(Spoiler alert for anyone not in the know about a certain jolly old elf.)
T’was the night before Christmas, and Andrew and I found ourselves standing with my sister and her husband around their kitchen table. The children, my five-and-a-half-year-old nephew and essentially-four-year-old niece, were nestled all snug in their beds, and had been for hours, during which time several presents had been wrapped, fancifully labelled, and propped in front of the tree. Andrew and my brother-in-law had finished assembling a small jungle gym in the backyard and were now devouring the sweets the children had set out for Santa Claus.
The past five Christmases or so had been particularly stale for me, with several of them outright bad. Throughout childhood and for the first few Christmases of adulthood, I’d been a devout and emphatic lover of everything Christmas, but a few too many rough years in a row had me begrudgingly jaded about the entire thing. Not Scrooge; not the Grinch; not even the too-cool-for-Christmas-spirit characters at the beginnings of Christmas movies. Just Yuletide ennui.
But this was my first Christmas living near my niece and nephew, and my first living with Andrew, so I was enjoying myself. In the weeks leading up the holiday itself, I’d decorated cookies with the kids, and enjoyed the Christmas storybook advent calendar my sister had put together, and gone to look at holiday light displays with Andrew. This December had been much better than recent ones. By Christmas Eve, my mood was holly-jolly enough, I thought.
And lo, at 10:45 on Christmas Eve, I found myself staring down to behold eight colorful plastic figurines on the kitchen table: a bi-plane, several jets, a helicopter, etc., each with fold-down legs hidden in their underbellies. Imagine if the characters from Thomas the Train were Transformers, and also were airplanes. Each toy was roughly the size of a small egg. These, my sister said, were Super Wings. The Super Wings needed to be divided fairly between the two stockings.
“Okay, well,” said my brother-in-law, sipping Santa’s eggnog. “Let’s start with the coolest.”
Andrew moved immediately, pointing with conviction at a zebra-striped plane with a propellor. “That one.” I nodded. The zebra-striped one definitely looked cool.
I’d chosen a green jet. “He’s pretty cool, too,” I said.
“That one’s a girl,” my sister tsk-ed.
“Oh,” I said. “Well.”
My sister held up a red jet. “Jett’s the main character.”
“Wait,” Andrew said, around a particularly crunchy bite of sugar cookie. One of the children had encrusted it with gigantic smarties. “This is a show?”
“Oh yeah,” my sister and brother-in-law said.
It is indeed. Andrew and I, being childless and in our early 30s, were at a disadvantage. I’d seen one episode of Super Wings while babysitting the children, and this hyperactive candy-colored experience had thoroughly—and I mean thoroughly—confused me.
“I had to buy two packs to get the right ones,” my sister explained, exasperated. “One pack had Jett—” (she held up the bright red jet again) “—and then just a bunch of tertiary characters. All the important secondary characters were in a different pack altogether. So we have to split them all up ourselves to make it fair.”
“This is how the show works,” my brother-in-law said, taking Jett from my sister. “This one is supposed to take packages to kids in all kinds of different countries. Okay? But when he gets there, he messes something up. And then he has fix the problem, so he calls back to the base to say, ‘I need a helicopter—’” (he held up a pink helicopter) “—or, ‘I need someone to help solve a mystery—’” (he held up a plane painted like a police car) “—or, ‘I need someone to get something that’s underwater—’” (he pointed to the green one I had misgendered).
I nodded with amused solemnity. This summary matched my experience of the show so exactly it was hard not to laugh.
“So you learn about other cultures,” my sister said. “And problem-solving, and teamwork. It’s a Korean show.” My sister and I grew up in Thailand, so learning about other cultures is important to us, particularly if the cultural representation is itself coming from a perspective outside of the United States. I’d suspected the show was of Asian origin. There’d been a sensibility to the entire production that felt both comfortably familiar and decidedly not-Western.
“Okay,” Andrew said, and pointed to the zebra-striped plane. “What does this one do?”
“He can talk to animals,” my sister said.
“Ha!” Andrew said, looking triumphantly at me. “That is the coolest one.”
At this point, my sister and her husband began divvying up the Super Wings in earnest, having determined Andrew and I lacked the experience required. I was delighted. At no other time but 10:45 pm on Christmas Eve, I thought, could such a conversation have taken place: four millennials discussing the nuances of a Korean cartoon that did not exist in English before 2015. And in no other place, but the kitchen of a home containing small children.
“Look at this,” my brother-in-law, an engineer, said, holding one of the toys up and rolling his eyes. “Look at these engines. Who designed this? They’re pointing straight up. That makes no sense.”
It was a side of Christmas I’d never experienced before. I’d decorated hundreds of cookies in my life, read thousands of pages of Christmas stories and poems, and seen millions of Christmas lights, but this particular moment was brand new and fresh. Standing around the kitchen table talking about Super Wings, of all things, the magic of Christmas flickered awake with all the heavy-handed nostalgic gravitas of a children’s choir singing from some unseen locale in the middle of a snow-covered Christmas nonsense movie.
In a minute, the stockings were stuffed and laid out neatly on the couch, and the moment was a happy memory. But not a far-distant one, like the ones from my own childhood. An exciting, fresh, recent one, that would last longer than the Super Wings themselves would. Teensy plastic hinges are not built to last. The first one of those was broken before Christmas dinner.