What does Christmas mean to you? The holiday holds different significance for everyone, and the Dark Knight is no exception. For many people, Christmas is about family and recalling positive childhood memories, but both of those are sore subjects for Batman. The holiday season is a time of bright lights, festive music and feelings of joy, which stand in stark contrast to Batman’s dark nature. Plus, I can’t imagine Bruce is too thrilled about the whole “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells,” thing.
Despite this, Batman and Christmas go hand in hand, which got me thinking…why do Batman Christmas stories feel right? What has the Dark Knight’s relationship with the holiday been, and how has it evolved? To find the answer, I dove into the back issues of Batman’s Christmas past.
The very first Batman Christmas story was published in 1942’s Batman #9, and it’s a heartwarming tale where the Dynamic Duo help an orphan reunite with his father in time for the holidays. According to this story, Bruce Wayne spends every Christmas buying presents for children at the local orphanage. And speaking of orphans, throughout the comic Dick Grayson is feeling the holiday blues, and although the story never comes out and says it, I suspect it’s because this is his first Christmas since the death of his parents.
At first, Batman tells him there is no time for holiday cheer when you’re a crimefighter, but then he surprises Robin with a Christmas “party.” I use quotes because the only other attendees are Commissioner Gordon (who must’ve gotten a bad Botox coupon in his stocking) and Batman’s Golden Age girlfriend Linda Page. At the time Alfred hadn’t even been introduced, so this was the entire Batman supporting cast! Future Christmas parties would be a bit more crowded.
This story set the tone for subsequent Christmas stories in the Golden Age. During this era, Batman used Christmas as an opportunity to give back. In 1943’s Batman #15, he turned the Bat-Plane into a Christmas sleigh, traveling across Gotham to help lonely people during the holiday. In 1945’s Batman #27, the Dynamic Duo complain about the price of Christmas trees (Bruce wasn’t always a billionaire) and helped a greedy young boy learn the meaning of Christmas. Anyone noticing a trend here? In the Golden Age, Batman would spend the holiday helping others, but he never really stopped to enjoy it himself. Perhaps he’s too dedicated to his crimefighting career, or maybe the time of year is particularly hard on him for obvious reasons.
By the Bronze Age of comics, Batman began to relax his workaholic nature and started to actually enjoy the holidays. “The Silent Night of the Batman” (published in Batman #219) is regarded as one of the best Batman Christmas stories of all time. In it, Gordon tells a reluctant Batman to take a break from his patrol and enjoy the GCPD Christmas party. More remarkable is that Batman does it. He begins to let loose and even finds himself caroling. It’s an unusual sight, but a welcome one. Unfortunately, the trend didn’t last, and future Batman stories had him spending the holiday stopping crime.
Although Alfred was introduced in 1943, he didn’t spend Christmas with Bruce until 1973’s Batman #247. Even then, Batman and Alfred weren’t really celebrating Christmas, it just happened to be December 25th while Bruce was in the manor pondering a case. With modern day context, it feels weird that Alfred didn’t appear in any Batman Christmas stories until 1973, but when you look at the evidence it’s not surprising. Christmas was a time to fight crime, so stories set during the holidays featured Batman hitting the streets, not Bruce at Wayne Manor. This trend started to change in the Bronze Age, but it was a slow burn.
Over time, Christmas stories began to use family as a theme. In Batman Family #4, Bruce and Alfred surprise Dick at Hudson University when the Boy Wonder can’t make it home for the holidays. This is a big step in multiple ways. Not only has Bruce realized that Christmas is a time to be with family, he’s actually leaving Gotham and taking the night off. This theme of family continued in The Brave and the Bold #184, where Bruce spent Christmas with Helena Wayne, the daughter of his Earth-Two counterpart. Helena told Bruce that he was the closest thing she had to a father, and who could resist that?
This brings us to 1992, and you can’t talk about the Dark Knight and Christmas without bringing up Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. (Everyone is always saying Die Hard is the best Christmas action film, yet Batman Returns is right there!) The Christmas setting is a huge part of this sophomore Michael Keaton outing, but Batman is feeling less than festive. The movie ends with Batman saving the city from Penguin, but failing to save Selina Kyle, before closing with a heartbroken Bruce Wayne wishing Alfred a Merry Christmas. It’s a bittersweet ending, but at least Bruce and Alfred have each other.
The year-long “No Man’s Land” saga reinforces the idea that Batman can’t escape tragedy during Christmas. The Bat-Family attempts to enjoy the holiday, but the Joker cuts their celebration short when he kidnaps a group of babies. Although the babies were returned to their parents safely, Jim Gordon’s wife Sarah Essen was killed by the Joker. Christmas didn’t feel so merry for Batman in the 1990s.
Batman may have had some grim holidays in the past, but what does Christmas mean to him now? Earlier this month, DC published Batman: Urban Legends #10 and in many ways it brings Bruce’s relationship with Christmas full circle. 1942’s Batman #9 and 2021’s Batman: Urban Legends #10 both feature stories where Dick Grayson is feeling the holiday blues, but then cheers up after he attends a Christmas party. While the 1942 party’s guest list was pretty limited, the 2021 party’s invite list includes Bruce, Dick, Tim, Babs, Kate, Steph, Cass, Duke, Ace the Bat-Hound and Dick’s new dog Haley. The issue even reveals that the Bat-Family has their own holiday rituals, like Secret Santa!
Batman’s relationship with Christmas has evolved, and now he can pause his war on crime to celebrate. There were plenty of reasons for the Dark Knight to be a Grinch this year—Damian has run off to participate in an assassin tournament, Alfred is dead, Bruce and Selina are “on a break,” he’s lost his fortune, and the city was almost destroyed by the Scarecrow. Yet despite all this, Bruce is allowing himself to be happy.
Maybe Christmas gives him sad memories about the family he’s lost, but over the years he’s built a large family for himself and has made new Christmas memories alongside them. Batman: Urban Legends #10 also contains a story called “A Carol of Bats,” which ends with a tender Christmas moment between Tim and Bruce. Tim, who has been agonizing about how he can make Bruce happy, gives his mentor a Christmas gift. Bruce simply says, “You don’t have to try to make me happy, Tim. I am happy. Because you are my son.”
Christmas is a time for family and from the looks of it, the Dark Knight will be having a Merry Christmas. I hope all of you can experience the same joy and happiness this holiday season!
For more Batman holiday cheer, check out our list of six essential Batman Christmas stories!
Joshua Lapin-Bertone writes about TV, movies and comics for DCComics.com, is a regular contributor to the Couch Club and writes our monthly Batman column, “Gotham Gazette.” Follow him on Twitter at @TBUJosh.