Monday, December 10, 2007

The Story of Christmas

An Our Word Flashback

'Tis the season for Christmas television viewing as well as gift-giving ideas. In this piece from 2004, we take a look at something that fits the bill in both areas: the long-forgotten program that was once considered a Christmas treasure, Tennessee Ernie Ford's 1963 The Story of Christmas.


Now available on DVD is the landmark 1963 special The Story of Christmas, hosted by Tennessee Ernie Ford and featuring music by the Roger Wagner Chorale.

What’s that, you say? You’ve never heard of The Story of Christmas? Well, to tell you the truth, until a few months ago neither had I. I first discovered it while I was looking through an old 1963 Christmas Week TV Guide that I’d purchased to add to my collection (we’ll talk about that another time!). In it was a feature story on an upcoming special called The Story of Christmas. Specifically, the article talked about one segment of the program, an 18 1/2 minute animated sequence depicting the story of the Nativity done by artist Eyvind Earle, who had previously worked at the Disney studios on such movies as Fantasia and Sleeping Beauty. Now, The Story of Christmas is a pretty epic title for any program, even a television show, and an additional close-up in the program listings led me to believe that even then, the show must have been considered a big deal. As Daily Variety put in in their review, "The tape should be preserved and played back for years on end. It's brilliance will never be dimmed or excelled." Judging by how the show had faded into the historical dustbin, their advice was obviously not taken.

It was clear that the animated Nativity story was the centerpiece of the program. The color pictures in the TV Guide were striking, and the more I thought about it, the harder it was to believe there wasn’t more information out there. I Googled Earle’s name in hopes that perhaps there were more pictures, or even some footage, of the Nativity film. (As it turns out, Earle was actually quite famous for his Christmas card designs). Well, no luck in finding that, but I found something even better – the Tennessee Ernie Ford website, where the DVD (as well as the CD soundtrack) was readily available, which just goes to show you how terrific the Internet can be for finding out this kind of thing.

I’ve always thought that TV Guide was about as good a snapshot as you could get of what the social culture was like at any given time (see also this). Movies like Going My Way paint a vivid portrait of what our country used to be like - not necessarily a picture, but more like a painting; an idealized image perhaps, but the making of the image itself is a product of its time. But while they may show how Christmas used to be celebrated, it’s television, in the form of variety shows like The Story of Christmas and the old Bing Crosby specials (hokey though some of them may be) that demonstrates how Christmas was commemorated once upon a time; or, as the song says, they tell the "tales of the glories of Christmases long ago."

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