About Christmas TV History

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Seinfeld Festivus (1997)

It's Dec. 23rd--you know what that means, right? IT'S FESTIVUS! "A Festivus for the rest of us."

2017 marks the 20th anniversary of the Festivus episode of Seinfeld. You remember what Festivus is, correct? It's an alternative holiday to Christmas, invented by George Costanza's father. It's an annual tradition that seems to torture and humiliate George, but one that seems silly and absurd to everyone else. Let's look back at the Festivus holiday as it's described in an episode of Seinfeld, and consider its place in holiday TV history.

Tim Whatley's Hanukkah party (Bryan Cranston)

Festivus is introduced in the ninth season episode "The Strike." If you're a fan of the series, you'll remember that this particular episode is packed tightly with story. The episode begins with George, Elaine, and Jerry at Tim Whatley's Hanukkah party. Whatley is a recurring character on Seinfeld, played by actor Bryan Cranston--who later went on to play the father Hal on Malcolm in the Middle and the infamous Walter White in Breaking Bad. It's fun to see Cranston playing this smaller role before his career skyrocketed.

Denim Vest=Kevin McDonald

At the party, Elaine receives unwanted attention from a man she mockingly nicknames "Denim Vest." When he asks for a date, Elaine generously offers him a fake phone number hoping to never hear from him again. Another great casting choice is actor/comedian Kevin McDonald as Denim Vest. McDonald is one of the principal cast members of the Canadian comedy troupe Kids in the Hall. He also plays Pastor Dave on That 70s Show, and appears in several of its Christmas episodes (including the 2001 Christmas episode I wrote about HERE).

Jerry finds he's dating Two-Face

It is at Tim Whatley's party that Jerry meets Gwen, a woman he dates throughout this episode, one he ends up referring to as "Two-Face." Jerry eventually discovers that poor Gwen looks unattractive--almost like another person--when she is seen in uneven lighting. The running gag through the episode is watching Jerry trying to spend time with her in well-lighted places.

George feels ripped off because his gift is a donation to charity.

Later, George is opening his mail in front of Jerry and Elaine while hanging out at the diner. George opens a greeting card from Tim Whately and learns that Tim has made a donation in George's name to a children's charity. Selfish George is angered by this gift. However, later it inspires him to create a fake charity--the Human Fund--to make holiday gift donations on behalf of his co-workers. Viewers see George gleefully passing out holiday cards to co-workers with the promise of a donation made to the Human Fund in their name. Only George could be pleased with himself to pretend to give to a fake charity. However, his trick backfires when George's boss Mr. Kruger gives him a $20,000 check to pass on to the Human Fund.

Elaine and Jerry get a big laugh from the Costanza family holiday traditions.

While continuing to open his mail in front of his friends, Jerry sees George open a Festivus greeting card from his father Frank Costanza. Jerry makes fun of George for being raised with Festivus, an obvious sore spot for George. For Elaine's benefit, Festivus is explained for all to hear.

When George was young, his father created the holiday as an alternative to the commercial and religious aspects of Christmas. Instead of a Christmas tree, the Costanzas put up an aluminum pole. The holiday also included Feats of Strength, a physical competition that--as George adds--usually resulted in him crying. Later in the episode, we hear that Festivus includes the Airing of Grievances--a time when everyone gathers around the dinner table to express their disappointment with others. Adding to George's humiliation, the annual Festivus celebration is usually audio tape recorded. No wonder George hates Festivus!

Frank Costanza explains more about his holiday at the bagel shop. "A Festivus for the rest of us!"

In this episode, Kramer is notified that the twelve year workers' strike he's involved in with H&H Bagels is finally over. The workers will finally receive the $5.35 per hour wage they asked for. (The joke is that $5.35 is finally the minimum wage twelve years later). But Kramer is eager to go back to work--and the manager at the bagel shop needs holiday help so he welcomes Kramer behind the counter.

The sleazy guys at OTB. Elaine is hesitant to give them her actual phone number although she wants to connect with Denim Vest who may be calling her at their number.

