Happy Thanksgiving to my fellow Americans! I imagine visits to the site are going to be pretty light today, but just in case anybody is poking their head in, I’ve got a question for you to ponder: Why is it that despite being part of the year-end holiday block, Thanksgiving has so few television specials? Halloween has a couple dozen, at least. Christmas specials probably number in the hundreds. But Thanksgiving has only a bare handful. I’m not exactly lamenting the lack, but it does strike me as a little curious, at first glance, especially since I was a kid during the era most of those specials come from. (Note: I’m not counting Thanksgiving-themed episodes of regular TV series; if it’s not a separate prime-time airing, it’s not a special.)
I’ve got a couple thoughts on why Thanksgiving gets the short shrift.
Since it’s quite likely most of the people visiting today are the British and other international readers, a quick reaction may simply be that it’s just that Thanksgiving is an American holiday, not an international one the way Christmas is. But Halloween, while a touch more global, is also celebrated more strongly in the U.S. than in other places — I heard from more than one person during October that it’s “just not that big of a deal” in their countries. I don’t think it’s that, especially since we’re talking about television specials — CBS probably doesn’t care much if people in the U.K., who thus don’t get CBS, won’t get the references in a Thanksgiving special.
So why is it, then, that Thanksgiving is so deficient, relatively speaking? If I push myself to come up with Halloween specials, I can come up with an entire night’s viewing just on specials I’ve seen, and a few more nights on ones I haven’t. Christmas specials? I could review two specials a day during December and not even scratch the surface. But with Thanksgiving, it’s pretty limited. Off the top of my head, I can think of three. Bugs Bunny’s Thanksgiving Diet, which was a clip-show rather than original material, and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and Garfield’s Thanksgiving. The latter two certainly have some charm and a few funny moments, but even fans of the franchises will readily admit that those specials run a distant third to the Halloween and Christmas specials. (Note: The “Mayflower Voyagers” Charlie Brown story that sometimes airs with A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving isn’t a special; it’s an episode from the 1988 miniseries This is America, Charlie Brown, and originally aired in late October.)
Though only a very strange kid would object to having Snoopy’s Thanksgiving dinner, at least as a side spread.
Part of it may be that there’s simply so much programming on television on Thanksgiving. There’s the Macy’s parade in the morning, and then there are two football games, one with the Cowboys and one with the Lions, and whatever teams happened to draw the short straw to play them that year. These events have become, for many Americans, as much a part of the traditions of Thanksgiving as the turkey and pumpkin pie. Counter-programming something against any of that is a difficult task at best. There won’t be anything until Thanksgiving night, and they’ll generally play it safe and air A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.
But that still leaves the days leading up to Thanksgiving, right? But Thanksgiving doesn’t have a warm-up period. Kids spend days, even weeks, picking costumes for Halloween, and adults may plan Halloween parties which require a few weeks preparation. Christmas is such a seasonal juggernaut that it’s now expected to see some signs of it creeping in even before Halloween’s season starts; there’s more hubbub about “Black Friday” now than there is about Thanksgiving itself. But Thanksgiving is just Thanksgiving. We make plans, and we buy the food, and that’s about the size of it. The day before Thanksgiving is perhaps spent doing housework, and maybe preparing a pie or two in advance, and school kids may get a lesson about Pilgrims and Indians that’s simplified to a sub-Seussian level, but that’s as close to a nod to the holiday as it gets ahead of time. The night before Christmas is Christmas Eve, a special magical time on its own. Even the night before Halloween is known as Hell Night, or Mischief Night, in parts of the country. The night before Thanksgiving is known as Wednesday. The hazard of a holiday special is that people have to be in the mood for the holiday, and the holiday mood for Thanksgiving is mostly limited to Thanksgiving itself.
And that, as much as anything, points to what may be the biggest reason why there aren’t many Thanksgiving specials, and why the ones that do exist fall a little flat in comparison to the specials for Halloween and Christmas. Thanksgiving is a feast day, and as far as traditions go, that’s pretty much it. A few football games to watch, but a special can’t be built around watching football. The Macy’s Parade, but that’s almost more dedicated to Christmas anyway. But mostly it’s just some food and family and good wishes… and that’s it. It’s difficult to build a special around most of the Thanksgiving traditions, and those which do lend themselves to it could just as easily be used in a Christmas special. (This applies to movies as well. I’ve said before (including just this week) that Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is the best Thanksgiving movie ever made, but lots of people watch it as a Christmas movie.)
So Thanksgiving is generally ignored when it comes to specials, and those specials which are created don’t quite seem to know what to do with the holiday. But that’s all right. They still have some charm, and really, most of us will be asleep from a turkey overdose anyway.