One of the themes of Supernatural as a show is that of imperfection. By necessity, Dean and Sam must make do with whatever they have to hand. And Christmas is no different.
Despite now boasting 13 seasons, Supernatural has only one Christmas episode, ‘A Very Supernatural Christmas’, which opens with one of the most imperfect scenarios possible: the death of a family member during the holidays.
The poor family in question sacrifice their loved one to help teach us a valuable lesson.
Where there is light, there must also be darkness.
Where we find cheer, there is always sorrow.
And where you find Kris Kringle…you get “the anti-Claus” (as Dean dubs him).
As the brothers Winchester begin their investigation into the strange death of a man being killed and hauled up a chimney, they dig up lore on “Santa’s evil brother”. This ends up being a wild goose chase that leads to someone who may be celebrating his holiday on the fringes of society, but is very much human.
Nothing supernatural about him.
And, just as family get-togethers the world over have an inherent discomfort at this time of year, few things contain the pure awkwardness of Sam and Dean attempting to sing a carol, in order to escape their red herring suspect.
In real life, Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki are wonderful singers.
It takes a lot of talent to fake being that bad.
Why This Is The Only Supernatural Christmas
Throughout the episode, Dean is bent (dare we say, hell bent) on the desire to “do Christmas right” this year. Sam’s reluctance to indulge this sudden desire is understandable Dean’s crossroads deal to bring Sam back from the dead left him with twelve months; next year, Sam will be celebrating alone, Dean will be in hell, and there isn’t a damn thing either them can do about it.
This understandably casts a pall over the holiday, especially for a Sam, who already suffered through too many Christmases where their father failed to even show up.
He was always on a hunt.
Throughout the episode, the brothers have interestingly opposite views on the fact that Dean will be in hell when the next Christmas rolls around.
Sam feels that, by asking him to celebrate, his brother is expecting him to collude in a lie and pretend everything is alright in their world. Dean himself is determined that, if this is to be his last Christmas, he will make it special.
Ghosts Of Christmas Past
During the episode we see flashbacks to a previous Christmas, when Dean was strong-armed by Sam into admitting the truth about their peculiar little family. It was the year Sam found out about hunting, the supernatural, and what their father really does. Sam had been trying to get to the bottom of it for a while, with his older brother trying a few times to threaten his younger sibling into submission (this being the only communication tool John Winchester ever taught his son.
Sam never appears to be intimidated. He knows instinctively that Dean will never truly harm him, and most likely senses the fear lurking behind the anger.
Another side note on Dean’s character shown this episode (and in contrast to the flashbacks) is his sudden determination to make Christmas. He shows obvious disdain for how other people decorate for and celebrate the holiday. No matter what may come, he will celebrate his own way, not in accordance with what anyone else says Christmas is or ought to be. And in fact, during the climactic fight between the Winchesters and the Pagan gods, Dean and Sam kill the metaphorical and literal embodiment of the perfect Christmas.
It’s only when both brothers acknowledge the darkness in their situation, Christmas or not, that they end up with a celebration both of them can handle.
Their last Christmas together is as imperfect as they and their situation are.
When it came right down to it, Dean was willing to mostly give up on the idea for his brother’s sake, and Sam was willing to decorate and celebrate, because it is what his brother wanted.
One final thing: the notable absence of John Winchester from both their current situation (being as he’s now deceased) and the flashbacks (as he was out on yet-another-hunt) really drives home the point.
In the flashbacks we see Dean struggling to make Christmas for Sammy in John’s absence. He goes so far as to steal gifts and pretend their father came home while Sam was sleeping.
When Sam eagerly opens his present and finds they’re for a girl, he realises what Dean did. Ironically, the fact his brother went to such lengths to try and make it special for him was the best gift Dean could have given him.
The only literal present given on that past Christmas (aside from the ones Dean filched!) is an amulet that Sam gives to Dean, which he’s seen wearing throughout seasons 1 to 5. It becomes a strong symbol of the bond between the brothers, as well as a minor plot point in later seasons.
Yet Sam only had the amulet because Bobby gave it to him, to give to John.
Even though he never appears in the episode, the man who was their adoptive (and equally imperfect) father was integral in the boys’ lives, then and now.
It may be the only Christmas special they’ve done, but it was poignant and carried some of the best messages of the holiday season: the importance of family, the duality of light and dark, the ultimate triumph of good over evil, and a much more ancient tradition…
Self-sacrifice in the name of those we love.