TV Christmas Specials

Televised Christmas specials are as integral to the celebration of the season as trees, ornaments, and presents; and yet the Christmas special as we know it didn’t become a TV staple until the 1960s, when many of the genre’s perennial favorites were originally produced. And some once-popular subgenres of the special—like the variety show, the newspaper-comic-strip adaptation, and the cheesy Christmas versions of cheap-o Saturday morning cartoons—have either fallen by the wayside or have been reduced to post-modern irony-fuel in recent years. Simply put: There’s more to the history of the TV Christmas special than just The Island Of Misfit Toys and The Gospel according to Peanuts. And thanks to basic cable, video stores, and streaming video services, there’s almost no aspect of Yuletide nostalgia that we can’t revisit.

TV Christmas Specials 101
Still and contemplative, yet imbued with the punchy rhythms of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip, A Charlie Brown Christmas has been a fixture of the Christmas programming schedule since 1965—though it gave executives at the network that originally aired the special a serious case of seasonal anxiety. Schulz and director Bill Melendez famously fought the brass at CBS to keep the special’s key scene, where security blanket-toting Peanuts sage Linus recites a passage from The Gospel Of Luke, a move David Michaelis’ Schulz And Peanuts: A Biography notes was motivated less by a sense of evangelism and more from a desire to remind viewers of the solemn origins of the holiday celebrated within the special. Still, for all the time it spends trawling Charlie Brown’s Christmas-related neuroses, the special ends on a joyous note, and the lo-fi charms of its non-professional voice cast and simple-yet-expressive animation retain a pleasantly transportive power.

Marked by a similarly endearing sense of scruffiness, 1964’s Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer was the famed Rankin-Bass production house’s first foray into rendering Christmas traditions in “Animagic.” Subsequent specials and movies would refine Rankin-Bass’ signature stop-motion style, but Rudolph remains its quintessential effort at filling the gaps between the lyrics of a favorite Christmas carol. Insidiously catchy musical numbers from “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” songwriter Johnny Marks and narration by Burl Ives (as Sam The Snowman) helped set the template for future specials, but Rudolph would be nothing without its colorful cast of supporting characters—none of which Marks apparently felt worthy of inclusion in his original song. Hermey The Elf, Yukon Cornelius, and The Abominable Snow Monster of the North serve as welcome additions to the North Pole canon, as well as a preview of battier stop-motion creations to come.

In 1969, Rankin-Bass tackled yet another classic Christmas song in Frosty The Snowman, and put the stop-motion aside in favor of cel animation. Unlike Rudolph, which spends nearly an hour setting up the premise of the original song, Frosty imagines what happens after a group of kids inadvertently bring their snowman to life. Answer: A lot of unsafe, non-adult-approved hijinks, including an impromptu, ill-advised trip to the North Pole without proper winter gear. (“We don’t care what grown-ups say.” This is an actual line of dialogue in Frosty.) The special has become one of the networks’ annual staples—CBS, in this case—even though there’s not much to it beyond Jimmy Durante’s raspy narration and Jackie Vernon’s dim, galoot-y voice as the icy golem of the title. 

In many ways, 1970’s Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town was a pivotal production for Rankin-Bass. The animation is of higher quality than many of the company’s earlier specials, but the storytelling still has the appealing, episodic quality of Rudolph, and isn’t as forced as the company’s later efforts would be. Positioning itself as, essentially, a straight-faced biopic of Santa Claus, the special tells the story of young Kris Kringle, a boy who has a series of adventures involving a Winter Warlock and a toy-hating politician named Burgermeister Meisterburger. The special also boasts terrific voice work from Fred Astaire (as this special’s celebrity Rankin-Bass narrator), Mickey Rooney (as Kringle/Claus), and Paul Frees (as Herr Burgermeister). Filled with fun ideas and intricate wood-figure animation, Santa Claus might be the Rankin-Bass high-water mark, and it also represents the company’s increased interest in squeezing high fantasy into an otherwise typical Christmas special.

