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A yule tube holiday

Think of it as one big special, featuring dozens of fat guys in red suits. Somehow, it gives you a glow.

December 10, 2006|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

CHRISTMAS is a time for television; it's television that tells us it's Christmas.

It's the electric hearth that unites the family and comforts the lonely. It fills the house with pictures of snow and skaters and charming re-created scenes of Victorian or New England. It plays you the Christmas songs you might otherwise have to sing yourself and relieves you of the task of reading aloud the good old holiday classics by turning them into TV specials.

That's what serves as tradition in the world I grew up in and carry around with me still. Though I belong to no demographic that would celebrate the religious holiday, I can totally get behind Christmas as an inspiration, or even just a pretext, for TV shows, literature, pop songs and cartoons. There are two Christmases, after all -- the one with Jesus in it, and the one run by Santa Claus -- and though they intersect, they also go their own way, Santa being a secular, adaptable brand available for product endorsements and personal appearances.

Just as a family's box of ornaments grows year by year, so does the giant metaphorical expanding box that is television gather unto itself an ever-increasing yearly horde of holiday-themed programs, nearly all of them in the Santa-Christmas camp. (There have been the odd bows toward Christmas' seasonal partners -- "The Rugrats," for example, have produced special episodes for both Kwanzaa and Hanukkah -- but they are few and far between.) Most of these, by the law of averages, will be ... average, and many will be worse. But some will strike a chord with the People and lodge themselves comfortably in their Consciousness, like a bear in its winter den -- though even some of these will look better for being seen through a haze of nostalgia or eggnog.

It's hard to say exactly what makes a holiday picture into a holiday classic, but time by definition has something to do with it, and the repetition that is television's stock in trade: Show something enough, and it begins to seem inevitable. TV is where the theatrical releases of yesteryear are made into the seasonal viewing traditions of today -- most famously, "It's a Wonderful Life" (airing Saturday and Dec. 24 on NBC), which owes its now-iconic stature to decades of airings. If it's too soon to call 2003's "Elf" a classic (USA, Tuesday and Wednesday), it's not too soon to certify 1983's "A Christmas Story," so much a part of the common mind that it is being parodied shot for shot in an ad for Cingular Wireless. Once again, TBS will show it 12 times in succession, beginning at 8 p.m. Christmas Eve.

Also getting the Christmas Eve marathon treatment, beginning at noon on the American Movie Channel, is the original "Miracle on 34th Street," the most perfect Christmas film of all, seamlessly weaving matters of belief into a romantic comedy, with only the merest hint at the supernatural -- and one you are free to take or leave.

The Rankin-Bass holiday specials, including "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" and "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer," are fetishistically adored in some quarters; though many make only marginal sense, they have an antique charm and several are on tap in yet another Christmas Eve marathon, beginning at noon on ABC Family.

There are several Christmas TV movies debuting this month, and while none cry out to be watched ritually in coming years, a couple are quite good, and the rest easy enough to avoid.

The biggest and almost the best of these is NBC's "The Year Without a Santa Claus" (premiering Monday, rebroadcast Dec. 23), with John Goodman as a sick and tired Santa ready to give the holidays a miss. Technically based on a book by Phyllis McGinley, it is for all intents and purposes a remake of the 1974 Saul Rankin-Jules Bass "Animagic" adaptation of the same material. (Its "Heat Miser/Snow Miser" theme even gets a reprise, sung here by Harvey Fierstein and Michael McKean, made up to perfectly resemble their puppet counterparts.)

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