There was a time when it was okay to actually say "Merry Christmas" without fear of offending the world. I grew up in that politically incorrect, culturally ignorant time and enjoyed many wonderful Christmases before "Christmas" became a bad word.
Something that you wouldn't see these days, but which was a staple in the 1970s was TV Guide's yearly tradition of putting a Christmas-themed cover on the issue of the magazine that included December 25th in its listings. I don't know when this tradition started, but it was still going strong while I was growing up. It must have been a nice thing to get the latest issue of TV Guide in the mail and see the annual holiday cover. Along with having the house decorated, the Christmas tree up, getting all the Christmas cards in the mail and everything else that would be happening during the week or so leading up to the big day, the TV Guide would probably be a small but welcome addition.
I wasn't really aware of this little tradition back then. My family didn't generally get TV Guide at that time, and I was much more occupied with making lists for Santa, waiting for school to close for a week and watching shows like "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer", "Merry Christmas Charlie Brown" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" to be cognizant of such a small detail as the cover of the latest TV Guide. Now that I've re-discovered TV Guides as an adult I can see those old covers and appreciate what a nice little "present" they were from the magazine to its subscribers/buyers. Instead of featuring stars of the latest and most popular shows, or interesting sounding cover stories to sell the magazine, TV Guide put all that aside for one week in honor of Christmas.
So let's look at some of those Christmas covers. I'm going to concentrate on a ten year span from 1974 to 1983. While the Christmas covers had most likely been a staple of the magazine for many years at that point, this decade is important to me because it roughly frames my childhood--an era that included a lot of great times watching TV. In 1974 I would have been five years old at Christmas, and in 1983 I would have been fourteen. Any younger and I probably wouldn't have very clear memories of what was going on in my life (not to mention what I had been watching on TV). Any older and I would have been of an age where I'd be working, and my interests would have veered away from watching so much TV and toward girls, hanging out with friends and going to places like the movies and the mall with those friends. But between 1974 and 1983 I had many wonderful Christmas seasons, and it's a lot of fun to look through the TV Guides from this period to see what kinds of holiday programming I might have been watching at the time. While this post will focus only on the covers of those magazines, the actual listings and ads within are a treasure trove of memories. Perhaps that will be covered in future posts. In the meantime, here are the covers:
December 21-27, 1974
The 1974 Christmas cover featured an illustration by Ray Ameijide of Santa Claus and one of his reindeer that appears to have been a sculpture of sorts made out of pieces of what appears to be multi-colored felt.
December 20-26, 1975
This cover features a cute illustration (a common theme in these covers) by Andre Francois of Santa under a Christmas tree-shaped umbrella and a colorful snowstorm or rainstorm.
December 25-31, 1976
This one features another Santa illustration--one by Ronald Searle this time, and shows a cartoon Santa flying over the top of a bunch of Christmas trees and ornaments. He seems to be spreading rainbows from his hands.
December 24-30, 1977
1977's Christmas cover seems very appropriate for TV Guide. Charles Saxon's illustration shows Santa sitting forlornly on a snow covered roof next to a chimney with a TV antenna attached to it. The sky around the house is filled with more antennas. I don't know it the antenna is supposed to be keeping Santa from being able to go down the chimney (it seems like there's still plenty of room as the antenna doesn't cover the top of the chimney). Not only is the sea of antennas appropriate for the magazine, it also hearkens back to a different time-- a time before cable TV (satellite TV, FiOS, DSL...) when pretty much everyone was dependent on an antenna of some type to pull in the signals of the stations that were within the antenna's range.
December 23-29, 1978
Here's a funny illustration by Ronald Searle (who also did the 1976 cover). This one shows Santa Claus on a psychedelic motorcycle, racing across the globe with his bag of toys on the back of the bike. Unfortunately I only have one copy of this issue and the address label really detracts from the image.
December 22-28, 1979
Here's a very simple illustration (by Michael Foreman) of Santa rolling a giant snowball up a hill. Simple, but effective. While neither of my two copies has a mailing label I've included both to showcase the image. The one which is in better shape is unfortunately marred by the remnants of a previously removed label.
December 20-26, 1980
After six straight years, this is the first cover we've seen that doesn't feature Santa Claus. Instead we see a group of musicians performing in the snow in an illustration by John Alcorn. Whether this is just a coincidence or TV Guide's first attempt to show sensitivity toward its readers who weren't from a Christian background I'm not sure. While the scene is definitely a wintry one, it doesn't actually contain anything that could really be considered of a Christmas or religious nature. Though I can't say whether this was a conscious effort by TV Guide or not, I can say that we won't see another cover with Santa on it through the rest of our ten year journey...
Ray Ameijide provides another cover image (his first since 1974). This time it's a Christmas tree with presents underneath it. If TV Guide was trying to get away from blatant Christmas (and/or religious) imagery with last year's cover, they returned to a very traditional Christmas scene with this year's. While Christmas trees have taken on a very secular air as Christmas has become more and more commercial over the years, there's certainly still nothing that screams Christmas like a Christmas tree. And it's religious meanings are still there too--even if some people don't realize it nowadays.
December 25-31, 1982
For the second year in a row TV Guide features a Christmas tree on its cover. If you look closely at the bottom though you'll see that this one is HUGE. It towers Godzilla-like over a group of ice skaters in a tiny village that sits under the tree among the presents. This illustration is by Teresa Fasolino. If the tree on last year's cover was prominently featured, this one is even more so.
December 24-30, 1983
In the last year of our look back at TV Guide Christmas covers we seem to have found the end of the line. After two straight years of Christmas trees and who knows how many years of Christmas-themed covers in general, this one features a pretty standard, non-holiday cover. It's a bunch of funny caricatures of the cast of "The Love Boat" by Bruce Stark. The only nod to the holiday season is some garland running along the railing and a big wreath hanging from the bow of The Love Boat.
This concludes our journey back to TV Guide's Christmas covers from 1974 to 1983. My collection of TV Guides doesn't currently contain any newer issues from later Christmases, so I can't say for sure that they discontinued the traditional Christmas covers for good, but I have a feeling that 1982's gigantic Christmas tree may very well have been the final one fully dedicated to the holiday.
Eventually I hope to write more about some of the programming that was on during these years as well as any Christmas-related articles inside the magazines. There's so much more to TV Guides than the covers. But until then...