Looney Tunes animator Chuck Jones produced one of the most famous Christmas specials when he turned his attention to a book by Dr. Seuss with 1966’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas. Featuring the vocal talents of Boris Karloff, the special is a rough revision of the Christmas Carol story, where a mean, angry old cuss finds himself heartened by a series of Christmas miracles after he resolves to “steal” Christmas from a small town populated with Seussian whozits and whatzits. (Jones has great fun animating many of Seuss’ stranger contraptions.) The Grinch’s sneaky, slimy attempt to rob every Christmas gift and Christmas tree in Whoville is entertaining, but the special works because of its surprisingly sentimental climax, one that comes by its emotion honestly, as the Grinch realizes the Christmas spirit is indomitable, no matter what he does to stop it. The special also features great songs, including “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” performed by Thurl Ravenscroft.

Richard Williams’ 1971 animated version of A Christmas Carol was so acclaimed at the time of its first airing that it won an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film (and forced the film academy to change its rules about TV specials being eligible for that award). It’s little-seen today, perhaps because it features many eerie and occasionally terrifying scenes as Ebenezer Scrooge confronts both the despair of the poor around him and what awaits his soul if he dies in his present miserly state. It’s too bad the special has mostly disappeared, because it’s perhaps the best television version of Charles Dickens’ oft-adapted novella about the misanthropic Scrooge and the series of ghosts who serve him some historical perspective on his life. Williams based his animation on the original wood-cut illustrations that accompanied Dickens’ tale, which lets the film gorgeously evoke the Victorian era. Williams also includes many of the smaller interludes from the Dickens story that other adaptations leave out, including a tour of the working men of England and how they spend the holiday. Featuring excellent voice work from Alistair Sim—himself one of the best Scrooges of the many film versions of the story—the special is rich in holiday spirit and beauty.

The ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future would eventually receive their most sensational, inspirational, celebrational, Muppetational interpretation courtesy of the 1992 theatrical release A Muppet Christmas Carol—the first Muppet feature made after Jim Henson’s death. Henson’s characters routinely gathered together for the holidays while he was still alive too, and 1987’s A Muppet Family Christmas even features a cameo from the bearded puppeteer, who cleans up after the Yuletide shindig that mixes the casts of The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, and Fraggle Rock. Despite a guest list that includes monsters, Fraggles, a sentient snowman, a jive-talking turkey, a psychedelic rock band, and a 8-foot-2 yellow bird, the special miraculously avoids feeling overstuffed—even when it feels like the frame is about to burst from the sheer volume of felt and fur. Credit the zippy, vignette-based plotting and the authentic family-reunion atmosphere, the obvious byproduct of gathering so many Muppet performers together for a single project. Watch out for the icy patch and avoid the DVD release, which omits such key scenes as Fozzie’s duet with his newfound, snowbound comedy partner.  

Intermediate Work
Often cited as the first animated Christmas special, 1962’s Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol is also one of the first TV shows to place an existing character within the rough outline of Charles Dickens’ book. Here the nearsighted bumbler Mr. Magoo (voiced as always by Jim Backus) appears on Broadway in a musical version of Dickens’ tale, with songs by famed composers Jule Styne and Bob Merrill. After the “this is just a play” framework is established, Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol delivers a shortened but still potent take on the story, with Styne/Merrill numbers like “Alone In The World” charting Scrooge’s gradual emotional softening. The show was such a hit it opened the floodgates for Christmas cartoons on TV, and inspired the short-lived NBC series The Famous Adventures Of Mr. Magoo, which stuck Quincy Magoo in different literary/historical adventures each week.

