Christmas and the festive celebrations of the birth of Jesus Christ remains the foremost annual cultural festival in most parts of the western world, celebrated even by non-Christians, atheists and agnostics, even if it is not marked by such groups as a religious holiday in itself.
Within the UK television industry Christmas, from the very start of the service beginning in the 1930s, was marked as a special season in the same way that it had been and continues to be within the radio, publishing and retail industries. Special high-quality and budget-generous programmes were devised with an accent either on religion or on comedy and variety entertainment. Regular programming, especially dramas, would either take a short break over the Christmas period or the festive season would become an integral part of the storyline and Coronation Street has been no exception in this respect. The holiday has always featured within the storylines although the nature in which has been treated has changed along with viewer tastes and habits in the years since 1960.
Coronation Street 's debut on 9th December 1960 was too close to Christmas that year for the characters to be fully established within viewer's minds and for a meaningful story to be made from the season. Christmas Day fell on a Sunday that year and there was no need either to produce an episode to be shown on the day itself or its two adjacent days which would show the festivities of the residents. Preparations for the season and a visit from Linda and Ivan Cheveski were shown in the Tanner household and Ena Sharples, then recovering in hospital from a collapse, was serenaded by a group of choirboys with carols on a special visit to patients (the choirboys, Singers of the Boy's Choir, St. John's Church, Oldham, also featured in the next episode as carol singers in the street and in one unusual moment, broke the "fourth wall" and sang direct to camera). Apart from the decorations hanging on the sets little was made of the holiday. The following year, when Christmas Day fell on a Monday, circumstances also prevented the programme from showing something special as the Equity actors' strike was in full swing and the programme was reduced to a cast of just fourteen actors and no guest cast. The episode shown that day therefore concentrated on events within each of the resident's homes although it did also have the strange feature of the menfolk attending an (off-screen) women's charity football match while their wives stayed at home and began making their Christmas dinners.
For the next ten years or so the programme made an extra effort with its Christmas storylines and attempted to put on something special within the context of the plotlines. There were a succession of plays, pantomimes, concerts, singalongs and even a special This Is Your Life presentation in 1963 where the "victim" was Annie Walker, providing the excuse for the temporary return of characters Billy Walker and Joan Davies and a goodbye from former resident Esther Hayes whose appearances within the programme had become more sporadic since her disappearance during the Actor's strike. Whilst the accent was on comedy in these episodes they also occasionally provided the excuse to showcase the talents of the actors themselves and Patricia Phoenix's rousing rendition of the song "Hey Look Me Over" from the 1960 Broadway musical Wildcat during the 1964 pantomime Aladdin and Jack Howarth's recitation of the poem The Girl I kissed On the Stairs in the 1969 concert in the Rovers are good examples. As the 1960s wore on the show also indulged in some special programmes, these being the 1968 extra Christmas on Coronation Street in which Jack and Annie Walker reminisced on past Christmases on the street with extended clips from previous yuletide editions and the entire cast contributed segments in 1969 and 1970 to an ITV variety anthology called All Star Comedy Carnival which featured short segments from contemporary situation comedies and in which Coronation Street made a strange bedfellow.
The one thing which remained constant throughout this period was the Viewing Figures; Coronation Street was the most consistently popular fixture in the ratings through most of the 1960s and easily beat everything that the BBC could throw at it throughout the decade with two exceptions – the fourth season of Steptoe and Son in 1965 and its Christmas programmes. With the exception of 1964 and 1969 the ratings for Coronation Street 's Christmas editions in its first decade were noticeably down on the surrounding episodes and as the 1970s began it was obvious to everyone in the industry that the prodigious effort that the BBC put into its Christmas output with programmes such as the now-legendary Morecambe and Wise shows decimated the opposition. 1972 saw the only episode of Coronation Street to be shown on the day itself in that decade and was one of only two episodes that year that failed to appear in the top twenty of the charts (the other being the August Bank Holiday edition). 1975, with an episode shown on Christmas Eve, proved to be a watershed in that it was the final episode of the programme to attempt a special episode with the residents repeating their endeavours of 1964 and 1968 in taking part in a pantomime for local children. Thereafter Christmas became more low-key within the narrative with none of the special events of previous years and in 1974 and 1978, in a move now considered unthinkable, no episode of the programme was shown on 25th December even though Christmas Day fell on a Wednesday and a Monday in those respective years. The one special event was also in 1975 when the programme produced another special episode of reminisces and clips from previous Christmas episodes, this time broadcast in the programme's regular slot and broadcast under its normal title although it is nowadays known as Annie and Betty's Coronation Street Memories.
This lower-key approach to Christmas continued until the mid-1980s when the landscape changed once more and again it was the BBC who led the way. The defection of Morecambe and Wise to ITV in 1978, followed a few years later by the death of Eric Morecambe and a gradual dearth in successful sitcoms and variety shows meant that the BBC had to look elsewhere for its Christmas "big-hitters". Only Fools and Horses soon established itself as the "nation's favourite" for its big Christmas treat but it was in 1986 that the soaps took centre-stage when EastEnders, launched only the year before, staggered everyone in the industry when it took prime place in the ratings with an audience (including its omnibus repeat) of over 30 million. The programme had proven enormously popular that year and its main viewer-grabbing storyline for the episode of Den Watts serving divorce papers on his wife puzzled some due to its non-festive and somewhat squalid nature but television executives got the message – the soaps could be Christmas ratings winners. ITV gained an opportunity to put this to the test the following year when Jean Alexander, beloved of the viewing public for her portrayal of Hilda Ogden, left the programme after twenty-three years and it was decided that her final appearance would be the Christmas Day edition. Well-publicised, the episode gained ratings of almost 27 million (again when combined with a special omnibus repeat shown on 27th December) and from thereon in soaps have become a staple of the Christmas Day viewing line-up. With the exception of 1993, irrespective of the day of the week on which Christmas Day falls, ITV has shown an episode of Coronation Street and since 1998 these have always been one-hour episodes, an experiment that was first attempted in 1995. Uniquely in 1991 two episodes were shown, the second one in the usual 7.30pm timeslot but the first one, shown at 2.50pm "surrounded" the traditional 3.00pm broadcast of the Queen's speech with Alf Roberts being shown sitting down to watch the programme along with millions of others in the country. The incidents of births and weddings at Christmas is noticeably high in the programme compared to the national average: characters (David Platt, twins William and Rebecca Mallett, and Ben Watts) were born on Christmas Day, and Rosie Webster on Christmas Eve. The wedding of Alf and Audrey Roberts, as well as Ashley and Claire Peacock's wedding ceremony, took place on or near Christmas Day. The programme has so far avoided a habit of EastEnders of "killing off" characters in its Christmas episodes although some storylines such as the breakdown the marriage of Steve and Karen McDonald have had tragic overtones.
Coronation Street has proven to be a winner for ITV in the charts at Christmas over the past two decades and quite often has been the only noticeable entry for the network in the charts on the day against the BBC's showing of blockbuster films, EastEnders, comedy specials and the recent success of Doctor Who. ITV have occasionally pushed the success of Coronation Street during the yuletide season with special programmes such as 2005's Coronation Street Pantomime and some editions of the Judy Finnegan-introduced show Classic Coronation Street being shown in the holiday period. The announcement of the storylines for Christmas are eagerly awaited by the tabloid press and the resultant success of the programme within the viewing charts is invariably toasted by ITV executives.