Snow falls, Santa dons his red coat, and a would-be Scrooge learns to appreciate “the spirit of Christmas.” These tropes warm the hearts of viewers as they cozy up on their couches to watch the holiday classics of the 1960s (all-year-‘round, thanks to cable TV syndication!). According to a new study, though, something has always been missing in Christmas television shows – namely, Christ.
The study, published in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture (and which just so happens to have been written by the author of this very blog), sought to verify the claims that producers and TV execs made when Peanuts comic strip creator Charles M. Schulz and his team finished their cut of the now-classic A Charlie Brown Christmas. “The Bible thing scares us!” studio execs said, and even Schulz’s producer and director warned him that he was going too far by animating from the Bible. Schulz simply responded, “If we don’t do it, who will?”
If they didn’t do it, who would? As the new study demonstrates, Nobody. Or, at least, very few.
From a representative sample of all of the Christmas episodes and special programs on TV during the 1960s “decade of change,” the study found that only 8.6% of the shows had a significant religious reference – i.e., verbal references (to the nativity) that were not in a song and that composed some sort of central theme to the episode.
A variety of episodes had tangential religious references, like an instrumental version of the sacred carol “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” strumming in the background of The Flintstones as Fred plays Santa at the local department store (… which apparently means the hymn actually predates the birth of Christ by… how old is Bedrock??). Similarly, in The Doris Day Show, after her office party goes rather well (fewer got drunk that year than previously), Doris and her work friends end up around a player piano singing “Silent Night.”
These brief moments, though, do not actually impact the episodes. Instead, sacred hymns serve as mere decoration to “set the mood” in the same way as the secular carols do. The same was true with a variety of other brief references that might be “religious” according to the dictionary, but that were probably completely missed by TV watchers because they simply did not matter too much to the show.
In short, Christ just was not as meaningful in 1960s Christmas television as it was in the lives of the actual viewers sitting at home, watching (as “radical” as the ‘60s were, church membership had stayed rather constant).
Of all the episodes viewed, then, the 8.6% was comprised of just three programs – A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), The Little Drummer Boy (1968), and Davey and Goliath: Christmas Lost and Found (1965). Out of all of these, Charlie Brown was the only one to depict religion in “normal” modern life on broadcast TV. In the special, after which viewers wrote to thank Schulz for his message, Linus recites from the Gospel of Luke in answer to Charlie Brown’s search for “the real meaning of Christmas.” (The Little Drummer Boy was a period piece about an unhappy boy stumbling onto the birth of Christ, and Davey and Goliath was a syndicated program created by the Lutheran Church in which Davey learns that giving what’s important to him is a key lesson of Christ’s life).
The study also outlines a variety of other key aspects of religion in the 1960s Christmas programming, including a discussion of how these three programs all happened to feature a child with an anthropomorphic pet. Additionally, it explained what WAS in these programs, if not the religious foundation of the holiday, detailing five conventions of the genre: (1) a universal “spirit of Christmas,” (2) the inclusion of a “Scrooge” character, (3) the use of carols as aesthetic devices, (4) the prominent presence of a Christmas tree, and (5) the ubiquitous presence of Santa Claus.
So as re-runs continue and the classics get the attention they deserve, do not be surprised if you find yourself squinting and tilting your head trying to find the baby Jesus. He’s probably not there in the episodes from many of your favorite ‘60s shows. Santa probably will be… but that’s not quite the same, now is it.
The article really is worth a read (if I do say so myself) for those who want a thick history and hard numbers on just how religious Christmas TV was in the classic era of the 1960s – an era very important for television. Your local library likely has access to the academic journal article, or you can purchase your own copy from JRPC online.
What episodes from the 1960s do you love? Did they have religious moments that had you hooked? Was Carol Brady singing in church enough for you? Or was Julia Baker’s spat with Dr. Chegly too much? Sound off in the comments below, and be sure to SUBSCRIBE above and FOLLOW on Twitter!