A month ago an accident landed me in the ER. Every day since, I’ve had varying degrees of panic attacks. And this is different from ten years ago when I had a bout of anxiety and depression where I lost 30 pounds. So, I’ve been taking inventory of how God helped me overcome that “general” anxiety a decade ago, and what he’s teaching me to cope with my current “specialized” fear.

The holidays often drive people to take inventory of the previous year and look toward the new year. I have a hypothesis that because of this hopeful hindsight, the creatives in media, music, and magazines use the holidays to give commentary on the previous year. Since Christmas 1980 celebrated its 40th anniversary last month, I thought it would be fun to compare 1980 and 2020 to see how pop culture shows our anxieties. Bonus: you’ll end up with a tubular list of Christmas nostalgia from 1980 to like, totally veg out with.

Cities in Fear: Pinocchio Panic and Alien Anxiety Attacks

Clearly the biggest historical event of 2020 is the COVID-19 pandemic. And although there is no direct comparison to 1980, that year had its own undercurrent of fear and anxiety. Forty years ago we were facing fears of stranger danger, economic uncertainty, crime, and nuclear war. A perfect amalgamation of these fears can be found in the 1980 Pinocchio’s Christmas,[1] adding horrifying stop motion marionettes to everyone’s anxieties!

Rankin/Bass Productions (known for classics such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer [1964]) produced this Christmas story where Pinocchio tries to earn money to buy Gepetto a Christmas present; instead, he ends up running away. Naïve Pinocchio is befriended by a scheming fox and cat (stranger danger) who tell him to bury his money (economic uncertainty/greed). Then they steal the money and sell him (crime) to a Russian slave trader (in 1980 the audience subconsciously associated Russians with Communist evil). While this plot does somewhat follow the arc of Carlo Collodi’s original Pinocchio novel, it also highlights many anxieties of the the early ’80s.

With their 2020 special Alien Xmas, the Chiodo brothers[2] wanted to honor Rankin/Bass. The story is about an alien named “X” from the race of Klepts (i.e. kleptomaniacs) who is sent to incapacitate earth’s gravity so that they can steal everything that floats up. Nowadays, we’ve traded our “Fear of the Other” toward communism and nukes for an unknown enemy stealing our way of life, as seen in the aftermath of the pandemic. Stephen Chiodo says unlike usual holiday specials in which they have to “save Christmas . . . in our case, it was bigger. It was saving Earth.”[3]

Feelings of anxiety can seem big, like the end of the world. Our fears around money, jobs, and family can physically manifest into panic attacks, weakened immunities, and fatigue. Of course, our anxieties and paranoias were alive and well prior to COVID-19, but the pandemic challenges us in one important way, with one important root cause.

James and Cameron: Healing Titanic Feelings

In a podcast series titled “Why Are We So Anxious?”, author Cameron McAllister explains that COVID-19 forced us to address our illusion of control. The pandemic suddenly robbed us of our way of life, and, because there was no way to control or pretend to handle the changes, it triggered our fight or flight. McAllister then references Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1980 book After Virtue[4] saying when we try to eliminate unpredictability from our lives, we’re playing God. So it’s no wonder we reacted to the nuances of the pandemic by politicizing it (very American), with anger, resentment, confusion, and violence.

McAllister applies James 4:13–17, highlighting “if the Lord wills” (v. 15). There is a healthy balance in protecting our loved ones and planning our days while giving those things to God because he is in control. Ten years ago my depression and anxiety was job-related on the surface. But internally I felt lonely and disconnected from other Christians, had major doubts about my career, and felt empty even though we had just bought a house and just had my son.

