The children's holiday special "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," airing again Dec. 1 on CBS, turns 40 this year. It marked the beginning of a golden age for Christmas television.
For three straight years, American TV went on a tear of serious holiday mythmaking: 1964, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"; 1965, "A Charlie Brown Christmas"; 1966, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." The programs in this yuletide triptych are the only TV shows made during Lyndon Johnson's administration that still play on network prime time. They were produced for children, but they live on today at the center of a thriving nostalgia industry aimed right at the hearts of those too old to believe in Santa.
As any Scrooge will tell you, Rudolph isn't real. He was invented in 1939 as an advertising gimmick for a mail-order catalogue and immortalized 10 years later in a hit song recorded by Gene Autry. It was the NBC-TV special that fully fleshed out the story, however. The various images of Santa, Mrs. Claus, the North Pole, elves, and reindeer that had been floating around in the culture for some time, were finally standardized here. The show earned a 55 share, and Rudolph became more famous than Bambi.
CBS answered the following December with "A Charlie Brown Christmas." It was a more modern look at the holiday. Delivering monologues like, "I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming but I'm not happy. I don't feel the way I'm supposed to feel. I always end up feeling depressed."
With a minimalist script and a way-cool soundtrack, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" also took an early TV stab at the flagrant commercialism of the holiday. And in a genre that is usually safely secularized, it showed some rare and audacious faith-based initiative when it wrapped up with a reading from the New Testament.
CBS returned a year later with its animated adaptation of Dr. Seuss's "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," a gloss on the old Scrooge story, in signature doggerel, featuring the best cliff-hanger in all of Christmas literature.
After 40 years, though, it turns out that these three shows aren't for children anymore.
Consider the recent flood of merchandise tied to "Rudolph," "Charlie Brown," and "The Grinch." A lot of this stuff you wouldn't even let the kids touch, much less play with.
For $37.50, Department 56 Collectibles will send you a set of three very breakable ceramic figurines depicting scenes from "A Charlie Brown Christmas." Rudolph's Misfit Toys Village, also from Department 56, goes for $70, but keep it out of the reach of children, as it's electrified and made of porcelain.
One catalogue offers a "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" T-shirt that comes only in adult sizes. The Toys 'R' Us superstore in Times Square has a display of toys from "Rudolph" that kids could actually play with, but whenever I'm there, parents seem to be the only ones showing any interest. (The kids also seem to ignore the "Charlie Brown Christmas" key chains, which makes sense as most of them don't have keys.)
This may seem strange, but it's not, really. As with so many traditions, repetition begets value. Fortysomethings love these shows now because they liked them as kids. Years of repeated viewing have vested them with accretions of meaning, tradition, and affection that a kid just can't appreciate. We'll sit our children in front of "Rudolph" Wednesday night, trying to sell them our own childhoods when they'd really rather be watching "SpongeBob."
But not to worry: they'll thank us when they're 40. And so will Department 56.
• Robert Thompson is a professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University.