesn’t want to admit anything less than perfection. Steve promises to deliver the gift eventually, but refers to the child by her “customer” number, not her name. There’s even a scene which shows Steve is really bad with kids. He’s brilliant, but not a great Santa.
One thing is crucial, however: Steve is not a bad guy. He’s an opponent, not a villain. When he tries to stop Arthur from delivering the present, it’s not because he’s evil and hates Christmas. It’s because he’s scared his perfect system isn’t perfect after all—and neither is he.
And honestly? He has good reason to be upset.
Steve’s system delivers over two billion presents, but what does he hear all night? “A child’s been missed!” “What’s the point of all this if you miss one?” Near the end, when his father, Malcom, the current Santa, is trying to take over by force, Steve cries out, “Yes, the child, that’s all that matters! Not me, your son! Not the two billion things I did right tonight!” Steve is hurting, his greatness ignored and downplayed.
So perhaps it’s no wonder that when he’s backed into a corner, Steve snaps. He points out all the many accomplishments he’s made that night, and shouts, “Who cares about one single child?!” The whole room gasps, and Steve quickly backpedals, but it’s too late. Steve has shown that he thinks of children as numbers, and the numbers look good.
He even convinces Malcom/Santa to shrug off the child, pointing out how one missed child is only a tiny, infinitesimal fraction of failure. But when Malcom explains this to the elves, one elf says a powerful line: “Children don’t matter? Which ones?”
What’s All This Got to Do With COVID-19?
America is locked in a bitter war over the handling of the novel coronavirus. There’s a lot of shouting, a lot of finger-pointing, and a lot of anger.
Amidst this bile, I’ve seen a lot of people say something to this effect: “Coronovirus only kills less than 1% of the population. Should we go bonkers over something like that?”
To which I might reply, “Deaths don’t matter? Which ones?”
It’s easy to shrug off bad things when we reduce them to numbers. As of this writing, COVID-19 has infected over 12.5 million people in America, and killed over 260,000. Now it’s true, by these numbers, COVID only kills about 2% of the people it infects in the States, meaning about .08% of the total US population. That is, indeed, a tiny number.
Except it’s not a number. It’s a person. It’s a lot of persons. 260,000 persons. Which 260,000 people don’t matter? Can you point them out? Can you hear their names and see their faces, and still shrug off their deaths as inconsequential? Can you feel the impacts of their deaths reverberate through the living, as everyone around those 260,000 must not only mourn, but adjust, creating ripples across the entire country?
When we turn the problem of deaths into numbers, we take away the humanity of someone. When we say, “Those numbers don’t matter,” we’re actually saying, “You don’t matter.”
But On The Other Hand…
So what must be done? Hate, ridicule, and vilify the people who say that some people are just numbers? Actually, no. That’s not the answer.
Remember, Steve is not a bad guy; he’s a hurting guy, a man whose greatest flaw only exists because of his greatest strength.
Steve does the impossible: he delivers over two billion presents in a single night! It’s clear that Santa Clause would not exist without Steve. Arthur knows nothing about delivering presents, Malcom is nothing more than a tired old figurehead, and even the cantankerous Grandsanta is way out of his depth in the modern world. Only Steve can make Christmas happen. There’s even a scene near the middle where Steve almost helps Arthur on his mission, realizing that if he goes this extra mile, his system really will be perfect.
But then someone says, “Arthur and Grandsanta will be the heroes of the night!” And Steve becomes an opponent again. Steve isn’t evil; he just wants his good qualities to be acknowledged.
Perhaps the most telling moment of all is when Malcom says, “This is about that pool table, isn’t it? I told you, you should have written to me!”
Steve replies, “I was eight! You’re my dad!” It’s a silly line, but also a powerful one. Steve sees children as numbers partly because he was once a number to somebody else.
Sometimes I wonder if the Steves of this world would be more humanizing if they, themselves were more humanized.
In the age of Donald Trump, it’s easy to point to the Right Wing and say, “Look how evil they are!” and personally, I absolutely disagree with much of what the Right concludes. Yet the truth is that they’re human, just like the Left and the Middle. And like Steve, many of their concerns are valid.
True story: I had COVID-19 and had to be quarantined for two weeks, along with my family. At the end of it, I said, “Whoa, over already? That was fast.” Meanwhile, my wife was chewing her own hair. She’s more extroverted than I am, and quarantining nearly killed her. Perhaps shutdowns and quarantines are crucial for survival, but human interaction is also a crucial ingredient for human flourishing. Some people are having to choose between physical health and mental health. After so many years of de-stigmatizing mental health issues, can we really go back and say they don’t matter?
And it is not cruelty to point out the economic problems of mass shutdowns. Businesses are closing, dreams are dying, and people are hurting. And the hurt is not evenly distributed. In my town, a man had to close both of his local restaurants, yet the Best Buy got to stay open. How’s that fair?
People are hurting and scared, even without COVID. Can we not stand for one issue while still caring about the others? Can we not say, “You’re wrong,” without saying, “You don’t matter?”
I think we can. And so does the movie.
The Last Scene
At the end of the film, Steve realizes he was wrong, that Arthur would make a better Santa because Arthur was the one who saw the number as a person, a person deserving the same magical Christmas as every other person. So Steve hands over the mantle.
But it only happens when his father finally tells him, “Steven, you deserve to be Santa.” Only when Malcom acknowledges Steve’s strengths does Steve finally acknowledge his own weaknesses.
Dehumanization is wrong, full stop. To say deaths don’t matter is wrong. To say mean people don’t matter is wrong. It is absolutely possible to fight, to take a stand, to be complete enemies, without forgetting their humanity. Steve was wrong. But for Arthur or Malcom to become Steve would’ve been just as wrong.
People don’t change when they’re told they’re wrong. They change when someone touches their hearts, and this is done by humanization, by turning numbers, stances, and beliefs into names and faces.
Over 100 years ago, in 1914, in the midst of World War 1, two enemy lines stepped out of their trenches in order to celebrate Christmas together. Some traded presents, some played soccer, held church services, and buried their dead. One British soldier described it thus: “All this talk of hate, all this firing at each other that has raged since the beginning of the war quelled and stayed by the magic of Christmas.”
Christmas is coming, my friends. Can we not take a lesson from Arthur Christmas, from the World War 1 soldiers, and remember that people are not numbers or beliefs, but humans? Humans with terrible flaws, and amazing goods? And that perhaps we may even enjoy our time together?
And when Christmas has left us, can we keep it up? To humbly modify that British soldier’s quote, all the hate, all this firing at each other, can be quelled and stayed by the magic of humanization.