One reliable way to re-stage Dickens’ Christmas Carol has been to cast it with the stars of other popular properties. Everyone from Bugs Bunny to Fred Flintstone has done it, but the gold standard remains 1983’s Mickey’s Christmas Carol, which crams nearly every major Disney animated character into the Dickens tale. Mickey Mouse becomes Bob Cratchit; Rat and Mole from Wind In The Willows become the solicitors who irritate Scrooge; the Giant from “Mickey And The Beanstalk” plays The Ghost Of Christmas Present; and so on. The special was a spinoff of a popular record album featuring the great Alan Young doing a Scottish take on Scrooge as Scrooge McDuck. Young almost wasn’t asked to perform in the special, but he ultimately reprised the role, and good thing, too: Young’s Scrooge is crotchety enough to be believable as a miser, but also warm-hearted enough to be the star of a children’s special. The short originally opened in theaters but became a holiday staple on television throughout the ’80s.

The simple, lightly plotted Christmas Eve On Sesame Street remains the best of several attempts by Children’s Television Workshop (or other production companies) to craft an enduring Christmas special featuring the beloved Sesame Street Muppets. Featuring much of the original cast of Sesame Street—including Muppet performers Jim Henson and Frank Oz—the special tells three small stories about the night before Christmas on Sesame Street, including Big Bird’s attempts to find out how Santa will get down newer, narrower chimneys after Oscar says such a thing is impossible; Bert and Ernie’s earnest reenactment of O. Henry’s Gift Of The Magi; and Cookie Monster’s effort to write a letter to Santa asking for cookies (foiled by his hunger, which causes him to devour his writing implements). The Big Bird plot especially captures the wide-eyed, childlike wonder of the very notion of Santa Claus, and the special as a whole features some fun footage of New York City in the late ’70s. Winner of an Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Program, the 1978 special beat out another Sesame Street Christmas program (about which more in a bit).

Though not as popular as Rankin-Bass’ best-known productions, Twas The Night Before Christmas has run perennially since its 1974 debut, and features some of the best songs and storytelling in the entire R-B catalog. A simple tale about a too-smart-for-his-own-good mouse who writes a letter that convinces Santa to give his hometown the brush-off, ’Twas The Night is fast-paced and unfussy as it recounts the town’s plan to win Santa back with a fancy clock. Though the special falls back on Rankin-Bass’ recurring theme of capricious Santas—while taking what seems to be a defiantly anti-egghead stance—its “even a miracle needs a hand” message ultimately celebrates industriousness, and allows that even intellectuals can find room in their hearts for the spirit of Christmas.

In the grand tradition of dickish Rankin-Bass Santas, Mickey Rooney’s second outing as the jolly old elf in 1974’s The Year Without A Santa Claus finds the fat man’s faith in humanity shaken, as he decides to call in sick on the only day of the year he’s obliged to do any heavy lifting. But all that’s ultimately secondary to a subplot that introduces the squabbling, weather-controlling stepbrothers Heat Miser and Snow Miser. Played to the hammy hilt by George S. Irving and Dick Shawn, respectively, the characters are more than just prime examples of Rankin-Bass’ inspired character design; they’re scene-stealers of the highest order, who serve as a distraction from what’s often a wonky and maudlin adaptation of Phyllis McGinley’s 1957 picture book. The Miser brothers also represent a peak for Rankin-Bass’ economical sense of creativity, squeezing two toe-tapping ditties from a single Maury Laws tune.

Jim Davis’ Garfield was on its way to becoming a tired gag-delivery system by the time A Garfield Christmas Special debuted in 1987, so Garfield’s good old-fashioned Christmas on the Arbuckle family farm may be one of the last products of Davis’ media empire untouched by the workmanlike malaise that would eventually envelop Paws, Inc. The special boasts the heart its source material has lacked for years, even as it makes room for some colossal seasonal grouchiness from its titular orange tabby. The special tips over into “mushy” around the time Grandma Arbuckle starts waxing nostalgic about her late husband; but thankfully the same can’t be said of the velvety purr of Lou Rawls, who contributes vocals to the soundtrack’s pair of horn-laden standouts, “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme” and “You Can Never Find An Elf When You Need One.”

