Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Classic TV Christmas Blues

 Is Christmas everything it used to be?

That question has been a frequent topic of discussion over the past few years. From ministers and cable TV pundits to retail employees receiving edicts on what to say and what not to say to customers, for many the simple pleasures of the holiday have been lost among the controversy. It’s sad, but most of us attribute these misfortunes to the times in which we live.

That’s why it is somewhat surprising, and even amusing, to hear these same objections raised in classic TV shows that first aired more than half a century ago. As many adults dream about celebrating the kind of old-fashioned Christmases they found so fulfilling as a child, these shows suggest that such laments were already familiar in the era that now seems so idyllic by comparison.

“A Very Merry Christmas,” from the first season of The Donna Reed Show, aired on Christmas Eve of 1958. The story focuses on Donna’s concern that nothing is apparently being planned for the children’s ward of the hospital where her husband Alex works. She later discovers that the hospital’s janitor, Charlie (played by legendary silent film comedian Buster Keaton) is in charge of the annual Christmas party, which takes place right on schedule.

But earlier in the episode, Donna watches her daughter Mary fret over whether she should buy a gift for one of her friends, since that friend hasn’t given her anything yet, and hears her son Jeff complain that he’s probably going to lose money on Christmas because he spent more on presents than he’s received. She also barely survives a trip to a frenzied department store to buy a last minute gift for one of Alex’s co-workers.

“Was Christmas always like this?” she asks Alex. “Christmas should be warm, and friendly, and peaceful.” “Christmas hasn’t changed,” he tells her. “Maybe wrapped up in too many ribbons, but its still Christmas.”

Later, Charlie echoes Donna’s sentiments: “I love watching children at Christmas. It’s a shame we took it away from them.” 

Father Knows Best was another series we now associate with the more wholesome, family-oriented 1950s. Aired during that series’ first season, “The Christmas Story” (1952) finds Jim Anderson disillusioned with his family’s cynicism. “Why can’t we have Christmas the way it used to be? Quiet…simple…” Later, he chastises his children for their materialism. “Have you forgotten the meaning of Christmas? Have you forgotten everything you learned at Sunday School?”

Determined to celebrate the holiday right, Jim drags the whole family up to the mountains so they can cut down their own Christmas tree.  His plan goes awry when the car gets stuck in a snowdrift, and they are forced to seek shelter in an abandoned fishing lodge.

By episode’s end they’ve all rediscovered the true meaning of Christmas, thanks to a kindly stranger in a white beard – but it’s Jim’s nostalgic reflections that are most interesting. He’d be in his early 40s in 1952, so his memories of when Christmas was celebrated right would date back almost to the turn of the 20th century. And if there were TV shows back then, I’m sure someone would regret how the holiday has changed since the glory days of the 1870s. 

What should we take away from this? That perhaps we should spend less time moaning about how Christmas has changed, and more time enjoying what it still represents. This is a day of good tidings of great joy, whether one believes that Christ was a savior or merely a wise and compassionate man. Sure, there have been some statements made and actions taken in the name of political correctness that I find unsettling, but none of them can or will change the way I celebrate the holiday.

No one can take Christmas away from you. And no one can force you to celebrate if it’s not something you wish to observe. And if Christmas today doesn’t seem as special as the ones you enjoyed as a child, that’s probably as it should be. Just ask Donna Reed.

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