Meanwhile, Elaine learns she's lost her Atomic Sub card, a points system card which will allow her a free sub with just one more purchase. She fears she's given the card to Denim Vest with her fake phone number on it. Although she doesn't want to see him again, she insists on getting the card back for her free sub. She calls the fake number and discovers that the number rings an off-track betting company. She goes to the OTB and asks the creepy guys that work there if anyone has called asking for Elaine Benes. Wanting to re-connect with Denim Vest but afraid to give the sleazy guys her actual phone number, Elaine creates a relay by asking them to call Kramer's bagel shop.

Denim Vest no longer expresses interest in dating Elaine. He gives HER a fake number to reconnect with him when she asks to meet so she can get her Atomic sub card back.

George's father Frank Costanza invites the whole gang to celebrate Festivus with him on Dec. 23rd. Elaine, Jerry, and Kramer can't wait to see this ridiculous celebration for themselves. Kramer is angered when the bagel shop won't give him the 23rd off, so he vandalizes the shop's steam valve to attempt to halt bagel production. His inept sabotage doesn't bring about the desired effect--the shop can still make bagels but the building fills with warm, humid air. Elaine, who is spending time at the bagel shop waiting for Denim Vest to call so she can retrieve her Atomic Sub card, experiences a steam bath--her hair becomes heavy and wet, and her make-up runs down her face. She looks much like Alice Cooper! When Denim Vest finally calls and agrees to meet her at the bagel shop, she looks like a fright, and he's no longer interested in dating her!

Kruger is fascinated by Frank's aluminum Festivus pole.

George's boss Mr. Kruger does a little research and discovers that the Human Fund, the charity George claimed to donate money to on behalf of everyone in the office, is a fake. George tries to escape blame for his offense by claiming that he felt awkward in the workplace since he was raised with Festivus, not Christmas like everyone else. When Mr. Kruger pushes him about the made-up holiday, George invites him to his father's house to prove that Festivus is indeed real.

George, Kruger, Kramer, Jerry, Elaine, the creepy OTB guys, and Geroge's parents celebrate Festivus. Frank's airing of grievances begins, "I got a lot of problems with you people!"

Finally, at the Costanzas' home, the friends gather around the dinner table to celebrate Festivus. Not only is Kruger there, but Kramer has brought with him the two sleazy guys from OTB since they are looking for Elaine. Kramer is confident that bringing the OTB employees together with Elaine is a "Festivus Miracle!" Frank Costanza begins the Festivus celebration by the annual airing of grievances--which seems to mean he's complaining about and insulting each person at the table. Next, George's humiliation continues when his father begins the ritual of the feats of strength insisting that George physically prove himself in front of all the guests. (The silly humor also comes from the mystery of what physical feat the incompetent George must actually perform).

I've eaten my fair share (and probably your share too!) of Ben & Jerry's Festivus ice cream.

The silly and absurd Festivus--an alternative to Christmas--is certainly one that has captured TV viewers' imagination and funny bone. Here we are 20 years later and we're still laughing about it. Festivus isn't just limited to a TV episode reference--it has impacted the culture so much so that there is Festivus merchandise embraced by TV fans everywhere. There are Festivus t-shirts, aluminum poles, bobblehead dolls, toys, and more. Two decades ago, Ben & Jerry's made a Festivus ice cream as well. (They retired the flavor name after only a few short years but kept the seasonal ice cream on the market under the name Gingerbread Cookie. The flavor is now retired. Yeah--I was a big fan!). But it's quite easy to find Festivus references on-line and on social media each year on Dec. 23rd, even after 20 years!

Festivus memes are commonplace each year on Dec. 23rd.

Another meme--this one used by TBS, airing Seinfeld reruns.

I snagged this meme from the internet about six months ago--another unforgettable creation from this episode still referenced 20 years later.

