Friday, December 9, 2011

Watching Christmas: My Top Ten Christmas TV Episodes

I admit it. I was never one of the cool kids, and at my time of life, I’ve accepted that I’m never going to join that group. Frankly, I left any aspiration to be cool behind about the same time that I stopped wearing flared-leg jeans and angel sleeves. I say these things not as any sort of personal manifesto but rather to preface my selection of favorite Christmas episodes of TV shows and to warn the Christmas cynics among you that my favorites are unabashedly sentimental--some would say some of them are downright cheesy. (And yes, I’m old enough to have seen all of the original episodes, although I was a mere infant—almost--for the early ones.)

I love Christmas movies too, but that a subject for another blog. This one’s all about episodic television, and Christmas shows that still have me checking  the TVLand schedule and Hulu Plus to see them one more time.

1.     “The Christmas Story,” The Andy Griffith Show (December 19, 1960)

The scene is the Mayberry jail where Mayberry’s moonshiner, Sam Muggins, has been locked up by Andy on Christmas Eve at the insistence of Grinch-hearted shop owner Ben Weaver. Andy arrests him, but he also arrests Sam’s wife and children as "accessories before, during, and after the fact" and deputizes Aunt Bea, Opie, and Ellie to watch the “dangerous” crew. The two families unite to turn Mayberry’s jail into the warmest, most inviting place to spend Christmas. Weaver even manages to get himself arrested so he can join the happy group, bringing gifts from his store. And if Weaver’s heart-growing, moonshine-nipping conversion isn’t Christmassy enough, there’s the inimitable Don Knotts as Barney Fife playing Santa Claus.

2.     “Humbug Not To Be Spoken Here,” Bewitched (December 21, 1967)

Darrin (the first one, Dick York) has a grumpy client, Mr. Mortimer, who insists on working late on Christmas Eve. Even though Darrin leaves the meeting to be at home with Samantha and Tabitha, that night Sam takes on the guise of the Spirit of Christmas à la Charles Dickens, even taking the Scrooge-as-soup-king to the North Pole for a visit with Santa.

3.     “Christmas at Plum Creek,” Little House on the Prairie (December 25, 1974)

This one’s all about giving. Pa’s making a set of wagon wheels to earn the money to buy Ma a new stove. Ma’s making Pa a new shirt, and so is Mary. Ma ends up hiding her shirt to let Mary’s gift shine. Laura sold her horse, Bunny, to Mr. Oleson to buy the new stove for Ma. Carrie uses her penny to buy a gift for Baby Jesus.

4.     Guess Who’s Coming to Christmas,” Happy Days (December 17, 1974)

Fonzie tells Al the story of the Christmas Howard Cunningham didn’t get the traditional, family Christmas he wanted, Fonzie got the family he didn’t know he needed, and the famously disappearing Chuck Cunningham was still part of the family. The episode ends with Fonzie being asked to say grace over the Cunningham family dinner. 

5.     “Death Takes a Holiday,” M*A*S*H (December 15, 1980)

Christmas comes even in war zones.  The 4077th, at the urging of Father Mulcahy have invited the children from the local orphanage to a Christmas part in the mess tent. B.J. gives fudge from home to the cause, and Charles, who turns out to be a secret Santa, offers smoked oysters. While Colonel Potter plays Santa, Hawkeye, B.J., and Margaret battle to keep a mortally wounded soldier alive for one more day so that his family won’t forever associate Christmas with the day their son/husband/father died.

6.     “Basinger’s New York,” Highway to Heaven (December 17, 1986)

A disillusioned, divorced New York newspaper columnist Jeb Basinger (played by Richard Mulligan) struggles to write his Christmas column. Jonathan and Mark must show the cynical journalist that goodness and hope exists. Jeb accompanies them as they help a 20th-century homeless Mary and Joseph find food, shelter, and a hospital for their child to be born. Along the way, they help a cab driver find his missing son, a senator and his wife find love, and some homeless men find purpose, and Jeb finds Christmas miracles enough to write his story and change his life.

7.     “Christmas,” The Wonder Years (December 14, 1988)

What can you do when the girl you love has a Christmas gift for you, and you have $6 and no idea what to get her? This is the problem Kevin Arnold is facing in 1968, the year he and his butt-head brother are trying to talk their dad into buying the family’s first color TV for Christmas. I loved the beginning and ending retrospective narratives of this show. “Christmas” closes with these words:

I don't even remember what I got for Christmas that year. But Dad gave Mom a bracelet that knocked her socks off. Oh, yeah... and he did get us that color-TV... two years later. For me, that year Christmas stopped being about tinsel and wrapping paper, and started being about memory. At first I was disappointed. Until I learned that memory is a way of holding on to the things you love, the things you are, the things you wish to never lose. And I learned from Winnie, that in a world that changes too fast, the best we can do is wish each other Merry Christmas. [Kevin opens Winnie's present, which is a four-leaf clover] And good luck.

8.     “The First Day of the Last Decade of the Entire Twentieth Century,” Designing Women (January 1, 1990)

I’m cheating here because this is a New Year’s episode rather than a Christmas one, but 1989 was not a good year for Christmas episodes. This was the first holiday show that year that had the special warmth that marks the standouts for me. I always think of it as a Christmas show.