One of the greatest miracles of the Christmas season is how it makes the thickest sap palatable. The 1977 Fat Albert Christmas Special slathers on the hokey-ness: It features a homeless family that arrives at Fat Albert’s junkyard clubhouse just as the mother’s about to have a baby, and it features a widowed miser who intends to knock the clubhouse down before The Cosby Kids can stage their annual Christmas pageant. And yet, as the various crises move toward their happy resolution, and as the miser looks up at the Christmas star shining in the sky and asks his dead wife if he’s doing okay, it’s hard not to get choked up. It’s also hard not to appreciate the rare Christmas special that acknowledges the truly underprivileged, as opposed to “the kid who pissed off Santa.”

Bloom County creator Berkeley Breathed disavowed the 1991 animated adaptation of his Christmas book A Wish For Wings That Work, suggesting that maybe his sense of humor was ill-suited to television. Certainly A Wish For Wings is pretty stilted at times, alternately crass and cloying as it tells the story of Opus the penguin’s desire to fly. But Christmas is a forgiving time, and A Wish For Wings That Work isn’t as bad as Breathed thinks. Opus’ fantasy sequences combine old movie footage with animation in imaginative ways, and his big meet-up with Santa Claus—and the unconventional granting of his wish—is touching, as holiday happy endings typically are. And though Opus’ voice doesn’t sound quite right (Breathed reportedly wanted Sterling Holloway), just seeing the Bloom County characters in motion is a treat for anyone who read the newspaper comics regularly in the ’80s.

[pagebreak]

Advanced Studies
Most classic Christmas specials only mention Jesus in passing (if at all), but Rankin-Bass’ 1968 favorite The Little Drummer Boy is super Jesus-y. Expanding the oft-covered carol about a boy who plays his drums to honor the Christ child, The Little Drummer Boy fills in the orphan hero’s backstory, showing how his angry heart was transformed by God’s gift to humanity. It’s a lot like How The Grinch Stole Christmas, in other words, only with a Biblical foundation and not so much rhyming. The special is effective as all get-out, too—known to reduce even non-believers to a weepy mess.

Attempts by Christian groups to wrest the continued Santafication of Christmas back toward the holiday’s religious roots have rarely succeeded, but they did result in one of the strangest and most interesting Rankin-Bass specials, 1977’s Nestor, The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey, which tells the story of Nestor, the little donkey who bore Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. The special seems to have come from some alternate universe where Rudolph has been replaced by a donkey (it even reuses animation from The Year Without A Santa Claus and Rudolph’s Shiny New Year), but it also features a surprisingly hard-nosed, often depressing look at the life of Nestor, including a deeply sad scene where his mother dies while trying to protect him from a howling blizzard. Narrated by Roger Miller—as Santa’s own donkey, Spieltoe—Nestor isn’t the best Rankin-Bass special, but it’s worth seeing for its serious midsection and gratifying conclusion.

Performed and remounted several times throughout television’s history, Amahl And The Night Visitors (first broadcast in 1951) is of interest mainly for its historical value, though it’s also worth watching for its beautiful music, particularly in a 1955 version recently available on DVD. The story of a young boy who meets the Magi as they are on their way to revere Christ, Amahl was the first opera written expressly for television, and performances of it on Christmas Day became a tradition for the first two decades of television’s existence. NBC—which owned the rights to the program for many years—has tried to create a new version several times, most notably in 1978, when it broadcast one partially filmed in the Holy Land, but the special’s forthright religiosity is often an uncomfortable fit on modern TV. A similarly ambitious project, and newly on DVD after being thought lost for decades, is 1956’s The Stingiest Man In Town. Originally broadcast as part of The Alcoa Hour and starring Basil Rathbone as Scrooge, the musical was one of the most expensive television productions to that date. It features fun performances and good music, and it’s a fair sight better than the crummy Rankin-Bass animated remake of the ’70s.

