CHRISTMAS is a time for television; it's television that tells us it's Christmas.
It's the electric hearth that unites the family and comforts the lonely. It fills the house with pictures of snow and skaters and charming re-created scenes of Victorian or New England. It plays you the Christmas songs you might otherwise have to sing yourself and relieves you of the task of reading aloud the good old holiday classics by turning them into TV specials.
That's what serves as tradition in the world I grew up in and carry around with me still. Though I belong to no demographic that would celebrate the religious holiday, I can totally get behind Christmas as an inspiration, or even just a pretext, for TV shows, literature, pop songs and cartoons. There are two Christmases, after all -- the one with Jesus in it, and the one run by Santa Claus -- and though they intersect, they also go their own way, Santa being a secular, adaptable brand available for product endorsements and personal appearances.
Just as a family's box of ornaments grows year by year, so does the giant metaphorical expanding box that is television gather unto itself an ever-increasing yearly horde of holiday-themed programs, nearly all of them in the Santa-Christmas camp. (There have been the odd bows toward Christmas' seasonal partners -- "The Rugrats," for example, have produced special episodes for both Kwanzaa and Hanukkah -- but they are few and far between.) Most of these, by the law of averages, will be ... average, and many will be worse. But some will strike a chord with the People and lodge themselves comfortably in their Consciousness, like a bear in its winter den -- though even some of these will look better for being seen through a haze of nostalgia or eggnog.
It's hard to say exactly what makes a holiday picture into a holiday classic, but time by definition has something to do with it, and the repetition that is television's stock in trade: Show something enough, and it begins to seem inevitable. TV is where the theatrical releases of yesteryear are made into the seasonal viewing traditions of today -- most famously, "It's a Wonderful Life" (airing Saturday and Dec. 24 on NBC), which owes its now-iconic stature to decades of airings. If it's too soon to call 2003's "Elf" a classic (USA, Tuesday and Wednesday), it's not too soon to certify 1983's "A Christmas Story," so much a part of the common mind that it is being parodied shot for shot in an ad for Cingular Wireless. Once again, TBS will show it 12 times in succession, beginning at 8 p.m. Christmas Eve.
Also getting the Christmas Eve marathon treatment, beginning at noon on the American Movie Channel, is the original "Miracle on 34th Street," the most perfect Christmas film of all, seamlessly weaving matters of belief into a romantic comedy, with only the merest hint at the supernatural -- and one you are free to take or leave.
The Rankin-Bass holiday specials, including "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" and "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer," are fetishistically adored in some quarters; though many make only marginal sense, they have an antique charm and several are on tap in yet another Christmas Eve marathon, beginning at noon on ABC Family.
There are several Christmas TV movies debuting this month, and while none cry out to be watched ritually in coming years, a couple are quite good, and the rest easy enough to avoid.
The biggest and almost the best of these is NBC's "The Year Without a Santa Claus" (premiering Monday, rebroadcast Dec. 23), with John Goodman as a sick and tired Santa ready to give the holidays a miss. Technically based on a book by Phyllis McGinley, it is for all intents and purposes a remake of the 1974 Saul Rankin-Jules Bass "Animagic" adaptation of the same material. (Its "Heat Miser/Snow Miser" theme even gets a reprise, sung here by Harvey Fierstein and Michael McKean, made up to perfectly resemble their puppet counterparts.)
The typical crisis in a Santa film is that he will possibly not get the toys out, and therefore there will be "no Christmas." (It is not quite a religious theme.) Here, precisely because he's feeling reduced to a "TDP -- a toy delivery platform," Santa takes to his bed; elves Jingle and Jangle (Ethan Suplee and Eddie Griffin) take it upon themselves to find "a real little Earth boy with true Christmas spirit" to cheer him up, while ambitious elf Sparky (Chris Kattan) attempts to cast himself as a new "Extreme Santa," who travels on a flying snowboard "powered by the magic of awesomeness." Ron Underwood ("City Slickers") directs from a screenplay by Tom Martin ("The Muppets' Wizard of Oz") and Larry Wilson, and they have thought up some funny things for the players to do and say, but at roughly twice the length of the original, it is too long by half and eventually collapses into a standard Too Busy Dad flick. There are nice bits along the way, however, and good turns by Delta Burke as Mrs. Claus, Carol Kane as Mother Nature and Noelle Monteleone as a Goth elf, topped by Goodman's splendidly irascible Santa.
Also directed by Underwood, oddly enough, and repeating a few of the themes, is "Santa Baby" (ABC Family, premiering tonight), a much different and ultimately more successful film. Jenny McCarthy stars as Mary, the prodigal Claus daughter -- Santa has had sex, apparently -- who takes the occasion of her father's heart attack to come home from the big city and put her own modern stamp on Christmas. Though there are logic holes big enough to fly a sleigh through, overall it's a charming film, and McCarthy is charming in it. George Wendt (Norm on "Cheers") plays Dad, warmly -- it's a friendly time for large actors, Christmas. There's nice attention to half-noticeable details (a sign in the workshop reads, "All elves must exercise extreme joyousness while on floor duty") but also to realistic domestic frictions. Ivan Sergei is the cute guy McCarthy left behind.
In many Christmas movies, the holiday serves primarily as a backdrop, a seasoning to intensify stories of earthly love and human kindness; there is no Santa necessary. In that vein Lifetime offers the serviceable "A Christmas Wedding" (premiering Monday), whose seasonal setting allows for a lot of interfering snow. The main interest here is the presence of Eric Mabius of "Ugly Betty" and Sarah Paulson of "Studio 60, etc." as the betrothed leads, though they unfortunately spend most of the movie in different cities.
TNT's "A Perfect Day" (Dec. 18) is another Busy Dad story, based on a book by pop-lit author Richard Paul Evans ("The Christmas Box"). It offers Rob Lowe as a cashiered middle manager who finally writes that novel he's been meaning to get around to. "I think people are hungry for a book like this, about love and family," says wife Allyson (Paget Brewster, "Huff"). But faster than you can say "slipper full of champagne," success goes to his head. Christopher Lloyd is a mysterious stranger who, like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, focuses Lowe's character upon his own doom to scare him straight. Apart from the excellent Brewster -- and I suppose Larry King as himself -- not a bit of it is believable.
"Christmas Do-Over" (ABC Family, Saturday) is an uninspired close replay of "Groundhog Day," replicating not only that movie's central idea but its precise story arc, as divorced father Jay Mohr, trapped in an eternally recurring Christmas Eve, slowly learns the power of selflessness. (And then it's Christmas, and ex-wife played by Daphne Zuniga loves him again.) It's not a version of or a spin on "Groundhog Day," in the way that, say, the Bill Murray "Scrooged" riffs on "A Christmas Carol" -- it's just putting antlers on a dog and calling it a reindeer.
Still, there will be authentic pleasures aplenty on TV. Cartoon Network is multiple-screening such animated touchstones as "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol"; the light-operatic "Wonder Pets!" rescue Santa's baby reindeer in a new episode (Nick Jr., Dec. 22); Harold Ramis, of the actual "Groundhog Day," directs a holiday episode of "The Office" (NBC, Thursday); and there are Christmas editions of "Kath & Kim" (Sundance Channel, Dec. 24), "Everybody Hates Chris" (CW, Monday), and other shows from "LazyTown" to "ER." You'll hardly be able to click a remote without hitting something seasonal.
And then there is the added pleasure of turning the TV off.