The holiday season is finally upon us, the time of year where we gather together, trim trees, drink hot chocolate (a.k.a chocolatey bourbon), and spend the happiest season of all with our loved ones -- or, well, in this dumpster fire of a year, stay home and rewatch all of our favorite 2000's Disney Channel Christmas episodes and specials. Let's face it, what else is there for a '90s baby to do this time of year? Yet from Even Stevens, to Lizzie McGuire, to That's So Raven, and even The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, each nostalgic rewatch grows stranger and stranger, the cliches fading away to reveal some very peculiar -- and often corporate -- messages that went right over our ten-year-old heads. From how the thought doesn't always count when purchasing a gift for your loved one, to a deep dive into why, exactly, snow sucks, here are the four quintessential takeaways from Disney Channel Christmas specials of the 2000's.
It's the thought that counts, a basic sentiment we're taught from a young age about both appreciating when others think of us, and also valuing those gifts we may not initially enjoy as kids -- that hand-knit hat from grandma or an aunt's heirloom necklace may not seem so exciting and sentimental when you're vying for Razor Scooter or a Flying Butterfly Barbie. On the surface, Disney, like many other children's holiday content creators, includes that classic lesson in their seasonal programming, however the network seems to take a characteristically hypercapitalist approach, undermining the sentimental holiday morals of their Christmas specials through repeated sarcastic quips.
In one of The Suite Life of Zack & Cody's three holiday episodes, Christmas at the Tipton, we learn two very conflicting lessons about gifting. As Maddie Fitzpatrick, The Tipton Hotel's candy counter girl, coordinates a staff secret Santa gift exchange, she creates a ploy for her best friend, the definitely-not Paris Hilton inspired wealthy hotel heiress, London Tiption, to buy her a present. Maddie asks for diamonds and a sportscar, to which London seemingly obliges, but a massive snowstorm renders the fictious socialite, or really anyone for that matter, unable to leave the hotel. Fortunately, hotel manager Mr. Moseby has another idea for how London can safely fulfill her not-so secret Santa duties. "You know, if you're looking to impress someone with a gift, try making something," he suggests. "My grandmother made me this embroidered handkerchief. It's the best gift I've ever gotten." In true London Tipton fashion, she turns up her nose at the idea. "Oh, that looks like a lot of work for something you blow your nose into," she says. The heiress, played by Brenda Song, eventually changes her tune, ultimately gifting Maddie a wonky handmade pink turtleneck sweater, complete with three arms, a wildly impressive feat considering just a day earlier, the heiress didn't know the meaning of the word "handicrafts." Although at first, Maddie is thoroughly irked, with what was perhaps the world's biggest bait and switch, she later comes around, thanking London for her hard work in creating her gift. "Boy, this must have taken a lot of work," she says after London sweetly, albeit misguidedly embroidered a misspelled rendition of her name into the garment. "I'm sorry I didn't appreciate it earlier." This scene could easily end here, a classically cheesy lesson from a classically cheesy kids's show. But of course, Disney decides to add in that extra jab, illustrating that it's not always purely the thought that counts.
"So you really like it?" London asks.
"Yes," Maddie replies.
"As much as a car or a diamond?"
"Don't push it!" Fitzpatrick snaps, her head enveloped in the sweater's pink, knitted third arm.
And it's not just episodic arcs. Countless holiday episodes have similar jokes peppered throughout their 22-minute runtime. Take, for example, Hannah Montana. As protagonist and secret celebrity, Miley Stewart, portrayed by Miley Cyrus, sits alongside her father Robby Ray, her brother, and her two best friends on what appears to be Christmas morning, Robby Ray takes a moment to reflect on the importance of giving. "Christmas ain't about the gifts, it's about family, friends, celebrating all the the little special moments that make up every day life," he says.
"That's beautiful, Daddy." Miley replies. "Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas darlin," he says. The wholesome, holiday sentimentality is short lived -- "You got us gift cards again, didn't you?" Miley asks dissappointedly.
"In my defense, I'll have you know that your mother always did the shopping," he explained, "and I was a little busy setting up this fantastic tree." Moments later, Robby Ray's comically tiny tree, as well as his initial, family-centric notion fall to the ground. Ouch.
Now, as a family-friendly network, Disney Channel probably has some sort of strange, unspoken obligation to include these wholesome remarks. As a corporation aware of its merchandising potential, selling hats, books, shirts, posters, and pretty much anything that can be screen printed emblazoned with their teen star's faces, it makes sense why capitalistic undertones seemingly underrride the wholesome sentiments. Is it a bit shady? Probably. But hey, what good is Christmas content without a hint of consumerist messaging. From rewatches of Jingle All the Way to storming Kmart on Black Friday, capitalism is a holiday past time at this point.
Fancy presents may or may not epitomize Christmas in the eyes of our corporate overlords, but broken gifts and decorations definitely have the potential to ruin the holiday season. However, merely apologizing or offering to replace the damaged item in question will have little sway in saving Christmas from utter ruin -- in the Disney Channel universe, destroying holiday trinkets is a grave and existential mistake, only fixable through magic or fantastical technology.
