Five Classic Christmas Episodes for the Wilfully Joyless
Having to spend Christmas with my flesh-family is bad enough, but surely I should be spared the endless festive spirit when making the most of the holidays to spend a little time with my real family, the TV.
Indeed, Christmas grouches like Retro Remote usually end up fairly torn during the Christmas season. While having no interest whatsoever in the holiday or its commercialised traditions of dubious origin and merit (sorry, folks), there’s no doubt that Christmas is something of a pop culture staple. The “Christmas episode” remains almost required viewing for quasi-academic purposes and, if nothing else, provides a rare opportunity to trick innocent bystanders into watching some old TV show they’ll probably hate, just because of its sudden festive relevance.
Christmas, then, becomes something to subvert rather than denounce; finding a way to slip something with some retro cred like Chuck Berry’s great 1958 track “Merry Christmas, Baby” into the playlist offers at least some minor relief. Heck, even Berry’s “Run, Rudolph, Run” is a step up from most Christmas fare.
Even better is something like John Denver’s “Please Daddy Don’t Get Drunk this Christmas”, just to bring things crashing back to reality.
Or, if you’re too hip for words to express, there’s always classic blues like Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Christmas Eve Blues” or Leadbelly’s “On a Christmas Day” (technically a bit too fun). Personally, I like to fall back on Robert Johnson’s “Hell Hound on My Trail”, even though it can be tough to take Bobby’s passing reference to imagined holiday happiness while he tries to avoided getting snacked on by Satan’s schnoodle and pass it off as a carol.
But music is easy. What about TV, the dearest family member of all? Why does it betray us so at Christmas? In Gunsmoke “P.S. Murray Christmas” (27 December 1971) our Western pals rescue a hundred poor orphans from the misery and grouchiness of their guardian; in The Adventures of Long John Silver “The Orphans’ Christmas” (23 December 1958) our pirate pals save a bunch of miserable orphans from the misery and grouchiness of… you get the idea. Poorly treated orphans and grouchy governesses must have been stashed away in just about every show’s prop cupboard.
Even a couple of Christmas episodes from the great Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents are orphan (or at least downtrodden waif) -based. I have nothing against orphans, mind you, I just find their near-exclusive allocation to Christmas stories questionable at best.
“The Big .22 Rifle for Christmas” is probably one of Dragnet‘s best known episodes, if only because the title is so distinctive. Where the next year’s Christmas episode “The Big Little Jesus” (24 December 1953, remade as “The Christmas Story”, 21 December 1967) is 100 percent holiday schmaltz, “Rifle for Christmas” is classic Dragnet at its purest: a stern, stoic navigation through a situation that it’s too late to fix; it can only be commented on.
Dragnetcreator, writer (this episode with James E. Moser) and director Jack Webb frequently used the series as a platform for cultural education, the scenarios an excuse for terse commentary or uncontested speeches rather than delivering narrative twists and turns. Here, as in most of the best Dragnet episodes, the incident has already taken place by the time Webb’s Joe Friday gets involved, leaving the police the sole task of navigating the fallout and reminding the viewer that things really shouldn’t have turned out this way.
By the time the ‘60s colour version aired, Webb’s social commentary had lapsed into a kind of anti-hippy self-parody (though still hitting some high points) but, in the initial TV run (and earlier on radio), the speeches delivered a kind of forceful, barely-controlled resilience as the post-war cities and suburbs started to grow swollen and strange. Given that the episode deals with one child killing another in a casual gun culture – something that’s sadly still a problem – “Rifle for Christmas” is still gut-wrenching stuff. It’s probably the last thing anyone wants to see at Christmas, which is why, especially in an American culture seemingly more gun-soaked than ever, it still should be.
One of the more ambitious and sometimes gloomy of TV Westerns, Have Gun – Will Travel (1955-1963) succumbed to the lure of Christmas episode in “The Hanging Cross” (21 December 1957). Its hero-for-hire Paladin gets into the Christmas spirit right away, forgoing the usual intro sequence gun-draw and instead hanging up his holster and, because it’s the festive season, promising that he’ll do his best not to kill anyone.
Well, you can’t do much better than that.
The episode delves into one of the classic Western stories, the white child taken by Native Americans and raised in a new culture. With a foundation in history, these stories always have difficult and troubling resonances – finding a solution within a narrative is invariably some kind of dodge or, at least, can’t help but hint at all kinds of unresolved issues (as in John Ford’s classic The Searchers, of course). When Gunsmoke (1955-1975) turned to the story in “Indian White” (27 October 1956), Marshal Matt Dillon doesn’t seem to think it’s that bad an idea, helping a woman kidnap a young Cheyenne boy by doctoring some papers (“I’m a partner to the crime, if you can call it that,” is Matt’s sharp legal perspective on this fraud and kidnapping).
Paladin (Richard Boone) in “The Hanging Cross” isn’t quite so one-sided in his perspective, although everything still turns out just fine (not always a given in Have Gun – Will Travel), delivering a kind of multicultural unity that history suggests wasn’t exactly lasting. Nevertheless, despite the “spontaneous” discovery of a super-symbolic cross and the young boy’s irritating memory of the word “Chriss-masss” from his early Anglo-upbringing, the episode’s ending at least reminds us that having a sappy Christmas ending doesn’t necessarily mean sacrificing a tense and worthwhile story.
Besides, this kid has two mothers and two fathers, so the episode gets points because that means it’s definitely not a Christmas story about an orphan.
Directed by series regular Andrew V. McLaglen and written by the always-popular Gene Roddenberry, “The Hanging Cross” isn’t currently available on YouTube, but you can find it on the season 1 DVD set. In the meantime, the radio version is available here.
Have Gun – Will Travel revisited the Christmas episode in season 6’s “Be Not Forgetful of Strangers” (22 December 1962), although Retro Remote hasn’t been able to get hold of that one just yet.
And if “The Hanging Cross” still has too cheery an ending, Boone introduced a suitably cheerless Christmas story in his previous series, Medic (1954-1956), a medical drama with episodes that essentially acted as dramatic PSAs, working in conjunction with medical professionals to increase public awareness of important social and medical issues and also to promote public confidence in the medical profession as a whole. A good summary of the show’s connections with the medical profession and its place in this history of medical dramas can be found in Joseph Turow’s chapter in The Revolution Wasn’t Televised: Sixties Television and Social Conflict, “James Dean in a Medical Gown: Making TV’s Medical Formula”. Retro Remote has written about the show and its excellent episode “Flash of Darkness” in an earlier column.
Medic‘s “Red Christmas” (20 December 1954) is a miserable portrayal of the outcome of a drunken office Christmas party, far more concerned with reminding people that the festive occasion doesn’t make it OK for people to get drunk, act like idiots and then jump behind the wheel of a car, before offering some pleasant story of medical miracles as a holiday placebo. As with Dragnet‘s “Rifle for Christmas”, it’s a blunt reminder that, sadly, hasn’t passed its use-by date.