If you watch and listen to the bonus commentary on the DVD release of the ninth season episode of "The Strike," you can hear Seinfeld writer Dan O'Keefe explain how Festivus is based on his own childhood experiences of his father making up a holiday alternative to Christmas. I believe O'Keefe explains that the pole was a fictional addition to the TV story but nearly everything else was authentic to his family experience!? Can you imagine celebrating Festivus as a child? Yeah, me neither.

There are quite a few alternatives to Christmas on TV. Remember Chrismukkah on The OC?

As unique as Festivus is, it is not the first (or last) alternative holiday to Christmas on television. Childrens' TV programs sometimes create parallel holidays within the fictional, imaginative world of the series, ones that look and sound an awful lot like Christmas but are NOT Christmas. My favorites include PB & J Otter's 1999 episode "The Ice Moose," The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack 2009 episode "Low Tidings," and the 2008 episode "Hey, Hey It's Knishmas" from the TV series Chowder. Other newly created holidays on TV try to combine Christmas with Hanukkah, or fashion an alternative celebration that honors all year-end celebrations rather than focus on only one. I'm certain the examples of alternative or parallel holiday celebrations are more numerous than you might guess. If there's enough interest, I can explore a few examples in upcoming discussions. Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments below.

Joanna Wilson is a TV researcher and book author specializing in Christmas entertainment. More about the episodes mentioned here can be found in her book "Tis the Season TV: the Encyclopedia of Christmas-themed Episodes, Specials, and Made-for-TV Movies." Her latest book "Triple Dog Dare: Watching--& Surviving--the 24-Hour Marathon of A Christmas Story" was released in 2016. Her books can be found at the publisher's website: 1701 press.com

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Mary Tyler Moore Show Christmas (1970)

If you were to make a Top 10 list of classic Christmas TV episodes, what would be on that list? Quite a few people--including myself--would list the 1970 holiday episode from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Let's look at the episode again and see what makes it stand out.

Mary is in a festive holiday mood.

In "Christmas and the Hard-Luck Kid II," Mary is in the holiday spirit. She's elaborately decorated her desk at work with a trimmed mini tree, a Santa with his sleigh and reindeer, and a lettered banner draped across the front of the desk. Her boss Lou Grant teases her about not having a Nativity display too, but she opens a desk drawer to reveal that she ran out of room on the desk top.

Mary has also left a tiny tree on Mr. Grant's desk to add a bit of festive cheer.

Mary's cheerful enthusiasm for Christmas makes it that much more difficult for Lou to inform her that she's expected to work in the newsroom on Christmas. As bravely as she can, Mary cancels her travel plans to spend Christmas Eve with her parents. She's having a hard time imagining what Christmas will be like if she has to spend it working at the office.

Mary wonders aloud, What use is there to decorating a tree if I won't be home enough to enjoy it?

Explaining her predicament to her friend, Rhoda agrees to spend the evening with Mary on the 24th sharing dinner and exchanging gifts. Even if Mary can't be with her family, at least she won't be alone.

Ted hands out a gift no one wants.

Mary is asked to do a co-worker a favor.

In the newsroom on Christmas Eve, Ted Baxter hands out gifts to the everyone in the office--an LP recording of himself reading the highlights of the Year in Review. And, Mary and news writer Murray Slaughter exchange gifts. Mary is doing her best to not feel depressed. But then, a co-worker named Fred asks if Mary would be willing to cover his shift in the newsroom that evening so he could spend Christmas Eve with his wife and children. Mary can't say no, even if it makes her feel worse.

Rhoda explains--she used her employee discount at the department store for Mary's gift.

Poor Mary. Her Christmas dinner is a quick peanut butter sandwich.

Mary runs back to her apartment for a few minutes in the afternoon to grab a quick bite before returning to cover Fred's evening shift at the newsroom. Although their plans for the evening have to be canceled, Rhoda insists that Mary open the giant gift she's gotten for her.

Rhoda has sacrificed to buy Mary an elaborate luxury gift: a toaster oven with lots of features for specialty cooking. Mary is very impressed.

Mary is so lonely, she's pleased to share a brief conversation with the stranger who is stuck working at the WJM transmitter.

