Holiday Cheer

The Story of the Christmas Special

By Barry Monush

From the earliest days of the medium, television has carried on the tradition begun on radio of bringing Christmas into homes across America, in the form of musical performances of carols, pop tunes, and Handel’s Messiah; Yule-themed episodes of weekly series; December 25th religious services; network bumpers wishing you the happiest of holidays; and, of course, the Christmas special, which became a genre unto itself. Although this tradition of filling the airwaves with the sights and sounds of the holidays continues to this day, it is safe to say that it reached some sort of heyday in the 1960s and ‘70s, a period when a majority of the most enduring specials were first unveiled. 

In the Beginning

Not surprisingly, among the first holiday specials produced for television audiences were various presentations of the second greatest Christmas story ever told, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the earliest documented broadcast being an experimental one shown on the DuMont network on December 22, 1943. There were no less than twelve different variations of the tale presented on the small screen during the forties alone, when television had yet to become the norm in most homes. The medium would continue to fall back on this Dickensian staple to such a degree that during the month of December 1956, for example, home viewers could watch the rebroadcast of Shower of Stars’ original 1954 presentation of the classic tale with Basil Rathbone as Jacob Marley and then tune in, a few days later for a musical version, entitled The Stingiest Man in Town, with Rathbone now taking over the title role as everyone’s favorite holiday misanthrope, Ebenezer Scrooge. None of these would become standard holiday fare. Instead most people growing up watched the various television airings of three different motion picture adaptations of the story (from 1935, 1938, and 1951), and, later down the line, a musical version produced in 1962, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, which introduced entire generations to the story, as embodied by the myopic cartoon character.

If the early years of television had an original holiday special that was a perennial it was, beyond a doubt, Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, which told the tale of a poor crippled boy and his mother who are visited by the Magi on their way to Jesus’s manger. Written expressly for television, Amahl was first seen live on December 24, 1951, and, rather than tape that version so that it could be shown annually, it was instead performed live each season until the end of the decade. Following several repeat broadcasts a brand-new telecast was shown in 1963, recorded on tape. That tape version then ran until 1966. Another special from the fifties that could be seen all over the dials for years after its initial 1950 broadcast was The Spirit of Christmas, which presented the stories of “Silent Night” and “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” (the adapted name for Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”) through puppets.

The  “Miracle” Years

There were two different small screen adaptations of the movies’ most enduring Christmas tale, Miracle on 34th Street (1947), first on The 20th Century Fox Hour (CBS, December 14, 1955) with Thomas Mitchell taking over Edmund Gwenn’s Academy Award–winning role as Kris Kringle, and then a special, live, color broadcast on NBC on November 27, 1959, with Ed Wynn in the lead. It was the film, however, that became a seasonal tradition on television, not these later remakes. Richard Adler wrote songs for a version of O. Henry’s most beloved short Yule story, The Gift of the Magi (December 9, 1958), but it never replaced the story itself. 

The arrival of color as the standard format on all broadcasts, beginning in 1966, pretty much cut down the chances of anything from years gone by being shown annually on the prime-time schedule if it was not shot in this process. Nor were stations all that keen on rerunning anything that seemed too primitive in look or technique for modern audiences who’d gotten used to a slicker gloss on their programming.

The Big Three: Rudolph, Charlie Brown, and the Grinch

The beginning of the enduring television specials as we know them today is usually thought to be the original December 6, 1964, broadcast of the Rankin/Bass, stop-motion animation musical Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Advertised in TV Guide erroneously as The Story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and sponsored by General Electric, the hour-long NBC special did not even initially air in what could officially be called prime time. Instead its debut was in the 5:30-6:30 EST slot with a close-up in TV Guide headlined “Fantasy Hour–Children,” as if to establish that this was being presented expressly for the young’uns. Shot with what were considered state-of-the-art effects that, in truth, still continue to impress, considering the amount of work needed to produce this sort of difficult animation, Rudolph had no worry about “dating” with the passing of time. It was shown with equal success for the next two years in its same, pre-prime-time slot until it finally graduated to what turned out to be the first of many nighttime showings, in December of 1967.

By that point it had been joined by two other significant specials produced principally with the younger set in mind, A Charlie Brown Christmas (CBS, December 9, 1965) and Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (CBS, December 18, 1966), both of which would promptly become prime-time perennials as well. Charlie Brown really brought some degree of legitimacy to children’s holiday-themed television and showed what could be accomplished when aiming Christmas programming at impressionable youngsters, sending out a message against commercialism that brought it both the coveted Peabody Award and the honor for Outstanding Children’s Special from the Emmy committee.

In a very short time, these three presentations became templates for how to make a Christmas special that appealed not only to kids but to adults as well, each being smartly written and never once condescending or cutesy in their approach. Rather than being something their youthful audiences felt compelled to leave behind as they aged, they continued to represent the best of their formative years of television watching, not to be looked back upon with smirking derision but tremendous affection and respect.

