Things I Learned from TV Christmas Specials

As a child I always looked forward to that annual rite of the holiday season: the prime time broadcast of animated Christmas specials. I’m not sure why these meant so much to me–some of them were downright bizarre.

Now that my four-year-old daughter has been asking to watch some of them, I began thinking about the actual content. Here’s a run down of my impressions of a few of the TV specials. (If I get some of the details wrong, excuse me, but I’m not going to go back and re-view every one. My memory should be good enough, having watched all of them annually for more than ten years.)

A Charlie Brown Christmas

I did watch this one recently–I picked up a DVD and settled in with my daughter and a bucket of popcorn. I was surprised at a couple of things. For one, its only 30 minutes long. I remember it as a feature length film. I guess it seemed more of an epic tale when I was a kid. Also surprising, there are several threats of physical violence in the show. Not that I mind a little fighting in children’s programming–it just came as a surprise that the Peanuts gang seemed to resolve many of their conflicts by simply punching each other in the face. When my daughter asked about it I just said, “I think these kids are from California.” I know it made no sense, but it put an end to the conversation.

What did not surprise me about the Charlie Brown special was the now de rigueur message about the over-commercialization of Christmas. I guess this was a quaint theme in 1970 but I think we’ve heard enough of it by now. Can we all just admit that commercialization puts food on everyone’s table and is basically the engine that drives everything that is good, convenient, tasty, and comfortable about our lives?

But despite this, this is still an absolute classic because of the Vince Gauraldi score. That jazz soundtrack is one of the great contributions to Western Culture, and to me, the sound of the holiday season.

Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town

This is probably the best written of all in the creepy-yet mesmerizing “puppet animation genre” that dominated the Christmas specials of my youth. In it, Santa needs a foil, and when you’re a writer looking for where to go for your villain, it’s an easy choice to stick with the Germans. The evil Burgermeister-Meisterburger (huh?) wants to stop Christmas because, naturally, he’s opposed to toys and happiness. Santa, a rebel, perseveres and brings joy to children everywhere. Excellent.

Standout scene: The Winter Warlock’s upbeat motivational song “Put One Foot in Front of the Other.” A great lesson about about achieving one’s goals by taking baby steps. It sticks with me to this day!

Frosty the Snowman

I’m not letting my daughter watch this one. It traumatized me as a child. The writers decided to up the dramatic stakes of the hit song, making the famed “old silk hat they found” belong to an evil magician, who **Spoiler Alert** proceeds to murder Frosty by locking him in a greenhouse. I know they eventually resurrect him, but I never saw that part. I was too busy weeping into the sofa cushions. To this day arboretums make me claustrophobic.

The Year without a Santa Claus

Where does one begin with this one? Mickey Rooney cancels Christmas, and then Mrs. Claus goes Pagan and enlists the Heat Miser and Cold Miser (as you know, the sons of Mother Nature, who jealously rule over the Northern and Southern Hemispheres) to generally freak out the children of earth so they will trick Santa into going through with the holiday. The hippie writers for Rankin/Bass Studios may have been trying to send kids a coded message about global warming. I guess they were ahead of their time.

The Little Drummer Boy

Here’s where things started to really jump the shark puppet. I know the producers were under the gun to crank out a new one of these specials every year, but let’s face it, the story of the little drummer boy is a little thin to begin with. A boy played a drum. That’s it. Even the writers of the song had to pad the lyrics by repeating “ba rumpa bum bum” every other line.

Even though I saw this many times, it didn’t leave much of an impression. I’m sure it featured an anti-commercialization message, punctuated every ten minutes with a commercial break. (Which I enjoyed–to me it wasn’t Christmas until I saw Santa riding in a Norelco Shaver.)

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Departing from their usual humanist/utopian setting for the North Pole, the folks at Rankin/Bass present a draconian world, with Santa as a vindictive industrialist who runs what amounts to a sweatshop. The one elf who has aspirations beyond working in a factory for the rest of his life is thrown out into the cold, where he meets Rudolph, a reindeer who was also banished for deviating ever so slightly from the norm. They make their way to the Land of Misfit Toys, literally an internment camp for handicapped toys, obviously maimed by Santa’s overworked “employees.”

Now, wheres the lesson? Does Santa finally get his comeuppance when he crash-lands on the prison island of his own making? No, the toys run to embrace him! They love him! Then, when the perceived defects of Rudolph and Herbie the Elf prove useful, Santa exploits them, too. In the end, the one creature with an ounce of individuality left in him, The Abominable Snowman, is forcibly de-fanged and given a humiliating once-a-year job as a Christmas tree-topper.

The message of this one appears to be: “If you have something about you that makes you special, hide it until you can be of use to someone in charge.” Pragmatic perhaps, but hardly heartwarming.

Nevertheless, with the exception of Frosty, I’d let my daughter watch any of these. With lessons in environmentalism, anti-commercialism, and conformity–it’s like another day at pre-school.

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