The Birth of the Mostly-Secular Christmas Special
In the 1960s, Rudolph, the Grinch, and Charlie Brown Brought Us All Together
It may seem innocuous on the surface. But was the Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer cartoon really the start of the “War on Christmas”?
Just take a closer look. It’s ostensibly a show about Christmas. But the cartoon ends up pushing the holiday well into the background, doesn’t it? It actually focuses on the attempts of the show’s lead characters, a self-described group of “misfits,” seeking—no, demanding—acceptance from their community, despite their defiant nonconformity. Clearly, nothing more than a typical liberal plea for diversity. And there’s no mention at all about why we celebrate Christmas in the first place; no explanation about the real “reason for the season.” Talk about taking the Christ out of Christmas!
Okay, so that’s a bit heavy-handed. But perhaps not completely far-fetched; after all, we are a culture where people still manage to find time in their busy lives to take offense at a coffee cup that’s not “Christmassy” enough. And while it may seem that when Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and How The Grinch Stole Christmas, three of our most beloved Christmas specials, first aired in the 1960s, it was a calmer, less fraught era, people still had concerns about how to depict Christmas. It was tricky to work out the best way to do a program with broad secular appeal, containing nothing that anybody would find offensive, about a religious holiday.
The Animagic of Christmas
Rudolph holds the distinction of being the longest-running Christmas TV special, first airing in 1964, and every year since. It was based on the Johnny Marks song of the same name, with the storyline expanded to add new characters. But the show’s most striking element was the stop-motion animation technique, dubbed “Animagic” by the production team of Arthur Ranking and Jules Bass. Marks also wrote a number of new songs for the cartoon.
The show opts to strike a thoroughly secular note, avoiding any reference to religion whatsoever. In essence, it’s not a story about Christmas, but one that simply takes place during Christmas. Along with the holly jolly songs and the dramatic rescue from the fierce abominable snowman “Bumble,” the real point of the story is about the importance of not rejecting those who are different. The residents of Christmastown come to realize they were wrong to taunt Rudolph about his shiny red nose, and Rudolph, not one to carry a grudge, willingly agrees to use his bright light to guide Santa’s sleigh on that famously foggy Christmas Eve. Even the Bumble gets reformed. It’s a perfectly non-controversial, family friendly message: Everyone in a community has value.
Heart to Heart and Hand to Hand
How The Grinch Stole Christmas first aired in 1966. Like Rudolph, it drew from pre-existing material—in this case, a best-selling book—and benefitted enormously from the wonderful narration of Boris Karloff, who speaks all but 11 words in the show; the soundtrack netted Karloff a Grammy award for “Best Recording for Children.” The show also added to the Christmas canon of song with the delightful “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” sung in a booming bass by Thurl Ravenscroft.
The show takes a step toward acknowledging the spiritual meaning of the holiday, but only in the broadest terms. Once the Grinch discovers that his theft of presents and foodstuffs from the ever-cheery Whos in Whoville doesn’t deter them from celebrating, he realizes that Christmas “doesn’t come from a store” but “means a little bit more.” But the special leaves whatever that “more” might be undefined. It presents Christmas as a holiday of good fellowship, of selflessly giving to others, of coming together in the spirit of brotherly love and unity—“Welcome Christmas, while we stand/Heart to heart and hand in hand,” as the Whos sing. Not the kind of message that’s going to ruffle any feathers.
Linus’ Leap Of Faith
A Charlie Brown Christmas took the biggest leap of faith, as it were, venturing into territory where others dared not tread. As the first ever animated show to feature the “Peanuts” characters created by cartoonist Charles Schultz, it was something of a risk to begin with; unlike Rudolph and Grinch, it wasn’t based on well-known, previously published material. It took producer Lee Mendelson two years before he finally secured a deal for the special in 1965, and that was just the first of several problems.
Though the program offers the expected sights and sounds of a holiday special—falling snow, kids rehearsing for the Christmas play, traditional carols—there were also other, less orthodox elements. Jazz musician Vince Guaraldi wrote and performed most of the score; his instrumental theme “Linus and Lucy” quickly became iconic. Instead of adult actors, Mendelson used actual children, including non-professional actors, to provide the voices of the youthful characters. The network, CBS, was underwhelmed by these choices. And it saw the storyline, revolving around kids mocking Charlie Brown for choosing a skinny tree for the Christmas play, as too slight.
Another bone of contention was religion. In response to Charlie Brown’s anguished plea, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?,” his friend Linus takes center stage and recites a passage from the Bible about Christ’s birth (Luke 2:8-14). The network wasn’t pleased, and Mendelson himself had his doubts, telling the National Review, “I was leery of the religion that came into it, and I was right away opposed to it.” But Schultz was insistent and the lines stayed in.
CBS feared they might have a dud on their hands. Instead, A Charlie Brown Christmas got strong ratings and went on to receive an Emmy award. It nonetheless proved to be an exception among holiday TV shows as far as addressing religious themes. Rankin/Bass did go on to produce The Little Drummer Boy in 1968, based on the carol about a boy percussionist who sees the newly born Jesus in his manger crib. But in general, when it comes to Christmas programming, it’s seen as being safer to stay secular.
Let’s Call For A Cease Fire
None of which has kept these shows from being picked over in today’s hyper-analytical age. Fox News got in a snit last year when Huffington Post appeared to denounce Rudolph as “very disturbing” because of its depictions of bullying and abuse. Though HuffPost’s article merely collated viewer comments about the show from twitter, a number of which seemed more satiric in nature, e.g. “Watching Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. The moral of the story I’ve learned since watching it as a kid: People are dicks until they need something from you.” And Fox News (again) jumped on President Obama in 2015 for his innocuous comment during a Charlie Brown Christmas anniversary special that the show’s ultimate message was “that tiny trees just need a little love,” and not about Linus reciting the gospel.
But such criticisms miss the point, stoking division where none was intended. For Rudolph, Charlie Brown, and the Grinch each, in their own way, endeavor to bring us together, not drive us further apart. And by finding a way to make their Christmas stories hold a meaning for everyone, regardless of their beliefs, their creators were truly crafting work for the ages. Which is why they continue to resonate half a century later.