When most of us think of television during the holiday season, we tend to think of the many Christmas specials that have aired through the years. And while A Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer are very much a part of the holiday television traditions, they are only part of the equation. From the beginning of regularly scheduled, network broadcast television in the United States and United Kingdom, TV series have devoted entire episodes to the holiday. And many of these episodes of these TV shows now form part of our collective memory regarding the Yuletide.
In fact, it is probably impossible to know what the first, regularly scheduled television show to have a Christmas episode was. I rather suspect that it might have been one of the many variety shows that aired from the late Forties into the Seventies. It was probably much easier for the average variety show to put together a Christmas episode than any other TV show format. All that was necessary to bring on singers to sing a few carols and other holiday oriented guests. It was early as 1950 that Milton Berle, host of The Texaco Star Theatre at the time, hosted his first Uncle Miltie's Christmas Party.
Of course, there was probably no bigger variety show in the history of television than The Ed Sullivan Show. Sullivan's show would become an institution on American network television, so powerful that Sullivan could attract the biggest acts to his show. For one Christmas episode he had Bing Crosby singing the classic "White Christmas." For another he had Johnny Mathis singing "Sleigh Ride." Of course, Sullivan's regulars would appear on the Christmas shows as well. On one episode the puppet mouse Topo Gigio told what he wanted for Christmas.
While Christmas for variety shows generally meant singers with Yuletide carols, many would do their own Christmas themed skits. As might be expected, the 1953 Christmas episode of The Jackie Gleason Show featured a Honeymooners skit centred around the holiday. The skit concerned a wild Christmas party being held down the street from the Kramden episode, and is unique in that all three of Gleason's most popular characters appear in the skit: Ralph Kramden (of course), millionaire Reginald Van Gleason, and Joe the Bartender.
Another classic skit featured on a variety show was one on The Red Skelton Show. "The Cop and the Anthem" was based on an O. Henry short story and centred around Skelton's classic character Freddie the Freeloader. Desperate to find a place to sleep on a cold Christmas Eve, Freddie decides to get himself arrested. The only problem is that the cop on the beat feels sorry for Freddie and doesn't want to arrest him on Christmas Eve! It was simultaneously one of the funniest and most poignant pieces on television.
Like The Jackie Gleason Show and The Red Skelton Show, one skit in Christmas episode of The Carol Burnett Show focused on one of the star's classic characters. Eunice was ready for a merry Christmas, only to have it spoiled when her prodigal brother Larry (played by Alan Alda) came home to surprise Mama (played by Vicki Lawrence). Like most of the Eunice skits, it was among Burnett's best work.
Of course, not every Christmas episode of every variety show centred around skits with classic characters. The 1967 Christmas episode of The Dean Martin Show was quite simply about family. Indeed, it features both the Martin family (including his son Dino) and the Sinatra family (including Frank and his daughter Nancy). Dean and Frank would even perform together. For Rat Pack fans it must have been a real treat.
The other dominant genre of the Fifties was the anthology series. Most anthology series did at least one Christmas episode, and usually more. Philco Television Playhouse featured one of the more memorable episodes, "Christmas 'til Closing." Directed by Hume Cronyn, it starred he and his wife Jessica Tandy as a couple struggling with their bills. The wife takes a part time job at a department store to make a bit of extra money, much to the irritation of her husband. Playhouse 90, the creme de la creme of anthology series, broadcast a colour production of The Nutcraker on Christmas night in 1958.
More familiar to modern audiences are the Christmas episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twlight Zone. In 1955 Alfred Hitchcock Presents aired its first, "Santa Claus and the 10th Avenue Kid." As might be expected, this episode focused on crime, but unfolded much differently than most Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes. An ex-convict takes a job at a department store as part of his plan to rob that store. When he meets a troubled kid, however, the ex-convict's plans actually change.
The Twlight Zone would feature two Christmas episodes during its run. The 1960 holiday episode was "The Night of the Meek." In that episode, a derelict is fired from his job as a department store Santa on Christmas Eve. It is then that he finds a mysterious bag that gives out gifts. The derelict decides to use the bag to help the poor have a prosperous Christmas. The show's second Christmas episode, "The Changing of the Guard," aired in 1962. "The Changing of the Guard" centred on an elderly teacher forced into retirement. He then decides that he has wasted his life and plans to commit suicide on Christmas Eve. As might be expected in The Twilight Zone, a ghost of one of his former students appears to teach him a lesson he won't forget.
Christmas as a theme for episodes is probably most easily incorporated into family dramas. After all, Christmas is an annual event for many American and British families. It is perhaps for that reason that the Christmas episodes of most family dramas seem a bit forgettable. That having been said, at least one family drama actually grew out of a Christmas themed television movie. The Homecoming: A Christmas Story first aired in 1971 and centred on the Walton family as they wait anxiously for their father to make it home on a snowy Christmas Eve. The Homecoming: A Christmas Story proved so popular that The Waltons was spun off from it, with much the same cast (with Michael Lerned replacing Patricia Neal as the mother). The Waltons itself would go onto have three Christmas episodes of its own.
