The 1970s were, arguably, the golden age of classic TV Christmas specials. Before variety shows and specials all but disappeared from the lineups of the three major networks (and before cable TV took over and shrank network viewership), each holiday season brought forth highly rated variety specials to please nearly everyone from 1 to 92. The four Johnny Cash Christmas specials, which ran every year on CBS from 1976-1979, were certainly no exception.
Cash, who had already established a reputation for bringing together an eclectic lineup of talent each week on his ABC series, which ran from 1969 to 1971, continued that tradition with his holiday specials, which also featured his wife, June Carter Cash, and many of the members of their extended (and musically-gifted) family at home in Nashville. But the real Yuletide treat was often the other guests who would join in on the fun. Perhaps no American icon but Cash (with the exception of Bob Hope, of course) could so beautifully juxtapose bizarre comedy, such as Andy Kaufman – as foreigner Latka Gravas from TV’s Taxi – playing a pants-less Santa Claus in 1979, with a somber Christmas message from Rev. Billy Graham (at the close of the 1976 special).
In 1978, the production moved from Nashville to Hollywood, but kept family and friends at its heart. There was, of course, comedy, too, and that year no one was hotter than stand-up comedian Steve Martin. But, in one of the show’s liveliest musical numbers, Johnny and June joined Johnny’s future partner in the Highwaymen quartet, Kris Kristofferson and his then-wife, Rita Coolidge, who was at the peak of her commercial success, to sing this rousing version of “Christmas Time’s a-Comin’.”
Other highlights of the ’78 special included Cash and Kristofferson’s decidedly un-Christmas-y rendition of “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” and a finale that featured Johnny and June’s daughters Rosanne, Tara, Cathy, Cindy, Rosie and Carlene, two of whom, Rosanne Cash and Carlene Carter, would go on to country music stardom beginning the following decade.