December 21, 2011

TV Guide: Christmas, 1977

In years past at the Our Word blog, I've taken a look at Christmas issues of various TV Guides, but I haven't done this for awhile.  So, with the big day just a few days away, let's go back thirty-four years, to Christmas week 1977 (when, as is the case this year, Christmas fell on Sunday), and see what's cooking besides the ham.

The saying, "It's the same, only different," could well apply to some of the programs of the week.  It's almost as if we see a shadow of today's Christmas in the margins of 1977.  For example, there's a Jean Shepherd story dramitized on PBS Christmas Eve - but it's not A Christmas Story, which of course hadn't even been made yet.  Instead, it's The Phantom of the Open Hearth, "an affectionate look at life in a 1940s Midwestern steel town," with Shepherd as narrator.  Now, if that sounds just a little like the setting of A Christmas Story, it should: the protagonist of the story is a boy named Ralph, who has a Father and Mother, and a friend named Schwartz.  Clearly, it's drawn from the same material, a preview of what we would see a few years later.

And of course what Christmas would be complete without a Frank Capra movie?  But once again, it's not what you think - not It's a Wonderful Life, which had not yet become the Christmas staple,* but instead Gary Cooper's classic performance in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, made ten years earlier.  In fact, I don't see It's a Wonderful Life anywhere in this TV Guide.  Perhaps it was on earlier in the season, or maybe it hadn't become so closely identified with Christmas - after all, the first time I saw it was in the middle of summer, when our ABC affiliate stuck it on in the middle of the night during a hold for one of the first space shuttle launches.

* It was, in fact, the ubiquitous showings of It's a Wonderful Life on virtually every television station known to man which led to its eventual exclusive showing on NBC.  With its removal from mass circulation, another movie had to be found to take its place: A Christmas Story.

There are other examples of not-quite-the-same.  The Boston Pops had their annual concert (which A&E televised up to a few years ago), but it wasn't Holiday at Pops - it was the decidedly un-PC Christmas at Pops.  There was Midnight Mass, but it wasn't from the Vatican - instead, it was live from the Cathedral of St. Paul, in Minnesota.  There was an NBA game on (only one, though, instead of the five we get this year), and it featured a team that isn't even around any more: the Buffalo Braves, now the suddenly-hot L.A. Clippers.  There was football, but not the NFL - they're playing on Saturday and Monday (and it's the playoffs, not the second-to-last game of the regular season).  Instead, it's the Fiesta Bowl (Penn State vs. Arizona State), which was a staple of Christmas until it moved to New Year's Day some years later.  And there's a Minnesota NHL game too, but it's the North Stars, not the Wild.  (And just to show that some things never change, CBS has a documentary on "Illegal Aliens in Los Angeles.")

Not everything was there-and-not-there, of course.  Channel 5, the ABC affiliate, presented a charming special at 6:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve, called "The Flight of Reindeer 8," with Channel 5's anchors covering the event from the North Pole, including interviews with the elves and Mrs. Santa.  The George C. Scott version of A Christmas Carol hadn't been made yet, but Alastair Sim's classic is there in all its glory, at 11:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve on Channel 4. 

What I find interesting, which I've commented on in the past, is how the Christmas season didn't end at midnight on December 26.  For example, there's the obligatory sappy Christmas movie, this year being Christmas Miracle in Caufield, U.S.A., but it was shown by NBC on the day after Christmas.  PBS had "A Child's Christmas in Wales" and "Christmas Around the World" on the same evening, and "An Elizabethan Christmas Celebration" on December 27 (right after William F. Buckley's Firing Line).

The week winds down with the Gator Bowl on Friday, in what was then it's traditional just-before-New Year's time slot (Pittsburgh vs. Clemson, which as I recall was a pretty good game).  Not a lot of football that week, but then there were only perhaps a dozen bowl games, as opposed to the orgy we have today.

It's an interesting week - as I've suggested, the most interesting aspect is the same-yet-different feeling that one gets when reading through the listings.  With Christmas Eve on Saturday and Christmas on Sunday, you don't quite get the flavor that you see when Christmas comes later in the week, but it still brings back memories.  We should be so lucky today.

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