Bizarro Back Issues: Donald Duck and the Tear-Harvesting Christmas Witch (1948)
Last week, I mentioned that Lost in the Andes, Fantagraphics’ amazing new book Donald Duck stories by Carl Barks, had one of the weirdest Christmas stories I’ve ever read. And for me, that’s saying something: Christmas comics are one of the few things I go out of my way to collect regardless of who the creators are and who puts them out. I love the darn things, and over the years, I’ve read hundreds of ’em, going back through my favorites every year.
And even with all that, The Golden Christmas Tree might just take the fruitcake. After alll, most of the other Christmas stories I’ve read don’t involve a harvest of tears or someone turning into a woodchipper.
For those of you who may not be familiar with his work, Carl Barks is up there with Jack Kirby as one of the single greatest comic book creators of all time. Over the course of a career that kicked off in 1942 and continued until well after his “retirement” in 1967, Barks created somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 stories about the Disney Ducks. They were of such high quality that even though most of his work went unsigned due to Disney’s editorial policies of the time, his fans could pick out comics by the guy they called “The Good Duck Artist” solely because they were the best ones.
And during that time, Barks did his fair share of Christmas stories. The most famous, of course, was 1947’s Christmas on Bear Mountain, which introduced the world to Donald’s cantankerous, insanely wealthy Uncle Scrooge in a tale where a man set up his relatives to be mauled by a bear to teach them about economic responsibility.
You know, now that I’ve actually written that out, the craziness that this story gets up to suddenly makes a lot of sense. Clearly, Barks was trying to top his own work from the previous year.
So how does he go about it? Well, our story today starts off like every great tale of the Christmas Spirit: With violence!
The reason that Louie is launching himself into his patented Swanton Bomb is that he and the other nephews are trying to hash out what color of painted Christmas tree they were going to get. Apparently painted trees something that was all the rage back in the ’40s, at least to the point that Barks presents it without any sort of comment. I’ve never heard of it outside of this story, though, so I imagine it fell out of fashion, presumably because putting hot electric lights on a tree sprayed down with dubious paint by some dude in a parking lot ruined more Christmases than than the makers of What’s Up: Balloon Rescue and Chop Kick Panda.
Anyway, while the nephews are deeply involved in their yuletide Hell in the Cell match, Donald is reading a news story about witch sightings, which is weird even for a town full of talking ducks. Before he has a chance to do more than just read this item out loud for the benefit of the reader however, Huey, Dewey and Louie finally decide what they really want: a gold tree.
If this story had dropped a few years later, I imagine this would’ve been the start of a story about hopping into a boat with Uncle Scrooge to go find the legendary Golden Tree of the North Pole, but those were still a few years away. Instead, Donald takes the nephews out to buy a tree, but when he finds out that a gold one’s going to set them back a staggering forty bucks, he goes with plain ol’ green.
Obviously, the nephews get pretty bummed out about it, which of course attracts a witch who wants to harvest their tears:
Ain’t that always the way?
Now, this is weird for a couple of reasons, chief among them being that the old lady who climbs over the fence and starts telling them to go to the top of Mount Demontooth is, well, an old lady. An old human lady. Underneath those mittens, she’s got five fingers on her hands and everything. Now, one would assume that this would be as weird to the Ducks as it would be if a bunch of talking waterfowl in t-shirts or sailor caps showed up in our world.
But what’s even weirder about this is that she’s appearing as a human by choice. See, the witch is actually a shapeshifter:
You’d think she would’ve turned into a duck to better gain the trust of the Junior Woodchucks, but they end up just rolling with it, and head off to Mount Demontooth in hopes of scoring a golden tree — and walk right into the witch’s trap.
Fortunately for them, Donald (eventually) notices they’re missing and sets about tracking them down:
This may be my favorite panel in the entire story. There are just so many amazing things going on all at once. First, that witches leave identifiable tracks. Second, that Donald Duck knows enough about witches to be able to identify their tracks by sight. Third, that the witch shapeshifted her entire body, except for her shoes. Fan. Tastic.
Word of witchery quickly spreads around Duckburg, leading to an actual, non-metaphorical witch hunt, but Donald makes a beeline for Demontooth Mountain. After all, if you’re into the kind of dark sorcery that requires a harvest of tears, you’re probably not going to hole up at Cuddlebunny Playground. Unless you’re planning on resurrecting the spirit of statesman, philanthropist and cannonball magnate Ephram Glory Cuddlebunny III, I mean.
Meanwhile, at the top of the mountain, the nephews have become firmly ensnared in the witch’s evil clutches:
It’s at this point that she finally reveals her sinister plan: She’s going to blow up every Christmas tree on Earth, because she hates Christmas and wants everyone to be bitter. Lady, if you want to create more bitterness in the world, this is not the way to do it. Trust me, I have been to enough family gatherings to know that Christmas trees are usually right in the middle of it.
Once that’s out there, Donald finally arrives to set things right, at which time she takes a page out of the ol’ Bugs Bunny playbook and shapeshifts into…
…a duck version of Lucille Ball.
Maybe not the best choice, but it keeps Donald distracted long enough for her to get him into some yarn bondage, so to each her own, I suppose. But she plays her hand too early, and Donald jumps out of the window before he realizes that he was supposed to be there to save his nephews. Even with a battering ram made out of a conveniently located log, breaking back in proves to be a bit of trouble since her shapeshifting powers allow her deal with any problem pretty handily:
Eventually, Donald does end up breaking in, and he starts to smack the witch around with her own broom — which, as it turns out, is the source of her powers. In fact, even just holding it gives Donald phenomenal magic abilities, which he uses to set the witch’s house on fire and then turn her into a can of gasoline to better burn it to the ground. Spirit of the Holidays, everybody!
Of course, once the nephews realize that Donald has godlike powers of creation, they ask him to whip up the thing that got them into this whole mess to begin with: A Golden Christmas Tree. So he does. And then the tree starts talking.
Yes, it turns out that the Spirit of Christmas — which is apparently a golden tree on a metal stand — had been trapped by the witch the entire time. That goes a long way towards explaining why dudes were charging $40 for painted trees and why the nephews were spending their holidays going off the top rope on each other, I suppose, but now that it’s free, everyone can have a merry Christmas.
Well, except the witch. Now it is she who is the prisoner! And also a gas can.
But the story isn’t quite over yet, and in fact, this might be the strangest part: Back in Duckburg, everyone totally knows that all of this happened:
Top hatted, monocled, mustachioed gentlemen (or… gentledogs? What are those things supposed to be, anyway? I never quite got that part) are fully aware that the Spirit of Christmas (which is a tree) was trapped by a local witch and freed by a sailor duck and his nephews. Thus, in the spirit of the holiday, they reward Huey, Dewey and Louie by giving them almost 19,000 gold Christmas trees.
And the witch? Well, Christmas is a time for forgiveness even for the worst of people, but yeah, Donald turned her into a gas can and then kicked her off a cliff, where she probably died of exposure.
Merry Christmas, everybody!