This article originally appeared in Tom Nichols’ newsletter, Peacefield, available with an Atlantic subscription. Sign up here.
I just turned 61 years old, and people my age know what that means at Christmas.
No, it’s not about remembering to double up on our statins before chugging the eggnog. Very funny. Ha ha.
I mean, of course, that my age makes me a member of Generation Jones, a child of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Unlike the earlier Boomers raised on insipid 1950s television that provided no real Christmas specials, I grew up with a torrent of holiday programming that included Rudolph, Frosty, Charlie Brown, and many others. These Christmas specials are now beloved by multiple generations and they have ruled cable and network television for a half century or more.
And so I thought I would spread my own curmudgeonly version of holiday cheer by slagging most of them and reminding you that only a few are truly worth watching, because I suspect they make people happy and I cannot allow that to continue.
(I am going to leave aside Christmas movies. There are too many of them to mention, and the right answers are always It’s a Wonderful Life and George C. Scott’s version of A Christmas Carol anyway.)
Let’s begin with the granddaddy of them all, the stop-motion puppet show Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Produced by the team of Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass in 1964, Rudolph became an industry, spawning toys and collectibles and a legion of die-hard fans. (There are a few in my own family.) It has pleasant songs and touching moments, if you like that sort of thing.
It’s also terrible.
I feel a bit of guilt saying this, because my late mother loved that show, and every year when I was a boy, we watched it together because she thought that I loved it just as much as she did. I didn’t mind; I loved my mom, and when it appeared, it meant both my birthday and Christmas were near, so I was happy enough.
But yikes, what a story. I am not the first person to notice this—my Atlantic colleague Caitlin Flanagan wrote the definitive takedown of this nightmare in 2020—but everyone in Christmas Town is a jerk. From Santa—a choleric coot who runs the North Pole like a Depression-era factory executive—to the dictatorial head elf, to Donner and the other reindeer bigots, they’re all dislikable. (“My name’s Fireball,” says one of the reindeer punks. “You can be my buddy.” Screw you, Fireball. You can be my buddy, or you can go pound snow.)
Rudolph was supposed to be a Christmas story about differences and acceptance and redemption and family being what you make it and yada yada yada. No matter how much tinsel you throw over it, however, it’s still just a story about a snooty little town that accepts a freak only when he proves he can do something useful.
Worse, it sends the message that Christmas really is all about Santa and toys. Santa looks at Christmas as a job; he’s a crabby airline pilot who has to cancel his flight due to weather. If that means no Christmas, well, that’s how it has to be, kids.
(And yes, by the way, at the end an elf in fact does throw a flightless toy bird out of the sleigh. While we don’t see it, I imagine the poor bird hits the ground “like sacks of wet cement,” much like the turkeys in the now-classic Thanksgiving episode of the old WKRP in Cincinnati.
The story nonetheless has charm, I grant you, and yes, I watch it every year out of nostalgia and because I still miss my mom.
The problem is that because Rudolph was a giant hit, Rankin and Bass wouldn’t stop. In 1970, we got Santa’s origin story in Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town—don’t ask; it involves a warlock and a penguin—and in 1974 we got the hathotic mess titled The Year Without a Santa Claus.
The Year Without a Santa Claus was based, apparently, on a book from the 1950s, but I’ve seen this one a dozen times and I can’t begin to explain the plot. It introduced us to Snow Miser and Heat Miser, but I never knew what their beef was about, and in any case, by 1974 I was 13 and I was noticing girls. The only amusing detail, as my wife always points out, is that Matt Gaetz and Heat Miser are obviously the same person.
Rankin/Bass also did a lot of cartoons, and they were lousy. The sly humor and careful painting found in animation from the 1940s to the early 1960s were mostly meant for movie theaters, where there would also be adults in the audience. Once TV became the king of media, most cartoons were just slapstick and cheap artwork aimed at placating very young children with very short attention spans.
Frosty the Snowman, in particular, is a Rankin/Bass crime that I hated instantly the moment it aired—on my ninth birthday, in 1969, no less—and that refuses to go away. Whatever you thought about Rudolph, it had a kind of innocent beauty to it. Frosty, featuring a cameo from Jimmy Durante and the excessive vocal hamminess of the character actor Billy De Wolfe as the bad guy, was cynical dreck.
And why, you might ask, was Durante in this thing? Because Rankin/Bass, for some reason, assumed that kids like me loved old-timey stars. These specials over the years featured such ostensible children’s heroes as Durante, Shirley Booth, Red Buttons, Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney, George S. Irving, and, in a bizarre 1979 misfire, Ethel Merman.
