For many Americans, watching cherished Christmas movies and TV shows has become as much a part of the traditional holiday celebration as decorating the Christmas tree and wrapping gifts.
With most of America's households connected to 150-channel cable or satellite TV systems, there is no shortage of holiday-themed TV programs for people to choose from today. But according to Diane Werts, the author of the new book, Christmas on Television, three family classics, all of them animated features, stand out in America's holiday viewing traditions.
"When people say, 'I'm waiting for the Christmas specials,' they're usually talking about A Charlie Brown Christmas, which was [first aired] in 1965, so that has been running for 40 years; Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which was run in 1964, so that's about the same time; and Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas. That was [first] on in '66."
The three cartoon classics are beloved now by three generations of Americans and have similar themes that, Diane Werts says, strike a chord with holiday viewers.
"Rudolph is this outcast reindeer because he's got a red nose. None of the other reindeer has a red nose. So nobody likes him," she says. "He's kind of a loner. He meets some other loners, and the characters get together, and they are the ones who have to save the day for Christmas when Santa's sleigh can't get through the bad weather."
Rudolph becomes a hero when his red nose cuts through the fog to light Santa's way. "We would all like this to happen to us," Werts says, "that people would take us to heart and come to understand how special we are." That, she notes, is also the theme of A Charlie Brown Christmas.
As in the long-running comic strip, Peanuts, on which it was based, the characters in the 1965 special are all children, and they're quick to heap scorn on the hapless Charlie Brown when he picks a small, lifeless fir tree for the Christmas pageant.
After being accused of "goofing up" and being "completely hopeless," Charlie Brown feels he can't do anything right and assumes, since he got the wrong kind of Christmas tree, that he doesn't know what Christmas is about.
"Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?" he asks. Linus, the young boy who is always seen with his blanket, chirps up, "Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about," and reads a verse from the Bible about the birth of Jesus: "And there were in the same country, shepherds, abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them."
"It's very simple, not preachy," Diane Werts says. "[It] doesn't demand you believe in the divine nature of what it is he's saying. It adds to the sense of wonder of the holiday and makes it feel even more special."
In the end, all of the characters decide the tree Charlie Brown picked out just needs sprucing up a bit. And when they decorate it, Charlie Brown is redeemed.
Redemption even comes to the Grinch character in the animated version of the Doctor Seuss classic, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. "There's a little girl in the story who catches him stealing presents," Werts says. "She says 'that's okay, if you need the presents, that's fine.' But he comes to realize it's much more than that. It's about love, togetherness, and community."
The theme is less upbeat, but still hopeful, in what Diane Werts says is the most popular Christmas movie airing on American TV this time of year: director Frank Capra's 1946 classic, It's a Wonderful Life, with James Stewart in the lead role.
The character Stewart plays attempts suicide because he believes, "If it hadn't been for me, everybody would be better off: my wife, my kids, and my friends. I suppose it'd been better if I'd never been born at all."
Rescued by an angel, he is shown what life would have been like if he had not been born, and he realizes that he actually is an important person. "I think it does touch -- not a sentimental place -- but a deep place in the soul: 'what is the meaning of our lives, what is the value?'" Werts says. "That gets me every time. I can cry every time I watch it."
Another favorite holiday film is director Bob Clark's 1983 A Christmas Story, a whimsical childhood memoir written by the late radio and TV personality, Jean Shepherd. Author Diane Werts says like other holiday favorites, A Christmas Story resonates with audiences year after year because people see themselves, younger and more innocent, reflected in Shepherd's wistful comedy that centers on a 10-year-old boy.
"This is one people take to as kids," she says, "or they remember how they celebrated Christmas as a child: wanting Christmas to come, making Christmas gifts, going to visit the Santa Claus in the department store, and telling him what you want for Christmas."
Werts notes that all of the holiday movies and animated TV programs that she writes about in her book Christmas on Television are all available on videotape and DVD, so people can watch them any time they want. "But I don't know how many people really do that," she says. "I know a lot of people who own them. They tend to want to see them when they're on the air, on television, when they know other people are watching it, and it's kind of a shared experience, that sense of community that all of the films touch upon.