'Tis the season for "holiday programming." Networks haul out reruns of Christmas specials made long, long ago. And for many viewers, watching these classics each and every year has become a staple of their Christmas observance.
Though these are definitely about Christmas-as opposed to Hannukah, Kwanzaa, or other celebrations the culture is attempting to lump together into a generic "holiday"-few of the TV Christmas classics have any references to the birth of Jesus Christ. What they provide are good clues to what secularists celebrate instead.
For many people, the true meaning of Christmas is nostalgia. They try to recreate their old Christmas memories, back when they were children. Cynics recall the relative innocence of their childhood, when they believed in wonders, ideals, and something beyond themselves, even if it was only Santa Claus. And they remember the family warmth and togetherness they experienced at Christmas. Adults, in turn, want to give their children the same happy Christmas memories.
Thus, adults watch Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer mainly because they watched them as children, bringing back fond memories of Christmas past. They then inflict them on their own children, so they too will have happy memories. Other Christmas fare fixates on an idealized childhood. Miracle on 34th Street, 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, and the newer Polar Express see the meaning of Christmas as having something to do with a child's being able to believe in Santa Claus.
The best of the nostalgia genre is A Christmas Story, the saga of Ralphie's quest to get a Red Ryder B.B. gun under the tree. This story conjures up specific childhood memories-the tongue stuck to frozen metal, dealing with bullies, the mother's warning that if you're not careful you'll shoot your eye out-that adults today can recall from their own childhoods. And whereas most Christmas nostalgia-fests are sentimentalized, A Christmas Story is honest, recognizing that childhood was actually a time of disappointments, fears, and humiliations that are indeed very funny but only in retrospect.
Other Christmas classics recognize that the holiday has something to do with benevolence. Without saying anything about Jesus Christ, they do have a moral or even redemptive theme. Bing Crosby's White Christmas, made just after World War II, attaches Christmas sentiment to honoring army buddies. Even the made-for-TV movies on Lifetime or Oxygen usually show a person changing for the better during Christmastime.
The best of this lot is It's a Wonderful Life. The Jimmy Stewart classic goes beyond mere moralizing to reflect on the meaning of life, showing that an ordinary man's seemingly insignificant existence is tied to the well-being of others in a vast network of purpose. The movie does reflect a Christian worldview, and it does include a transcendent spiritual reference point, namely, angels. But, unfortunately, it says nothing about the wonderful life of Jesus.
A whole sub-genre of Christmas fare has arisen about people who hate Christmas. These are all the progeny of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. The original novella did refer to Christ-once when the charity worker is appealing to Scrooge to give money to a good cause and again in the account of Tiny Tim going to church-but its descendants focus on someone who is so hardhearted as to despise the charms of the season, until the spirit of Christmas changes him after all. Ebenezer Scrooge lives on, not only in the various versions Dickens' tales-the best of which is the 1951 Christmas Carol with Alastair Sim-but in How the Grinch Stole Christmas and the newer Christmas with the Kranks.
But are there any Christmas specials that are actually about the birth of Christ? There are a few, such as The Little Drummer Boy and Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey, though these have not risen to the status of classics. But the best Christmas TV show of them all does get it right.
A Charlie Brown Christmas deals precisely with the misunderstandings of Christmas-the commercialism, the frustrations, the frenetic efforts to attain a perfect holiday. But the story is resolved when Linus on the stage simply recites the account of Christ's birth from the second chapter of Luke. "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord." That is the best moment in Christmas TV.