Sunday, December 24, 2017

Our Christmas television traditions

Christmastime, surpassed only by the endless supply of horror films that fit in nicely with Halloween, is a time to spend with the family, catching those little TV specials that make the season bright.  We do other things when possible, but when finances, or just fortune, cut those out (as in this year), we still have these to lean on.  We read as well, and do other things, and of course the hub of the Church around which Advent should be turning, but the Christmas specials were a big part of my life growing up, and some of them actually connected me to the Faith, albeit loosely, as I was growing up.

The list below is the made for TV specials we try to watch every year, if possible.  It does not include our Church activities, going to the Nutcracker, or movies like It's a Wonderful Life or any one of a thousand versions of A Christmas Carol.  It's mainly the made for TV Christmas specials that I watched growing up, that we made a ritual for our kids, and sometimes as an object lesson about how to do Christmas right or wrong.

A Charlie Brown Christmas
As I've said, the Citizen Kane of Christmas specials, A Charlie Brown Christmas has it all: Nostalgia, Americana, commercialism, humor, and yes, Christ.  Schultz's first foray into moving pictures, Charlie Brown posed no end of problems for the producers, but in the end, it all worked.  As in all things, some of the specifics are debated.  Some say Schultz didn't want Vince Guaraldi's legendary jazz soundtrack, while others insist that Schultz was a jazz fan and wanted both his beloved classical music and jazz to figure in the special.  The minute long reciting of Luke 2 is the stuff of television legend, and marks the crescendo of the entire special.  It is a well written show, and probably the all around best Christmas special that has ever been produced for television.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Following fast on Charlie Brown's successful footsteps, Chuck Jones took Seuss's children's book and put it into Warner Bros form.  An elderly Boris Karloff provides the vocal talent, and the impossibly bass Thurl Ravenscroft performs the songs.  Like Charlie Brown, it is a warning against seeing Christmas a the 'gift getting' season, and points us to a deeper meaning.  It being Seuss, the meaning is never explicitly stated.  Nonetheless, like Charlie Brown, the show actually manages to build to a climax that makes the Grinch's revelation almost goose-bump inducing.  A nice way for Karloff to cap off a celebrated career, and in terms of TV Christmas specials, second only to Charlie Brown's first outing.

Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer
This was the first children's television special as we think of them.  Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass teamed up to produce this creatively animated special inspired by the 1930s book and subsequent song.  Rankin and Bass are to children's television specials what the Apostle Paul is to the New Testament.  Expect their names to figure prominently.  They also go a long way toward reminding their young audiences that Christmas does in fact come from a store.  Or at least the North Pole.  No mangers, Jesus, Mary, God, Wise Men or the slightest biblical reference here.  It's just the story of the eponymous reindeer and his single handed ability to save Christmas.  Great vocal talent, Burl Ives, fun characters, and impressive animation techniques keep this one high on the list.  Released in 1964 at the height of Beatlemania, the message of non-conformity and bucking the system would not have been lost on the original viewers.

The Little Drummer Boy
Not as crisply produced as other Rankin and Bass specials, this is notable for being about the only other special to make the Nativity close to the main focus.  It is a faux story of the Little Drummer Boy.  In this version, the boy's parents were killed by bandits - hefty stuff for a special aimed at the little ones - and grows to hate all people.  Alas for him, but he is kidnapped by a wily desert performer (wonderfully voiced by Jose Ferrer) and made to play his magical drum for all the people he hates.  Eventually, after meeting the three kings of Orient, he is freed, only to make his way to Bethlehem and experience the power of love and forgiveness.  Not the best animation, and no particularly memorable songs.  Nonetheless, the nighttime desert atmosphere works, and the message at least comes close to reminding us that Christmas has something to do with that babe in a manger.

Santa Clause is Coming to Town
Kris Kringle meets Woodstock.  Rankin and Bass again, this time to weave the biography of Santa Clause around the values and ideals of the emerging counterculture.  Santa is a rebel.  He comes to Sombertown, where the Burgermeister Meisterburger (who doesn't remember that name?) basically keeps everyone miserable.  Life is about conformity, dressing in muted grays, and keeping socks clean.  In walks Kris, with his bright red hair and gaudy clothes, immediately challenging that button down, conformist society.  The usual stock of R&B voice performers are here, joined by Micky Rooney as Kris and Keenan Wynn as the Winter Warlock, as well as Fred Astaire as the narrator.  It reeks of 60s motifs, and includes one of the most tripped out hippy songs in any Christmas special ever.   Unlike Rudolph, however, it gives at least a few nods to the Christmas story, Christmas Eve, and the holiest night of the year.  Plus it has some wonderful toe tappers to keep the story going.

Twas the Night Before Christmas
A later cartoon special by Ranking/Bass.  This one has not aged well.  It is mentioned here only because, as a youngster, any special about Christmas was enough to get the blood pumping in anticipation of that day around which our kiddy calendars forever rotated.  The point is a mouse disbelieves in Santa, and sends a letter to Santa expressing his views.  This causes Santa some form of PTSD or something, and Santa says he's out of here, and won't come back, leaving it up to the mouse to right the wrong by fixing a special clock tower that was supposed swoon Santa back into bringing toys to the little girls and boys.  Yeah.  As I said, really reaching.

Frosty the Snowman
This has become an annual ritual at our house.  We could watch this entire special on mute.  Most of it is spent with us shouting at it and poking fun at so many of the hilariously flawed elements of the 'story' (for instance, exactly why does the train have to stop?).  The story is threadbare, with Frosty coming to life thanks to a magician's hat.  Chaos ensues as the magician wants his hat back once he sees its effect on Frosty, and a young girl helps Frosty escape to the North Pole before dinner.  The most fun we have is watching how the show tries desperately to shoehorn Christmas into a show based on a song with not the slightest mention of Christmas in its lyrics.  To be honest, by now, I can barely remember the dialogue, as it's mostly the boys injecting their own theological and psychological interpretations of the show's silly delivery. 

The Year Without a Santa Clause
By now, R&B's whole 'there is no Christmas without Santa' began to wear thin.  This was getting toward the end of the Christmas Special era, and it shows.  Micky Rooney returns to voice Santa, who is just tired of the whole Santa gig.  He decides to 'cancel Christmas'.  Because if Santa isn't giving us presents, is there really any point in the holiday?  The premise is lame, and the story a snoozer.  The only saving grace - the only thing that makes it worth watching - are two out of the box show stoppers by a couple of laughably written characters.  Voiced by Broadway staple George Irving and hilarious character actor Dick Shawn, these two songs make the entire show worth the watch.  Or you can skip it and just catch them on Youtube:

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