The true meaning of Christmas, and the idea that this season has a real, powerful underlying theme attached to it, is something that gets tossed around a lot this time of year. It makes sense, really, given how massive the celebration is for the end of year yuletide. And despite the schisms that exist within our vastly diverse society, a set of universal commonalities do tend to crop up when discussing the various ideals of Christmas, both positive and negative. Because for all the joy and happiness and love the holiday season can muster, it has a tendency to push forth the darkest, harshest realities in our lives, and punish those who don’t (or can’t) celebrate as loud and lavishly as others.
The first season Christmas episode of Boy Meets World delves into some pretty heavy topics regarding the haves and have nots, while dabbling in the spirit of giving. Cory, the spoiled kid he is, begins the episode firmly of the belief that Christmas is exclusively about presents, i.e. receiving them. Any thoughts given to reflection, family, togetherness, love, Jesus, or any other holiday themes are tossed aside, as he dreams, with laser focus, on the small portion of non-clothing gifts (“9 out of 10 Christmas presents? Wool”). He and Shawn boast at school about their supposed gift windfall, with Shawn bragging about a sports store delivery at his house.
As I’ve discussed before, Shawn Hunter had a REALLY shitty life. The trailer park residence, which was played for laughs and poignancy throughout the years to various degrees of success, and broken home environment he seemed to come from were huge traits of his character on the show. While his natural talents and intelligence propelled him out of the cycle of poverty his family had existed in during later seasons, he was still the poor middle school kid in suburban Philly at this point. And the world, especially the world of a sixth grader, can be a harsh, cruel place to those who are viewed, categorized, and live, as lower class.
Immediately after their Christmas present updates, Minkus arrives to collect Shawn’s portion of the money for their class gift to Mr. Feeny (which is preceded by a brief exchange between Cory and Shawn about the ladder bringing lunch from home). He informs Shawn that he’s the only student who has not yet paid, who then hems and haws before storming away, noting he doesn’t have the money because he spent it on lunch (to which Minkus sardonically quips, like a total dick, “did his mother charge a packing fee?”). It is painfully obvious to any rational, mature observer that he simply doesn’t have the necessary $5, and his Dad helpfully points out to Cory that his friend may have been exaggerating about his pending present potential.
His reality shattered, now knowing his best friend’s family may not be as well to do as his own (which he had no idea about beforehand, of course…), Cory decides to give his “best gift” to Shawn, in hopes of helping him avoid having a “Tiny Tim Christmas.” This giving of wrapped merchandise from Cory to Shawn, driven entirely by Cory’s selfish desire for thanks and praise for being so charitable, goes awry from the beginning when Shawn points out their lack of present exchanges in the past. The two best buds blow up at each other about Shawn’s family’s dire financial straits, and Cory’s expectations of ample gratitude for giving a present.
After a life lesson on the nature of gift giving from Mr. Feeny, in a follow-up of his earlier lecture on The Christmas Carol, Cory comes to realize that giving a gift, solely to receive adulation and thanks, defeats the entire purpose of exchanging presents on any occasion. Later, in a brutal scene in the cafeteria, Shawn is confronted again by Minkus about the class gift money. Minkus threatens to withhold Shawn’s name if he doesn’t pay up, and alerting the entire class to his being “a deadbeat.” Cory slinks over to pay the $5 for Shawn after his friend storms off in embarrassment, covering to Minkus that he, Cory, was the cheapskate by “not paying Shawn back” money he borrowed weeks ago. For a family sitcom, this episode touches on some dark topics. Shawn is utterly humiliated by his classmates and best friend, in addition to the fact that his home life of poverty is inescapable. But at least it ends on a happy note, or at least happy-ish.
Look, the holidays can be an especially trying time for a lot of our fellow women and men. We all want to celebrate to the fullest, and everyone wishes there was some way, or some one with, we could party this season that just isn’t possible. In a similar vein to wishing ‘Happy Holidays’ versus ‘Merry Christmas,’ don’t assume everyone is celebrating or enjoying this Christmas just the same as you, since you can never really know what’s happening with a person below the surface.