For a lot of us who grew up in the 1960s and 70s, the Christmas television specials that were a December ritual of the Johnson and Nixon eras are comfort food. Seeing A Charlie Brown Christmas, The Little Drummer Boy, How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (even if it does portray Santa Claus early on as a grouchy bigot) can raise as many childhood memories of the holiday as tinsel and peppermint. And so we buy the DVDs for our kids, ensuring another generation of royalties for the stop-motion animation team of Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass.
But just when I thought I'd passed on every vintage Christmas tele-tale to my progeny, I rediscovered another gem this year. It came to mind because my daughter recently turned 10, and it occurred to me that she shares the big-hearted pluck of another 10-year-old girl who made a lasting impression on my 1972 Christmas, when I myself was 10. Her name was Addie Mills, the heroine of a spare but moving TV drama called The House Without a Christmas Tree which by happy coincidence was just released on DVD. Yule-o-philes will want to add it to the red-and-green boxes they pull out of their attics each holiday season.
The House Without a Christmas Tree is a special that somehow got lost in the mass-remarketing of old Christmas fare. Like The Homecoming: A Christmas Story (the 1971 special that spawned the series The Waltons), it's a lovingly but realistically told story that touches the emotional essence of Christmas without indulging in its kitschy excess.
The plot seems as simple as the production, which is reminiscent of the televised plays of the 1950s. Addie (Lisa Lucas) is a precocious fifth-grader in small-town Nebraska in 1946. She lives with her grandmother a moccasin-wearing "character" played with wise, Everygrandma affection by Mildred Natwick and her stern working-class father, brought to dark life by the legendary Jason Robards in a role of angry middle-aged despair more often found in Eugene O'Neill plays. Addie's mother died after giving birth to her; and her father still carries the pain as well as a bitter unspoken resentment toward Addie. These keep him at tragic arm's length from any reminder of his late wife including the Christmas trees she adored.
Hence, the house without a Christmas tree and Addie's crafty yet always thwarted means of getting her dad to let one glow in the living room. But what distinguishes this poignant tale (written by Eleanor Perry from the story by Gail Rock, and directed by Paul Bogart, one of the All In the Family sitcom directors) is that it avoids the patented feel-good denouement of most Christmas dramas and takes us through a richer, more believable change in Robards' character. The inner hurt Addie endures at the hands of a father who can barely tolerate her presence is heart-wrenching; but her eventual triumph over it, and the unexpected act of generosity that brings it about, are as heart-warming as watching one of your children do the right thing without being told.
In this case the right thing is also the Christmas thing the sort of charitable spirit we want kids to absorb from any religious holiday for that matter. In that sense, The House Without a Christmas Tree is also a pleasant reminder of when Christmas was a less neurotic observance, not yet caught in today's tiresome crossfire between the Jesus-is-the-only-reason-for-the-season zealots and the your-Nativity-creche-is-a-symbol-of-Western-oppression cranks. The holiday still belonged to kids: we didn't approach it like Christian fundamentalists and we didn't consider it politically incorrect, either. We were like Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas: we could embrace the message and have a blast celebrating it.
And so, thankfully, do my kids thanks in part, perhaps, to the enjoyment they get out of vintage Christmas programs like this one. In the end, what really raises The House isn't Robards' performance but that of Lisa Lucas, whose portrayal of a resilient tween is so spot-on that my daughter was entranced when we watched the DVD this past weekend. It's more than welcome when a story reminds you how much you really do love your kids. And how much you and your kids love Christmas.