Because it originally aired on HBO in 1977—and has only sporadically showed up on broadcast TV and basic cable ever since—Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas isn’t as well-known as some other perennial holiday favorites, but those who’ve seen it tend to be devoted. Produced during the peak creative era of The Jim Henson Company, Emmet Otter adapts Russell and Lillian Hoban’s storybook about the poor critters of Frogtown Hollow, who pull together and make sacrifices to keep the season bright. From Paul Williams’ catchy, folky score to the “Gift Of The Magi”-like plot, Emmet Otter is a heart-warmer. It also looks like Christmas, with its handmade, toy-like quality.

Chuck Jones’ 1973 special A Very Merry Cricket isn’t as good as the Grinch, but it still features a striking climax that highlights the special’s 1970s New York milieu. A sequel to Jones’ successful adaptation of George Selden’s The Cricket In Times Square, the special sends the book’s Tucker The Mouse and Harry The Cat in search of their friend Chester The Cricket, that he might quiet a noisy (shades of Grinch) and fractious New York City on Christmas Eve by playing a few Christmas carols. There’s not much to the plot here—Jones offers a lengthy sojourn in wintry Connecticut to pad out the paltry story—but the animation is striking, and the conclusion, in which Chester is finally heard by the clamorous New Yorkers, is deeply moving. 

An Emmy winner for animated programming, 1987’s A Claymation Christmas Celebration initially seemed like it might become an annual tradition, but it disappeared midway through the ’90s and is rarely shown on television anymore. Largely plotless, it gathers a variety of Will Vinton’s Claymation characters—including the California Raisins—and has them perform music-video versions of a variety of Christmas songs. The Raisins perform “Rudolph,” “We Three Kings” is sung by hip camels, and ice-skating walruses provide the visual backdrop for an instrumental version of “Angels We Have Heard On High.” The special was notable at the time for its use of Claymation, which was seen as a new and exciting process in the late ’80s. While it’s no longer as impressive to modern eyes, the goofy visuals and striking takes on traditional carols remain enjoyable. The “O Christmas Tree” segment, depicting several scenes within ornaments on a Christmas tree, is a particular highlight.

Christmas used to provide an excuse to bring beloved comic-strip characters to the small screen—back when people still read newspapers—and that was true for the tow-headed moppets of Family Circus. The 1979 special A Family Circus Christmas isn’t at the level of Charlie Brown or even Garfield, but it’s less insufferably cute than the strip itself had become by the late ’70s, and it has a surprisingly somber core, involving little Jeffy trying to find a way to have his dead grandfather join the family for Christmas. The usual Christmas miracles arrive on cue, but otherwise this is a nicely small-scale story of a family celebrating the holiday together in the wake of having recently lost someone dear.

Another comic-strip character who made the jump to TV-land at Christmastime is Ziggy, whose 1982 special Ziggy’s Gift is a sweetly low-key tale of the round little guy making his way through a harsh cityscape on Christmas Eve, trying to raise money for the poor while surrounded by crooks and thieves. (In its own way, it’s a fine sequel to Very Merry Cricket.) The special was scripted by Ziggy creator Tom Wilson, and it makes the daring choice of having neither the titular lead nor his dog Fuzz utter a word, making several scenes resemble sound collages with pictures. The special was also animated by Richard Williams a few years before Roger Rabbit would bring him to prominence, and features work by a young Eric Goldberg, later best-known for animating the Genie in Aladdin. The special also features songs by Harry Nilsson, which aren’t up to the level of his best tunes, but still provide a nice Nilsson-y twist on the usual Christmas themes of peace on Earth and goodwill toward men. (Those looking for more comic strip-based Christmas specials should also seek out 1981’s B.C.: A Special Christmas, which features the voices of comedians Bob and Ray as two of the strip’s characters.)

An icon of a less touchy-feely age, Pee-wee’s Playhouse gave creator Paul Reubens a weekly outlet for his zany, imaginative man-child alter ego, Pee-wee Herman. Just as the average episode of Pee-wee’s Playhouse goosed the conventions of the children’s shows of Reubens’ youth, the 1988 Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special offers a giddy, knowing homage to campy variety-show celebrations. As such, Pee-wee opens the door of the playhouse to celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, Magic Johnson, and K.D. Lang, the latter of whom throws herself around like an Elvis marionette lately loosed from its strings during her rendition of “Jingle Bell Rock.” The special’s spirit is one of sublime silliness, acknowledging the frivolity of big-budget holiday spectaculars while covertly working to deliver its own handmade Christmas card to the genre.

