Over the past few years we've become more and more aware of the secular war on Christmas - the determination first to remove any religious connotation from the holiday, and now to eliminate even the mention of the word "Christmas," lest it offend any ACLU-refined sensibilities.
There's something of a revisionist school of thought, which I've pointed out before, reminding us that the accusations of commercialization and secularization of Christmas are nothing new. In the classic Miracle on 34th Street, made in 1947, we hear Kris Kringle complaining about the commercialization of Christmas. As Karal Ann Marling points out in her excellent Merry Christmas! Celebrating America's Greatest Holiday, as early as 1952 Dayton's department store received complaints that their Christmas window displays contained no reference (such as a Nativity scene) to the religious nature of the day. (To which Dayton's pointed out that there was a "sharp distinction between the religious side and the festive side of Christmas." Dayton's, however, covered the windows on Sundays (as indeed the store was closed Sundays) and did not advertise in the Sunday papers.)
Lest we fall into the trap of thinking there never was a "Golden Age" of Christmas however, I think it's helpful to look at that great arbitrator of popular culture, TV Guide. For the rest of this week I'd like to share some of the Christmas programming that we would have seen this very week - December 19-25, 1964. Were things really that much different 41 years ago? Was there, in fact, any religious content to the Christmas shows back then?
That year, Decembetr 19 fell on a Saturday. College bowl games were considered part of the holiday landscape, and there were two played that day - the Liberty Bowl, pitting Utah and West Virginia (the game was played at Convention Hall in Atlantic City, home of the Miss America pageant - it was "the first network telecast of an indoor football game"), and the Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston, featuring Mississippi and Tulsa.
During the kids programming that morning, Dennis the Menace's Mr. Wilson "thinks Dennis should have a real Christmas tree [as opposed to an artificial one, I'd suspect] and sets off to the woods to chop one down." In a program called Forrest Rangers, "Mr. MacLeod wants to buy himself a watch for Christmas - but he doesn't have enough money." Does he ever get the watch? I guess we'll never know.
Moving to prime time, at 7:30 that night, Gilligan's Island had a Christmas theme - the castaways spend Christmas Eve reminiscing about how they came to be shipwrecked. On a frontier drama called Kentucky Jones starring Dennis Weaver, "Ike's first Christmas in America is sure to be a memorable one." Up against these two shows was Lawrence Welk's annual Christmas program; the hour of holiday music included "Ave Maria," "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," "The Bells of St. Mary's," "O Holy Night" and "White Christmas." Finally, speaking of which, NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies presents the classic White Christmas, starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, at 8:00.
Not impressed? It is a slow start to Christmas week perhaps, but keep in mind a couple of things - first, in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market, you've only got three television networks, plus PBS (which at this time was known as "Educational Television"), and an independent station. Second, remember that the main purpose of many Christmas shows (then as well as now) was to prime the shopping pump, and to give kids ideas of what to ask mom and dad for. With only a week to go before the big day, much of that has already been accomplished - cartoons like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer had already been aired earlier that month.
But the week gets better - I promise! And each day the rest of this week we'll take a look at what you might have seen had you been watching that week in 1964.