The next episode is something that makes thematic sense for me to do as a Christmas thing? That never happens!
Strictly speaking, Holiday Hi-Jynx isn’t the next episode (you can tell because Charmander hasn’t evolved and Togepi hasn’t joined the team yet); it was probably meant to happen around the same time as Pikachu’s Goodbye but got derailed by the same mess surrounding the Porygon episode that caused Snow Way Out to be rescheduled. But it’s usually been aired a couple of slots after It’s Mr. Mime Time, while Ash is theoretically supposed to be back in Pallet Town, and IT’S CHRISTMAS, DAMNIT so let’s talk about the Jynx episode, and then ramble about Christmas traditions and Santa for a while.
We begin with Team Rocket kidnapping Santa Claus as he comes down their chimney. Because they are Team Rocket.
It quickly turns out that it isn’t actually Santa Claus – it’s James in a Santa suit, as a sort of practice run for the real thing. Jessie long ago vowed revenge against Santa Claus for a traumatic incident from her childhood when a Jynx dressed as Santa entered her home and stole her favourite doll. Which… may go some way to explaining what a messed up person Jessie is, but that’s beside the point. We then turn to Ash, Misty and Brock, who have discovered a random Jynx on a beach somewhere, holding a heavy black boot. Ash, because he is Ash, tries to catch her, but is stymied – his Pokéball just bounces off her, which suggests to the kids that she has a trainer already. Misty examines Jynx’s boot and figures out that it, and she, belong to Santa, because it has a little picture of his face on the inside. At this point, Jynx telepathically invades the kids’ minds to force a vision of her distress upon their unsuspecting psyches, explaining that she drifted away from the North Pole on a chunk of ice and can’t get back. Ash, Misty and Brock, whose grasp of geography is evidently poor, decide to get Jynx home by building a raft and having their Water Pokémon tow it to the North Pole. From central Japan. Then, when their Pokémon inevitably run out of steam, Ash wisely decides to jump into the sea and pull the raft himself. Fortunately for all concerned, they soon run into a telepathic Lapras, another of Santa’s Pokémon, who has been tracking Jynx for some time but held off from introducing herself until she knew the kids’ intentions were pure.
Lapras tows them the rest of the way to the North Pole, which is apparently the site of the Fortress of Solitude, where they are confronted by Team Rocket, who have been following them as well. Jessie believes that this Jynx is really Santa Claus himself, so they kidnap her to gain entrance to Santa’s workshop, but when they find the Christmas tree-shaped building, it turns out to contain at least a dozen Jynx, as well as one human, Santa himself. Team Rocket, eager for Jessie’s vengeance, tie up Santa (somehow also capturing the kids without a fight) and loot all of his presents. As they prepare to make their escape, Jynx does her mind-rapey thing on Jessie and looks into her memories of that fateful night in her childhood, then goes to fetch Jessie’s doll from inside the workshop. Santa explains that his Jynx didn’t steal the doll – she’d noticed it was broken and taken it for repairs, but when they tried to bring it back later “you didn’t believe in me anymore, and I’m powerless to go where hearts are closed.” Jessie is touched, but decides to steal everything anyway because, hey, in for a penny, right? Lapras and Ash’s Pokémon are unable to prevent Jessie, James and Meowth from loading all the stolen presents into their Gyarados submarine, but as they try to flee, Santa commands all of his Jynx to seize the sub with a coordinated Psywave. They shake it until all the sacks of gifts fall back out, then fling Team Rocket off into the distance. Santa loads his sleigh, hitches up a team of Ponyta to pull it, and flies off as Jynx and Lapras give the kids and Pikachu their Christmas presents personally. Christmas is saved; whoop-de-doo.
So we should talk about Christmas and Santa.
The popularity of today’s red-suited, white-bearded, ho-ho-ho-ing Santa Claus is largely down to the incredible success of a 1930s Coca Cola marketing campaign, but Coke didn’t invent him (as they have been known to claim). There’s an incredibly long and complicated mess of different traditions that went into him, ultimately going back to a 4th century AD Roman bishop, Saint Nicholas, and the Norse deity Odin, which all gets drawn together in the early 19th century American poem A Visit From St. Nicholas (this is the famous rhyme that begins “‘Twas the night before Christmas”). St. Nicholas lived in Myra, in what is now southwest Turkey, and was a founding signatory of the Nicene Creed, an important codification of early Christian faith that has been inherited in some form or another by pretty much all the major modern denominations of Christianity. He’s important here because, as well as being the patron saint of children, he supposedly had a reputation for generosity and gift-giving (particularly for leaving coins in strangers’ shoes), which led to traditions of gift-giving on his feast day in December in several European cultures. The most famous of these today is the Dutch version, where he is known as Sinterklaas, a corruption of the Dutch Sint Nicolaas. Sinterklaas still keeps the mitre and red-and-gold robes traditionally worn by bishops (probably not by the original St. Nicholas, but hey, who’s counting?), and you can sort of see how Santa’s red suit might be related to this costume, though Sinterklaas is a fair bit more stately and dignified. One of the things about Sinterklaas that’s really interesting in the context of Holiday Hi-Jynx is that, instead of the elves we’re familiar with in the English-speaking world, he is traditionally accompanied by a figure called Zwarte Piet (Black Peter; plural Zwarte Pieten), a man in blackface and frilly 17th century clothing, who punishes naughty children by smacking them with a broom or even kidnapping them in a burlap sack. Zwarte Piet is probably dark-skinned because he’s supposed to be a Moor from southern Spain (which is where Sinterklaas lives, not at the North Pole like Santa). In recent years the character has become controversial because he’s seen by some as a racist caricature – and considering the prevalence of a racist slave ideology in the colonial days of the old Dutch Empire, the period that produced the first depictions of the character, that may not be too far off the mark. The similarity with the controversy Game Freak has faced over Jynx in the past is obvious, and Zwarte Piet may well explain why Santa’s assistants in this episode are Jynx.
