The advent of the VCR and subsequent technologies aimed at bringing instant entertainment into the home have all but ended one of my favorite childhood holiday activities; watching Christmas specials. Immediately following Thanksgiving the major networks would begin airing a long list of timeless classics building into a crescendo of holiday excitement until Christmas Day. While it is no longer necessary to plan life around a television schedule I cannot help but wonder what it is we lose when all our entertainment is available on demand.
Viewing Christmas specials once required use of the TV guide, a relic in weekly publications, and serious time management skills to juggle the long list of programs. December would not the same if we missed Charlie Brown’s Christmas and had to wait a full year to see it again; a modern day tragedy. Revolving evening activities around annual airings led to a certain air of excitement and giddy anticipation, almost as exhilarating as the arrival of Santa Claus himself! The real thrill of all this had very little to do with the actual quality of the show itself and more to do with the traditions around the evening; our whole family piled on the couch, cuddling with our Velveteen rabbits, eating popcorn, laughing.
Tradition also dictated that we repeated conversations and observations year after year; arguments over the quality of A Muppet Christmas Carol versus Mickey’s Christmas Carol, Frosty Returns not being nearly as good as Frosty the Snowman, how Stupid Karen was wearing a skirt to the North Pole, the Grinch’s poor dog being the most tortured character on television. These types of discussions and moments in front of the tube together were not limited to December; ever wonder who actually gave kids rocks like in Charlie Brown’s Halloween or why Peppermint Patty didn’t have parents to cook Thanksgiving Dinner? How many people remember all the commercials and build up to the twice a year showing of The Wizard of Oz? These were not just television programs, they were events cherished by both children and adults.
The anticipation and excitement of television specials are things of the past for most people, replaced by instantaneous satisfaction and the ability to view these programs over and over. How many of us treat watching a television special as the social event of the week; entertainment on demand has taken the “special” out of television specials and made watching them quite ordinary. It was not until many years later that I began to appreciate how wonderful evenings with my family around the television was, especially around Christmas; during the hustle and bustle of the season we took the time to settle down for an evening or two.
Television specials gave us more then just time together; we also learned so many other lessons that are lost today. Waiting for our favorite show required a great deal of patience because we could not see them any time we wanted. Once the time came to watch we learned to be quiet and pay attention because we couldn’t rewind to see what we missed. We also learned to time our bathroom breaks quite carefully; there was no pausing the action for bladder issues. These changes could be part of the reason children of today come off as demanding and impatient; commercials are fast forwarded, live action paused, any show they want available at the click of a button. It is actually quite sad that families do not get to feel the same simple joy and togetherness that TV used to provide and must go to further and more expensive means to experience anticipation and togetherness. It could also be the reason I avoid watching television; it’s really just not all that special anymore.