At the dawn of the 1960s, a couple of New York admen named Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass created the Christmas special. Before that, the networks hadn’t been sure exactly how they should entertain children during the holiday season. They had largely come down on the side of edification, as seen in NBC’s 1951 commission of a children’s opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, broadcast live on Christmas Eve, after which the show lived on in reruns, and—also on NBC—Babes in Toyland, a turn-of-the-last-century operetta based on the Mother Goose tales.
But American children of the 1960s weren’t going to put up with operas and nursery rhymes. We had grown strong on orange juice, casseroles, and chewable vitamins. We weren’t afraid of polio or tuberculosis—we had the Salk vaccine and the tine test. We had had one small step for mankind, 31 flavors, and 101 dalmatians. The previous decade had already established the whims of children as a legitimate market force; in two years, Wham-O had made $45 million on the Hula-Hoop. Rich guys in office buildings were taking us seriously. What did we want next?
Apparently what we wanted next was 55 minutes of Christmas-crushing despair: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. For more than half a century, generations of children have taken the show, which debuted in 1964, into their hearts, and for just about as long, I’ve been trying to avoid it. From my earliest days, the special produced in me only a fretful anxiety, leading to an eventual refusal to watch it. I couldn’t really explain the problem. I knew only that the show didn’t make me feel very Christmassy.