Remember when you were a kid and there was nothing, and I mean nothing that could dampen the Christmas spirit? No matter what was going on in the world or in your life, when Christmas rolled around it was "Joy to the World". And it wasn't just the whole Christmas presents thing either. That was just icing on the cake. It was everything else about Christmas that made it such a great time in our lives, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the food, the people, the happiness, the feeling of magic and wonder. That's what I love about Christmas today just as I did when I was a kid.
This will be Kiley's first Christmas. She will be one year old in January so she won't remember it. None of us remember our first Christmas. But her parents will remember, and I will remember, and she will enjoy the moment as it happens even if the memory doesn't linger. Thinking back, I'm not sure which is the first Christmas I remember. The memories of five, six, and seven all sort of blend together, so I don't know for sure which memory of Christmas goes with which age. I do remember one Christmas for certain, though, because that year something different happened, something that stood out. If you are old enough, you probably remember it too.
I turned nine years old in December of 1964. Christmas was coming and I, along with every other kid, was primed for the event by all of the lead-up that had been taking place since Thanksgiving. In school we had switched from Thanksgiving arts and crafts to Christmas arts and crafts and our classrooms were decorated with our creations as well as a Christmas tree, wreaths, and garland. The windows of the classroom were decorated with Christmas motifs using that white stenciling stuff that was so popular at the time. We were rehearsing the Christmas play and planning the Christmas party, everyone committed to bringing a particular "goody" that their mother had agreed to supply. The toy sections of various department store catalogs had been carefully perused and selections made in the full knowledge that there was never any guarantee that our wishes in that regard would be respected. The anticipation was unbearably ecstatic.
The pathetically few Christmas TV specials designed for kids that were in existence back then were the final ingredient to our soup of excitement. In 1964 they consisted primarily of a Marionette feature that depicted "The Night Before Christmas" and "The Nativity". "The Night Before Christmas" as acted out by stringed puppets on TV, was mildly entertaining to a nine-year-old, but "The Nativity" was lame. We got enough of that kind of stuff in Sunday school. We always watched both of them anyway, regardless of their entertainment value. It was part of the tradition and, therefore, exciting. There was also the excellent "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol" which we all loved and had been a holiday TV staple since I was seven.
Things were proceeding towards Christmas in the usual way when out of the blue something new happened. On TV, they started showing advertisements for a new Christmas special. It was called "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" and what glimpses we were afforded looked positively tantalizing. It was done in stop-motion animation, which made it stand out compared to the marionettes and the regular animation of Mr. Magoo. Everyone not a grown-up was talking about it in excited tones and had checked off the scheduled date, time and channel on their mental calendar.
When the day of the airing finally arrived we were ready. I parted with my friends at dinnertime with the promise of comparing notes and critiquing the performance the next day. When the time arrived my whole family was clustered around the TV for the event which formed quite a crowd since I have nine brothers and sisters. I'm not sure all of them were present. My oldest brother was in the military at the time, my youngest brother was a baby, and my oldest sister was too busy being "engaged" to care about the truly important things in life like "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer", but everyone else was there with bells on.
The show started right on time and it was absolutely fabulous. From the moment the snowman that looked and sounded like Burl Ives came out, I was glued to the set and spell-bound by the riveting tale of this heroic young reindeer that was unfolding. Incredible! It was all there - the songs, the drama, the excitement, the pathos. And the characters! From the frozen Burl Ives (the narrator) to Clarice (the love interest), Hermey (steadfast friend and future dentist), Yukon Cornelius (intrepid prospector), The Bumble (good God!), Santa, the elves, the reindeer, the Misfit Toys, what nine year old could ask for more? And the fact that it was all done in stop-action was mind boggling! By the time of the climactic ending, I knew I had seen something of great import in the annals of film-making and I went to bed impatient for the morrow when I could share my thoughts with my friends.
Everyone I knew proclaimed it a great show and it was thoroughly discussed and opinions about its most salient points expressed. We all agreed that mistreating anyone simply because of a "non-conformity" was wrong, and we all came away from the experience with important lessons about compassion, inclusiveness, and the evil of intolerance firmly implanted in our pre-adolescent psyches.
The cultural impact of "Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer" can not be overstated. An entire generation was conditioned to believe that being an individual and going your own way was not only acceptable but actually preferable to the stifling conformity of previous generations. This led directly to the rebellion against the status quo and the subsequent upheaval that was so indicative of the 60's. Non-conformity became the new religion as the young cast off the accepted norms of appearance and behavior. A nation wide cult of 'do your own thing" followed, culminating in the youth of America adopting new individual forms of dress, conduct and expression that had everyone under the age of thirty looking, talking, and thinking in exactly the same way. Let diversity reign!
The years following that pivotal debut were marked by further forays into the stop-action Christmas special genre. Success breeds imitation and a plethora of similar though generally inferior offerings ensued. I can't say that any of them had a comparable effect on me, though not being nine years old anymore may have had something to do with that. Today, "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" is shown approximately a hundred million times during the Christmas season, which kind of takes the "special" out of Christmas special. But I'll be there to watch it at least one of those times along with the still excellent "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol". If that doesn't get me in the Christmas spirit then it ain't Christmas.