Hey Arnold is the best show. It’s full of cartoonish people who still feel like people I knew in real life. It has characters who are silly kids, and characters with pretty impressive emotional depths. There’s stuff you find hilarious and entertaining when you’re young, and stuff that rewards you for watching the show when you’re older. It was one of my favorite shows when I was a kid, and it’s one of my favorite shows now. I’ve seriously watched the entire series three times since last November.
So today, this mid-July, we’ll be talking about its Christmas episode. Hey Arnold was an interesting cartoon in that it only had one special per holiday. I think most of the Nickelodeon cartoons were like that, which made sense, since most of them appeared to either only take one year of time or there was no real time passage at all. Hey Arnold had some episodes that were in the spirit of various holidays – there’s quite a few horror-themed episodes but only one actual Halloween episode. But there’s only one Christmas episode.
And it’s the greatest. Most children’s television specials, when it comes to Christmas, involve Santa Claus, and maybe have something in there about the spirit of giving. Arnold’s Christmas is entirely about the giving spirit of the holidays, and it does it in kind of an interesting way. What I mean is, typically when there’s a “let’s learn about the true spirit of Christmas!” episode or movie or whatever, it involves people learning about the less fortunate, and how great it is to donate money or something. This special doesn’t really have to do with, say, adopting homeless people that are never seen again (*cough*Saved By the Bell*cough*). It… well…
I won’t give too much away for anyone who for some reason hasn’t seen it, or just wants to read the review. I’m just going to say that even as a little kid, I knew this episode was different from other Christmas shows, and was really special. It’s only as I’ve become an adult that I really appreciate what was actually going on in this episode, but I just want to give a really big kudos to everyone involved in the production for making the plotline is such a way that even younger kids can understand it, even when they don’t really understand the true meaning of giving, or the heartbreak of war.
We start with wintery scenes, played under some very Christmas-y music. By that I mean, it’s not the usual jazz that the show always plays. There’s no Christmas carols playing, other than a short cue of “Joy to the World” at the end of the opener, but it’s got bells, oboes, whatever.
Phoebe and Helga – our resident cynical bully with a very secret crush on the titular Arnold – walk home from school, having been let out for winter break. Phoebe loves Christmas, for the decorations and the feelings and whatnot. She asks what Helga likes about Christmas, and Helga replies that Christmas is all about the presents.
Helga: I’m gonna make a haul this year.
Phoebe: But Helga! Christmas is about giving and sharing and friends – the holiday spirit.
Helga: Oh, come on off your high horse, sister! Christmas is about presents, it’s about getting as much stuff as you can possibly get. It’s about money and flash, it’s about shopping like a barbarian. It’s about getting yours before the other guy gets his! It’s about dropping hints, making lists, Christmas is about –
Snow boots. Helga spots the brand new Nancy Spumoni [obviously a one-off on Nancy Sinatra; Dino Spumoni is a lounge crooner voiced by a Frank Sinatra impersonator, although we don’t have any information one way or the other if Nancy is his daughter], and she knows that’s the only thing for her this Christmas. Lots of other girls are crowded around the display as well, making it clear that this is a hot commodity this season.
And if it wasn’t clear, Rich Girl Rhonda clearly tells Helga and the audience that the stores are practically sold of these boots. Helga’s confident, though. She’s been dropping hints to her parents about the boots for quite a while now, and if they don’t give her the boots, they certainly won’t be having a merry Christmas.
Arnold asks best friend Gerald what he got his family for Christmas. He gave his dad a tie, he gave his brother a tie, and he gave little sister a tie. Arnold tells him that’s kind of ridiculous that he even got his 5 year old sister a tie. Gerald thinks Arnold has a point, so he’s going to give his grandfather the tie and get some toy for his sister. He then leaves to return the tie he got for Arnold. When I was in 4th grade, I never got anyone presents. It was mostly making stuff in school and my mom buying stuff and just saying it was from me. Actually that’s what I did up through high school, too. And two years ago.
Helga happens to be there as Arnold walks past, and she goes into the poetic dream mode she always goes into when she thinks about Arnold. She decides she has to get him something wonderful, something flashy, something impressive for Christmas, in order to make her beloved happy and maybe also get him to realize they’re meant to be. Then a truck drives by and covers her in mud.
Mr. Hyunh, the east Asian (his nationality is never revealed, but it’ll be pretty clear that he’s Vietnamese shortly; his name is pronounced “Hwin”, if you weren’t sure) resident of Arnold’s grandpa’s boarding house, walks home from somewhere. The music turns kind of sad and eerie and the sound effect of helicopters plays before he goes inside.
