*Trigger Warning: Contains many inside jokes and references that only Gen-Xers will understand.
Growing up in the 70s, the Christmas season kicked off pretty early—basically the day the Sears Wishbook arrived. In that time before the internet, this was every kid’s best link to the world of the wonderous—pages and pages and pages of TOYS. We poured over every item 100s of times, dog earing the corners of our dearest “wishes” and making our lists and checking them twice. The possibilities seemed literally endless!
Now, Gen-X can’t lay claim to the Wishbook—it first started publishing in 1933!—but a lot of the very best holiday traditions sprung from our childhoods. Obviously, Christmas is all about the nostalgia of tradition, and while you may think that things like sleigh rides, mistletoe and eggnog are the most enduring classics, you might be surprised to realize that many of the things you ACTUALLY still enjoy during the holidays have deep Gen-X roots.
The most obvious example being the Rankin and Bass holiday specials, the first of which, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, had its inaugural broadcast in 1964. There is some hot debate as to whether or not Gen X started in 1964 or 1965, so we may have to relinquish this one to the boomers. But all the rest of those classics, including The Little Drummer Boy, Frosty, (“Once they come to life, they don’t know nothin” *) Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and The Year Without a Santa Claus aired for the very first time in our early childhoods.
As kids, most of us enjoyed only three major networks plus PBS, so TV programming like this was a collective event. Meaning we all watched the same things at the same time, which sounds a little creepy when you think of it now (shades of Halloween III?*) but was actually a very bonding, unifying experience. Woe to the person who tried to make plans on the night Frosty the Snowman aired! The very cold reception they would receive would allow them to relate all too well to poor little Karen and her bare legs sitting on a box of ice cream in a refrigerated box car.
I remember one (horrible!) year our school scheduled the annual Christmas concert on the same night as The Year Without a Santa Claus (the irony of this was not lost on me, even as an elementary school child). It sounds melodramatic now, but I was devastated by this injustice. Gen-Xers will get this—we were the first generation to enjoy the wonder of Rankin and Bass and the last generation to have our possibilities for enjoyment confined to ONE airing per calendar year! By the mid-80’s everyone had VCRs so you could watch The Little Drummer Boy in July, if the spirit moved you (but why would it, so sad!). Kids will never again experience the incredible sense of specialness those winter nights held as we shared a magical story hour in households across the country.
And although it is not Rankin and Bass, we get also dibs on A Charlie Brown Christmas too, which first aired in 1965, uncontroversially in Gen-X territory. AND The Grinch (1966). Can you imagine a world without these things? Can you imagine Christmastime being here without the Peanuts gang ice skating in the snow?
And when you think of holiday music, Bing Crosby (who recorded most of his hits between 1942 and 1955) is undoubtedly the first person who springs to mind…but did you know that Bing’s annual Christmas specials aired exclusively in the (you guessed it) 1970s? Another collective experience for a Gen-X Christmas and Bing saved his best for last—his 1977 duet with David Bowie (“Peace on Earth/The Little Drummer Boy”) was recorded just one month before his death and aired posthumously on his final Christmas Special a few months later. Now well known as an enduring Christmas classic, it is also one of Bowie’s best-selling singles.
But that isn’t the only great Christmas song to come out of those early Gen-X years…all the beautiful Carpenter’s holiday music, The Jackson 5’s “Santa Claus Is Comin to Town”, The Eagles’ “Please Come Home for Christmas”, Jim Croce’s “It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way”, “Celebrate Me Home” by Kenny Loggins, John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s “Merry Xmas (War Is Over)” and who could ever forget the John Denver and The Muppets a Christmas Together soundtrack*? Somebody explain to me why this show is not available anywhere but YouTube, please!
Speaking of Christmas musicals, Albert Finney’s version of Scrooge, released in 1970, remains my favorite version of one of my very favorite stories. I (and most Gen-xers) were too young to see this one in the movie theater, but I discovered it young thanks to WPIX in New York, home of yet another most excellent Gen-X holiday tradition—THE YULE LOG! This may be the ultimate Gen-X Christmas experience, as it aired from 1966 until 1989 and was both beloved and reviled, usually by the same people. If you never had the pleasure/agony, I am sorry. Let’s correct that right now.
In addition to Rankin and Bass, Charlie Brown, The Grinch and the Yule log, the Gen-X childhood was a great era for children’s holiday programming, perhaps most impactfully with the first airing of The Homecoming: A Christmas Story in 1971.
Never heard of it, you say? Well, that might be so, but I feel certain that there is not a Gen-Xer alive who doesn’t remember the series it served as the pilot for—The Waltons! You have to hand in your Gen-X credentials if your family never mocked the “Goodnight, John Boy” tradition at the end of every episode.
Some other good ‘70s Gen-X holiday classics are The House Without a Christmas Tree, A Flintstone Christmas, Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas, and An American Christmas Carol (WHAT COULD POSSIBLY BE MORE GEN-X THAN THE FONZ AS EBENEZER SCROOGE???). Plus we had all the “very special” holiday episodes of all of our favorite shows. As we grew into teens in the 80’s, the movies seemed to age with us—National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, A Christmas Story, (FRAGILE, it must be Italian!) A Very Brady Christmas (yeah, we had ALL aged), and Die Hard (yes, it is a Christmas movie, we voted*).
The 70’s and early 80’s were also the heyday of the American mall, and we were there to bask in that radiant glory. Who among us can forget KB Toys, WaldenBooks, Hickory Farms (I have a friend who still pines for their rye crisps), B Dalton, Hills, Service Merchandise and OMG, RECORD STORES. If you doubt that we are the ultimate mall generation, just watch Fast Times at Ridgemont High (again, admit it, and I know where you hit pause on your VHS tape*). Christmas shopping at the mall in those days was just about as close to heaven as a kid could get.
And what was on our Christmas lists (AKA spotted in the Sears Wishbook)? Some toys that are still popular today made their debuts in our childhoods, like Nerf (1969), Simon, Lite Brite, Rubik’s Cube, Connect 4, Hungry Hungry Hippos, Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, Battleship, Spirograph, Slime, and Big Wheels.
And some toys that only Gen-Xers remember (even though they were awesome) include Weebles, Stretch Armstrong, Baby Alive (soft and sweet*), Rub-a-Dub Dolly (that catchy jingle is still stuck in my head*), Six Million Dollar Man/Bionic Woman dolls, anything Evel Knievel related and Shrinky Dinks (what’s a little toxic plastic melting in your oven to a Gen-Xer? MMM, smells good!)
Other happy holiday memories that might be incredibly specific to Gen-X include Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood Christmas (watch it here, you won’t regret it), Merry Christmas, Dammit, the McDonald’s Christmas coupon book, The Coke “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” commercial and oh, all those great Christmas commercials in general*.
Obviously not ALL Gen-X Holiday traditions are as amazing as the ones covered here…for example, Click Clack Clackers (sorry about that emergency room bill!*), and you have our sincere apologies for “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer”. You can miss that one.
And in keeping with that spirit, I’ll leave you with what may be the ultimate Gen-X Christmas Carol: “Christmas Wrapping” by The Waitresses.
*all live links courtesy of Google
Google courtesy of Gen-X
*all embedded videos courtesy of YouTube
YouTube courtesy of Gen-X
This Post is republished on Medium.
Photo credit: iStock