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The Saturday Evening Post

TITLE: Christmas in Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood
AUTHOR: Betty White
DATE: December 1977

 


CHRISTMAS IN MR. ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD
It's a very special place where everyone is a very important person.

By Betty White

In the early 1950s Fred Rogers wrote this little song: "I like you as you are. I wouldn't want to change you, or even rearrange you. 'Cause I like you as you are."

These are heady words for little children who get lots of negative feedback "for their own good." And this is the message Mr. Rogers is still delivering to millions of children who watch "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" half an hour each weekday on the Public Broadcasting Service.

This Christmas "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" will appear in an hour-long special funded by a $150,000 grant from the Sears-Roebuck Foundation. It will be aired in prime time so that parents and children will be able to watch it together.

"We hope it will be a family event. There are so many pressures and unreal expectations involved in Christmas. Many parents have a fantasy that says: 'Certainly there's something perfect I can give to my children -- even if it isn't the whole of life ... maybe just one day each year.' And many choose Christmas for that one day. Their hopes are as high as their pocketbooks are empty, but at the end of Christmas Day there are still tears and bickering. The parents are disappointed. And yet, in practically every home, the very next year, the very same thing happens. The human heart longs for the perfect."

The speaker is a tall, slender, soft-voiced man whose appearance is more comfortably reassuring than pontifical. If you have children under 12 and access to public television, there is no need to tell you about Mr. Rogers. If you have never seen him, it will be hard to visualize his gentle, low-keyed approach.

There is no slapstick, no funny costuming or makeup, just an accepting adult who knows when to have fun and when to be very, very serious with pre-school-age viewers.

"We are always hoping that parents will watch the 'Neighborhood' and talk about it with their children," Rogers said.

Attracting parent-viewers is no problem. "I used to watch Mr. Rogers when my first child was still a baby," a young mother tells us. "And I still watch with my children when I can. We're always referring back to something Mr. Rogers said -- often in fun but sometimes at serious moments."

"On our Christmas special we won't offer an magic answers. After all life doesn't have magical solutions to real problems. But we will show the friends and regular characters of the 'Neighborhood' coping with their own holiday frustrations," Rogers continued.

"Children need to feel that they are acceptable. What is important on Christmas Day is that we accept each other for what we really are rather than trying to create an artificial perfection made of material gifts.

"To children, gifts are really part of themselves and they are anxious that their gifts be valued. In this way they become aware of their own worth. Store-bought Christmas decorations might be more elegant, but homemade ornaments give the child who makes them a sense that he or she has something to offer, something to make the celebration even better.

"Children often see things on television and are told in subtle ways that they should want them. If these are too expensive for the family budget, parents can say something like 'I'd really like to give that to you, but we just can't afford it right now.' Working through disappointments is a healthy experience for both parents and children."

What about the Christmas Day letdown?

"That is a common happening. The child looks up from opening his presents and says, 'Is that all?' He or she may desperately need a kind, firm explanation of human limitations and your pleasure in giving what you could. Children who have been allowed to participate in the holiday preparations will know what you mean."

With the help of Dr. Margaret McFarland, Director of the Family and Children's Center of the University of Pittsburgh, Rogers plans his program carefully. He does his homework, but he is also blessed with an unusually sensitive antenna to other people's feelings.

"Sometimes I meet children and they look at me with wide eyes. 'I see you on TV,' they say. I thought a long time about how to respond to these children. Then I realized that it is frightening to them to see me out of my place. Young children are very concerned about people being in their appropriate places. They are trying to figure out their world and where they fit.

"I felt they were wondering whether the scary things could come out of the television set if I could. So I always say, 'I'm a real person and I can come and visit you. But some things are not real and they can't come out and see you.' This is a great relief to the child."

Learning to handle reality is an important goal of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood." Rogers never appears in the make-believe segments featuring puppets of despotic King Friday XIII, Queen Sara, gentle Daniel, the striped tiger who conquered his biting problem, and others.

"These characters play important parts. King Friday XIII is very bossy. Every Christmas he refuses permission to open the presents until he says the word. The people in 'Make-Believe Neighborhood' are always very glad if it is a short word. All the puppet characters are true to themselves and sometimes selfish, angry or difficult. But they never resort to violence."

Does violence on television incite violence? "Well, that's chicken and egg time. Which came first. Television and society reflect each other," Rogers muses.

"I think Sputnik made us feel inferior. There was this great technological push and the things of the spirit were neglected. What really concerns me about television is that it does everything for the child. I believe in the importance of play. Creative play is so important -- building with blocks, making things from sticks and paper. Whatever involves the child and his imagination.

"Children's programing often imposes adult fantasies on children. Violence is a shortcut to getting people's attention. Then, of course, there is the fascination of watching something that is scary.

"The real drama of television is brought to the set by the viewer. It's what's going on inside him that really matters and we've got to be sensitive to what these important inner dramas are."

Violence does not occur in "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood," but no subject is too touchy to handle. "If you can name something," Rogers believes, "if you can mention it -- then it's manageable."

Mr. Rogers has demonstrated that haircuts don't hurt by having his own hair cut on the air. He has shown that people won't go down the bathtub drain, that shots hurt and it's OK to cry, that new babies take a lot of family time but they don't take "your special place in the family." He is now preparing a special series on divorce.

One little boy of our acquaintance endures the make-believe section of Rogers' show. He really wants to see only Mr. Rogers. "After the program is over, my son is in a contemplative mood and will share his thoughts with me in a very beautiful way," his mother adds.

Mr. Rogers' central message is that each person is acceptable and unique. This is not only sound psychiatric theory but a major tenet of the Judeo-Christian ethic and reflects Rogers' personal beliefs. He was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1962 after eight years of attending seminary classes during his lunch hours. "I was commissioned to minister to families through the mass media. I think I'm the only Presbyterian minister ever ordained to his calling."

Rogers nourishes his openness to others in part by weekly lunches with fellow clergymen. "We'll share our concerns and this supporting, trusting relationship helps free us to deal more creatively with others." Between writing and producing chores for the "Neighborhood" Rogers keeps fit in a regular aerobic swimming program.

What kind of little boy was Mr. Rogers himself?

"Well, I remember that at Christmastime my parents gave me a catalogue of toys to mark which I would like. I always tried to choose what I believed others thought I'd want. That's kind of sad, but as an adult I've learned to work through those feelings."

Mr. Rogers doesn't need to worry about what others think he is. His loyal audience likes him as he is.

 

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