In the first moments of That's So Raven's Christmas episode, we encounter Raven's family preparing to embark on a caroling expedition when our titular heroine has a psychic vision of her Christmas present, a stunning (and oh so 2000's) silver and sapphire necklace. Excited about the new addition to her jewelry collection, the clairvoyant fashionista tells her parents she'll pass on the tradition, faking sick before sneaking her gift from under the tree. In a massively ballsy move, Raven decides to sport the necklace to school, and in an even ballsier move, lends it to her best friend, Chelsea. Disaster strikes when the accessory locks on her friend's neck. Raven and their friend Eddie attempt to remove it, but the necklace slips off before barreling out the window, breaking onto the ground below. The trio spends the afternoon composing a plan to replace the item in light of the shattered gift, as Raven conspicuously skips crafting a gingerbread house with her father. After cutting class to replace the gift, nearly being caught by their Santa costume-clad teacher, Raven solves her conundrum -- once again, nearly at the price of quality holiday family time. After mustering the energy to revisit the mall with her family, she conveniently runs into an omnipotent mall Santa, who allows her to turn back time before she stole the necklace, giving her a second chance to enjoy her holiday traditions.
Omnipotent mall Santas, the solution to every broken Christmas item! Wait, you don't have access to an omnipotent mall Santa? Well, you may not be entirely SOL -- if you're 22nd-century man, Phil Diffy, with full access to a functioning, so-easy-a-teen-can-use-it time machine. In Phil of the Future's Christmas installment, our negative 103-year-old protagonist recounts the tale of how he once served as a time-jumping Christmas guardian angel for his best friend and future love interest, Keely, before they formally met. In the episode, Phil goes back in time on three separate occasions to prevent his soon-to-be best friend, who is the town of Pickford's reigning Yuletide Star Princess, from breaking the town's 138-year-old heirloom tree-topping star. "No, Keely," Vice Principal Hackett says upon seeing the shattered glass. "You destroyed Christmas!"
Phil manages to save the day and apparently Pickford's entire holiday season, all miraculously sans screwing up the time-space continuum. He does, however, break the time machine, stranding his entire family in the year 2003. But hey, who cares about entirely upending the lives of your loved ones when your town's Christmas tree has a really fancy star one year, right?
Now, if you have a broken holiday talisman on your hands, without an omniscient mall Santa OR a working time machine, there is still hope in the form of ghostly grandmas. In Even Stevens 'Heck of a Hanukkah,' Louis Stevens finds his parents' gift stash, sneaking the loot back to his room, condensing eight nights of presents into an approximately 55-second retelling of the Hanukkah story. His dad walks upstairs to his room, nearly catching him in the act. In a mad dash to hide the gifts, which will absolutely not fit in his overstuffed closet, he tosses them out the window behind his bed, where they crash from the roof onto the ground, to the disappointment of his entire family. Just like Phil of the Future, the broken gifts are enough to destroy the Stevens' celebration.
Distraught after ruining Hanukkah, Louis is visited by the ghost of his great-great-great-great-grandmother, Bubbie Rose, in a kiddie take on It's A Wonderful Life. Throughout the dream, Bubbie shows him a parallel universe where he was never born, illustrating that Louis's mischievousness and sense of humor help keep his family balanced. Upon waking up and returning to his real life, the Stevens generally seem less irate about the destruction of their gifts. But they're in luck. Bubbie momentarily returns with a basket of their miraculously unbroken presents before vanishing into the night. Sounds about Disney!
While these parallel arcs could all be chalked up to simple, children's storytelling, when compared to the first point, it seems there may be some odd capitalist messaging at play. In each of these shows, destroying a physical item, often times a gift from a loved one, is a crime so serious, one can only solve it by doing the impossible -- turning back time. Could this be a stern warning to be careful with your prized possessions, or to value love in the form of gifts above other sentiments? We may never have the answer to this not-so burning question, but there's one thing I know to be certain. I, as a clumsy, time-machineless 20-something will undoubtedly be covering each of my ornaments in bubble wrap this year.
Picture this. You've found yourself in the midst of a top-secret holiday hijinks, stirring about like a Christmas Eve mouse. You've met all the classic Disney Channel prerequisites for tinsel-trimmed tomfoolery, comically peeking behind doors, backflipping through empty hallways, and sporting dark dad sunglasses, all to the tune of a royalty-free, jingle bell-clad rendition of Mission Impossible's theme song. But to pull off your heist, you need something more ... a handful of highly-elaborate holiday costumes. But how can you conjure those looks at a moment's notice? Have no fear, reader! This is a Disney Channel mid-2000's Christmas special, after all, meaning painstakingly intricate Christmas costumes are as common and readily accessible as pennies on the sidewalk.
