After the end of the Golden Age of Radio, the Christmas season simply meant that radio commercials got cheerier and more obnoxious at the same time. We were also sure to be subjected to those darned chipmunks at least once every forty-five minutes.
Of course, it wasn’t always that way. Many social critics (and kindly curmudgeons) bemoan the supposed commercialism of the Holiday Season. Although it is hard to find any real personal value in a spending orgy that begins before the Thanksgiving turkey leftovers are cold, the national obsession with making the Christmas Season special that ran from the Depression years through the Post War period was more than a boon to retailers. At its deepest level, the season of “Goodwill to All Men” became an important thread in the fabric that made us Americans.
Town and country, city and village, prairie and mountain, no matter where you were during the period, radio from the four big networks helped to bind us together as a nation, and made our Holidays a common experience. Jack Benny taught us that Christmas Shopping was supposed to be frustrating, hearing Bing belt out ?Adeste Fidelis? every year reminded us of the importance of tradition, and Fibber McGee helped to teach us that we never outgrow Christmas.
Seasonal Silliness would be carried into the Television era, of course. With television, the season became less real and more retail. The reality of TV’s fantasy world was that the Christmas shows were often written in the summertime and recorded before the fall season started. Radio, with rare exceptions, was live, being performed by people who were involved in their own version of the holiday rush. This was especially true, and that much more poignant in the holiday editions of AFRS programs during WWII. Hollywood and Radio’s biggest names came together on programs like Command Performance, GI Journal and Mail Call. Working on a volunteer basis, and more often than not led by Bob Hope, the Stars did all they could to make Christmas special for the troops.
Any program that held onto a time slot as well as managing to stay on the air for more than a couple years had a pretty good chance of Christmas Eve or The Big Day falling on a broadcast night. Of course, the longer the show stayed on the air, the more likely it was to happen more than once. The long run of Fibber McGee and Molly gave us a number of terrifically festive Christmas programs (and usually more than just during the week before Christmas), but some of the best took place on Christmas Eve or Christmas and included ?Teenie? Marian Jordan’s little girl character) reciting Twas The Night Before Christmas along with the Kingsmen.
With Beulah in the kitchen and Leroy scheming for the perfect present, The Great Gildersleeve gave us a number of terrific Christmas memories. Gildy’s Christmases often involved manly voices raised in song as well as schemes to do something nice for the town’s young folks, but few Christmases were as poignant than 1948. That fall a baby had been abandoned in Gildersleeve’s car. Having an infant in his life turned the confirmed bachelor on his ear. The story arc climaxed at Christmas when Gildy must make the decision to adopt the baby girl or return her to the father who had been forced to abandon her. The was not a dry eye within earshot of the radio.
Even Radio Tough Guys softened a bit around the edges at Christmas, even of the Radio Noir world they operated in didn’t. Sgt Friday on Dragnet shocked us one year over the dangers of kids and guns with “A Rifle For Christmas”, and then in another season warmed our heart to melting in “Big Little Jesus” when an immigrant boy makes good on his promise to take the Baby Jesus for a ride if he receives a red wagon for Christmas. The great Nero Wolfe and his sidekick Archie Goodwin discover that street corner Santa Clauses are being murdered and that one of the Santas is a millionaire. Even Sherlock Holmes has to come to the rescue when Professor Moriarty stoops so low as to try and steal kid’s Christmas gifts.
Christmas is not forgotten in the Wild West. One of the best Cowboy Christmases is shared by James Stewart’s The Six Shooter when Britt Ponset tells a very Western version of the classic Scrooge tale.
Even without Chipmunks, Christmas is a time for music, and Old Time Radio does not disappoint. On Christmas Day, 1943, NBC managed to connect every theater of the War with music and inspiration talks. Two days earlier, Dinah Shore delighted everyone with her beautiful Christmas songs while apologizing that her sponsor’s Birdseye frozen turkeys would all be going to support the War Effort. Of course, Melody Ranch and the rest of the guitar and fiddle crowd would never forget Christmas.