Josiah Berry is a lifelong fan of Star Wars and the Holiday Season
For as long as I can remember, there have been two constants for my undying affection: Star Wars and the year-end holiday season.
I still remember my first trip to the theater to see Star Wars, thinking I was going to hate it but leaving being instantly hooked. From then on, my love for the franchise grew as did my life around it. Several of my closest friendships sparked from conversations about the movies, playing Jedi Knight on the Zone (yes, I’m that old) and, hell, even being asked on the last day of orchestra camp if I owned any clothing that wasn’t Star Wars.
I’ve spent my life obsessed, playing game after game, and reading book after book with a Stockholm Syndrome-level of dedication where I’d convince myself multiple times it was quality. (I still, to this day, am trying to process exactly what the hell the Barbara Hambly books like Crystal Star were going for. Luke gets an AI girlfriend? Got it, ’90s.)
The only rival for my affections has been the holiday season. For those who don’t know me, I am the personification of your most hated Christmas jingle, whether it’s blasting tunes in June from my 120-hour, carefully groomed Christmas-song library, wearing a Santa hat just because or referring to every glimpse of a snowflake as a Christmas miracle. I am down for all of it. Everything about the season is magical: the sights, the tastes, the smells, the feeling of anticipation when friends or family are holding your presents and the reaction on their faces when they unwrap the gifts you carefully selected for them. As soon as November 1 hits, it. Is. On.
Christmas-movie marathons, gingerbreads, Santa visits with my son, tree lightings, catching up with friends, Christmas specials: You name it, I am down. Nor do I discriminate. I find all of the non-Judeo-Christian holidays that occur during this season fascinating as well — even Christmas pregame, or what you Grinches refer to as your Thanksgiving (unless you’re Canadian and use the metric calendar).
It’s precisely my heightened level of enjoyment of both Star Wars and the holiday season that has led me to a lot of anguish over how both have become mired in cultural cynicism. Now, I’m not complaining about the Star Wars movies released during December since 2015; I have a lot of feelings and thoughts about those movies, mostly positive! I’m referring to the fact that somewhere along the way, there’s become a real focus on everyone complaining, refusing to just enjoy Star Wars together around the holidays. This essay isn’t meant to dive deep into my problems with the Star Wars fanbase; odds are that if you’re read the essays that have come before mine, you’ve gotten a good taste of the positive, so there’s no reason to turn this into an overview of the negative.
So I’ll focus my brief bitching on modern Christmas films, especially in the mainstream. In short, they’re mostly insufferable grump-fests focused less on what makes the season great and more on the minor inconveniences we endure during the time. Essentially, both fandoms have seemingly lost the ability to just suspend disbelief and enjoy our human sense of wonder.
How many Christmas films now are centered not only on the premise of Santa Claus being fictional but just how ludicrous and immature it’d be to pretend otherwise? Films like Christmas with the Kranks, where the biggest plot point is the existential dread of spending time with friends and family? Hell, we’ve somehow managed to get to the point where holiday films are so antagonistic to the core values of the season that we have multiple films centered around Santa’s own damn family hating it all. It’s just such a pessimistic view on something so full of joy that it’s hard to invest in these films.
What if there was a movie that embodied the wonderful virtues of both Star Wars and the holiday season? That could appease the grumpy Venn diagram of people eager to slag on both because they’re feeling miserable and resentful that others are trying to bring the spirit up for just a few weeks a year? That’s where the Star Wars Holiday Special comes in.
For those unfamiliar with this treasure, the Holiday Special was originally released as a special event to maintain interest in the franchise (and toy sales) between the release of the first Star Wars film and a pending sequel. George Lucas had expected his pet project to fall flat, and thus had no real next move planned out other than rough ideas. One such idea was The Empire Strikes Back. The other was decisively … not Empire — a film just about Wookiees and nothing else.
The Force intervened, and Lucas’s friends convinced him to focus on his ideas for Empire. In the meantime, Lucas was bravely undeterred in his quest for more Wookiees and when CBS offered him money for a TV special, he let the network borrow his true passion. At the time, comedy-variety hours were incredibly popular — especially Christmastime ones. Thus, everyone in management at Lucasfilm and CBS agreed that Lucas’s grand vision should take the form of … a holiday-themed comedy-variety show. As a translation of Lucas’ worst instincts more than two decades before the prequels, the Holiday Special absolutely nails it.