The first and most obvious Disney Channel costume source? Mall Santa robbery. Whether you're so Raven, stripping a St. Nick mannequin of its red suit in front of crowds of holiday shoppers without even a second glance from any Paul Blart wannabes, or Hannah Montana's Miley Stewart, sharing a two-man reindeer costume with her best friend in an attempt to win the heart of a short boy portraying an elf at a Kris Kringle meet and greet, Mall Santas seem to be the primary source for Disney Channel's specific seasonal looks. Yet to paraphrase the Barefoot Contessa herself, if you can't manage to sneak into a restricted staff-only area to find a costume that's both miraculously in your size and aligns with your holiday scheme du jour, store-bought is fine.
Case and point? Lizzie McGuire. While attempting to sneak backstage at a local music video shoot for a Christmas themed rendition of Aaron Carter's "I Want Candy" music video (holy 2001), with her brother and two best friends Miranda and Gordo, the security guard overlooking the production rips up Lizzie's middle school press pass, thwarting the gang's dreams of meeting the Shaq-dunking singer. However, Lizzie's annoying little brother, Matt, comes prepared. "It's time for Plan B," he says, tearing three identical Christmas elf costumes and a pop star doppelganger kit from a white bag. To Lizzie's surprise, the ruse works -- well, sort of. Matt is allowed in, mistaken for an AC stand-in, while our dynamic trio is left out in the cold ... as cold as a California spring can be. Although ultimately they sneak their way onto the set and into the music video themselves, the costumes come in pretty clutch. While masquerading as a double for the teen heartthrob, Matt builds a rapport with one of the shoot's higher-ups, convincing him to allow his sister and her friends to participate in the shoot, in one of the more fantastical (and quintessentially 2000's) Disney Channel Christmas episode endings. So sure, the ability to pull holiday costumes essentially from thin air may not always save the day, but they sure do help in the world of children's television.
When they're not busy implying that the quality of Christmas presents do, in fact, matter, arguing that broken toys can singlehandedly destroy the holidays, or making elaborate costumes materialize out of nowhere, Disney Channel's wintery episodes subvert yet another seasonal stereotype -- snow makes Christmas all the more magical. Ignored altogether in Disney's California-set shows, That's So Raven, Lizzie McGuire, and Even Stevens, snow only rears its wintery-head as a major point of contention, greatly antagonizing our childhood heroes.
In the aforementioned Suite Life of Zack & Cody Christmas episode, panic strikes as The Tipton hotel is snowed in under a ten-foot "white blanket of death," trapping our preteen protagonists, their divorced parents, and pretty much every guest and employee, under one, Boston roof for the foreseeable future. Amid the inclement weather, an expectant mother and presumably her partner enter the hotel, only to be told every room is booked full before ultimately giving birth in an elevator with the help of Zack and Cody, a very Disney callback to the story of Christmas. Still snowed in, and baby in tow, Mr. Moseby lectures everyone in the Tipton's lobby about the miracle of life and the magic of Christmas. "It may not have been the holiday we expected, but we're all here, helping each other and celebrating the miracle of life. I can't think of a better place to be on Christmas than the Tipton Hotel." This holiday cheer was short-lived -- "Mr. Moseby! Mr. Moseby! The roads are open, and so is the airport!" Esteban exclaimed, prompting a fleet of folks to flee from the hotel's front doors, finally free from frantically falling flakes." Snow -- the world's only meltable captor.
But the terrors of blizzards aren't merely reserved for The Tipton Hotel. The topic even earned the DCOM (Disney Channel Original Movie) treatment back in 2000. Entitled The Ultimate Christmas Present, the film centers around friends Allie Thompson and Sam Kwan (a.k.a. Brenda Song), who sneakily swipe a mysterious gadget an old chubby man with a white beard (read: camping Santa) frustratedly throws from the front door of his remote cabin.
The duo quickly realizes the device can conjure snow, using their newfound toy to coat their home of Los Angeles in a thick blanket of powder. At first, they revel in their day off of school with sledding and snowball fights but soon realize they may have found themselves in over their heads. Allie attempts to power down the machine following their day of fun, to realize it turned back on overnight, coating large swaths of the state in a blizzard. Her father, who was traveling for work, now finds himself stuck at the San Francisco airport, unsure if he'll be able to return home for Christmas.
Santa ultimately comes through, fixing the machine, and with a little help from his elves, Sparky and Crumpet, helps Allie's dad return for the holidays, teaching our young Californians a very important lesson about responsibility and why snow and transportation don't mix.
If there's anything we learned about frigid weather from our Disney Channel programmers, let it be this -- never take a ski trip with Brenda Song, it's a recipe for finding yourself stranded in a snowstorm.
So, as we embark on a seasonal binge of our Disney Channel childhood classics, remember to take what you see with a grain of salt, er, hot cocoa mix, enjoying our nostalgic shows for the cheesy, weirdly capitalistic and oddly endearing works that they are. As 2000's Disney Channel teen pop sensations, Aly & AJ once put it, "It's the greatest time of year, And it's here, help me celebrate it." Happy Holidays, folks!
Top Image: Disney Channel