Any culture that invents the videotaped Yule log has pretty much sucked the spirit of the holidays dry. So the last thing any self-respecting Scrooge wants to do on Christmas Eve, as he wraps presents and gets blithering on eggnog, is to watch a Christmas sitcom. But not all of the recent videos that repackage holiday episodes of classic and modern TV shows are crass lumps of coal just most of them. A few are even good enough to stash next to the plastic mistletoe for next year.
The problem with most holiday TV episodes is, they tend to settle for slapping a sugary message over the usual shtick. If it weren't for some fake snow on the set, you'd hardly know what time of year the two mid-'50s episodes on the Burns and Allen Christmas tape take place. A certain dry wit does keep this video up-to-date: George's sandpaper asides have aged well, and the second episode, ''Christmas in Jail'' (narrated by Burns from the pokey), is good, jaded fun.
A Bewitched Christmas, in contrast, offers two holiday-themed Bewitched episodes from the '60s that are annoyingly identical in plot: In the first, Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) flies a crusty old miser (Charles Lane) up to the North Pole to meet Santa, and in the second she does exactly the same for a cynical orphan (Billy Mumy). The Christmas cheer feels equally forced, making this a tape only for tiny-brained Larry Tate. That's true as well of Lucy Christmas, a lame entry from late in I Love Lucy's run. This one can't decide whether it's a full-fledged Christmas episode or one of those teary ''remember when'' flashback episodes that save money by reusing old footage of the night Little Ricky was born.
At least those shows attempt sentimentality. A Double Holiday Dose of Hazel is a double downer that pays lip service to Christmas while harping on moola and materialism. The two early-'60s episodes that make up this tape revolve around dumpy domestic Hazel (Shirley Booth) conning out-to-lunch Mr. B (Don DeFore) into buying his wife a mink coat or an alligator purse. Me, I'll take my holiday cynicism straight up with It's A Bundyful Life. Repackaging a special hour-long Married... With Children episode, the tape is a splendid high-bile/ lowbrow treat that (a) brings on Sam Kinison as Al Bundy's guardian angel, (b) showcases the Grinchiest version of '''Twas the Night Before Christmas'' you'll ever hear, and (c) refers to Santa Claus as ''a fat piece of dung.''
But if it's the genuine article you're looking for a TV show that through some alchemy manages to bottle real Christmas spirit without blowing its cool leave it to Gleason, Serling, and Sullivan. The Honeymooners Christmas is actually 1955's '''Twas the Night Before Christmas'' episode, a sweet, simple, funny ''Gift of the Magi'' rehash in which Ralph hocks his bowling ball to buy Alice a present, and Alice buys him a bowling ball bag. Art Carney is Ed Norton, of course; he also stars in Twilight Zone Christmas as a drunk department-store Santa who finds a bottomless bag of gifts in ''Night of the Meek,'' a 1960 episode whose nearly timeless message about the necessity of belief overcomes its technical crudities.
Best of all is A Classic Christmas from the Ed Sullivan Show, edited by Andrew Solt from years of Sullivan Christmas shows. It boasts a brilliant sense of pop inclusiveness: The demented ''Jingle Bells'' medley, for instance, intercuts Paul Anka, Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop, the Count Basie Orchestra, the Ames Brothers, and Bill Dana as Jose Jimenez! Here's a ''really big shew'' for that Xmas stocking.
Burns and Allen Christmas: B- A Bewitched Christmas: C+ Lucy Christmas: C A Double Holiday Dose of Hazel: D It's a Bundyful Life: B The Honeymooners Christmas: A- Twilight Zone Christmas: A A Classic Christmas From the Ed Sullivan Show: A