Although it will be a slow night for news, someone must be available in the newsroom all evening. Not only is she alone in the newsroom, but Mary is mostly alone in the building too. Feeling lonely and miserable, Mary watches TV to pass the time. When she hears noises outside the newsroom in the hallway, she becomes frightened and worries about her safety.

Mary doesn't feel alone with her workplace friends.

Much to her surprise, the noise of the elevator was her friends Mr. Grant, Murray and Ted who have come to keep her company for the last thirty minutes of the shift. At midnight, they are taking her out for a drink and to celebrate Christmas. Mary couldn't be happier to see her friends haven't forgotten her.

Sometimes your friends act more like family.

Mary's chosen family includes her friends Rhoda and Phyllis, as well as her friends at work-- Lou Grant, Murray and Ted.

This is just one of many episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in which the co-workers at the WJM newsroom act as meaningful friends, or a workplace family for each other. This holiday episode isn't the first time a workplace family chose to spend Christmas together, but it is one of the best examples. And, the TV trend to feature friends as one's chosen family sharing Christmas together certainly became more popular following this particular episode, and the landmark 1970s series.

That Girl and Mary Tyler Moore Show=single, working women.

So, what's with the weird title of this episode "Christmas and the Hard-Luck Kid II?" This is where your knowledge of Christmas TV history becomes useful. Remember the 1966 Christmas episode of That Girl--Marlo Thomas as Ann Marie shares the story of a previous year when she spent a lonely Christmas at a boarding school babysitting a student whose parents were away.  James L. Brooks wrote that 1966 episode entitled "Christmas and the Hard Luck Kid." When he wrote this Mary Tyler Moore Show episode exploring similar themes of loneliness and working over the holiday, Brooks referenced the earlier episode. Now that makes sense, right? Check out my discussion of the 1966 Christmas episode of That Girl again HERE.

Sue Ann insists her friends wear humiliating hats reflecting her international food theme.

You know, this isn't the only holiday episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, right? In 1974, there was an episode entitled "Not a Christmas Story" which has grown to become one of TV viewers' favorite Christmas episodes. You remember it--Sue Ann Niven is taping her Christmas cooking show and insists that her friends in the newsroom join her to eat the international feast she's prepared. It's a hilarious story because the friends are fighting and no one wants to be in the same room with each other. Sue Ann's manipulations are outrageous. Read my discussion of this fifth season episode again HERE.

Everyone sing along "Alan Brady, Alan Brady..."

If you're like me and you can't watch enough of Mary Tyler Moore, I recommend watching the 1963 holiday episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show entitled "The Alan Brady Show Presents." The variety show-within-a-show features Buddy, Sally, Rob and Laura Petrie, and Mel Cooley showing off their talents for a Christmas episode of The Alan Brady Show. I break down the unforgettable first musical sketch of that episode HERE. This episode makes my Top 10 list of classic Christmas episodes too.

Have you got a Top 10 list of classic Christmas TV episodes? Feel free to share your comments below.

Joanna Wilson is a TV researcher and book author specializing in Christmas entertainment. More about the episodes mentioned here can be found in her book "Tis the Season TV: the Encyclopedia of Christmas-themed Episodes, Specials, and Made-for-TV Movies." Her latest book "Triple Dog Dare: Watching--& Surviving--the 24-Hour Marathon of A Christmas Story" was released in 2016. Her books can be found at the publisher's website: 1701 press.com

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Christmas Podcasts 2017

Hi gang! I was privileged to be invited by four different podcasters this year to join them in discussions about Christmas entertainment. Each of these conversations is very different from the others, so I encourage you to give them each a listen, or perhaps the ones that most appeal to you. Let me introduce each one.

Christmas Past Podcast

Christmas Past is a podcast that tells the stories behind your favorite holiday traditions. Each episode is 10-15 minutes long, and features interviews with experts, archival audio, and Christmas memories from listeners. Its host is Brian Earl.

My discussion is Episode #16: Golden Age of Christmas TV Cartoons.