While Christmas episodes are very easily incorporated into family dramas, because of their very format they are much harder to incorporate into action-adventure series. Indeed, many action-adventure series, including Star Trek and Danger Man, never had Christmas episodes. That is not to say that many action-adventure shows would not have Christmas episodes. Have Gun--Will Travel had one, "The Hanging Cross," by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. In the episode Paladin found out that a rancher planned revenge on Native Americans he thought had kidnapped his son, even though it is Christmastime. The Christmas episode of Bonanza, entitled "A Christmas Story," centred on singer Andy Walker, who wants to perform at the annual Oprhan's Christmas Benefit, but runs into a problem when his uncle and manager wants 10 percent of all the money made at the benefit.
It might surprise some to hear a few of the action-adventure shows that did have Christmas episodes. Among these was The Avengers. "Too Many Christmas Trees" featured John Steed and Emma Peel going to a country estate for what should be a pleasant Christmas, only to wind up investigating mass mind control. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. also had its own Christmas episode, "The Jingle Bells Affair." In the episode Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin assigned to protect a foreign leader from assassination attempts during the Yuletide. The Wild Wild West would go a step further with their Christmas episode. In "Night of the Whirring Death," James West and Artemus Gordon once more face Dr. Miguelito Loveless. This time they must save the state of California from bankruptcy while Dr. Loveless seeks to thwart them with his usual aplomb--all at Christmastime.
Even action-adventure shows of more recent vintage have done their own Christmas episodes. One of my favourite episodes of The X-Files is "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas," in which Mulder and Scully investigate a house haunted to two star crossed lovers (played delightfully by Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin) who committed suicide together on Christmas Eve. Needless to say, they have some special plans for Mulder and Scully...
Of course, when it comes to Christmas episodes of TV shows, it generally the sitcoms that we seem to remember. And they have offered some of the best holiday television viewing in the past several decades. A classic is "Christmas Story" from the first season of The Andy Griffith Show. In this episode wealthy but curmudgeonly Ben Weaver insists that Andy arrests moonshiner Sam Muggins even if it is Christmas Eve. Forced with placing Sam in jail, Andy and Barney then arrange for his family toh have their Christmas Eve celebration there. Another great Christmas episode was "Alan Brady Presents" from The Dick Van Dyke Show. The staff of The Alan Brady Show simply throw out the script on which they working and instead decide to hold a Christmas revue. This episode gave viewers a chance to see the talents of Dick Van Dyke (who was a song and dance man as well as a comedian), Mary Tyler Moore (a trained dancer), Rose Marie (a veteran of vaudeville), and Morey Amsterdam (another veteran of vaudeville) as they usually did not see them on the show.
During the Sixties and Seventies most sitcoms, from The Addams Family to The Monkees, produced Christmas episodes. In fact, some produced more than one. Bewitched would have a whopping four Christmas episodes. The Beverly Hillbillies would do it two better, with six episodes. One Christmas episode of The Beverly Hillbillies, "Christmas in Hooterville," is remarkable as a crossover with both Petticoat Junction and Green Acres. The Clampetts visited Hooterville for Christmas, interacting with the folks at the Shady Rest and the citizens of Hooterville.
Are You Being Served is also notable for having multiple Christmas specials. In "Christmas Crackers" the staff of Grace Brothers learn they must dress in novelty costumes as part of a promotion. "The Father Christmas Affair" finds the staff competing to see who should play Father Christmas at the department store. At the other end of the spectrum, Blackadder would have only one Christmas episode, but it would be very remarkable. Blackadder's Christmas Carol centred on what may have been the only decent member of the Blackadder family, Ebeneezer Blackadder in Victorian England, who undergoes a transformation after ghosts of his ancestors visit him one Christmas Eve.
It was on a show usually considered a sitcom (although I would say it is more a dramedy) that my all time favourite Christmas episode aired. The episode "Death Takes a Holiday" from M*A*S*H aired on December 15, 1980. While a Christmas party was being held in the mess tent, complete with the children from the orphanage, Hawkeye, B.J., and Margaret must race against time in the operating room to save a wounded soldier, who happens to be a husband and father, from dying on Christmas. I have never been able to watch the episode without crying.
Episodic television has generated a number of holiday memories for many individuals over the years. This is merely a short list of the Christmas episodes from various shows from the past several decades. To discuss even a majority of them would take a rather large book. And to this day shows still feature Christmas episodes, from 30 Rock to NCIS. It is safe to say that the Christmas episodes of more recent shows would form part of the memories of the holidays for many in years to come.