The upside to the enduring popularity of the ’60s Christmas specials is that they’ve been passed down from generation to generation, and loved anew. The downside is that it’s been difficult for new specials to join the rarified ranks of Charlie Brown, Frosty, and Rudolph and earn a yearly slot on the network schedule. Not that there haven’t been some worthy attempts over the years. In 1997, Steve Oedekerk and John A. Davis collaborated on the computer-animated Santa Vs. The Snowman, which they later converted into 3D and exhibited in IMAX theaters. It’s too bad, though, that it didn’t catch on as a TV special. Santa Vs. The Snowman’s story of a snowman who tries to exact revenge on Santa for an accidental slight is packed with cute gags about what life is like at the North Pole—it’s a cocoa-based society, basically—and sports a good riff on The Empire Strikes Back in the big battle scene. And, naturally, the tale has a sweetly sentimental ending, though not an overbaked one.

The 1999 special Olive, The Other Reindeer—based on Vivian Walsh’s popular children’s book—has had a little better luck at becoming a staple, which is a welcome development, because this Matt Groening-produced pun-fest is a real holiday treat. Drew Barrymore provides the voice of a dog who takes it upon herself to head north and save Christmas after Blitzen gets injured. Along the way she meets a canny penguin (voiced by Joe Pantoliano), a mean mailman (Dan Castellaneta), and a thuggish reindeer (Michael Stipe). With its construction-paper cut-out look, light heart, and deadpan humor, Olive is—like Santa Vs. The Snowman—something of a meta Christmas special, but no less affecting for that.

[pagebreak]

Recent years haven’t been particularly good for long-lasting Christmas specials, with only 2007’s Shrek The Halls showing any real longevity. (Despite the special’s iffy pedigree, it’s perhaps the best story in that franchise since the original film.) However, Disney’s Prep & Landing offers hope that the Christmas special spirit isn’t dead yet. Featuring terrific voice work from Dave Foley and Derek Richardson as the two elves at the story’s center, the 2009 computer-animated tale offers up a nearly Pixar-ian look into the inner workings of Santa’s workshop as it prepares for Christmas, following two elves who make their way into children’s houses before Santa arrives to make sure that everything is ready for his arrival. The special doesn’t ladle on the sentiment, thankfully, and it’s filled with great gags. Plus it’s been a huge ratings success and has spawned a sequel, which suggests Prep & Landing might be with us for years to come. 

Demerits
For years, master impressionist Rich Little did a bit in his stand-up act that imagined “A Christmas Carol” with different celebrities playing the major parts. In 1978, Little expanded the routine to the hourlong special Rich Little’s A Christmas Carol, which aired on the CBC and on HBO. Here, Little makes Scrooge into W.C. Fields and Bob Cratchit into Paul Lynde, and portrays the ghosts as Richard Nixon, Humphrey Bogart, Peter Falk, and Peter Sellers. Little doesn’t look for any deeper connection between his choice of celebs and the original story, but anyone who’s ever wanted to see Johnny Carson play Scrooge’s warm-hearted nephew and Truman Capote as Tiny Tim will be well-served by this version.

In the pre-Internet era, the Star Wars Holiday Special seemed almost like an urban legend: a made-up parody of all of the bad variety-show Christmas specials that networks shoveled onto the air in the ’70s. Only those kids who’d seen its lone 1978 broadcast could attest to its existence. Tapes of the special—complete with commercials—circulated on the black market for years, providing a fine holiday bonding moment for fans of so-bad-it’s-good kitsch, but now that online streaming video exists, it’s easy for anyone to appreciate just how terrible the special is, from its onslaught of guest stars (including Bea Arthur and Art Carney), to its lengthy section where the dialogue consists entirely of Wookie howls, to the way that none of the Star Wars cast members seem all that thrilled to be there. George Lucas has longed to wipe the special from the record for decades now, but its very existence is a goofy reminder of when the film was the brightest star in the pop-culture firmament, and when Carrie Fisher solemnly intoning about the wonders of Life Day before launching into a version of the film’s theme (with lyrics!) was considered a good idea.

