Wednesday, December 09, 2009

What's So Special About Christmas?

Growing up I watched a lot of television. Frequently various Ph.D. types are trotted out to explain that prolonged viewing of television can have detrimental effects on children. For one thing it can cause damage to a person’s ability to focus attention on just one thing for extended periods of time. I disagree. I am perfectly capable of staying on task for protracted…oh, look, a squirrel! (OK, so that joke was telegraphed from the home office in Scranton, Pennsylvania, but that doesn’t mean I…oooo, shiny)

Anyway, this time of year for a child of 60’s and 70’s television was rife with “specials”. We had Andy Williams, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Perry Como and later Glenn Campbell, John Denver and The Carpenters. These were happy little hours of singing and jokes, no bitterness, no anger, no duplicitous actions in order to advance selfish goals. In other words they wouldn’t make it past the first executive meeting at television networks today.

I really liked those shows, because they were special – meaning different. It was a Christmas television special which brought Bing Crosby and David Bowie together to sing a duet. Bing Crosby, a crooner from the days of big bands, and David Bowie, a slightly androgynous glam rocker, standing side by side singing about peace on Earth and a little drummer boy (and they weren’t talking about Ringo).

There were also the great animated kids programs. We were very careful to know when they were going to be broadcast. It was a real bummer (that word was appropriate then) if Charlie Brown was going to be on when you had to be gone doing the school program. We all remember those elementary school extravaganzas complete with a ten-year-old Santa Claus who wasn’t allowed to wear the beard because it might muffle the voice which was yet to be affected by puberty so he really just looked and sounded like an overgrown elf. (This is true. I was that overgrown elf at Roosevelt Elementary School, December 1972.) There was no VCR, DVR, or TiVo so if you missed it you missed it until next year.

That was another thing which made them special. They were only available one night, once a year. Now my children have on demand entertainment. They can watch the Grinch any month of the year, any time, day or night. The sheer availability of it makes it less special.

As a disclaimer I have to say I watched Chuck Jones’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” recently on one of them new fangled DVD contraptions and it is still really good. When the Grinch is bothered by his dog Max’s behavior and he looks straight out of the television at us it is funnier than anything Jim Carrey has done or ever will do. In addition, not only does Thurl Ravenscroft have one of the all-time great names, he also has one of the all-time great performances when he sings “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”. (“Your heart is full of unwashed socks. Your soul is full of gunk.” Now those are lyrics.)

Some of the classics don’t hold up as well. Every Christmas season my family, which has three girls in it, watches the Rankin/Bass “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”. While we do enjoy Burl Ives and I personally love Yukon Cornelius’s way of checking for silver and gold there is one point which has started a new holiday tradition in our household. When the big blizzard hits towards the end there is a line about how it was important to “get the women folk back to Christmastown.” This always gets a boisterous Bronx cheer from the Pyle women folk. Not only does the show give a message that anyone who is different from the group should be shunned and ridiculed, at least until the powers that be find a way to exploit that abnormality for personal gain, it’s sexist to boot.

For those us who grew up in this part of Kansas Christmas also meant “Santa’s Workshop” with Santa and KAKEman (or Toy Boy when they jumped networks). This was free form, stream of consciousness conversation done by a guy and a puppet with a budget of about seven dollars and fifty cents, but I loved it. Actually, my sister gave me a DVD featuring snippets from the show a while back and I still get a huge kick out of it. I can’t wait to go zooming around the big wide world, zooming and zooming…