Imaginary Christmas: Celebrating the Holidays with Kids’ TV

The holidays begin with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and end with Ryan Seacrest (and Dick Clark before him) counting down the ball drop on New Year’s Eve. No matter when Christmas commercials start, no matter how early Black Friday bleeds into Thanksgiving, those two TV events mark the start and finish of the holiday season for many families.

The “holidays” get a bad rap. Too many people concern themselves too much about “taking Christ out of Christmas,” never mind how much consumerism did that long before political correctness was ever accused of it. But for me “holidays” goes beyond whatever wintertime religious holiday you may or may not celebrate. The holidays are the time between the parade and the ball drop, filled with family, friends, food, silly movies on TV and holiday specials. For kids, these specials define their holiday rituals as much as their families do. Is yours a family that watches the TBS “A Christmas Story” marathon? Do you have a favorite claymation movie that you catch every year? These traditions are oftentimes just as meaningful as who gets to put the star on the tree – and evoke strong memories in us for years to come.

So when people complain about “taking Christ out of Christmas” and, by extension, Christmas TV, there is a valid concern about reframing the holidays for the next generation – from the gross commercialization of the 80’s to the intense political correctness of the early part of the 2000’s. Because what kids see on TV helps to expand and define their worldview. How TV presents the holidays matters.

The blatant commercialism of 1980’s Christmas specials

Did you ever wonder how Pac Man celebrated the holidays? She-Ra? Of course you did. And the 1980’s were happy to tell those stories and then some.

There was very little about anyone’s Lord and Savior in these cartoons well before political correctness was accused of starting a war on Christmas. These specials at least said “Christmas” though, so most critics didn’t issue their battle cry until other religions outside of consumerism were recognized as valid options for celebration in the month of December. Never mind the corporate tie-ins, the laser focus on the consumerism of receiving presents, the complete absence of actual religious messages. As Bill O’Reilly succinctly put it in 2005, “Every company in America should be on its knees thanking Jesus for being born. Without Christmas, most American businesses would be far less profitable.”

The 1990’s and baby steps to multiculturalism

When Rugrats aired a Passover special in 1995, it was one of the first times an animated series had ever touched on a Jewish holiday. The show followed that up with a well received Chanukah special in 1996 which offered kids a chance to learn the Chanukah story through the eyes of the Rugrats.

Sesame Street has one of the most iconic Christmas Specials in children’s programming (especially if you ask Kirsten Leigh – more on that next week). The program has always been on the forefront of multicultural acceptance and exposure and released “Sesame Street Celebrates Around the World” in 1993, which focused on how countries around the world celebrate New Year’s Eve.

Despite this veneer of multicultural acceptance though, of the 16 books and DVD’s sold on the Sesame Street website, 12 of them only refer to Christmas and not a single one focuses primarily on another religion’s holiday.

The 2000’s (over)Correction

Three examples typify what some saw as overt political correctness of the ‘aughts.

Sesame Street’s “Elmo’s World: Happy Holidays” was released in 2002. This special focuses on Christmas, Chanukah, and Kwanzaa and what all three holidays have in common; it was still a poor attempt at a true melting pot.

In 2009, aggressive multiculturalism was no more clear than in Sid the Science Kid. In “Sid’s Holiday Adventure,” Sid celebrates Chanukah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa. The show includes the song “One Day in December” that talks about celebrating December holidays all over the world. A great sentiment and a lovely idea for a half-Jewish, half-African American cartoon kid, but the show is about the weather anyway so no one is paying attention.

Thomas & Friends was accused of “joining the politically correct bandwagon” with its “Winter Holidays” special that completely avoided the word Christmas. Over-political correctness concerns led to a small rewrite of the 2010 Holiday Special as well when the episode was re-narrated for the UK to replace the “Winter Holidays” lines with “Christmas Holidays.” The temporary transition to “winter holidays” was especially noteworthy considering Thomas was originally created by a Reverend Awdry. Christmas quickly returned to Sodor after that.

I am a big fan of exposing my kid to other cultures both in person and through television. Part of the problem with this all-or-nothing take is by putting the attention on everything, it takes the attention away from anything. When everything is presented with the same value to every person, it can’t show how traditions are special, unique, and important to the communities that celebrate them. At best, this approach is noncommittal. At worst, it’s dismissive and offensive. 

Today’s Christmas Specials

This year’s Thomas & Friends special, “Christmas Cheer” aired yesterday on PBS. It told the story of Percy’s concern that Reg was missing out on the Christmas fun. Not a word of winter holidays anywhere.

Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, a spin-off of sorts of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood does not celebrate traditional holidays. Not only is Christmas missing (replaced with Snowflake Day for the 2013 holiday special), Thanksgiving was replaced with Thank You Day in October 2013.

Daniel Tiger’s Winter Adventure aired earlier this week on PBS and focused on sledding (and trying hard things) and a production of The Nutcracker (that impressively avoids the word Christmas entirely). Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood succeeds at their holiday specials not by accommodating every holiday or by leaning heavily on presents or the “magic of Christmas” but because the show focuses on messages that work in parallel with the holiday theme while acknowledging that the Land of Make Believe is clearly not a world where our major religions exist. They don’t try to rename a Christmas tree – there just isn’t one, not even in their rendition of The Nutcracker.

Amazon released a Christmas Episode for Creative Galaxy last week. The episode features the first Christmas of the main character’s sister as well as focusing on treasuring the important memories Christmas brings of family and friends. Like all episodes of the show, it breaks mid-episode and again at the end to show real kids doing crafts related to the show.

If you’re looking for Chanukah in animation this year, Peg + Cat is offering a combination Christmas/Chanukah special, which aired yesterday.

Today’s holiday TV is defining the holidays for a new generation of kids. How Arty from Creative Galaxy celebrates Christmas certainly isn’t as important as how your family celebrates, but it does teach your kids how other people do it. And since you’re only in one house on the actual day, the doors our TV opens to others’ celebrations offer a valuable window into our own expanding traditions. We, for one, will be giving Arty’s snow globe craft a try this year.

So the question we need to ask ourselves is, what do we want “Christmas” to be? Do we want it to be about consumerism? Overt attempts at placating everyone? Or do we want it to be about spending time with the people we love and maybe getting them something nice to show them that we love them? Because if we look at mainstream kid’s TV, it hasn’t been about the baby Jesus since well before Pac Man hit the scene.

If I have to pick a lesson for my three year old, I’m happy I have today’s Christmas episodes to help me hammer that last point home.