’Tis the season.
The season for television shows to chug too much eggnog, forget their earthly cares for an hour or so, and jump the proverbial yuletide shark.
The result, whether it’s treacly sweet, outrageously theatric, or capable of bringing an audience to tears, comes like clockwork each December, when—for good or bad—television cuts away from its regularly scheduled programming to tap into the spirit of the season.
I’m talking stars. I’m talking spectacle. I’m talking, more than likely, somebody dressing up as Santa.
I’m talking, if it’s not clear, about the holiday special.
I grew up with an appreciation for the scripted counterpart of this, the holiday episode—from dinosaurs and cavemen singing along to Christmas carols on The Flintstones to the cast of Community transforming into Claymation toys to the annual Doctor Who drop that had high-school me in an absolute chokehold: Tears (me, at the exit of David Tennant)! Dickens! The better-than-it-should-be Murray Gold novelty song!
But I came of age too late to fully appreciate the shmaltzy old-school celebrity Christmas variety shows of yore (you know the ones, packed with musical numbers, guest stars, dancing, and zany surprises). Over the last few years, though, I’ve found myself actively seeking out the latest generation of these specials. Tuning in to NBC’s “Christmas at Graceland” this year, the first live musical televised holiday special at Presley’s old estate, helped clarify what it was that draws me, and so many others, to them. As Lana Del Rey performed her rendition of the classic 1955 song “Unchained Melody,” an Elvis favorite, I realized that I was witnessing something timeless, something so many of us really do hunger for, especially in these uncertain times.
The holiday special first came on the scene in 1950, another year badly in need of comfort. The world, still recovering from the impact of World War II, was bracing for more conflict; the Korean War had broken out just months earlier, the first major proxy war in the Cold War, and the fighting foreshadowed the long, bloody years ahead. The early holiday special served as a balm of sorts, inviting families to gather together for some seasonal cheer.
Technically 1950 wasn’t the first year Christmas came to television. In America, early offerings, like a 1946 televised “North Pole Toyland” from Wanamaker’s DuMont Studio, showed children playing in “toy world,” carolers singing, and even a Santa workshop (who played Santa though, is anyone’s guess—1946 was, notably, the first year that male Santas outnumbered female Santas again since before World War II). In 1948, “Surprise From Santa” featured noted stage and screen actor Whitford Kane playing that famous “snowy-bearded gentleman” on television, and debuted a new song, “Sleighbells,” by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz. And of course, long before television came around, radio had already set a precedent—was the “ur-Christmas special” really the Royal Christmas message, first delivered in a radio broadcast by George V in 1932?
But 1950 was different. Like the snow falling outside, Christmas blanketed programming. It was, truly, “Christmas on the airwaves” as a New York Times’ television programming guide proclaimed, announcing that “most regularly scheduled programs will abandon their usual formats to bring … viewers programs of a seasonal nature.”
Among the listed specials to be aired on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day: “Herald of Goodwill,” which featured Christmas carols from different nations; “Nativity,” depicting images of Jesus’ birth by master painters; a televised church service; a candlelight mass from the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.; and the first-ever TV adaptation of the Christmas-themed musical Babes in Toyland (which is sadly lost to time).
The biggest splash was “One Hour in Wonderland,” Walt Disney (and his company)’s first real venture into television.
“Fair warning to all mothers and grandmothers preparing dinner for Christmas Day,” wrote L.A. Times critic Walter Ames. “Don’t set your dinner table between the hours of 4 and 5 PM. If you do, the food is liable to get cold.” The reason? That “spectacular” Disney Christmas special he’d seen a preview of, hosted by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, his dummy Charlie McCarthy, and the actress Kathryn Beaumont. The special, sponsored by Coca-Cola, was set up like a Christmas party at the Disney studio. A magic mirror opened the portal into the fantasy of Disney, unlocking previews of Alice in Wonderland (which would hit theaters the following summer), giving airtime to a host of characters from Mickey Mouse to Donald Duck, and behind-the-scenes peeks at Walt Disney Productions.
Just a small percentage of U.S. households even owned a television in 1950 (a 13-inch set cost the equivalent of around $2,000 today). But for those who did tune in, maybe using a screen magnifier to make the tiny black-and-white picture appear a little larger, they were enraptured. The television special garnered an estimated 90% of viewers—and as Richard T. Stanley joked in The Eisenhower Years: A Social History of the 1950s, “possibly helped sell a gazillion Cokes.” The reviews were raves: “After seeing it, I know why television was born,” Hedda Hopper announced in her gossip column that week.
“One Hour in Wonderland” was such a hit that it became an annual tradition, rebranded as “The Walt Disney Christmas Show” the following year with a record television budget of $250,000.
Though the Disney special may have made the most visible impact in 1950, less remembered (perhaps because it aired on NBC a few weeks late) is arguably an even more seminal program that aired that season: the inaugural “Bob Hope Christmas Show.”
“We want you to just get back into the holiday spirit, and imagine you’re back around Christmas time,” joked Hope at the start of the special to set the scene. Guests included film actor Robert Cummings, opera singer Lily Pons, and tap dancer Betty Bruce. There were laughs—like one skit of four department store Santas commuting home on the subway—and there were poignant moments, notably the ending, when Hope brought Eleanor Roosevelt out on stage.
She started by thanking Hope for his recent tour to visit military bases in Korea, Japan, and Alaska.
“When you travel you get a chance to meet and talk to all kinds of people,” Hope commented. He paused a moment before adding, “These days you find many people are confused and more than a little afraid of the future.”
“That’s understandable in times as troubled as ours,” Roosevelt agreed.
It was the first of 44 Christmas shows Hope would film over his lifetime. Other celebrity hosts, from Bing Crosby to Dean Martin and more, followed his playbook to bring a dose of holiday spirit to the season. But by the turn of the century, when Hope’s final special aired in 1994 (the same year that fellow holiday stalwart Perry Como wrapped his last Christmas special), the future of the seasonal variety special seemed up in the air.
Rather than turn into a corny relic from TV’s past, a new wave of specials in the 2000s showed there was something more substantial to the formula. At first, celebrities returned with a bit of a satirical wink: Stephen Colbert for Comedy Central in 2008 or Bill Murray for Netflix in 2015. But in recent years, hosts have cast irony aside in favor of embracing what the holiday special first set out to do. From Lady Gaga and the Muppets to Kacey Musgraves to Mariah Carey (unofficial patron saint of Zócalo Public Square), celebrities are once again finding success by leaning into the shtick of it all.
Like in the earliest days of the holiday special, fewer may be watching now, in this age of streaming. But for those like me who are still tuning in, I suspect, whether or not they celebrate the season, they are watching in search of some age-old winter cheer to help warm up these long winter nights.