In the boarding house, Grandma wishes everyone a happy Thanksgiving (Grandma is sort of senile, and she always mixes up her holidays. She also dresses up as things like mermaids or knights for dinner sometimes). Now that Mr. Hyunh is here, the boarders can draw names for their Secret Santa-ing. Mr. Hyumh got Oskar – the vaguely eastern European slacker of the house. Ernie also got Oskar. And so did Grandpa.
They call Oskar out on his shenanigans and start over, with Grandma (also known as Pookie – her real name is Gertrude) playing the very Christmasy tune of “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. Arnold draws the name of the boarder he’ll secretly be buying a present for – Mr. Hyunh.
Arnold has no idea what to possibly get for the man, as he tells Gerald some time later. Gerald suggests a tie. Arnold nixes that idea, saying that’s what everyone gives when they don’t know what else to give. Gerald then suggests Arnold just ask Hynh. Frankly, I’d be suspicious if someone just randomly asked about my life and what I’d like right after we did a Secret Santa drawing.
So Arnold sits around awkwardly in Mr. Hyunh’s fabulously wallpapered room. He asks how Hyunh is doing, and talks about how cold it’s been lately – sure it’s cold enough that Hyunh could use a nice, warm sweater? But no, Hyunh already has a lot of sweaters. His closet only has sweaters in it. He even offers one to Arnold because he has so many.
Arnold doesn’t know what else to say, so he comments that it’s almost Christmas. Mr. Hyunh agrees that it’s almost Christmas, and says that this time of year always makes him remember. Arnold asks what he’s talking about. Hyunh is reluctant at first, because it’s a very sad, complicated story, but Arnold really wants to hear. So…
Many years ago, Hyunh lived in another country, with his young daughter, Mai. Things were happy there, but there was a war going on in the north, and every day, the fighting would get a little closer. Mr. Hyunh saw that it would be difficult to raise his daughter in these conditions, so he tried to get her out. There was a helicopter, but one of the soldiers said there was only room for one person.
As the helicopter took off, with little Mai aboard, the soldier called out the name of a city he would be taking her to, and that’s the city where the show takes place. And this is what I was referring to in my opener. As a kid, I didn’t understand everything about that scene, but I did know that it was pretty heavy emotional stuff. As I grew older, I realized that scene must’ve been eluding to the Vietnam War, and that just makes everything even more meaningful. Because even though Hyunh is a cartoon character, there was definitely someone just like him going through the same things.
It was 20 years before Hyunh could get out of his old country, and he’s never been able to find her. He tells Arnold that it would make him happiest just to see his daughter again. So now, Arnold knows what to get Mr. Hyunh for Christmas. The trouble is, it’s kind of an impossible task.
Gerald tells Arnold he’s crazy the next day, for thinking of doing something like this. Arnold knows it’s a long shot, but he still thinks it’s worth trying. Gerald tells him it’ll take a miracle to find one person in the city, and Arnold says “What better time for a miracle than Christmas? Isn’t that what Christmas is really about?”
We abruptly cut to Helga tearing apart a toy store, looking for just the right present. She wonders aloud “What would Arnold want for Christmas?”
Cut to Arnold saying “Here it is!” outside of a building – the Federal Office of Information. Arnold figures somewhere, someone inside the building must be able to help, even though it seems like everyone is partying and out for Christmas (Christmas being tomorrow). They do manage to find one guy still working.
This guy is really busy – doing what, we’re never told – and brushes Arnold off, partly because he’s so busy already, and partly because it’s right before Christmas. As Arnold and Gerald leave, the guy gets a call from his wife, and tells her he hasn’t finished the Christmas shopping yet, on account of being so busy. When he hangs up, Arnold offers to finish the shopping for him, in exchange for him trying to find Mai Hyunh. The guy isn’t so crazy about giving two kids he doesn’t know $300, but Arnold is really sincere, and the guy doesn’t have much of a choice anyway.
Helga thinks she’s found the perfect present for Arnold. Stinky pops up from nowhere and tells her that’s a keen skateboard, and that Arnold has one just like it – it’s even in the same color! I’m not sure I remember seeing Arnold skateboard at all over the course of the series, and I’ve watched it three times in 6 months.
There’s a short montage of Arnold and Gerald shopping, before they get to the very last thing on the list – Nancy Spumoni snow boots. Remember those from a few paragraphs ago?
Helga picks up a video game that she has decided to buy for her beloved Arnold. Arnold and Gerald happen to run into her, and Arnold, ever-so friendly to the girl who frequently insults and bullies him, politely asks how her shopping is going. She shows the boys the video game and asks what they think. Gerald says that a video game is more of a flashy, expensive gift that doesn’t really come from the heart. Helga is pretty much out of ideas now, and Arnold and Gerald leave to find the last thing on the list. As they leave, the list falls out of Arnold’s pocket, and Helga picks up it.
