Santa at the Star Bar, downtown San Diego. Who the hell had been answering my letters?
I’ll never forget the day the great Santa swindle came crashing down around me. It was Christmas morning, and I was eight years old. When I bolted out of bed, Santa was as concrete a fact as the merits of pepperoni pizza and the perils of cable television. He’d already written back to my letters in language that insinuated I had been nicer than naughty since last year, which meant I had every reason to believe that the Christmas tree would be packed to the needles with every Power Rangers toy known to man plus a few new ones I hadn’t heard of yet. Santa was cool like that.
For those of you lucky enough to have no idea what I’m talking about, the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers series launched on Fox in the early ’90s. The program followed a gaggle of teenage martial artists who called upon the abilities of prehistoric animals to do battle with fast-talking monsters and dopey foot-soldiers manufactured by nemeses such as the evil space witch Rita Repulsa, Lord Zedd, and Ivan Ooze. When they weren’t busy saving the planet, the Rangers were hanging out in the Angel Grove High School cafeteria illuminating the folly of class bullies Bulk and Skull and delivering soliloquies on the importance of teamwork and self-discipline. The live action scenes were lifted from Japanese sci-fi series Super Sentai and overdubbed to fit whatever ersatz storyline Saban Entertainment had dreamed up to bolster the sales of action figures, which it did to the tune of over $6 billion.
So I tore into my stocking, rabid for Dragonzords and Power Morphers, but all I found was a pair of Power Rangers socks and a bar of Red Ranger soap. Which was cool. All the good stuff must be under the tree. That’s kind of Santa’s thing.
At this point, we’d do well to rewind 12 or so hours to Christmas Eve, when my parents presented me with a VHS tape of Alpha’s Magical Christmas. The half-hour holiday atrocity opens with Alpha 5 (an effeminate robot that speaks in a high-pitched whine) gyrating nervously as he laments to Zordon (an interdimensional wizard’s head trapped in a giant translucent tube) about his inability to get into the Christmas spirit. The crisis stems from the fact that he’s stuck all alone at the command center while the Rangers help Santa prepare presents for the children, which Alpha and Zordon agree is a “big job.” Nevertheless, Alpha hatches a scheme to bring them home. He uses robot voodoo to spackle the command center with lights and tinsel while Zordon bellows “Behold!” and manifests a tree.
“Now the Rangers will have to come,” Alpha titters. “It’s just like magic! I know the Rangers have a lot of work to do, but Christmas just isn’t the same if you’re all alone.”
If only to placate the zealous automaton, Zordon teleports a bunch of kids to the command center to make popcorn garlands, sing Christmas carols, and decorate cookies. A slow-motion montage of the Rangers in various stages of awesome fills the screen while Alpha and the children sing a saccharine rendition of “I’ll be Home for Christmas.”
After the kids are teleported home, a few Rangers materialize to talk at the camera about peace on Earth. Alpha magically makes it snow, and the gang sings “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
As you can see, the entire lo-fi episode is prodded along by Alpha’s myopic obsession with the Power Rangers, whom he intends to hoodwink into hanging out with him at the expense of all the children in the world. Which brings us back to Christmas morning, where I, too, raised a stink for my own short-sighted purposes. I grimace to recall brooding in the living room and eventually murmuring, “Where’s all the Power Ranger stuff?”
At this point, I hadn’t connected the dots that it was my parents, not Santa, who were culprits. I thought that they were hiding the Megazord and Saba the Talking Tiger Sword and Green Ranger Dragon Dagger Flute in another room for dramatic effect. Santa had probably suggested it. I was existentially stunned when my dad said something about “appreciating what we got back in my day” and frowned out the window. I didn’t grasp why, but I understood then that I was behaving like a jackass. I had clearly insulted, or at least irritated, my parents with my ingratitude. And that could only mean one thing. Santa was a lie. I was Alpha 5. My parents were Zordon. The socks and soap were the caroling kids. And the Power Rangers were still the Power Rangers, who never would show up, not even a few of them.
Looking at it now, the whole Power Rangers universe was an experiment in conjured meaning based on repurposed imagery and strained moral posturing. Just like the Santa story. It’s an outlandish superhero narrative built on the fireworks of a forgotten saga for the sole purpose of marketing overpriced junk to the masses. Modern-day American Santa is just old episodes of the Greek Saint Nicholas, the British Father Christmas, the Dutch Sinterklaas, and the Germanic Wodan overdubbed with Judeo-Christian judgment and a sturdy dose of feverish American consumerism. Ho Ho Power Rangers!
Just like Santa, the Rangers’ worldview is cleanly divided into “naughty” and “nice.” Bad guys get their butts kicked. Good guys get high-fives and karate lessons. The no-duh ethics resonated with my malleable eight-year-old mind, which still trusted absolutely in people such as policemen and school principals and news anchors. You know, “nice” guys. But I was getting too old for all that, and in some way or another, my folks must have known it. I didn’t need a Megazord any more than I needed to continue entertaining the multiple impossible scenarios that constitute the Santa story. It was kid stuff.
It would take many years to work out the details, like who the hell had been answering my letters and, even more troubling, what else the world was hiding behind the smoke screen of supermen and crappy singalongs. But that was the exact moment the sleigh bells stopped jingling for yours truly, and the holidays haven’t been the same since.
So what’s the point of this grim parable? If one exists, it’s about appreciating what you get and how sometimes the best gifts are the ones we didn’t get.
Especially if it’s Saba the Talking Tiger Sword.