There are bits of the Santa Claus tradition that Saint Nicholas doesn’t readily explain, though – why does Santa ride through the sky on a sleigh pulled by reindeer, and how does Santa know so much about all the children of the world, and whether they’ve been ‘naughty’ or ‘nice’? Well. There’s a good chance some of that stuff is pulled from pagan figures who got mixed in with Saint Nicholas at some point during the Middle Ages, which sounds weird but is actually really common; when Mediaeval pagans become Christian they tend to bring a lot of their existing traditions and cultural ideas with them. The old Norse god Odin is all-knowing thanks to the information provided by his raven spies, Thought and Memory, who observe the good and bad actions of mortals. The elf craftsmen of Santa’s workshop are out of northern European mythology, where dark elves (who are often synonymous with dwarfs), are the greatest smiths in the world, though most modern depictions of them come to us via the Victorian sugar-sweet conception of elves and fairies. The flying reindeer may have something to do with Odin’s eight-legged flying horse, Sleipnir (the product of that one time when Loki turned into a mare and banged a horse; no, seriously, look it up), though it’s difficult to say because I don’t think there were flying steeds of any kind in the Saint Nicholas/Sinterklaas/Father Christmas tradition until the early 19th century. There’s something really quite amazing, to me, about how all of this stuff gets condensed into modern ‘canonical’ Santa Claus, a form in which it can then be exported wholesale to Far Eastern countries like Japan, where the original folklore is all totally alien.
Most Japanese people, if they are religious, practice some form of Buddhism, Shinto (traditional Japanese paganism), or both, so Christmas for them has pretty much no religious meaning whatsoever. Now, to me, since I grew up in a very secular family that nonetheless celebrated Christmas, this seems perfectly natural, but I’ve read that a lot of Americans find it really weird at first, so whatevs. The Japanese certainly love Christmas, but it’s a very different sort of occasion for them – it’s not a public holiday, the focus of the celebration is Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day, it’s much more closely associated with couples (sort of like St. Valentine’s Day in the English-speaking world) than with children and family, and because it’s really hard to get turkey in Japan, the traditional meal is fried chicken, the legacy of a big marketing push by KFC in the 1970s. Christmas cake is also a big deal in Japan, but where the Christmas cake I grew up with is usually a dense fruitcake with lots of currants, citrus peel and spices, and is traditional but by no means essential, a Japanese Christmas cake is normally a sponge cake decorated with strawberries and cream, a very Western dessert for a very Western holiday, and a central feature of the celebrations. Japan didn’t import the Nativity story in any big way, but it did take Santa Claus and the tradition of giving gifts to children (but only children; adults don’t normally receive gifts for Christmas in Japan), hence their appearance in Holiday Hi-Jynx. The whole thing became popular in the decades of Japan’s economic recovery after the devastation of World War II. Where the commercial focus of modern Christmas is often derided in the English-speaking world for eclipsing the “true meaning” of the holiday, in Japan it’s the entire point – the whole thing is a celebration of prosperity, and also, indirectly, of Western exotica and Japan’s new close relationship with the English-speaking nations, particularly the United States.
I realise this is not exactly my usual style; I’ve used the Christmas episode more as a jumping-off point for talking about Christmas traditions in general than as a topic of discussion in its own right. However, I think I can be excused because a) IT’S CHRISTMAS, b) I’m honestly not sure what I would have said about Holiday Hi-Jynx anyway, other than that it’s neat Lapras can speak telepathically, and also there is one moment where Jessie commands Weezing in battle, which is really weird, and c) the Christmas traditions of different parts of the world are an amazing example of the fluidity of culture, and the way the same set of symbols can have profoundly different meanings for different groups of people. Thinking about stuff like this, I think, is a great exercise in open-mindedness, and escaping the restrictions of our own cultural points of view (something that takes a lot of doing when a Westerner looks at a Pokémon like Jynx). As long as the common thread through all these Christmas traditions is celebration and happiness, they’re okay in my book, and I hope all of your Christmases have been full of both. That concludes today’s lesson; Merry Christmas, and a happy New Year!