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American Horror Story recap: Humbug

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. But he’s a devil-lovin’ psycho who just hates the ‘Unholy Night’ of Christmas. Sorry.

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American Horror Story

TV Show
run date:
Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters
Current Status:
In Season

How does The Devil celebrate Christmas? With parties and presents, Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” and Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer. In other words: Pretty much like anyone else who celebrates Christmas. Which is a scary thought to consider. Hell’s Jingle Bells! The Lady Lucifer of American Horror Story is even a big believer in Santa Claus… although Ian McShane’s twisted, twinkle-eyed devil wasn’t quite the jolly old St. Nick of commercially burnished legend. Parents, do not let your children sit on this Santa’s lap.

His name was Lee, and he was a tenaciously demented mad man with a faintly Les Miz origin story. Once, he was just a petty criminal who made the mistake of being poor and hungry during the Advent season. Incapable of waiting patiently for provision like the other Lilies in the Field, the neo-American Jean Valjean was busted for shoplifting a loaf of bread. One night during his brief stint in jail, Lee was raped of his “dignity, self-esteem, and most importantly, [his] Christmas spirit” when five fellow felons decided to make him their ho-ho-ho-ho-ho. Now, If Victor Hugo really did write this tale, Lee Miserables would have shook off this horror, picked himself up by his bootstraps, and become a saintly wealthy proto-Bruce Wayne do-gooder, friend to the oppressed and dispossessed. But this is American Horror Story, and so Lee snapped Joker crazy and became a homicidal psycho with some pretty reasonable complaints about our fallen, unfair, effed-up world. And so victims become victimizers become revolutionaries become despots. Sing it with as we storm the Briarcliff barricades! RED! The blood of angry men! BLACK! The dark of ages paaaaaaaaaast! 


Nothing infuriated Lee more than Christmas, and nothing about Christmas made him madder than Santa Claus. Everything about the cultural icon offended him… although the more he pissed on Santa, the more you wondered if this faithless Job was confusing Santa for someone else. On the evening of December 19, 1962, Lee, sprung from jail, eavesdropped from the shadows on a supermarket Santa promising to bring a boy a coonskin cap on Christmas, as long as the wannabe Davey Crockett wasn’t on the naughty list come 12/25, aka Judgment Day. Be good, get rewarded. Bad? Well, you can blame yourself for the consequences. Lee bristled at Santa’s works-oriented prosperity theology and pitiless turn-or-burn gospel: “It’s never your fault. It’s all about ‘the list.’ Some kid doesn’t get what they want, but you can’t blame Santa. Really nifty win-win you’ve set up for yourself there.” When the manly mope playing the Cumberland Grocery St. Nick whined for some slack – he only took the gig to get away from his nagging wife – Lee shot the big phony dead, then swiped his suit and murdered 14 more people, choosing his victims by the extravagance of their outdoor Christmas displays. (“Who are you trying to impress, anyway?”) He was apprehended, deemed nuts, and sent to Briarcliff Manor Sanatorium. Sister Jude was determined to make sure he’d rot for eternity…

Until Sister Mary descended into his batty hellhole and lit up with hope. She presented him a suit of power and a license to kill. And she gave him a heroic mission. You will be the Bane to my [SPOILER OMITTED]! You will be a Dark Knight in Her Satanic Majesty’s Secret Service! Together, we shall make the Sky-Bully fall! (Or just Frank. Don’t worry. I have a ladder.) What I’m trying to say is: Psycho-Lee with your Santa suit so bright, won’t you slay for me tonight?

Most “very special Christmas episodes” of the secular stripe define the spirit of the holiday by universal human values. Peacemaking. Goodwill toward men. Family, family, family. (AND PRESENTS!) Those who preach “the reason for the season” say Christmas is about a promise that God after the fall of man in the Garden of Eden to rescue sin-stained humanity from death and despair — a promise that Christians believe he fulfilled via the birth of Jesus almost 2012 years ago. “Unholy Night” said Bah! Humbug! to all that. Not in the way we use the “humbug” today (“You mean old party-pooper!”), but in the P.T. Barnum-defined way that Scrooge used the word to dismiss the spiritual world as a trick, as a hoax, as complete and total bulls—t, regardless of intent and purpose. Do you tell your children that Santa Claus is real? Then you, my friend, are practicing humbug. And you best steer clear of Lee. “None of it makes much sense, does it?” said  Lee to Little Suzy. “Shimmying down chimneys. Every good Christian house in one night. And they call me crazy!” Then he killed Suzy’s mom and dad. (And Suzy, too? Unclear.) The thematic notes that “Unholy Night” rang hard and loud like a Salvation Army bell: Broken promises, hypocrisy, deceit. And like previous episodes this season, the story indicted those who fail to grapple and deal honestly and fairly with the injustice. Indeed, the (innocent?) fantasy of Santa Claus was positioned as just one more way in which we run away from the terror and terrible “Santas” of the world, and thus shirk our responsibility to the family of man. “You know the difference between that Santa Claus and me?” said the shaved-face Lee to Suzy’s parents. “He only comes once a year.” It was a naughty pun that doubled as some kind of Kevin Spacey-in-Seven/Rorschach-in-Watchmen statement about human nature and the state of the world. Yes: Super-duper cynical. P.T. Barnum himself warned that cost of too much humbug in the world is exactly that: The cynical belief that everything is humbug, that nothing and no one can be trusted, all is meaningless. Still, “Unholy Night” dramatized a valid point: Christmas might seem a lot less crazy if everyone acted more Christmas-y every day of the year… including the ones who believe in it the most.

Yeah, I know: “Bah, humbug” to me, too.

NEXT: How General Electric Sold Christmas