Let’s take the start of 2021 as a marker, not a resolution, but a submission.As God reoriented my control perception, he gave me the application of putting others ahead of myself. What pulled me out of general anxiety was God’s love for all people, as the angels told the shepherds in Luke 2:9–14. In 1980’s “December Will Be Magic Again,” Kate Bush sings, “Light the candle-lights / To conjure Mr. Wilde / Into the Silent Night.” This refers to Oscar Wilde’s story about a selfish giant who kicked kids out of his orchard but then winter came and everything went silent. After years and years, a bird finally sang, reminding him of the kids, and he broke down the wall and invited them to play in his garden again.

I didn’t wait until the holidays to start giving to others, but Christmas is always a much needed reminder to be selfless. Gift-giving Christmas tunes are abundant, but I think the 2020 song “Christmas Is” from Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square, takes the fruitcake. The song begins with simplistically general lyrics like “Christmas is a time for giving / Love is made of this” but by the end focuses on the specific gift of Jesus coming to earth.

But, in the same way, our minds can also move negatively from the general to the specific. When we get more specific information, any general fears can morph into very specific anxieties. For example, in March 2020 when the West started realizing COVID wasn’t just another thing in a Communist country that wouldn’t affect us,[5] for many the actual virus was the least of our concerns. It was the McGuffin amidst quarantines,[6] supply shortages, concerns for family and friends, misinformation, and fake news.

In 2020 we had specialized anxieties, and what causes you or people you know anxiety may be completely different from me. I know my recent panic attacks aren’t a lack of faith in God’s will, it’s my body’s reflex—a PTSD of sorts. But knowing it’s involuntary doesn’t make it easier. It was just one more thing heaped on to 2020.

A recent study indicated that Americans felt 62% more anxious in 2020 than 2019, caused by COVID-19, health, safety, gun violence and the election. But in my opinion, most of our specialized fears hinge around a “Fear of the Other,” and in 2020 it was most noticeable with physical distancing.[7]

Fear of the Other: Stranger Danger from a Distance

Amidst all the specialized fears of 1980, including acid rain, acid-wash jeans, and serial killer paranoia, probably the most impactful was the prominence of child abductions with the infectious strains coming in the form of Stranger Danger. In fact, each of the five[8] Christmas TV specials or films of 1980 I watched in researching this article, have some type of Fear of the Other.

For example, in the 1980 TV special Mr. Krueger’s Christmas,[9] Jimmy Stewart played a sweet old man trying to spread holiday cheer by talking with kids. But when the parents fittingly herd their children away, what was meant to remind the audience to show Christmas kindness actually showed the subtext of the times.

Nowadays, many of us children of the ’80s don’t even consider letting our young children out of our sight. Our world is a darker place, and often we’re suspicious for good reason. For example, in 2020’s Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, Forest Whitaker’s character Jeronicus Jangle was betrayed, driving him to distrust everyone.

So, when COVID hit in March, physical distancing just ramped up our wariness of others. Our specialized fear may be that a stranger will give us COVID or give COVID to someone we love or we’ll give a germ to someone that ends up weakening their immunities and they die. For the first few days of physical distancing, I would hurriedly put on a mask when getting close to strangers for fear of getting COVID from them. But then I was immediately worried of what others would think of me—which is a problem I have even when a pandemic isn’t raging.

Perfect Strangers

Many of us have developed a fear, or heightened existing fears, of “others” because of COVID. It’s amazing how easy it is to let our minds spiral into soul crushing worry. When we put into practice James 4:15’s “if the Lord wills,” then we begin to see a healthy balance in protecting our loved ones and planning our days while giving those things to God because he is in control.

Once I realized how masks worked and that I could lovingly keep my germs from someone, I realized I needed to overcompensate in outward friendliness. That’s not something inherent in us Southern Californians. So I started waving and saying “hi” when I saw a stranger. And most people not only reciprocated but would sometimes preempt me doing it.

Likewise, when I shepherd my kids away from real life Jimmy Stewarts but never give them a chance to meet a stranger, I’m sending the wrong message. As our kids get older if we teach them every stranger is a danger we’re just perpetuating our mistrust phobias. In Jingle Jangle Jeronicus Jangle has every right to be suspicious of strangers, but he learns to trust again, not because people are trustworthy but because he recognizes his flaws and is willing to believe in others. It’s hardest to be obedient to God’s will when he asks us to be vulnerable—to love the untrustworthy.