****You can listen at this link to the website: http://christmaspastpodcast.com/golden-age-christmas-tv-cartoons/  

Be sure to check out the other episodes for more discussions about favorite holiday traditions. You can also follow along with Christmas Past Podcast on Facebook HERE, on Twitter HERE, and on Instagram HERE.

Weird Christmas

Weird Christmas started as a Tumblr site with a collection of Victorian Christmas cards and postcards. It has since expanded into a website--and now a podcast too--to further the discussion about weird and unusual Christmas culture. It's host is Craig Kringle.

My discussion is WC #5: Weird Christmas TV and Movies. Yes, this conversation stems from my book The Christmas TV Companion and from the encyclopedia Tis the Season TV.

****You can listen at this link on his website: https://weirdchristmas.com/2017/12/03/podcast-weird-christmas-tv-and-movies-with-joanna-wilson/

Be sure to scroll down the Tumblr collection of weird Victorian Christmas cards and postcards HERE. The nineteenth century was strange, indeed. You can follow along with Weird Christmas on Facebook HERE, on Twitter HERE, and on Instagram HERE.

Woo-Hoo Wednesday: At Home with Holmsey
on Radio Once More

Are you into Old Time Radio? This is the place for you. Radio Once More is the place to listen to those old time radio programs from the past. Johnny Holmes hosts a culture show which explores conversations about his favorite cultural trends. This is I think, the fourth year Johnny and Helen have had me on their show--it's always a fun time and a great conversation.

This year we discussed the 1983 movie A Christmas Story, 1951's A Christmas Carol, 1946's It's a Wonderful Life, 1947's Miracle on 34th Street, 1973's Miracle on 34th Street, the 1965 animated special "Christmas Lost & Found" from Davey & Goliath, The Spirit of Christmas from 1950 featuring the Mabel Beaton Marionettes, and more!

****For a full description of our talk and the permanent link to listen, check out Johnny's website: https://jholmsey.wordpress.com/2017/12/02/radio-once-more-welcomes-back-joanna-wilson/

You can follow along with Radio Once More at their website HERE, and on Facebook HERE.

The fourth show is with Amanda, Nate and Dan of Made for TV Mayhem Podcast. 

This year we discussed the 1971 TV movie A Little Game which includes Christmas scenes, and we play a game, like we did last year, in which we guess the plot of Christmas TV movies. It's another fun one.

****You can listen to the 2017 podcast at the link here on The Made for TV Mayhem Show website: https://tvmayhempodcast.wordpress.com/2017/12/21/969/ ******

When I said these were all very different, I wasn't kidding. Please give them a listen and see what you think. Your comments are welcome here, and at the individual website links.

I enjoy joining people in conversations about Christmas entertainment. Feel free to listen to last year's podcasts too, at the links below:

Ed South invited me to talk about my favorite Christmas movies on his podcast What's Your Favorite Movie? last year. Thant was fun. Link HERE.

2016: Bloomington Review with Jim Inman Jr. We discussed How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Christmas Story, and my book Triple Dog Dare. Listen HERE.

2016's It's a Christmas TV Movie Game Show! on Made for TV Mayhem Podcast. Link HERE.

2016's discussion with Johnny Holmes on Woo-Hoo Wednesday on Radio Once More. We discussed my book Triple Dog Dare, 1973's Miracle on 34th Street, and 1969's The Littlest Angel, among other things. Link HERE.

And, I was invited by Ken Reid to discuss our favorite Christmas programs on TV Guidance Counselor (11/22/16 episode) Find it on iTunes HERE. And, here's the link Ken's website: TV Guidance Counselor.

If you can stand the sound of my voice any further, HERE's a link of podcasts I did from 2015 too.

Lots to listen to. Thanks to all my wonderful hosts!

