Early in the commentary track for “Miracle On Evergreen Terrace,” Matt Groening mentions that Christmas-themed episodes make him nervous, because they tend to be crappy. (“I’m a hateful, bitter guy,” he adds.) That’s surprising, considering The Simpsons has gone to the yuletide well a few times—14 specifically, according to the Simpsons wiki. (Let’s not forget the series began with a Christmas episode.) But way back on December 21, 1997, when this episode aired, the show had looked to the holidays for inspiration only a couple of times.

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And it wasn’t Christmas, exactly, that inspired writer Ron Hauge (who wrote, and won an Emmy for, “Homer’s Phobia”), but a news story he heard on the radio during his drive to work. It was about a family who’d been robbed around Christmastime, and after the community rallied around them, they ended up with more than they’d lost.

Going back to Groening, his wariness of Christmas episodes is also surprising because The Simpsons has often done them well—even fairly recently, as I noted a few years ago. The pressures, overwhelming sentimentality, and gross commercialization of the Christmas season are perfect targets for satire, but The Simpsons has always maintained a fundamental sweetness at its core, which makes even its most pointed jabs come from a place of disappointment, not nihilism. It’s a distinction early social critics of the show missed, and it’s something Yeardley Smith notes in the commentary track for “Miracle On Evergreen Terrace.” The Simpsons are, fundamentally, a loving family that sticks together even when one of them massively screws up.

As was often the case in those controversial earlier seasons, that screwup is Bart. The hand-wringing that followed The Simpsons’ debut painted Bart as an unrepentant juvenile delinquent, and the first part of this episode finds him in true Li’l Bastard mode, to reference his favorite brand of prank gear. He flagrantly disobeys Marge by waking up early to open presents, then accidentally destroys their plastic Christmas tree and all the presents underneath it. Rather than confess and throw himself on the mercy of the Simpson court, he hides what he did and blames it on nonexistent, but very specific, thief.

“Miracle On Evergreen Terrace” nicely captures short-sighted kid thinking: Bart thinks no further than concealing his crime, not the potential ramifications of it. To get all Scooby Doo, he would’ve gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for that meddling Kent Brockman, who inexplicably appears at the Simpson residence—how did he know what happened?—to snag a feel-good story, in the sense his viewers will feel better about their lives after hearing about the Simpsons’ misfortune.

To jump back a bit, the Christmas morning scene is the episode’s highlight, with Homer in peak form. Unable to comprehend the calamity before him, he looks at the empty space where the tree had been and says, “Where’s Christmas? Lisa, where’s Christmas?” For not the first time, he’s the child and Lisa’s the grown up. As the family breaks down over their misfortune, Homer’s already working the angles in between histrionic cries: “Can…we…skip…church?” But Homer’s best line comes after Chief Wiggum and Lou leave the crime scene: “Well, there’s no easy way to say this, kids: God hates us.” That line is such a bull’s eye that it almost swallows the stinger in Bart’s rejoinder: “Hey, since when is Christmas just about the presents? Aren’t we forgetting the true meaning of this day? The birth of Santa?” (“Tis The Fifteenth Season” would mine similar territory. Lisa: “Just remember the spirit of the season.” Homer: “Is it despair?”)

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Like the family Hauge heard about on the radio, the Simpsons’ fortunes turn when their fellow townspeople come to their aid, raising a shocking $15,000 (or missoulians or ka-blinge, per Krusty) in what registers as television’s 27,592th homage to It’s A Wonderful Life. On the commentary track, they cast jokes that kids who haven’t seen the film won’t understand why Homer blows up at Lisa for no apparent reason in the middle of the joyous celebration. In that film, George doesn’t lash out at Janie during the climactic party scene—like Homer does here—but when he’s despairing over losing the money. Like George, Bart’s grows more uneasy, especially after we meet pitiful orphans Patches and Poor Violet for the first time. (“God bless you, Bart Simpson. I’d kiss you, but doctor says I’m sick.”)

After the family’s fortunes take another turn for the worse, Bart confesses. Unfortunately, he takes down his whole family in the scam, because they became inadvertent accomplices. The Simpsons frequently uses this kind of development as an opportunity for more jokes (think of the time Mrs. Krabappel rattled off the list of “atrocities” Bart was responsible for), so it’s surprising that someone didn’t rattle off a list of other scams Bart has pulled over the years. Maybe it’s because the town considers the whole family guilty, and the Simpson family unit has a much shorter rap sheet than Bart or Homer individually.

The angry mob of Springfieldians is practically another character on The Simpsons, and probably the most unstable one. It is quick to anger but easily swayed, and in “Miracle On Evergreen Terrace,” its anger is surprisingly short-lived. It takes a lot of energy to shun someone, and when the townspeople grow quickly exhausted of it, they decide to make it right by taking everything the Simpsons own. Whereas the $15,000 they gave the family was several orders of magnitude more than the family lost, taking all of the Simpsons’ possessions—save a washcloth—goes way beyond the family’s debt to the town. Everything compounds. How could the family escalate it from here? By robbing the bank?

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Truly defeated, the Simpsons accept their overzealous punishment. Marge, as ever, tries to put a positive spin on it: “In a way, having nothing reminds us how lucky we really are. We still have each other, and isn’t that the best gift of all?” Well…sort of. “But we would’ve had each other anyway,” says Lisa. “Yeah, plus lots of other stuff,” Bart adds. (I always like the moments when Lisa is allowed to be a kid and not the most mature of her family—let her be disappointed, even if she was just getting a dumb yellow sweater.)

It seems like a cynical way to close out an episode, the kind of thing that the show’s critics would have seized on back in 1990. But the final shot, of the family having fun as they chase each other around the house in pursuit of that last washcloth, reiterates Marge’s point without coming out and saying it. When you have nothing else, you always have family—and that’s basically been the point of The Simpsons for 26 years now.

Stray observations

  • The song playing over the credits: “Santa’s On His Way” by Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys.
  • Marge, not getting it: “There’s no shame in being a pariah.”
  • I love the dream sequence, particularly the spot color of the blue water. The people in the cheering section are, unsurprisingly, Simpsons staffers.
  • Yeardley Smith: “Was [Trebek] a fan of the show?” Groening: “I doubt it.”
  • Ralph Wiggum knows he should be mad, but he’s still Ralph: “Hi, liar!”
  • Moleman is shockingly strong—he’s carrying out the Simpsons’ oven when their place is being looted.
  • The old Jewish guy doesn’t have his usual voice when he shoos off the orphans from watching the TVs, but the line is so great: “Shoo, you lousy freeloaders! Come back when you get some parents!”
  • The Simpsons watch the Hibberds on their new snowmobiles. Homer: “That’s not as fun as it looks.” Lisa: “Nothing could be as fun as that looks.”

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Next time: Dan Caffrey revisits “Bart Carny” and wrecks Hitler’s car. What’d he ever do to you, Dan?