What’s Your Favorite Christmas Special?

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Burgermeister Meisterburger. Why can’t I get that name out of my head? Like every kid who ever watched Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. I despised this character who hated toys.

But, to this day, I can’t shake that name. Burgermeister Meisterburger. You just can’t stop saying it.

Here’s the thing about Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, it was produced by Rankin/Bass. They’re the same folks who made the famous Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

I liked Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I hated Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. I don’t know why. Maybe it was the silly premise of the story. Maybe it was the goofy looking 1970s style young Kris Kringle. Maybe it was the fact it premiered on Sunday, December 13, 1970 on ABC.

Could this be because I had to make a choice between watching this Christmas special or watching the final minutes of NBC’s late game between the 8-3 Miami Dolphins and the 4-8 New York Jets. It was an exciting match with the Jets’ Emerson Boozer running for 114 yards on 18 carries. Despite this solid effort, the Dolphins won the close fought contest when Garo Yepremian kicked two field goals in the final two minutes.

You’d think this was enough to avoid switching the channel.

You’d be wrong.

Back in those days, 4 o’clock games rarely went past 7:00 pm. So, when ABC aired Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town from 7:00 pm to 8:00 pm, chances are it wasn’t a choice between football and Fred Astaire. It was a choice between a brand new Christmas special and a tired old Lassie episode on CBS and the consistently boring Wild Kingdom on NBC.

No, that’s not why I wasn’t too impressed with Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. It’s more likely the fact that I probably watched it in the cramped motel room we lived in for Christmas those fifty years ago as we transitioned from the soft lens of Abbott Parkway to the sharp optic of Dortmund Circle.

But that’s another story.

This is a story about those favorite Christmas specials we all watch with great anticipation each year at this time. Specifically, this is about “the big three.” In many ways, these are the specials that spawned all the rest. They started with the intention of entertaining children. Now we recognize their value as adults.

Let’s begin with the beginning.

On Sunday, December 6, 1964, NBC first broadcast Rudolph the Red–Nosed Reindeer. The show aired from 5:30 pm to 6:30 pm. This preempted local broadcasting, but was meant to be shown before the kids went to bed. This classic is an all-time favorite of many. Who couldn’t see a bit of themselves in the underdog Rudolph? Who didn’t want to find their own real-life Clarice? Who wouldn’t step up to save the world (or at least Christmas) if given the chance?

Unlike Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, the bad guy in Rudolph the Red–Nosed Reindeer wasn’t really that bad. We learned Bumbles not only bounced, but filled the vital role of being the only one tall enough to place the star at the top of the Christmas tree.

A year later, on Friday, December 9, 1965, CBS pre-empted The Munsters to show A Charlie Brown Christmas during the 7:30 pm time slot. By then, The Munsters had begun their ratings free fall and would be dropped from the schedule within six months. Perhaps presaging this and proving the value of the time slot, A Charlie Brown Christmas brought 15.4 million viewers and was the second-most watched program that week (behind only Bonanza).

While Rudolph the Red–Nosed Reindeer told a secular tale of bullied-boy-meets-girl-and-saves-the-world, A Charlie Brown Christmas dared to bring Christ into Christmas. Unabashedly promoting a religious theme was considered risky, even then, and creator Charles Schultz found himself challenged for suggesting to do so. Schultz triumphed and our Christmas memories have benefited ever since.

Our final entry of the big three – Dr. Suess’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas – premiered on Sunday, December 18, 1966 outside the prime-time hour between 7:00 pm and 7:30 pm. Directed by Chuck Jones of Loony Tunes (especially Road Runner) fame and narrated by the incomparable Boris Karloff, it was the 6th most watched show from December 5th through the 18th of that year. Interestingly, A Charlie Brown Christmas was ranked second. (Once again, Bonanza topped the list.)

What makes How the Grinch Stole Christmas different from its two predecessors? Mostly it’s because it’s Dr. Seuss, who has a wily way of introducing strong philosophical themes into what appear to be children’s books. While How the Grinch Stole Christmas contained no overt religious references in the manner of A Charlie Brown Christmas, there were clearly spiritual overtones in the transformation of the Grinch from a grouchy Scrooge to the one who carved the roast beast.

There you have it. Those are the big three. These remain at the pinnacle of Christmas specials for the same reason Bugs Bunny and The Simpsons cartoons retain their popularity. They aren’t written just for kids. There’s an evocative artistry to them. In addition, each contain important life lessons told in a non-patronizing manner.

Contrast this to 1970’s Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town and 1969’s Frosty the Snowman. Each may sport their own nostalgic attraction, but they lack that greater depth of purpose. They’re simple stories created for children. There’s nothing wrong with that, but… well, there’s that “but.”

Whatever the reason, celebrate the Christmas season with your family and enjoy your own favorites, from the new classics to the old classics.

After all, you never know what will ending up sticking in your head forever. Just ask my friend the Burgermeister Meisterburger.

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