As a child of the San Fernando Valley, I knew the yuletide as a time of frost-free mornings when I could not see my breath. Turning down my collar against the warm, I would trudge sludgeless streets past yards absent of snowmen, where green and even flowering hedges hid no foes waiting to pelt me with snowballs, on my way to school, where we would sing songs of sleigh rides and mistletoe and holly. Of Frosty. Rudolph. Santa.
Later at home, the family would gather before the television set, our glowing hearth, to watch actors on hot Hollywood sound stages aspire not to perspire beneath their sweaters and scarves and overcoats as they shook the cornstarch from their boots as if entering stage left from a winter's day in Minneapolis or Cincinnati.
Mr. Magoo would entertain the ghosts of Christmases past, present and yet to come, and Tiny Tim would sing of "razzleberry dressing." Snoopy would dance, Charlie Brown fret, Linus philosophize. A red-nosed reindeer and an elf dentist, derided by their colleagues, would hit the road.
That is how, growing up in an environment that itself lacked the significant signifiers of the holiday season, I learned what might be called the aesthetic meaning of Christmas. (I mean the ecumenical, even pagan, pop-cultural Christmas: the Santa Claus Christmas.)
Yes, Christmas was a time for television. Perhaps that is not so much the case anymore. Perhaps the holidays are now a time for texting, here in your jet-packs-and-Angry-Birds, Gangnam-style 21st century. But there is still a lot of Christmas on TV; it is one of the heralds of the season. (Hanukkah and Kwanza get little traction; but then, they have no elves.)
Indeed, there is so much of it, so many holiday specials and movies — every passing Christmas adding more weight to the snowball — and so many more channels generating them, that the specials have become by definition less special. That isn't to say they're no good: This year, for example, brings a fine "SpongeBob SquarePants" Christmas show, in puppet animation (Nickelodeon, Dec. 9), that children will watch as long as children still watch "SpongeBob SquarePants."
But it is harder to keep a sense of occasion when you could be watching "White Christmas" in July (or "Christmas in July" in December). It takes a sort of discipline — sticking to a few favorite films or programs, refusing to watch "A Christmas Carol" (the Alastair Sim version for me) before Dec. 20, at least — to keep the season exciting.
"Abundance" is the season's watchword. TBS will show the 1983 film favorite "A Christmas Story" 12 times in a row from Christmas Eve into the afternoon of Christmas Day. ABC Family Channel precedes its "25 Days of Christmas" programming event with a "Countdown to 25 Days of Christmas" programming event, stuffing them with its own new and old TV movies (this year including a "Home Alone" sequel), theatrical features (it has the Disney catalog to draw from) and a sleighload of holiday programs from the recent and far past, including most of the Rankin-Bass puppet-animated specials. (Though not "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," which belongs to CBS, where it will air Tuesday.)
This year for some reason there seems to be an unusual profusion of new holiday TV movies, with Hallmark Channel, Lifetime and Ion — Ion! — leading the way. In what feels like a swing for the record book, family-courting Hallmark boasts 12 new Christmas movies, five original specials, three French hens and a partridge in a pear tree — "more than 1,100 hours of holiday programming ... the most dominant holiday programming lineup in all of television." ("Cower before the might of our holiday programming lineup!" they seem to say.)
They have titles like "Hitched for the Holidays," "Help for the Holidays," "Naughty or Nice" (Meredith Baxter and Michael Gross from "Family Ties" are in that one), "A Bride for Christmas," "Baby's First Christmas," "Holiday High School Reunion," "A Christmas Wedding Date," "Christmas Song," "Christmas Twister," "The Christmas Consultant," "Love at the Christmas Table," "Matchmaker Santa" (with John Ratzenberger and Florence Henderson the old-school ringers) and "It's Christmas, Carol!"
You might not be able to guess that "The Christmas Heart" (on Hallmark on Sunday with "The Middle" star Patricia Heaton producing a script by her brother Michael Heaton and Teri Polo starring) was about a literal human heart. But from most of these titles, you can extrapolate, if not the exact movie, a fair approximation of the actual product. Or even something better.
Few (to none) have any chance of becoming a "holiday classic"; some may never be seen again. But if they are no more than budget-line rehashings or recombinations of nicer things that have come before — stocking stuffers — their predictability may be the very thing that recommends them to viewers who like to know where they're going before they start. As a rule, if you are a fan of Lifetime movies, you will probably like their Christmas ones; if Hallmark is your thing, ditto.
For the new TV Christmas is a niche TV Christmas. You may schedule yourself an old-fashioned "Peanuts"-and-"Rudolph" Christmas — the classics from back in the days of three networks and the 50 share. But it might be a Food Channel Christmas, or an Adult Swim Christmas, or a "Doctor Who" Christmas, whose traditional Christmas episode (with the usual Victorian trimmings) arrives on Christmas Day. However you arrange it, of course, it will always seem quaint, and manageable, in the million-channel, 5-D TV world to come.