Every one of our friends was once a stranger. So we must teach the coming generations discernment; some strangers are dangers, but God is in control and will protect us. This balance may be more crucial than we initially believe because conquering the Fear of the Other will not only reduce implicit bias, it will also show the love of Jesus to every single person we meet.

You Can’t Send Christmas Cards to Everyone

Packed into the story told in Luke 2 and “Angels We Have Heard on High” are the problems and solutions we just covered. Luke 2:10 says because of great joy for all people we should not be afraid. The opposite of fear is peace, but more powerful is when peace is turned into joy! Great joy which happens when we take our eyes off ourselves to give “Gloria, in excelsis Deo” (glory to God) because his will was done in giving his Son. That joy is for all people, but they won’t know about it unless we give the gift of Jesus to others.

We can be overwhelmed trying to give to everyone and solve every problem (anxiety inducing of itself!). In Alien Xmas, when X realizes the joy of giving [SPOILER:] he convinces the other Klepts to help Santa deliver toys. In the same way, when we submit to God’s plan, he will provide partnerships to share the burden, and the joy, of giving to others. I’ve gotten through my current anxiety because of the habit God taught me years ago: praying, “God, I wish you’d take this anxiety away, but whatever I’m supposed to learn, however this can benefit someone else, your will be done.”

Consider Cameron McAllister’s words, “At the beginning of a new year . . . you’re going to hear a lot of plans . . . improvements . . . changes [but] behind that boastful attitude, which James calls evil . . . you see the strong sense of presumption . . . that you. are. in. control.” Let’s take the start of 2021 as a marker, not a resolution, but a submission. A humble acknowledgment that we may plan our way, but God directs our steps (Proverbs 16:9). Next year at this time, as we compare 1981 to 2021, let’s be faithful together in meeting the challenge to transform our mindset to the truth: God is in control!

[1] A live action Pinocchio came out Christmas day 2020. I’m hopeful it will be good judging by the trailer

[2] You can watch Netflix’s 2020 The Holiday Movies That Made Us, Episode 1: “Elf,” to catch the Chiodo brothers interview.

[3] Patrick Cavanaugh, “Alien Xmas Director Stephen Chiodo Talks His Unconventional Holiday Special, Killer Klowns From Outer Space, and More” ComicBook.com, 11/20/20.

[4] I view this as the Holy Spirit’s gift: the only reason I knew about this podcast was one of my closest friends, Kevin, “randomly” sending it to me. Kevin had no idea that I was writing an article comparing 1980 to 2020 and that I needed spiritual solutions on a section about fear and anxiety. It would have been enough if Cameron McAllister gave these beautiful biblical reminders and remedies, but it blew my mind that he quoted from Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue written in…1980!

[5] SNL’s “Airport Sushi” is a great example of poking fun at something that we can’t imagine actually affecting us. And yet, as 2020 dragged on, this hilarious skit stood as a marker of our collective naivety, the calm before the storm.

[6] Released in 1980, The Shining has become one of the most well-known (that I won’t bother summarizing) and most referenced pop culture icons of all time. Interestingly it provides a commentary on the adverse effects on mental health that cabin fever can have. The comparison with Jack chasing down his family is frighteningly similar to the cases of child and spousal abuse we’ve seen spike during COVID quarantine. See CDC support for domestic abuse during COVID here.

[7] Sadly, it must be acknowledged that racism has continued within the Fear of the Other category also.

[8] Pinocchio’s Christmas, A Snow White Christmas, Mr. Krueger’s Christmas, A Christmas Without Snow, and Christmas Evil.

[9] A Nightmare on Elm Street wouldn’t come out for another four years, otherwise I can’t imagine they would have named the protagonist “Krueger.”