If classic characters hanging out with celebrities like Leslie Uggams is your thing, then follow up Star Wars with a screening of 1978’s A Special Sesame Street Christmas, which aired the same year as Christmas Eve On Sesame Street but has proved less enduring, probably because it plays like a variety special with Muppets. The focus falls squarely on the stars—including Uggams, Ethel Merman, Henry Fonda, and Imogene Coca—and only Big Bird, Oscar, and Barkley appear from the Sesame Street Muppet cast. This was an odd, poorly judged special, so it’s no surprise it was surpassed by Christmas Eve.

Rankin-Bass never had the success at producing specials for other holidays that it had with Christmas, with its specials dedicated to Halloween, Easter, and Thanksgiving mostly fading away. Instead of producing a new special for St. Patrick’s Day, the company decided to make a special about leprechauns at Christmas, entitled The Leprechauns’ Christmas Gold. This 1981 oddity is more or less exactly what it sounds like. The special offers numerous examples of the bad habits Rankin-Bass had sunk into, including an overreliance on weird, fantastical creatures and tropes, and a general stretching of the idea of basing a special around a Christmas song to include Christmas tunes that haven’t proved timeless. (The song here is “Christmas In Killarney.”) The special isn’t atrocious, but it’s hard to see why it exists. (Along the same lines: Rankin-Bass’ Pinocchio’s Christmas, from 1980.)

Rankin-Bass churned out holiday specials on a near-annual basis for more than 20 years, but the streak ended with 1985’s The Life & Adventures Of Santa Claus, the last special to bear the company’s name until the 2000s (and the next-to-last special to bear the company’s name ever, at least so far). A straightforward adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s deeply odd novel about the history of the man who would become Santa Claus—a novel filled with all sorts of made-up pagan gods and fantastical kingdoms that seemed even more vomited onto the page than some of the later Oz books—the whole thing is like Rudolph crossed with Lord Of The Rings. It badly botches what a Christmas special should be, and is worth watching mainly for unintentional laughs, and for a journey back to the post-He-Man ’80s midset.

If the Santa Claus mythos didn’t require a Tolkien-esque makeover to fill an hour of airtime, how could Rankin-Bass do the same for Jack Frost, a character known largely for “nipping at your nose?” By throwing a convoluted plot and a troupe of stop-motion oddities at the winter sprite, of course. Jack Frost features some marvelously cracked creations—clockwork knights for instance, and a malevolent monarch with a ventriloquist-dummy sidekick—but the 1979 special’s fairy-tale structure and flimsy integration of Groundhog Day folklore make for a bloated, quasi-magical mess. (Paul Frees earns a personal demerit for doing little to differentiate the voice of the special’s Big Bad, King Kubla Kraus, from that of Rocky And Bullwinkle’s Boris Badenov.) 

Of all the “[Blank] saves Christmas” plots in television history, 1982’s Christmas Comes To Pac-Land’s might be the fishiest. Stopping short of introducing an 8-bit savior of all Pac-Men into the universe of Hanna-Barbera’s Saturday-morning Pac-Man adaptation, the special’s glib sermonizing about “warm, brotherly love” and “spreading joy throughout the world” does little to hide its roots as a half-hour advertisement for an arcade game. Like the limited-animation inverse of How The Grinch Stole Christmas, Christmas Comes To Pac-Land argues that the holiday only comes with packages, boxes, and bags, with Pac-Man risking a chomping from his ghost enemies in order to recover Santa Claus’ lost sack of presents. Then again, what else can you expect from a character whose only motivation is to consume?

