- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 18, 2003

If you’re old enough, you warmly remember the charming Christmas television programming that used to grace the airwaves from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day.

There were animated classics such as “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol” (1962), voiced by Jim Backus and Morey Amsterdam, with a first-rate score by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill of “Funny Girl” fame, and “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” (1966), narrated by Boris Karloff and directed by legendary Warner Bros. animator Chuck Jones.

There were stop-action Animagic and Claymation gems such as “The Story of the First Christmas Snow” (1975) featuring Angela Lansbury and Cyril Ritchard. There were both original programs for TV and feature films: “The Robe,” “Holiday Inn,” and Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

These ghosts of Christmas Past ranged in tone from the overtly religious (Leo McCarey’s “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” George Stevens’ “The Greatest Story Ever Told”) to the more secular/sentimental, such as the 1947 fable that founded the whole “believe in the magic of Santa” genre, “Miracle on 34th Street.” (See sidebar for more.)

But whatever their medium or their ultimate religious perspective, the Christmas programs that generations of American children — of all faiths — grew up on shared a kindred spirit: They offered sincere messages of hope and charity, love and redemption.

Whatever happened to the wholesome and spiritually uplifting television fare of yesteryear, highbrow and kitsch alike? Well, it changed. And it grew scarce. Finally it almost disappeared.

It’s difficult to generalize, but Christmas depicted on television seemed to undergo a transformation paralleling that of other once-sacred beliefs and institutions in our culture over recent decades.

The change in attitude toward Christmas on television might be broadly characterized as a three-step process: dilution, distancing, and derision.

First, Christmas on TV was watered down. Religious content gave way to ever more secular, albeit still moral, themes. Next, Christmas programs became ironic toward and alienated from the central meaning and symbolism of Christmas. Finally, Christmas entertainment on both the small and large screen became openly and sometimes viciously mocking.

One vanished Christmastime staple serves as a gauge of how radically things changed: Gian Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” Premiering on NBC Christmas Eve 1951, this was the first opera ever commissioned for television. Marking the first time many American viewers had been exposed to opera, its appearance filled us with a sense that our nation was coming of age culturally. It also took for granted that America was in general an outpost of European Christendom.

Vanished also are a magically beautiful dance production of Beatrix Potter’s “The Tailor of Gloucester” starring Ian Holm and “Silent Mouse,” a whimsical retelling of how “Silent Night” came to be composed, both narrated by the caressing, plummy voice of Lynn Redgrave.

The dilution-of-Christmas phase was largely a product of the playful pop culture of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Many of the shows produced by the team of Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr. pushed Christmas in a secular elves-and-reindeer direction, though they did so with sweetness and light. In “Pinocchio’s Christmas” (1980), for instance, the winsome puppetry of Rankin-Bass Productions retells the Colodi tale as the wooden boy’s quest for a Christmas present for Gepetto.

Gradually belief in Santa Claus came to be substituted for belief in Christ’s Nativity as the season’s central message. For example, in the movie “The Christmas Path,” it is Santa who sends an angel called Balthazar to restore a young boy’s loss of faith — in Santa.

A second substitution has been to locate “the true meaning of Christmas” in sentimental reconciliations with family: “There’s no place like home for the holidays.” Shows and films based on this premise are almost too numerous to list. (See “The Replacements.”)

With the original meaning of the holiday largely supplanted, more and more offerings began to ridicule the Santa Claus fable itself. Starting with 1983’s “A Christmas Story,” Saint Nick has devolved into a dumb, bad-tempered fat guy attended by snide reindeer and sarcastic elves.

By 2002, the mean-spirited “A Christmas Story” seemed to be plugged in wherever “It’s a Wonderful Life” used to be shown. Turner Network Television even ran this “instant classic” six times in a row on Christmas Day. This year, the R-rated theatrical release “Bad Santa” takes the get-Santa genre to a new low.

Meanwhile, on Christmas Day last year the Nashville Network (now Spike) was showing James Bond movies all day, Turner Broadcasting System was specializing in John Wayne, American Movie Classics was indulging in beach-party flicks, USA offered Adam Sandler, Bravo was showcasing the “Godfather” trilogy, and the History Channel was presenting historical and archaeological dissections of Christ. Turner Classic Movies did show “The Miracle of the Bells,” “The Bells of St. Mary’s” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told” before shifting, in prime time, to “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Yentl.” The major networks — ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox — were virtually Christmas-free.

Yet the nadir seems to have been reached. Tantalizing signs of a change in TV programming abound this year. Media executives may finally have processed the message that a significant chunk of their audience — the92 percent of consumers who tell pollsters they plan to celebrate Christmas — is far from “offended” by explicit Christmas themes.

Radio has belatedly rediscovered that large numbers of listeners love to hear Christmas music at this time of year. And that is exactly what TV seems to be relearning this season: Several of the good old shows are back, as are efforts to create specials with stars such as Harry Connick Jr., and Barry Manilow.

The animated “Grinch” has been shown repeatedly on the Cartoon Channel. ABC has nipped in already with “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” On Christmas Day, Turner Classic Movies will screen “From the Manger to the Cross,” “King of Kings,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and “Ben-Hur.”

The ABC (formerly Fox) Family Channel has been perhaps the most active in meeting the thirst for Christmas content, starting to air favorites like “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” “Nestor,” “The Little Drummer Boy” and “The Year Without Santa Claus” right after Thanksgiving.

Even more nostalgically, WETA Channel 26 (PBS) just screened “The Best of the Andy Williams Christmas Shows.” The station will also air lots of Christmas music in addition to analytical inquiries such as “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians” and “Peter and Paul and the Christian Revolution.” NBC will show “It’s a Wonderful Life” on Christmas Eve.

Check your local listings: Christmas is making a comeback, and it’s nearly here.

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