We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
In the realm of seasonal TV shows, cheesier is better.
Years ago, the Advocate carried a December-issue cartoon that showed a pert young lesbian in Mary Quant unpacking a stark, minimalist Christmas wreath, explaining to her skeptical girlfriend, “But in my family, this is traditional.”
Tradition is a slippery notion. There are collective and individual versionstraditions we all agree on (fruitcake is icky, for example), and then there are the more idiosyncratic kinds, the little “yeah-but” voice that speaks up on behalf of accumulated personal tastes, family styles, and holiday randomness (anything is edible with enough hard sauce).
Of the Christmas entertainment available on television, collective tradition affects a loud, cheery voice and wears an annoying ribbon tied under its chin”Let’s all gather ’round for It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s a tradition! Hey, Holiday Inn is on! What ever happened to Vera-Ellen, anyway? Put on your novelty sweaters, kids, and we’ll make fun of fruitcake!”
Christmas is supposed to be most magical for children (although if you shop right, it can be pretty spectacular for the credit-card-carrying adult), but to the collectivists’ horror, the whole season and all its attendant tinsel are indiscriminately magical: Whatever hits us first makes the deepest mark. The small but insistent impulse to individual tradition remembers with disproportionate fondness the holiday specials of one’s childhood.
No American with a television set could avoid absorbing bits of It’s a Wonderful Life in the years after it went into the public domain; much of the reason the movie became a classic is that desperate local stations could paper it over a couple of blank hours for free. But most kids who grew up in the early ’70s were reared on crappy made-for-TV specials that earned our undying nostalgia, thanks more to timing than content.
The poor quality of early TV Christmas specials didn’t make them any less magical. Kids don’t distinguish between so-called quality fare and whatever cheesy animated trash Mommy has plunked them down to watch so she can parcel out the last of the Grand Marnier between the stollen and herself. Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is treacly capitalist garbage, but that’s beside the point. It holds a sanctified position alongside Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas and the sanitized Victorian nostalgia people like to call “Dickensian”; yet that doesn’t mean Capra’s repressive genius is on a par with Chuck Jones’ or Dr. Seuss’ liberating one.
A Christmas Carol’s place in the collective pantheon is no reflection on Dickens’ literary genius, which was equal parts Capraesque rigor and Seussian delight. Though Dickens was one of the most helpless sentimentalists of his day, the Dickens whose name gets vaguely slapped on apple-cheeked Olde Tyme holiday fantasies is a creature neutered and declawed. Fly-by-night Christmas Carols animated for TV tend to strip-mine the original story for its major elements and plug in the nearest syndicated franchise (Mr. Magoo, Mickey & Co.), but, like their sacred live-action counterparts, they invariably omit at least one memorable line: the one in which Scrooge tells hearty young Fred that he’ll see him in hell, and very nearly does. (Dickens himself drolly elided printing the words, but they’re in there.)
That said, while the 1951 adaptation starring Alastair Sim gets plenty of rose-colored ink todayand it is wonderfulthe seldom-seen 1984 made-for-TV version starring George C. Scott, of all people, is both a faithful nod toward the author’s intentions and an acting exercise worthy of Sir Ian McKellen. Scott’s Scrooge isn’t a bitter, lonely soul waiting to become a target of redemptive forces, but a content old gentleman nestling comfortably in the bed he has made. Scrooge’s original sense of humor is restored, and Scott’s amusement with his own petty treacheries and his towering self-satisfaction make this Scrooge a harder nut for the spirits to crack. It’s hardly ever aired, but it has been released this year on 20th Century Fox videoa worthy addition to the video library, next to Scrooged and the rambunctious The Muppet Christmas Carol.
Even so, fiddling with the text doesn’t matter. Western culture has always been in the business of inventing Christmas stories, even lavishly embellishing the biblical version to dovetail with the intentions of a million grade-school nativity pageants, a palimpsest that Barbara Robinson had to tear up to create the great children’s literary classic The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Hardly any Christmas tradition has a legitimate pedigreethe origins are lost in time, imported from unlovely places, or wholly manufactured. The bastardized mishmash of consumerism and good will is the modern American Christmas, and thus, crummy small-fry specials are perfect moral addenda to the season.
Fans of 1983’s A Christmas Story have lost intimacy with this light, loving sourball of a film, thanks to the gods of attrition; and we are about to witness the heartbreaking mass exploitation of all things Grinch; but the dopey, stop-motion-animated puppet specials of the early ’70s are still largely overlooked by revivalists and Olde Tymers. There is a small but fierce groundswell of interest in the creators of this franchiseproducer-directors Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass, and orchestrator Maury Laws. At first glance, the idea that these store-bought treats are actually authored texts seems presumptuous, but they demonstrate a consistency of intention, if not quality, that marks them as superior to their sausage-factory brethren.
The weirdest of the Rankin-Bass output is 1970’s Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town, which manages to put over a creditable explanation of the Father Christmas story while frightening grownups away with its trademark creepy puppetry. For some reason, a Fred Astaire puppet dressed as the North Pole mailman narrates the saga of the orphaned Kris Kringle’s rise to power in the repressive frozen north. Santa’s even given a sex life of sorts in the curvaceous shape of schoolteacher Jessica (this was 1970), a bosomy redhead cursed with the cheapest musical number in animation history: Jessica sings “My World Is Beginning Today” to her “reflection” in the town fountain, which is actually a paper cutout of her face at the bottom of a shallow pond; its edges begin to curl before the song is over.
The Rankin-Bass holiday specials are awkward, resourceful within a minuscule budget, and ham-handed at creating new Christmas myths, but they resonate with children of the ’70s in ways that Depression-baby Capraites will never understand. (Remember, It’s a Wonderful Life bombed upon its original release.) No awkward preteen has forgotten the shock of recognition upon first stumbling onto the Island of Misfit Toys in the otherwise worthless Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. And even if the special itself was not shown for 17 years, the threat of The Year Without a Santa Claus is just as menacing today as it was 20 years ago, when the mere concept of the title seemed to make a mockery of the wrapped and tagged loot winking at the screen-struck wee ones from under the living-room tree. The Year Without a Santa Claus left behind a greater legacy than the possible end of yuletidethe Heat Miser and the Cold Miser, who war, in matching theme songs, over rights to the season.
As only a handful of men have done before themThomas Nash, Capra, Seuss, and Dickens (the Truman Capote thing never really caught on)Rankin, Bass, and Laws have added to the lexicon of Christmas myths and fantasies. The Peanuts special, while immortal as a television artifact, was too much a pretext for a literal representation of Charles Schulz’s Christian righteousness to contribute much fresh material; after all, its ostensible thrill may be the mysteriously flourishing little Charlie Brown tree, but its set-piece scene is Linus’ recitation of the gospel according to St. Luke.
Rankin, Bass, and Laws’ singular gimmick is to exclude grown-up concerns entirely from the mixcautionary tales, like the one about the misguided tot who wished it were Christmas every day, mean nothing to kids who, of course, wish it were indeed Christmas every day and don’t give a fig about shopping stress. As for The Bear Who Wanted to See Christmasfuck him, he’s a bear. Rankin and Bass make up outrageous scenarios that hold to a number of deathless holiday truths: Presents are great; Santa is cool; grownups are stingy; snow is magical; and kids feel like strangers in a threatening, oversized landscape. Cheap and dated, these specials have cemented in many people’s memory a tradition that feels individual even as it glows from the communal airwavesa tough task, and a valuable one. Real Christmas spirit does not discriminate according to grown-ups’ notions of high-class entertainment, and it’s a good thing it doesn’t, or kids would have less to call their own. And I love fruitcake.Arion Berger