Miscellany
In addition to the specials, countless TV series have run special Christmas episodes—way, way too many to cite. Still, it’s worth mentioning “The Nativity,” the 1952 Christmas episode of the anthology series Studio One. Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (who’d later helm movies like Patton and The Boys From Brazil), “The Nativity” is a high-church retelling of the Christmas story, complete with choral music and direct recitations from The Bible. It’s a sophisticated and handsome production, and all the more impressive for being performed live.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, TV in December used to be choked with holiday variety shows, some derived from regular weekly series, and some just one-offs. It’s the Christmas variety show that brought us Bing Crosby dueting with David Bowie, Donny and Marie Osmond having a snowball fight with their family, John Denver celebrating the Yuletide with The Muppets, and Sonny and Cher (and Chaz!) singing a rock ’n’ roll Christmas medley with Bernadette Peters and Captain Kangaroo.

These days, the ’60s and ’70s variety special survives only in quotation marks, as in 2008’s A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift Of All!, in which the parodic pundit Stephen Colbert trades jokey holiday songs with Elvis Costello, Toby Keith, John Legend, Feist, Willie Nelson, and Jon Stewart. The songs are funny, the tone is suitably merry—even with the thick layers of irony—but for anyone who grew up with the specials the host is spoofing, it’s hard not to pine for something a little more sincere.

A camp object no choir of winking Colberts or Pee-wees could match, The Yule Log proves that, when it comes to Christmas programming, sometimes viewers just want something at which to stare. Conceived by New York City broadcaster Fred Thrower, The Yule Log debuted on New York City’s WPIX in 1966 with the dual altruistic purposes of relieving station employees of their duties on Christmas Day and bringing the sights and sounds of a roaring fire to New Yorkers with hearthless homes. Often imitated and easily duplicated (the home-video boom of the ’80s introduced several VHS Yule Log knockoffs), the seven-minute loop of dancing flames and its seasonally appropriate soundtrack took an 11-year sabbatical between 1990 and 2001, but now airs in an expanded four-hour format on WPIX and other Tribune Company-owned stations across the country. 

The vast majority of holiday specials are Christmas-oriented, with other holidays of the season—like Hanukah and Kwanzaa—often relegated to “very special episodes” of series featuring Jewish or African-American characters (though the Rugrats Hanukah episode is quite good). But there have been a couple of good New Year’s Day specials, including 1986’s Happy New Year, Charlie Brown, detailing Charlie Brown’s attempts to woo the little red-haired girl and read all of War And Peace over his Christmas break, and 1976’s Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, featuring the reindeer and pals searching for the New Year’s baby. Both are interesting as examples of specials built for a holiday that would seem to resist being made special.

The Essentials
1. A Charlie Brown Christmas
Not many family holiday specials could open with melancholy music and its hero saying, “I’m depressed,” and still exemplify what Christmas is all about to so many people. Such was the genius of Charles M. Schulz.
2. How The Grinch Stole Christmas
Even before its antihero’s heart grows three sizes, the Grinch is a classic, if only for the masterful slapstick sequence of the Grinch and Max barreling down a mountain on an out-of-control Santa sleigh.
3. Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas
For those who need to be reassured that if all they have in life is an ol’ washtub, “at least there ain’t no hole in the washtub.”
4. Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town
Some may prefer Rudolph, but Rankin-Bass found a better balance between invented mythology and authentic Christmas-y twinkle with this warm, beautiful Santa origin story.
5. Mickey’s Christmas Carol.
Not the best of the Christmas Carol adaptations, granted, but an artfully crafted one, and included in this spot to stand in both for all the ersatz Dickens and for all the Christmas-themed Disney shorts, which are frequently packaged together and shown on TV around the world at this time of year. There are some cultures in which Donald’s epic snowball fight with Huey, Dewey, and Louie or Pluto’s turf war with Chip ’n’ Dale are as beloved as Frosty The Snowman is in the U.S. Credit that old Disney magic, which has a way of making even slapstick look as elegant as stained glass.

More Primer