If people can buy Christmas trees the day after Thanksgiving I can write about it… and it is that time of year — the TV Christmas special. 

In the day, they really were kind of special, with entertainment heavyweights like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby putting on yearly variety shows on TV with a Christmas theme. Sure, Bob would probably do a skit or two that had little or nothing to do with Christmas, but you could be sure that there would also be the same number of religiously themed Christmas songs performed by a guest star with vigor and respect.

And if you are ever in need of an out-of-body, otherworldly experience, find the segment on YouTube of Bing Crosby singing a Christmas duet with David Bowie from one of the late crooner’s last Christmas specials.

Though luminaries like Bob and Bing are long gone, oddly enough, all those, at least to me, disturbingly strange stop-action animation specials have weathered decades and decades of wear and are still shown on network television. They have survived global cooling, global warming, climate change…and if they keep going, they may even survive Keith Richards!

I think the clinical word for these stop action animation epics is “creepy.” At least they have always been creepy to me from the time they were fresh and new, and I was in their supposed demographic wheelhouse through the times my own children were creeped out by them.

I am not a total Scrooge though. I suspend my need for spiritually uplifting Christmas themed entertainment about the real Christmas story and can — and have — thoroughly enjoyed more “mainstream” faire. 

There’s a reason “It’s a Wonderful Life” found a second life on TV even though it wasn’t quite right for the 1947 movie audience when it debuted. And other lesser pleasures like “It Happened on 5th Avenue” and “The Bishop’s Wife” are still solid entertainment and although, very secular in their “holiday” messaging, well worth the time…if it’s snowing outside.

And I still think the original “Miracle on 34th Street” is about as solid a screenplay that has ever been written. When the great actor Edmund Gwynn, who plays Santa to a dubious little girl, speaks Dutch to a couple of war refugees, I still get a little teary eyed. Even Santa, who has become the hallmark (more about Hallmark later) of the commercialization of Christmas — note I did not say “over-commercialization,” as any commercialization of this most holy day is a little odd — is based on a great saint who did in fact bring gifts to the poor and for the purpose of showing Christ in his charity. So what if the 19th century foaming at the mouth anti-Catholic cartoonist Thomas Nast gave us the first rendition of “St. Nick” as a jolly fat man and then the Coca Cola Company swooped in for the kill, giving us a Santa who just happened to wear the same color palate as their bottled soft drink. Still, Santa is okay in my book.

What isn’t so okay though is the scourge of popular culture also known as the Hallmark Channel during the Christmas season. Like a twisted version of Brigadoon, the cable channel morphs into a kind of giant holiday-themed made-for-TV movie machine that captivates millions. More than a couple of my extended family members, who, in the interest of public safety, will go unnamed, are numbered among them.

Just as Keith Richards seems to have an endless supply of regenerative brain cells, the Hallmark Channel churns out dozens of these “feel good” movies that are supposed to leave us feeling warm and fuzzy inside. I just feel fuzzy…I mean, how many times can people watch the same story of the high-strung, super career-focused executive woman whose car breaks down in a quaint little town that is run by a handsome widower sheriff who then forms a reluctant bond with the sheriff’s precocious daughter or son. Or, if they really want to get creative and edgy, they do a movie about a high-strung, super career-focused executive man whose car breaks down in a quaint small town that is run by a pretty widowed sheriff with a precocious son or daughter.

Don’t worry, everything will work out in the end. The snow will gently fall, and everyone will learn a valuable life lesson. They just aren’t going to learn much about the incarnation of the savior of the world.

Get the picture?         


Robert Brennan is a weekly columnist for Angelus online and in print. He has written for many Catholic publications, including National Catholic Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He spent 25 years as a television writer, and is currently the Director of Communications for the Salvation Army California South Division.

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