The timeless tradition of watching Christmas specials on TV: Column
You know which people make me roll my eyes? People that insist they never watch television. I’m not sure who they think they’re impressing with that nonsense. Like the rest of us are listening to them tell us all the reasons they’ve never seen an episode of “NCIS” and thinking “Wow, what a wonderfully full life they have! So busy and interesting; maybe I should stop watching television so I can be interesting too!” When what we’re really thinking is “Well you’re just missing out on Leroy Jethro Gibbs, his rotating cast of sidekicks and his oddly numbered list of rules.”
I don’t actually know many people that just sit and watch television. I turn mine on while I’m working from home or writing this column because I like the noise in the background (I’m also currently binging “M*A*S*H,” and will believe forever that that show got exponentially better once Sherman Potter and Major Charles Winchester joined the cast). And I turn on the television while I work around the house, like when I’m cleaning or changing out the seasonal decorations. I especially enjoy turning on seasonal programs to go with my seasonal decorating.
I profess that I have a special addiction to Christmas specials. I blame it on growing up in a house with parents who grew up in the time when television specials were an event. Back in the day (like, before the year 1997), if you wanted to see the stop-motion animated classic “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” there wasn’t any popping in a DVD or recording it to your TIVO, or streaming it. You had to either find out when it was coming on via commercial, the TV Guide or someone you knew, then you had to remember that date and time, and then you had to sit yourself down in front of the television to watch it right then. Because if you didn’t watch it right then, it would be a whole year before you saw it again.
So growing up, watching “Rudolph” or “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was a big deal. We’d pop popcorn, turn off all the lights but a lamp and the Christmas tree, then watch those decades-old classics on a television the size of a baby cow, housed inside a massive wooden frame so large it got its own set of Christmas decorations, and if the volume was too low, my parents had one of us kids get up and physically turn the knob till we could all hear the vocals of “Christmas Time is Here.”
And I felt lucky to have that television, because it was in color. My parents used to scare us with stories about how they had black and white televisions, and when they wanted color, they had to attach a tri-color piece of plastic to the TV that had blue on top, sepia in the middle and green at the bottom. At least I grew up knowing Rudolph had a red nose and not just assuming he had one because the song said so.
We’d watch those specials all the way through, commercials and all, because you couldn’t risk missing part of the show by manually switching to the other channels. Not that we wanted to anyway; one of the best parts of the yearly Christmas specials were the commercials that went with them. I don’t know why, but commercials back then didn’t annoy me the way commercials do now. I’d happily watch whatever the California Raisins were hocking, and the part of my Christmas list that wasn’t made up from the JC Penney catalog came from those ads.
Nowadays, I don’t make watching Christmas specials an event, probably because it's just too easy to watch them. The animated “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” must have ran for an entire week just this past November, and the live-action version with Jim Carrey is on my cable channels on random days in the summer. Between Hallmark, ABC, AMC, TBS and TNT, at just about any time from November through January, you can find a Christmas special on, and if you’ve got a streaming service? Then you’re just a few clicks away from nostalgia, even the specials that never got enough love, like “The Garfield Christmas Special” or “A Claymation Christmas,” (a personal favorite of mine — the almost-adult humor was always appealing to me).
And there’s probably some that would say that so much accessibility to what used to be “special” has lessened their value. Maybe there’s some truth to that. I don’t plan my holiday around seeing “A Christmas Story” because I know it's going to play for 24 hours straight and if I miss Ralphie cussing once, two hours later I’ll catch it again. If I get a hankering to watch Buddy the Elf talk about smiling, I find it on HBO Max and stream it while I work, and if I miss that scene because I’m typing too intently, I can always rewind and rewatch, then go back to work.
There’s not many of the specials I loved as a kid that I can’t find somewhere on television or online available to watch any time. Even my most obscure special, the Christmas episode of The New Kids on the Block cartoon show, is available on YouTube, and if you don’t know what a late 80s/early 90s thing it was for your favorite band to not only have their own cartoon show, but to also have a Very Special Christmas Episode, then you’re a millennial/Gen Z and you missed out. You weren’t any sort of celebrity in the late 80s/early 90s if you didn’t have a cartoon version of yourself that had one episode where you brought Christmas joy to the world, followed by a special message from non-cartoon you wishing us all a happy holiday.
But you know what — I’m glad all these specials I loved as a kid are so readily available. I can’t wait for the day when my supposedly smart television lets me create a playlist of all the holiday specials and movies available across all formats so I can run them on a loop for a month. “Homecoming,” the 1971 version about the Walton family, where Elizabeth got that broken doll and we all cried for her. Every Rankin-Bass animation special, even that crazy “The Life and Times of Santa Claus” one. All the Christmas episodes from “The Middle” because no one showed how the blue collars did holidays like the Hecks. Exactly zero showings of “The Polar Express” because that movie either needed to be less realistic in its animation or totally live action, but that in-between thing is just frightening.
I can’t wait for that, because it’ll be a better version of one of my prized nostalgia possessions: a VHS tape with eight hours of Christmas specials and commercials on it, made when knowing how to program a VCR to tape something was a skill you could put on a resume and you’d highly impress some hiring person. And if you knew how to program the VCR to record one channel while you were watching another? You’d go straight to a management position. And thanks to Santa from a few years ago, I can still watch it on what must be one of the last VCR/DVD combination units left in the universe. But I use that machine sparingly, because even Santa won’t be able to convince Sony to bring those things back in production.
So don’t let the rampant availability of Christmas specials, or the hipsters trying to make you feel bad about watching television, stop you from remembering the joy those movies and shows bring you. Because it's not the rarity of a Christmas show that makes it special — it’s the memories they bring back to you. It's fires and popcorn and non-smart TVs, and it's sitting together as a family, watching Rudolph guide Santa’s sleigh, just like he did when your mom was little, and just like he will when your kids are little.
Some things truly are timeless, no matter what format or screen they appear on.