Joanna Wilson is a TV researcher and book author specializing in Christmas entertainment. Her latest book "Triple Dog Dare: Watching--& Surviving--the 24-Hour Marathon of A Christmas Story" was released in 2016. Her books can be found at the publisher's website: 1701 press.com


Monday, December 4, 2017

Christmas Story Run 2017

I had an exciting weekend! Saturday, Dec. 2nd in Cleveland, OH was the 5th annual Christmas Story Run 5k/10k race and walk. It's an EXTREMELY FUN fundraiser for the Tremont neighborhood that surrounds A Christmas Story House & Museum. This year's event featured several special guests--more on that in a minute! The race starts in front of the former Higbee's department store in downtown Cleveland--where the parade and the Higbee's department store scenes were filmed for the original 1983 movie. The race ends in front of A Christmas Story House & Museum--which just happens to be 3.1 miles from downtown. It's the perfect 5k race.

This year I wore my Pink Nightmare suit--and my boyfriend dressed as an elf.

It's kind of a big deal. Thousands of people come from all over the country (and around the world) to walk or run the race course each year. Nearly everyone wears a costume or their best Christmas bling. And, the crowds are in the best holiday spirit--it's the friendliest gathering of people you'll ever encounter.

The race medals are always fantastic! This year's features Flick stuck to the metal pole and the center spins!

The costumes were outrageous this year. Of course, there are countless runners in pink bunny suits, leg lamp costumes, people dressed as wooden crates marked 'fragile,' runners wearing Flick hats or  Schwartz hats, and even a few Santa Clauses. However, you'd probably be surprised how many folks dress up in black-and-white striped bandit costumes too. I saw quite a few participants with turkey hats (wait a minute, it'll come to you! It's a reference to the Bumpus Hounds and their favorite meal). I saw several Sheriff Ralphies in white cowboy hats and western gear, and there were a trio of Miss Shields look-alikes--one woman was brilliantly dressed as the Victorian/fantasy school teacher! I even saw one intrepid woman dressed exactly like Randy--stuffed tight into a red snowsuit. There was no shortage of people dressed as elves, Christmas trees, and wrapped in Christmas lights, bows, tinsel, and ornaments. This race also sees its fair share of people dressed as Cousin Eddie, Will Ferrell's Elf, and a couple of Wet Bandits! I told you this event is a lot of fun. They also hand out warm Ovaltine at the finish line--this is the total Christmas experience.

Post-race photo in front of A Christmas Story House. The woman to the left in the blue jacket is wearing a turkey hat--can you make it out!?

"I want you to write...a theme." Here she is Miss Shields.

I should have brought her a fruit basket.

As a part of the event, they also welcomed several special guests and offered meet-and-greet opportunities. On Friday afternoon, I went to packet pick-up and got to meet actor Tedde Moore, the woman who plays the schoolteacher Miss Shields in A Christmas Story. She couldn't have been nicer. She overheard me talking to someone else about my encyclopedia Tis the Season TV, which includes every Christmas-themed special, episode and movie, and she asked if her other holiday movie was included. She was of course speaking about the 2011 Hallmark movie Mistletoe Over Manhattan. I had to explain that it will be in the next edition of the encyclopedia since the book first came out in 2010. But it was a wonderful exchange we shared.

A Christmas Story book authors: Joanna and Tyler Schwartz.

Is it possible? I was even more excited to meet another special guest at the event. Tyler Schwartz was there! Tyler and I have spoken on the phone before, but this was our first meeting in person. He is the documentary filmmaker of Road Trip for Ralphie, the book author of A Christmas Story Treasury, and he runs the pop culture Christmas store Retro Festive in Canada. He is A Christmas Story superfan. Tyler was generous enough to recommend survival tips for me when I recreated my 24-hour marathon of the movie--which became the book Triple Dog Dare. It was wonderful to finally meet him in person. I also got him to sign a copy of his book for me!

You've seen Tyler's documentary and the read his book, right?

Follow A Christmas Story Run on Facebook to see more photos of this year's race.

Joanna Wilson is a TV researcher and book author specializing in Christmas entertainment. Her latest book "Triple Dog Dare: Watching--& Surviving--the 24-Hour Marathon of A Christmas Story" was released in 2016. Her books can be found at the publisher's website: 1701 press.com