They would come to be thought of as pivotal additions to the holiday season, something that marked the holiday season in the way that stagings of A Christmas Carol; dance recitals of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker; readings of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” and “Yes, Virginia There is a Santa Claus;” or television airings or revival theater showings of Miracle on 34th Street, White Christmas, and It’s a Wonderful Life did. The Grinch’s very name became a euphemism for anyone disdainful of the holiday spirit, thereby putting him in the same realm as the Humbug king himself, Scrooge; a “Charlie Brown tree” became slang for a sad-looking or inadequate Tannenbaum; and Rudolph’s Island of Misfit Toys was soon as instantly recognizable a mythical place as Wonderland and Oz. Songs like “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” sung in a menacing but mellifluous bass by the unforgettably named Thurl Ravenscroft; Rudolph’s “Holly Jolly Christmas;” and Charlie Brown’s jazzy Christmas pageant rehearsal music (officially called “Linus & Lucy”) became as familiar and Christmas-specific to multiple generations as “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night.”

The Rankin/Bass organization itself would create a Rudolph follow-up—another speculation on the origins of a classic character as interpreted through a famous song—Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, this one with the added lure of narration by a Fred Astaire puppet. This show too would become an annual favorite, and so it became the norm to interpret a notable Yuletide song, story, or poem through traditional animation or stop-action, such as Frosty the Snowman, The Little Drummer Boy, and ’Twas the Night Before Christmas.

Meanwhile, in the Real World...

While all this was happening, some live-action specials aimed at an older crowd looked at the holidays with a somewhat more somber tone, including the Depression-set The Homecoming, which served as a pilot for one of the best-loved series of the seventies, The Waltons; the self-explanatory The House without a Christmas Tree; and J.T., which earned a Peabody for its depiction of Christmas as seen through the eyes of a poor black boy growing up in an urban environment.

For those looking for television Christmas traditions without a story line to follow, WPIX created a somewhat bizarre presentation called The Yule Log (first seen on Christmas Eve of 1966), which was little more than hour after hour of a looped video of logs crackling in a fireplace while carols and holiday songs filled the soundtrack. Local stations also began to broadcast the Santa Claus Lane Parade/Hollywood Christmas Parade (which first took place in 1928 and was just this past year renamed Hollywood’s Santa Parade), so those across the country could see how the holidays were celebrated in the sun-baked show business capital of the world. There was also a more formal series of specials, the Christmas in Washington annuals, which had stars singing while the Chief Executive and his wife smiled at them in appreciation, as well as the Walt Disney World Christmas Parade, presented on the morning of the holiday itself, which was unique simply because most other Christmas specials had come and gone long before the day itself had arrived.

These were all very well and good, as were the expected holiday variety cheer delivered year after year by the likes of Bing Crosby and Perry Como, but the animated offerings remained the most cherished of the lot, appealed to the widest demographic, and were least likely to be equated with the specific era during which they were created, which made them that much more timeless. Indeed, subsequent generation after generation would look back and share fond feelings for Charlie Brown, The Grinch, and others as if the programs were made expressly for them.    

Thinking Outside the Christmas Box

For the longest time, nobody appeared to challenge the idea that if you were going to create a special for the last month of the year that it would involve Christmas and Christmas only. Although a weekly series like thirtysomething was willing to think outside the Christmas box it was not until the midnineties that Shari Lewis decided to give some attention to those who were not celebrating the Christian holidays, with Lamb Chop’s Special Chanukah (1995). The same year saw aliens being taught the story behind the Jewish holiday in The Weinerville Chanukah Special, while The Rugrats presented an episode about the Festival of Lights, and then, to help fill another void, did their own Kwanza Special as well. None of these began a rush of similar programming, however, as the secular Christmas remained the dominant force on the December schedule.

In conclusion (and to all a good night…)

With the advent of home video and its seismic impact on our culture starting in the 1980s, holiday specials suddenly became something you didn’t have to wait for someone else to schedule. Owning your own copy meant you could have not just one annual viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas or Frosty the Snowman, but as many as you pleased, whether it was December or not. For all its positive aspects, video also took away the communal feeling of everyone watching programs on the same night, and then sharing the experiences with friends and colleagues the following day. And viewing habits have become even more fragmented in recent years due to the abundance of channels and the ever-expanding number of media outlets. Although there has never been an absence of new holiday programming every December, right up to the present (there was even a 2006 live-action adaptation of The Year without a Santa Claus that quickly became a trivia question), it is safe to say that the these factors have contributed to the end of the “golden age” of the holiday special, with those programs from years gone by remaining the most revered and the most revived ones. 
In her book Christmas on Television, author Diane Werts summed up the tremendous hold holiday programming has had on us when she wrote, “the more intellectually significant the medium continued to become, the more I found myself drawn to the nakedly visceral emotions stirred by all those Christmas shows for which I’d long held a soft spot. This psychologically charged holiday—its impact recognized even by those unimpressed by its religious meaning—seemed to hold the wondrous power to strip away much of the pretense and posturing we nurtured the rest of the year.”

If we have the Grinch, the Snow Miser, and the Winter Warlock, among others, to thank for instilling some of this good will in us, then television has indeed, once again, done its job.

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Photos: Amahl and the Night Visitors: NBC; Lamb Chop’s Special Chanukah: 8 Candles Prods. Inc./PBS; The Year without a Santa Claus: Rankin-Bass; How the Grinch Stole Christmas!: Turner Entertainment Company; A Charlie Brown Christmas: © 1965 United Feature Syndicate, Inc.; Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman: Rankin-Bass