Silent Night, Holy Night
"A Solstice Carol" Plot Summary:
When an orphan steals her chakram for a decoration, Xena and Gabrielle learn that King Silvus has abolished the celebration of the Winter Solstice, and has sent tax collectors around on the eve of the holiday to add to his money bags. The orphanage is threatened with destruction by midnight, and an outraged Xena vows to teach the king a lesson. She enlists the help of Senticles, a toymaker turned tax collector, and breaks into the castle, where she announces to the king that he's got to change his evil ways. During her flight, she discovers that the king has kept a roomful of decorations for solstice exactly as it was on the night he lost his wife, decades before.
While Gabrielle and Senticles rescue a donkey headed for the tannery and tell stories to the children about the true meaning of Solstice, Xena appears to Silvus as Clotho, the First Fate...the Ghost of Solstice Past. She takes the king to the room of decorations, where Gabrielle is disguised as the ghost of his wife. But to their horror, the women learn that Queen Amalia is not dead...she merely left him on Solstice Eve. Disaster looms, but Gabrielle escapes with help from the donkey and Senticles, and Xena drugs the king so that when he awakens, she can appear to him as Lachesis, the Second Fate, the Ghost of Solstice Present.
Xena makes the king dress up as a commoner and takes him to the orphanage, where the children sing carols and wish for food and toys. Meanwhile, Gabrielle convinces Senticles to defy the king, bringing toys to the children. She disguises him in a red cloak and hat and they drop down the chimney to avoid the king's guards who have come to evacuate the orphanage. Xena prepares to battle the soldiers, and asks the head of the orphanage to stay with the king. She does, keeping her head covered, and he mistakes her for Atropos - the Third Fate, the Ghost of Solstice Future. He pleads with her not to let him die alone, to give him another chance.
In the holiday spirit, Xena and Gabrielle fight off the guards with marbles, toilet plungers, a hula hoop, a wooden unicorn (watch out for that horn!), rubber swords, pillows, messy food, and a Hercules action figure designed by Senticles. The king declares himself to be on the side of the orphans, and the woman who runs the orphanage pulls back the hood to reveal that she is Amalia, his long-lost wife! He begs her to forgive him for being so cold-hearted, which she does. Xena gives Gabrielle a replica of a favorite childhood toy, and Gabrielle gives the donkey to a nice Jewish couple with a baby traveling on the road west, as a new star appears in the daytime sky...
This episode is a hilarious mix of Dickens, American Christmas tradition, and history as only Xena can tell it. The structure is obviously based loosely on A Christmas Carol, but most of the jokes had to do with carols (songs about fireplaces and chestnuts sung by Mediterranean children in shirtsleeves), festively decorated trees (pines of Rome I guess), Santa Claus (ho ho ho, get the pun on Senticles' name?), presents (Xena ties up bad guys, Gabrielle quips, "I didn't know you did gift-wrapping!"), stocking stuffers (as Xena refers to the rock-filled socks with which she knocks out guards), and the like. The message is pretty predictable - goodwill toward all, generosity of spirit, love your fellow beings even if they're asses...I mean donkeys.
But this episode is probably the ultimate nightmare for deeply religious people: a demonstration that the holiday itself is so big that you can take Christ out of Christmas and still have a roaring good time. From that standpoint, it's interesting: just as the series rewrites European and Middle Eastern history from a Xena-centric point of view, so does it recreate one of the central events of Western civilization, marginalizing the ostensible source of the event and focusing on the popular legends. I liked Gabrielle comparing Silvus to Croesus and Midas - this tale lacked all the anti-Semitic overtones of Dickens' version, at least - and her version of the solstice story, about a light shining on the darkest night, was sweet.
I generally dread Christmas specials and Christmas episodes of regular series, but this one had just enough sense of humor that it was enjoyable. At least it realized where the cliches usually fall and avoided them by poking fun at them. Great casting of supporting roles, and excellent cameo by an animal. I wasn't overwhelmingly impressed, but I did laugh a lot, and while I did not suffer from an urge to pull out Dickens, I definitely wasn't bored.