For the fifth year in a row, my essay about the True Meaning of Christmas as revealed in the 1953 Christmas Eve episode of Dragnet. No more need be said.
Dragnet was a favorite in our house when I was growing up. When the narrator announced solemnly that “names have been changed to protect the innocent” I wondered why the innocent needed protection. And I recall that the sweaty hand that pounded “Mark VII” into the stone was a signal that bedtime had arrived. I was six years old in December of 1953, and I can’t say that I saw this episode of Dragnet the first time it was shown. It became a perennial favorite of the show’s viewers and of Jack Webb himself, so it’s likely I saw it more than once in the years that followed.
I also can’t say when I became emotionally and sentimentally attached to “The Big Little Jesus,” the episode’s official title. But when I started putting my childhood Christmas back together when Lynn was a baby, seeing this show was something that I longed for. Our public television station presented it once, and I taped it. A few years later I found a source for a commercially-recorded copy, and bought that. Since the early 90s, watching this 25-minute lesson in the True Meaning of Christmas on the night we decorate our tree has become a staple of our Christmas preparation.
Several years ago when I was doing a monthly column about faith in literature for my church newsletter I wrote about this program for the December issue. When my pastor read it he called me and reminded me that the newsletter goes to hundreds of people beyond our congregation. “Do you realize how many pastors are going to cut this out and preach it verbatim?” he asked me.
I don’t know the answer to that. I do know that every time I see the episode (indeed, every time I have to think about it long enough to write a piece like this), I get teary by the end. I offer you, then, a short meditation on the True Meaning of Christmas.
Look on any newstand beginning as early as Halloween and you’ll see them — glossy magazine covers offering 657 ideas for a Merry Christmas, timetables for producing an efficient holiday dinner, advertisements for all manner of things sure to please everyone on your list, and articles detailing how to care for poinsettias, have the most dazzling tree, cope with holiday stress, and, oh yes, how not to forget The True Meaning of Christmas, whatever that might be.
Most of us are children of the television age, and we’ve grown up with media images of Christmas. In addition to specials such as Charlie Brown’s Christmas and the original animated story of the Grinch, every popular television series has its Christmas episode. Most of them can be characterized as either overly sentimental, disappointingly secular, or grotesquely slapstick. There are some, however, that strike just the right chord, and they endure. My personal favorite is an episode of Dragnet, first shown in 1953.
The story opens with the familiar figures of Sgt. Joe Friday and his partner Frank Smith who are working burglary the afternoon of Christmas Eve. During a discussion of how to choose gifts for women, they receive a call from a local priest. The statue of the Child Jesus has disappeared from the parish Nativity scene. The priest assumes it’s been stolen. His parishioners are simple people, most of them Spanish-speaking immigrants, and this is the only Baby Jesus they know. He wonders if the police can do anything to help recover the statue.
The detectives visit the church and determine that the statue is of no real monetary value. They seem annoyed that the priest cannot pinpoint the time the statue disappeared, as the church is never locked.
“You leave the church open so that any thief might come in?” asks Friday.
“Particularly thieves, Sergeant,” answers Father Rojas.
Friday tells him he is doubtful that they will be able to do anything, but they’ll try. There follows then the typical Dragnet search for “just the facts.”
Friday and Smith interview the altar boys who served Mass that morning and the owner of a religious articles store who is indignant at the suggestion that he would buy for resale any used statue, particularly one that might be stolen. “People don’t have religious articles so they can sell them. They have ’em so they can have ’em,” he tells the officers. Finally, they take in for questioning a sad, down-and-out man who was seen leaving Mass with a package. They grill him about his whereabouts, his past, his intentions. It turns out that the package contained the man’s extra pants, which he was taking to a tailor to be repaired in preparation for the Christmas program at the seedy boarding house where he lives.
The officers return to the church and tell Father Rojas that they have been unable to recover the statue and that Christmas services will have to begin without it.
A noise is heard at the back of the church, and the men watch as a small boy pulling a wagon makes his way down the center aisle. When he gets to the front, they see that the wagon contains the statue of the Child Jesus.
“It’s Paco Mendoza, a boy from the parish,” Father Rojas tells the detectives. In Spanish, the priest asks the boy where he found the statue. He replies that he didn’t find it, he took it. For years he prayed for a wagon, and this year he promised that if he got a wagon, he would give Jesus the first ride. He has fulfilled his mission, and is now returning the statue. The priest tells the officers that Paco has asked if the devil will come and take him to hell because he took the statue.
“That’s your department, Father,” answers Friday.
Father Rojas drops down beside the boy. “No el Diablo. Jesús ama Paco mucho.” He helps Paco replace the statue, and the men watch as the little boy goes away up the aisle, pulling his wagon.
Officer Smith asks the priest how the child obtained his wagon so early in the day. Don’t the children wait for Santa Claus?
The priest explains that the wagon is not from Santa Claus. The firefighters at the neighborhood station collect old toys, fix them up, and give them to new children. “Paco’s family . . . they’re poor.”
“Are they, Father?” asks the hard boiled, cynical Friday.
If the True Meaning of Christmas can be found anywhere in commercial presentations, it can be found here. In this short play we see ordinary people who challenge us to examine the ways in which we respond to others: police officers whose job, even on Christmas Eve, is to look for the worst in us; a priest whose job it is to welcome sinners and help them find peace; simple people whose piety is symbolized by a statue; a man who has lost much in this life but who finds joy and acceptance among other lonely people; and a little boy whose faith leads him to wait in patience, and to give thanks in the only way he can when his prayers are answered.
At this season of hope and renewal, may we see with fresh eyes the old stories, the stock characters, the expected endings. And may we come, like Sergeant Friday and Paco, to know what it is to be truly blessed.
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