About Christmas TV History

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Amen Christmas (1987)

Continuing my tribute to Black History Month, I'd like to share a favorite Christmas TV episode--one from the hit 1980s series Amen.  In yesterday's post about the 1963 movie Lilies of the Field and the 1979 TV movie sequel Christmas Lilies of the Field, I mentioned the gospel song "Amen," heard in both of these movies, arranged by songwriter/composer and actor, Jester Hairston.  Hairston also appeared in the sitcom Amen as the character Rolly Forbes.  If you've watched the series, you may remember the outspoken character Rolly--he had all the best punchlines!

Though the series Amen created several outstanding musical Christmas episodes, the 1987 holiday episode "The Twelve Songs of Christmas" is one of my favorites from the series.  Below is an excerpt about this Christmas episode taken from my latest book, Merry Musical Christmas Volume 1.

My latest book, the first in a series about Christmas music, was released in December 2012.

This sitcom starring Sherman Hemsley as Deacon Frye focuses on the lives of the family and staff at the First Community Church, a predominately African-American gospel church in Philadelphia.

"In 1987’s “The Twelve Songs of Christmas,” the First Community Church choir is invited to participate in the city wide annual Christmas music competition.  But no one can agree about which song to perform.

Everyone in the choir has their own idea about which song would be the best carol to perform in the song competition.

Everyone thinks their own suggestion is the only possible selection for the choir to sing and the friends become divided.  The church elder Rolly even goes so far as to write his own rap song that he performs for the others to prove he knows the most about Christmas music.  It’s not until the night of the performance and the moment they are forced to take the stage that the group finally agrees upon what to do.

Actor Jester Hairston (left) was 86 years old when this TV episode was filmed!
Following choirmaster Lorenzo’s cues, the choir begins singing “Joy to the World.”  Then the choir is directed to sing a chorus from each of the members own favorite Christmas carols including “O Come All Ye Faithful,” Rolly gets to solo on “Mary’s Boy Child,” followed by “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and Deacon Frye gets to take the lead on “The Twelve Days of Christmas” leading into “Go Tell It on the Mountain” with a solo by board member Amelia.

Actor Clifton Davis who plays Reverend Gregory is also an accomplished songwriter.  He wrote the song “Never Can Say Goodbye,” first recorded in 1971 by the Jackson 5 which went on to be one of their biggest hits.

This medley of Christmas standards is followed by an introduction by the Reverend inviting all the city’s choirs to re-take the stage and join together to sing “Silent Night.” Five choirs worth of singers lift their voices, led by a solo by the Reverend celebrating the Christ child’s birth.

All five choirs in the competition come together on stage and sing "Silent Night."

The First Community Church ends up winning the songfest competition but TV viewers are the real winners, getting to hear this inspiring choir music year after year in TV reruns.  The episode ends with all five choirs visiting Deacon Frye’s home and everyone singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

Hairston singing the lead on "Mary's Boy Child" during the choir competition.  How awesome is this?

What you may not know is that the elderly actor Jester Hairston, who plays the regular character Rolly Forbes, is the original composer of the classic Christmas carol “Mary’s Boy Child,” the song he gets to sing the lead on in this 1987 episode.  Hairston wrote the song in 1956, and it was first recorded by Harry Belafonte and later Mahalia Jackson.  It has even been recorded more recently by the Aussie group The Wiggles for their children’s Christmas album Santa’s Rockin’".

Check out this historical TV Christmas musical moment on youtube.  Sorry, I couldn't embed the video but here's the link to Part 1 of the 1987 episode:

Here's an audio clip of Harry Belafonte's recording:


  1. I love the wink-and-a-nod joke where someone suggests they sing 'Mary's Boy Child' and Hairston says 'Never cared for it'. Laughed out loud at that one!

  2. Me too!

    See Hairston in this episode singing his own song seems like a really big deal to me--I wish TV One and whoever else still airs "Amen" would do a little promo for it at Christmas time. Hopefully, when it's released on DVD, they will do a little bonus/special feature for it.

  3. That would be awesome. I'd buy it!

  4. Amen's Christmas Celebration shows have become as classically
    timeless as Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song". It just
    wouldn't feel like Christmas without it!!!!