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How Dolly Parton Became TV’s Patron Saint of Christmas.

Unravelling the country legend's holiday TV universe.
  • Dolly Parton in a promotional image for Holly Dolly Christmas. (CBS)
    Dolly Parton in a promotional image for Holly Dolly Christmas. (CBS)

    If you're looking for something to normalize the upcoming Christmas season in a deeply abnormal time, one thing that will both do the trick and be abundantly available is Dolly Parton. The legendary country musician and actress has doubled down on holiday cheer in recent years, rebranding herself as streaming TV's own personal Secret Santa.

    Of course, the "rebrand" part of it is really only in the pivot to streaming platforms like Netflix — where the Dolly-produced-and-starring Christmas on the Square drops this Sunday — because Dolly Parton has been a Christmas institution in America for decades. That Peak TV is giving us Christmas Dolly at levels we haven't seen since the heyday of Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers in the 1980s is just a Christmas bonus, and who doesn't love those?

    This particular holiday season we're getting a double dose of Dolly: on Netflix, it's Christmas on the Square, seemingly the result of a gay fever dream that delivers Christina Baranski as a Scrooge-like landlord in a musical featuring 14 original Dolly Parton songs and co-starring Jenifer Lewis (black-ish), Jeanine Mason (Roswell, NM), and Dolly herself as a Christmas angel. Oh, and it's directed by Debbie Allen. Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

    Netflix first got in on the Dolly Parton game in 2019 with Dolly Parton's Heartstrings, an eight-episode anthology series in which each episode was based on a different Dolly song. Netflix's ratings are still too opaque to know what does and doesn't constitute a hit, but the show was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding TV Movie.

    And if a Dolly/Christine Baranski/Debbie Allen Christmas musical wasn't enough, it was just announced that CBS will air A Holly Dolly Christmas (timed to publicize Dolly's new Christmas album of the same name), a classic Christmas special where Parton will sing Christmas songs and tell personal stories and generally gather Americans around the hearth and pass around a mug of metaphorical hot cocoa.

    Because that, in a nutshell, is the Dolly Parton vibe when it comes to Christmas. After over 50 years as an entertainer, Parton has long since entered the realm of people who everybody more or less agrees upon. She draws together disparate demographics from young and old, city and country, gay and straight, men and women, and her relentless positivity and self-effacing cheer have never felt less than genuine. The secret to good Christmas entertainment is that you have to fully buy into the whole Christmas thing without seeming phony about it, and Dolly has always fit that bill.

    This goes all the way back her appearance on a 1969 holiday special called An Old Time Country Christmas, though it really kicked off in earnest with the 1982 musical film adaptation of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, where Dolly performed "Hard Candy Christmas." In the original stage version of the show, this was an ensemble number, but for the film version, Dolly's character — Chicken Ranch proprietress Mona Stangley — took the lead. And when the song was released as a single, it became a Dolly Parton solo project, soon becoming one of her signature songs.

    For many, Dolly Parton became synonymous with Christmas in December of 1984 with her A Christmas to Remember TV special with frequent collaborator Kenny Rogers. It was produced to coincide with Parton and Rogers' Christmas album Once Upon a Christmas, and it featured performances of all the songs, including "The Greatest Gift of All," "Christmas Without You," and the title song "Once Upon a Christmas."

    From then on, Christmas specials starring Dolly Parton have been as much a part of the fabric of Christmas culture as eggnog or George Bailey's wonderful old Building & Loan. There was A Smoky Mountain Christmas in 1986 (directed by one Henry Winkler), the 1990 ABC special Christmas at Home, Lifetime's A Country Christmas Story in 2013, Dolly Parton's Christmas of Many Colors in 2016, and Hallmark's Christmas at Dollywood in 2019.

    Somehow as the years have gone by and culture has changed so much, one of the constants on TV when it comes to Christmas has been Dolly Parton. It's probably not why her name rhymes with "Holly" and "Jolly," but it's a pretty appropriate coincidence.

    Dolly Parton's Christmas on the Square drops on Netflix Sunday November 22nd, while A Holly Dolly Christmas airs on CBS December 6.

    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Dolly Parton, CBS, Netflix, Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square, Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings, A Holly Dolly Christmas, Christine Baranski, Christmas, Holiday Programming