Now, I’m not going to sit here and lecture you that the Holiday Special is some visionary masterpiece. It’s not. Neither does it need to have been so. It’s a 90-minute TV special trying to tie in both the thrills of Star Wars and the good tidings of the holiday season while providing some friendly laughs for kids and adults. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being silly, and that’s what I respect the most about it. It is as thick with conviction as the layer of makeup on Mark Hamill’s doll-like face.
Our adventure begins with Chewbacca and his friend, Han Solo, en route to Kashyyyk to visit Chewie’s family for Life Day. In typical Star Wars fashion, we’re immediately thrust into an exciting space adventure with the two of them escaping Imperial pursuit. Han contemplates calling off the trip to Kashyyyk. But knowing how much it means to his friend to be home for the holidays, he hits the hyperdrive and blasts us into your prototypical holiday variety-hour intro, albeit featuring a rocking John Williams score.
The special proper starts with the audience’s first foray into the expanded universe of Star Wars — the introduction of Chewbacca’s family. His wife, Mala. His father, Itchy (who, in canon, served as a grenadier in the Clone Wars). And his son, the darling Sean Hannity … er, Lumpy.
Side note: Despite this gem being buried for decades and the undeserved disdain the fandom holds for it, virtually every factoid you know about Wookiees is directly from the Holiday Special or its novelized sequel, the Wookiee Storybook. Kashyyyk? Check. Wookiees being super-old? Check. Their homes in trees? Check. It’s all there as George Lucas, master of world-building, pours his soul into this piece. Most of these would later appear in the mainline movies!
The Chewbacca family live under the Imperial yoke, but that doesn’t stop them from having a wonderful cast of friends around Kashyyyk dedicated to the holiday season. A wholesome who’s-who of stars in need of a paycheck pop up, and who they get is actually impressive given the sheer weirdness that ensues (and believe me, it gets weird).
By far, the performance that stands out the most is that of national treasure, and friend to us all, Beatrice Freakin’ Arthur in her role as night-shift Mos Eisley Cantina bartender Ackmena, in what is hands down the best portion of the Special. Arthur’s performance is truly great here, solidifying her character as my second-favorite tertiary Star Wars character, bested only by Skippy (R5-D4). The role is also more potent in terms of societal reflection when you consider that Ackmena is the first gay Star Wars character (although I guess that’s not technically made canon until 30 years later; we all accepted it when J.K. Rowling did it).
As much as I would love to go on about every enjoyable cameo, I’d do a disservice to the uninitiated by giving away too much. It’s truly best to go into this with few expectations beyond the premise. But let me just say further: Art Carney. I’ll leave it at that. 😉
And again, I’m not going to try and pretend that the segments in this are a masterful, visionary experience. It would be insincere and ludicrous, just as it’s absolutely ludicrous for vocal detractors to expect it to be anything more than what it was designed to be: a fun-filled comedy extravaganza that touches on the holiday spirit of spending time with friends and family. Take Itchy, for example. He’s a war veteran who just wants to hang with his grandson and watch holographic erotic dance videos.
You can’t make this up.
The Holiday Special excels in its unabashed embrace of the mentality of “Screw it, let’s have fun.” The wacky comedy skits, zany antics of the characters, the eggnog-induced ending sequence — it’s all good, harmless fun that we could all use a little of despite how “mature” we think we are. The Holiday Special also touches on another core theme of the Star Wars franchise and the holiday season: No matter how dire the circumstances, your family — however you define it — can help pull you through.
Just as the Star Wars films have evolved in meaning for me, so has the Holiday Special. It’s gone from a thing I’d watch tongue-in-cheek to an annual tradition that’s really just a premise for spending time with people. Yes, it’s not the same blockbuster-budget or thought-provoking quality generally associated with the franchise, but the core essence is there if fans can get over preconceived notions.
The 2019 holiday season will be my 32nd. It is a capstone year for me: Not will I watch the conclusion of my beloved Skywalker saga, but I finally got to attend a Star Wars Celebration in April. I got to meet two friends in person with whom I’ve virtually conversed about Star Wars for more than a decade. It was a great year in a great life filled with wonderful holiday seasons.
Life is too short to be mad and grouchy. Make time to enjoy those little, fleeting moments of silliness because you know time, friend? Time can fly. So, it’s goodnight, friend. Goodnight, but not goodbye.