Charlene dreams of a visit from her “guardian celebrity,” Dolly Parton, who tells her that a baby girl will soon arrive. When Charlene is saddened by the thought of family members who didn’t live to see her soon-to-arrive daughter, Dolly assures her that they will be with the child in spirit as she grows to adulthood. Charlene is awakened by labor pains. Bill’s plane is grounded by bad weather, and Julia, Mary Jo, and Suzanne take her to the hospital.

In the hospital, Julia meets Minnie Bell Ward, a 102-year-old woman who is waiting for death. The character was inspired by Meshach Taylor’s grandmother. Like Taylor’s grandmother, Miss Minnie shares stories of her long life that spanned most of the 20th century. As the old year departs, Miss Minnie dies, and as the new year begins, Charlene and Bill’s daughter Olivia is born.

9.     “Fear Not,” Touched by an Angel (December 25, 1994)

Monica and Tess both befriend Joey, a mentally challenged teenager. Joey must learn to let go of his fear of the dark, a legacy of his parents’ deaths in an automobile accident at night, in order to help his friend Selena. Monica’s special mission is to teach Wayne, Joey’s older brother, burdened by duty and resentful of his responsibility for Joey, to open his heart to brotherly love. These characters reappear in several episodes including the series finale, but this one, a real tearjerker, is the best. Tess always gets the best lines. In “Fear Not,” she says to Monica: “When life keeps you in the dark, baby, that's when you start looking at the stars.”

10.     “In Excelsis Deo,” The West Wing (December 15, 1999)

Life in the White House and for its staffers continues at its complicated pace while Toby is called by the D.C. police to identify a homeless man found dead wearing Toby’s coat. Toby had donated the coat to Good Will and accidentally left his card in it. But he is determined to identify the man, and when he discovers the man was a Korean War veteran, he uses the influence of his position to arrange a military funeral and burial at Arlington. When President Bartlett warns that Toby could be setting a precedent, Toby responds, “I can only hope so, sir.” Only the dead man’s brother, also homeless, Toby, and Mrs. Landingham, whose two sons were killed in Vietnam, attend the funeral.

Is watching Christmas one of the ways you celebrate the season? What are your favorite Christmas TV episodes? Your favorite Christmas movies?


PJ said...

You forgot the kleenex alert, Janga! I've seen every one of these episodes and remember them all fondly. And, yes, I'm sitting here with tears streaming down my cheeks as I remember. :)

The M*A*S*H reference was particularly poignant, with the photo of Colonel Potter, as Harry Morgan, the actor who played Potter so brilliantly, died this week.

PJ said...

Oh, and as far as you not being one of the "cool" kids? I can't speak to your youth as I didn't know you then but these days? Definitely a cool kid!!!

Janga said...

Thanks, PJ. At least at this point in my life, I hang out with some definitely "cool kids." :)

I did see the announcement of Harry Morgan's death.He was wonderful on M*A*S*H, but I remember him from even further back. One of my mother's favorite shows when I was very young was December Bride. Harry Morgan played a neighbor, Pete Porter, in that show. Later his character had what must have been one of the earliest spin-off shows, Pete and Gladys. I'm showing my age here.

PJ said...

LOL! I'll show my age right along with you, Janga. I clearly remember watching December Bride even though I was only eight when it went off the air. The star was Spring Byington and I loved both her and Harry Morgan in the show. I watched Pete and Gladys too. :)

quantum said...

Afraid I haven't seen any of the shows highlighted Janga.

I tend to watch some ballet (love the nutcracker) and if I'm on my own I might dig out an old Tony Hancock video of Christmas in 'Railway Cuttings, East Cheem'

The interaction of Hancock and Sid James always puts me in hysterics! LOL

Beth said...

I so miss the Bob Hope Christmas special. So much fun and so moving when he had the lineup of all the overseas service men sending Christmas wishes. I like the Bing Crosby and Andy Williams specials too, but none compared to Bob Hope.

irisheyes said...

When I was a kid they used to play all the Christmas shows from the various series the week before Christmas. It was such a treat.

Some of the ones I remember fondly are that Andy Griffith episode you mentioned, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family and The Waltons. I'm probably dating myself too! Right back to the 70's! LOL

Janga said...

Q, I'm not surprised that your TV viewing is different from mine--probably for many reasons. :)

I too love the Nutcracker, although I prefer live productions to televised ones. Does your granddaughter watch with you?

Janga said...

Beth, I miss the Bob Hope Specials too. They were an institution, and he made a distinction between the politics of war and the troops when very few people were doing so.

My mother loved variety shows, and we watched all the Christmas shows as kids--Bob Hope, Andy Williams, Perry Como, the King Family. I'm sure I'm forgetting some.

Janga said...

Irish, I considered the Brady Bunch show where Carol loses her voice and Cindy asks Santa to help her when I made my top ten list. It almost made the cut. And I remember well the Dick Van Dyke show where Rob and Laura danced in Santa Claus suits. That one still makes me smile.