The Real Meaning of TV

What would Christmas be like without it?

If you think Christmas is too commercialized, you're old-school. This year, an ironically named group called the Liberty Counsel is endeavoring to punish, by boycott, stores that don't use the word "Christmas" in their advertising. The message in 2010 is, Commercialize Christmas or Else.

In my childhood, of course, Christmas was already commercialized. Christmas had commercials. It was televised.

TV may have seemed necessary to keep old-fashioned Christmas scenes fixed in our heads. Knoxville in the 1960s and '70s, rapidly suburbanizing and run by developers who saw charm and grace as unwarranted expenses, was not a Christmassy place. The Christmas season involved lots of getting in and out of cars. Maybe we needed commercialism, especially TV commercialism.

Television shifted our perceptions of the holiday in ways complex and paradoxical. Old Christmas movies were rare on Knoxville TV. I never heard of It's a Wonderful Life until I was close to 30, when it was released on video. I'd heard of Miracle on 34th Street, but I thought it was about switchblade gangs. What we saw on television in the 1960s was brand-new stuff, especially animated specials. And America's new TV Christmas seemed aimed directly at me.

In the beginning—my beginning, at least—there was Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol. The first half-dozen times I ever heard Dickens' iconic tale, Mr. Magoo was telling it. I would have identified Ebenezer Scrooge as the funny little blind man who mumbles like Thurston Howell III and sings in Broadway musicals. I was a preschooler, and I was fascinated.

I never saw it after the Johnson administration—perhaps it was a victim of political correctness—but I can picture certain scenes vividly. The creepy knocker. The phantasm in the fireplace. And the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come, my favorite ghost ever. Is this the only animated cartoon feature for children that depicts corpse-robbers? "We're despicable," they admit, in cheerful song.

It left me scarred, maybe, or scratched, but mostly fascinated with the wonderful weirdness of Christmas.

A few years later, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer came out. It must have gotten some hype; I remember anticipating it, talking about it in first grade, before it aired. I already knew the poem about the "miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer," and could name them. I'd heard the Gene Autry jingle about Rudolph, but at 6 I figured it was just a joke, not something that actually happened.

As portrayed, Rudolph worried me. He had an electric light for a nose, which would have rendered respiration problematic. It struck me as a cruel handicap. Perhaps peer acceptance wasn't his primary problem. I assumed Santa would retire this sad mutant after that "one foggy Christmas Eve." The original reindeer names rhymed, and reciting them for indulgent grandparents was less euphonious with the addition of Rudolph. But then the story came back around the next year.

I made a habit of it, as all kids did. I kept watch for the Abominable Snowman, fascinated. I studied those scenes. The Yeti was in my mid-'60s culture, also making a guest appearance on my favorite TV show, Jonny Quest. His Abominable Snowman was scarier: he seemed unredeemable. But Rudolph's was uglier.

The following December, A Charlie Brown Christmas came out. I was, at 7, a cartoon snob. Saturday-morning TV in the 1960s was a pageant of cartoon history from the '30s onward. The stark new-style cartoons, like Underdog and The Yogi Bear Show, stood out against the old, more elaborate, richly textured movie-house cartoons made long before I was born: the Warner Brothers cartoons, and Popeye, and early Disney. Those older cartoons were just better, and at 7, I'd say so to Top Cat's face.

Worse, watching Charlie Brown animated for the first time, I was startled at the children's accents: nasal, with pronunciations unnecessarily precise. I'd been reading Charlie Brown comics in the paper since before I was able to read words, and felt I knew these characters. I rooted for Schroeder, the aloof introvert. But why did they have to sound like Yankees? Still, the dance scene was a riot, as we used to say, as were all the scenes with Snoopy, who outclassed even Nelson Rockefeller and Twiggy among the iconic figures of the 1960s.

But what I came to love about that show was the music. I was learning piano at the time, partly inspired by Schroeder, and I had wondered what he sounded like. Nobody my age knew the name Vince Guaraldi, but his jazz piano carried that odd, gorgeous sadness of Christmas. The Christmas experience is a kid's first inkling that things don't last.

It was one year after that when the Grinch stole Christmas. It came on late in the season, unlike the others, just a few days before Christmas, and it was one of those nights when you're startled at how early it gets dark. I recall I was not feeling good that night, my incipient asthma, I think. But I was already a Seuss fan, and thought it was perfect.

It was the last special I was young enough to exalt as part of a personal Christmas mythology, the last one that came to seem an elemental part of Christmas. For decades to come, I didn't miss the Grinch without regret.

Others followed. Little Drummer Boy came out in 1968, when I was a Nixonian fifth-grader. It was the sort of proliferating cornball hippie thing that made me roll my eyes. The song itself seemed an impertinent newcomer to the Christmas scene. My conservative Christmas spirit refused it admission into the canon. It had none of the humor or weirdness of the previous ones. And as a Little Boy myself during an activist era, I wanted to protest this stereotypical characterization of my particular minority. None of us were that innocent. I resented the implication.

The next year, Frosty the Snowman followed by Santa Claus is Coming to Town. They had no magic for me, but maybe I was too old for magic. Animation had gone to hell, I was convinced, at age 11. I figured now that Walt Disney was dead, people could put any kind of crap on TV and call it a cartoon.

My kids are grown, and I don't watch TV at Christmas anymore. Downtown has become like a set for a Bing Crosby special; sometimes I spend prime time just walking around. On a good night, I feel just like Mr. Magoo, at the end of the show.