I have five children, and age has caused four of them to have incurable Santa skepticism. We have therefore focused our efforts on our youngest, age 8, who is still willing to give Mr. Kringle the benefit of the doubt. He has a lot of questions, though, and so I’ve told him all about the evil Burgermeister Meisterburger and how the Winter Warlock’s enchanted corn made the reindeer fly and everything else I know about Kris Kringle. Except he already knew all that, because he’d seen the Fred Astaire version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”
And then it dawned on me that all I know about Santa Claus has been culled from ancient TV Christmas specials.
Christmas is all about tradition, and I’m heartened to discover that when it comes to TV specials, many traditions endure, and the same hokey, animated TV specials I grew up on are the ones my kids watch. Indeed, they’re the only ones my kids actually like.
Yes, the production quality pales in comparison to modern animation techniques, but that doesn’t matter in the least. In fact, the ones with the crummiest animation are best ones. "A Charlie Brown Christmas" is clumsy, but it’s still wonderful after all these years because of its flaws, not in spite of them. It’s apparent the children that provide the voices for the characters have no idea what they’re saying half the time. Listen when Sally says, “All I want is what’s coming to me. All I want is my fair share,” and you’ll realize that the little girl probably learned the lined phonetically. If that’s the best take they have, I’d be interested in seeing what they left on the cutting room floor.
Linus’ recitation of Luke Chapter 2 is by the far the finest moment in any Christmas special anywhere. The kid who played Linus, who sadly passed away three years ago, admitted he didn’t appreciate what he was doing when he recorded his lines, but watching it as an adult moved him to tears, as detailed in a 2005 USA Today article. This special program definitely shows its age, yet it never gets old.
The same is true of "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" — the Boris Karloff treasure, not the Jim Carrey movie abomination — and it’s perfect. Absolutely perfect. Besides being poignant, it’s also quite funny, and it has an edge to it. I don’t think if it were made today, they’d let the Grinch whip Max, the put-upon, kind-hearted dog, as often as he does. I’m also not sure the subversive, brilliant music would fly, either.
If you don’t laugh out loud whenever you hear “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” you have no sense of humor. Your heart might be full of unwashed socks, and your soul could very well be full of gunk. You may even have termites in your smile, which would require the attention of a medical professional.
What’s especially remarkable about the show is it delivers a sacred message in a secular setting. There are absolutely no references to the religious elements of Christmas. The Grinch only learns that Christmas doesn’t come from a store, and that it “means a little bit more.” The viewer is left to determine what that little bit more is, but it’s hard to miss the story of forgiveness and redemption that’s perfectly in line with the Christian tradition. It may well be the most Christian Christmas special of them all.
In any case, the lessons these short TV programs teach are timeless, even if the production values are not. I won’t be surprised if my grandchildren end up watching them, too.
If they don’t, then I wouldn’t touch them with a thirty-nine-and-a-half-foot pole.
Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.