Who were these specials made for? The middle-aged guys drinking boilermakers and listening to the Mills Brothers on the jukebox over at the American Legion bar back in my old neighborhood? What child’s eyes lit up realizing that Mrs. Claus was voiced by the maid in Hazel, a dull network sitcom that went off the air in 1966?
In 1968, Rankin/Bass did produce one interesting experiment, the stop-motion special The Little Drummer Boy, which included the beautiful voice of José Ferrer. It’s still around, but you don’t see it much; some Arab American communities over the years have objected to the portrayal of Arabs, and it has a pretty Jesus-heavy ending, which, come to think of it, is probably why it didn’t have a lot of staying power in a market full of magic snowman hats and misfit toys.
Once you clear away all this detritus, there are two greats that should be the mainstay of your Christmas watching, and you already know what they are: How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Kids may not have known who Durante was, but we all knew Boris Karloff. He was Frankenstein, and his voice was scary. We all knew Dr. Seuss, too; we were raised on him.
But the MVP in making How the Grinch Stole Christmas back in 1966 was the legendary Warner Bros. animation director Chuck Jones.
As a child, I was not a Seuss fan. I was one of the kids—and I was not alone in this—who thought his drawings were kind of creepy. (I also wasn’t big into nonsensical rhymes. I was an old soul even as a boy.) Jones, however, took Seuss’s raggedy, weird art and transformed it, giving it the fourth-wall smirkiness and side-eye jokes that made everything he did at Warner Bros. an instant classic.
I remember hearing an interview with Jones many years ago somewhere in which he said that he and the other Warner animators were a bunch of young guys trying to make one another laugh, and if kids laughed too, that was great. That sensibility shows in The Grinch. I was able to watch it at different times of my life and still love the jokes and songs in a different way.
And the songs are a gas, including the famous ode to the Grinch’s nastiness. Thurl Ravenscroft—the voice of cereal-pitch-critter Tony the Tiger—had to torque his amazing pipes around lines like “You nauseate me, Mr. Grinch / With a nauseous super naus.” It’s all wonderfully nutty. There’s a reason no one today sings the treacly gunk from Rudolph but the vocal group Straight No Chaser still does the Grinch song as part of their annual Christmas concert.
Far more important, however, is that How the Grinch Stole Christmas is the anti-Rudolph. In Rudolph, Christmas gets called off because North Pole Runway Three-Five-Niner is socked in. In The Grinch, it comes whether you want it to or not. It was a lesson to children that Christmas is always Christmas, even if some green war criminal wants to feed all your stuff into a wood chipper.
(Which is what should have been done to the Jim Carrey movie version of The Grinch, but I digress.)
As the Grinch learns, the day “means a little bit more” than ribbons and bells. While How the Grinch Stole Christmas doesn’t say it out loud, it’s clear that the “little bit more” is actually about something spiritual: the redemption of all people, including Whos and Grinches.
Which brings me to A Charlie Brown Christmas.
If you could watch only one Christmas special with your kids, this is the one. In 26 minutes, you get it all. There’s wonderful animation for children, but even as adults, who among us has not danced every dance from the party scene? There’s wry 1960s-time-capsule humor, from Lucy as a shrink—something still novel back then—to pink aluminum Christmas trees. There’s laugh-out-loud gags and there’s sarcasm. There’s affecting and adorable voice acting (listen for baby sister Sally struggling with her line: “All I want is what I ha—have coming to me …”). There’s timeless music—including Vince Guaraldi and jazz, for crying out loud.
And most of all, there’s the actual mention of what the day is all about. When Charlie Brown gives up on understanding the meaning of Christmas, Linus takes center stage, asks for a spotlight, and humbly recites the announcement of the birth of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke as if it’s a perfectly normal thing for a small child to know by heart. It’s one of my favorite moments when Linus then turns to Charlie, without rancor or sarcasm, and says: “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
It’s that simple.
By all means, watch Rudolph. I do, even if just to nudge my wife and mention it every time Santa is a giant tool. If you want to sing along with Heat Miser because you learned to do it while buzzed in college—I’m not saying I did, but I’ve heard, you know, stories—by all means indulge yourself. If you have warm feelings about Frosty … well, I’m sorry for your lonely childhood, but enjoy.
No matter what you’re watching this season, however, make sure to visit with the monstrous green hair ball whose heart grows three sizes, and a little boy whose Christmas is changed by hearing the words “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
Because “that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”