With the rapidly changing television landscape, we’re finding that some long-time traditions seem to be remaining in place, for the time being. Each September a spate of new series debut; each October a large number of those are cancelled. The networks still have “sweeps” periods every February, May, and November, when you can count on your local news to do sensationalized stories in the hopes of attracting more eyeballs. And one cherished television tradition that also doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon is the Christmas episode.
The Christmas episode (and for today we’re focusing on sitcoms) has its roots in radio. Programs like “Fibber McGee and Molly,” “Duffy’s Tavern,” and “The Fred Allen Show” would naturally write episodes centered around Christmas and the holidays. Sometimes, these shows would actually air live on Christmas Day, as shows weren’t rerun, and they weren’t off until the summer. Each December on “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” Amos would explain the Lord’s Prayer to his daughter. Jack Benny’s Christmas episode always featured him in a department store shopping, where he would inevitably encounter a rude clerk played by Frank Nelson, who is the basis for The Simpsons' Yeeess? Guy. Jack carried that tradition over to his television show.
Jack Benny’s initial television Christmas outing didn’t air until 1954. The very first Christmas episode, as we know it today, aired on December 21, 1950. It was The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show’s “Gracie’s Christmas.” That year, the only other regularly broadcast programs with Christmas-themed episodes were The Perry Como Show, a variety show, and a couple of anthology series, Suspense and Lux Video Theatre. The idea finally caught on in 1953, with Mister Peepers, The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, The Danny Thomas Show, Our Miss Brooks, and many others airing Christmas fare.
In 1951 Cavalcade of Stars began what would eventually lead to one of the best-remembered episodes of The Honeymooners. In a “Honeymooners” sketch, Ralph (Jackie Gleason) sells his bowling ball in order to buy Alice (Pert Kelton) a gift. In a variation of “Gift of the Magi,” Alice’s gift to Ralph was a very nice, but no-longer-needed bowling ball bag. In the way that “Amahl and the Night Visitors” was staged several years running for Hallmark Hall of Fame, this “Honeymooners” sketch was subsequently restaged for the next four years on The Jackie Gleason Show, with Audrey Meadows replacing Kelton. When The Honeymooners finally got their own sitcom, the ultimate version of the story, now titled “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” was filmed. In this version, Ralph Kramden delivers a speech at the end that is guaranteed to choke you up, particularly if you grew up in or around New York City.
The Honeymooners and the others notwithstanding, filmed shows were cautious about doing Christmas episodes. There was a fear that those episodes could not be used in the syndicated package because no one would want to watch stories about Christmas in the middle of July. This accounts for the fact that I Love Lucy only did one Christmas episode in their seven-year run, and that episode remained unseen for 33 years after its initial airing. It was withheld from the syndication package, but is now a yearly event on CBS, in a colorized form.
Also initially withheld after its first airing was The Brady Bunch Christmas episode “The Voice of Christmas,” which aired in 1969. It was always skipped over in syndication. Until one December, channel 5 in New York finally got around to airing it! I was so excited! Mrs. Brady agreed to sing in church on Christmas but lost her voice. Of course, in the end, we get to see dear Florence Henderson sing a beautiful rendition of “O Come All Ye Faithful."
A typical Christmas episode will often take a well-worn holiday story, a la The Honeymooners with “Gift of the Magi,” and incorporate it into their episode. The Odd Couple, Family Ties, and countless others did a variation on “A Christmas Carol.” One of the more memorable holiday shows was Happy Days’ “Guess Who’s Coming to Christmas,” where the Cunningham family saves Fonzie from spending Christmas alone. That episode was so popular that it was re-aired as a flashback with newly filmed wraparounds for a few years. They finally had to stop that practice, as the Cunningham’s oldest son Chuck is featured in the episode, but was never spoken of again after season two.
As he did with many of the conventions of television, Norman Lear turned the idea of the Christmas episode on its head. All in the Family’s five Christmas episodes dealt with themes of draft dodging, race relations, hate crimes, and divorce. The 1973 episode “Edith’s Christmas Story” dealt with a health scare faced by Edith Bunker. Rocky and Irma Kalish told us how they came to write that classic episode.
Seinfeld tried to do away with Christmas altogether. In 1997’s “The Strike,” a fed up Frank Costanza introduces Festivus, a holiday which replaces the singing of carols with the airing of grievances. Festivus is actually celebrated in some circles. Festivus poles sell out each December 23rd.
But Frank wasn’t quite as successful as he might’ve hoped. In 2015 there were no less than 45 Christmas/holiday-themed episodes across all platforms and genres. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Jane the Virgin, The Goldbergs, and The Muppets all did one. When we watch, we always hope for those special moments like Jackie Gleason’s speech, Fonzie being accepted by the Cunningham family, or Florence Henderson’s lovely voice. A Christmas episode always has the potential to become a classic.
For more information on holiday-related television of all types, search the collection.
- by John Dalton