The boys go to one store, where the clerks all laugh at Arnold for thinking he can pick up the boots at the store, where they’ve been sold out for a month. One short montage shows Arnold and Gerald going to shoe stores all over the city, looking for the darn boots, with Helga covertly following them, I guess wondering what the deal with that list is.
Shortly before 6 pm, the boys go back to the Information place, to tell the guy they got everything except the boots. The guy doesn’t accept this, because his wife specifically asked for those boots for their daughter, and if they can’t get the boots, he’s not going to do any work to find Mai Hyunh.
So they have no idea what to do. There’s no way they can get those boots at this point, and now Arnold can’t get Hyunh the thing he wanted the most. He thought there would be a miracle, but there wasn’t. Gerald tells him he tried his best to give Hyunh a good Christmas, and he definitely got the true meaning of Christmas, even if he couldn’t actually give a gift in the end. They go their separate ways, and Helga looks at the shopping list again. On an interesting note, there’s a shop in the background whose name is partially obscured, and is either “Saigo Helicopter” or “Saigon Helicopter”. Saigon is the former name of the largest city in Vietnam. Hm. And you know, I think there was some kind of war in Vietnam, and sometimes there were… helicopters…
Helga returns home, where her parents are loudly singing Christmas carols , accompanied by sister Olga’s piano playing. Helga sits on the couch, obviously bummed. Her mother, oddly enough, notices she seems to be depressed, and gives her one of her presents to open early. And wouldn’t you know it –
A a pair of brand new Nancy Spumoni snow boots. Her mother stood in line for 18 hours to get the boots. Helga thanks her profusely and runs out to dance in the snow in her new boots. While she’s dancing… the list falls out of her pocket. She looks at the list and says “Oh, criminy, not another moral dilemma!”
She debates – on the one hand, she’s happy. On the other hand, Arnold’s not. But if she gives Arnold the boots, then she won’t have anything. For an added dimension to this dilemma, keep in mind that her parents, specifically her mother, got her those boots. Her parents frequently call her by her sister’s name, ignore her, think she’s crazy. Her mother is an alcoholic (not stated in the show, but kind of obvious, and also confirmed by the series creator). They didn’t even notice her leaving for school on her first day of pre-school – when she was four years old, and she walked to school by herself. So getting something she actually wanted from her parents is a lot more impressive than it seems on the surface.
But Helga delivers the boots to the investigator guy anyway. The guy thinks she’s crazy, and says he’s going home, because it’s Christmas Eve, for crying out loud. But Helga won’t take no for an answer.
Helga: Can’t you see? It’s not about snow boots, it’s not about flashy, expensive presents, or getting yours before the other guy gets his. It’s about showing people that you really care about them. And most of all, it’s about a funny little football-headed kid with a good heart but no sense of reality, whose entire world view is at stake!
The guy appreciates the speech, but he’s going home. Helga asks him if he’s really that cold, and tells him they have two choices – either the two of them can work all night to find a certain lost daughter, or they can both go home, and a certain football-headed kid will never believe in miracles again – which I admit is a bit sappy-sounding.
Christmas Day, at the boarding house, the boarders open their Secret Santa gifts. Oskar – who you recall earlier filled the bowl with his name – got a bag of coal from his Secret Santa. Grandpa realizes that Mr. Hyunh didn’t open his gift, and Mr. Hyunh tells him it’s fine if he didn’t get anything. Arnold is about to confess that he was the Secret Santa, and explain why he didn’t give a gift, when the doorbell rings. As Grandpa is getting the door, Arnold just stands there, not saying anything, and haunting music plays. Then Grandpa comes back, with a visitor.
Hyunh and his now found daughter, Mai, embrace, and Hyunh introduces her to everyone. Gerald remarks that miracles can happen after all, but Arnold wonders how it happened. It doesn’t make any sense. Gerald says miracles don’t have to make sense, and maybe Arnold just has a Christmas angel looking out for him or something. Maybe.
I just can’t express how much I love this episode. It has the whole “spirit of giving” and “Christmas miracle!” thing down while being obviously grounded in the real world. It says that the magic of the holiday really exists, even in a totally real setting. I like that there’s two instances of the Secret Santa – Hyunh doesn’t know it’s because of Arnold that Mai ended up at his door, and Arnold doesn’t know it’s all thanks to Helga. And Helga’s fine with Arnold not finding out it was her, and Arnold seems okay with not telling Hyunh it was his idea to reunite Hyunh with his daughter.
…Maybe doing something for someone just because it’s nice… is a good thing.