Christmas, please, but hold the treacle: 42 holiday entertainments that don't make us want to claw our eyes out with rage
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- Over there: 30 foreign series that need immediate legal import to the U.S.
1. It's A Wonderful Life
Most Christmas movies are so bluntly filled with messages the world ought to have learned by now—love each other, forgive, embrace family unity rather than crass commercialism, blah blah blah—that they're unwatchable. But there's something about Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life—probably George Bailey's perfect imperfections—that makes it work year after year. Merry Christmas, you wonderful old building and loan.
2. A Christmas Story
A Christmas Story isn't, thank God, the story of Christmas (Jesus doesn't really factor in), but rather a sweet-but-not-sappy snapshot of the most realistic 1940s American family out there. The manger and wise men are nowhere to be found, but there's a Red Ryder BB Gun and a leg-shaped lamp to take their places.
3. Low, Christmas
Few things are more rage-inspiring than being bombarded with soulless Christmas carols from October through December—they're like Jesus reduced to a white guy with a butter-smooth voice who can't dance for shit. Respectable rockers generally won't touch Christmas songs—ain't cool, ya dig—but Low knocked out a great, touching set that breathes new life into classics ("Blue Christmas," "Silent Night") and adds some originals to the canon. The band released a much scarier song for 2008, called "Santa's Coming Over"—the video for that is below as well.
4. A Charlie Brown Christmas
It's surprising how many old children's holiday TV specials have held up well, but none can match 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas, especially in terms of the choke-up factor. Between Charlie Brown's holiday depression, the lesson about Christmas commercialism, the children's choir singing the melancholy "Christmas Time Is Here," and the pitiful Christmas tree, it's nearly a downer. Honestly, if you can listen to Linus saying "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown," without tearing up the tiniest bit, then you deserve coal in your stocking.
Forget the old axiom "It's better to give than receive." Joe Dante's mean-spirited film has a far more useful message to impart: "Sometimes your Christmas presents will try to fucking kill you." In addition to giving Johnny Mathis' sappy old "Do You Hear What I Hear?" a much-needed homicidal undertone and providing one of the greatest tree-attack scenes since Evil Dead, the film also takes time out for Phoebe Cates' show-stopping monologue on how she found out there was no Santa Claus because when she was just a little girl, her father got trapped in the chimney while playing Santa, and he died there, with his rotting corpse stinking up the joint for five days. Sleep tight, Virginia.
6. How The Grinch Stole Christmas
Heading off cynics at the pass, Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas, in both its print and animated TV versions, wraps up holiday sentimentality in a spiky, acid-green bow. The less said about Jim Carrey's 2000 live-action take on the story, the better.) Anyone whose heart is two sizes too small due to the rampaging consumerism that invades the Wal-Marts of America each year can certainly identify with Seuss' toy-and-noise-hating anti-hero. Chuck Jones' beloved animated take on the story also provides all the Scrooges of the world with their own personal anthem, the indelible "You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch." But if even the green embodiment of holiday humbuggery can't resist the pure Christmas spirit of Cindy Lou Who, who are we to scoff? One roast-beast feast and rousing rendition of "Fah Hoo Forres" later, even the Grinchiest of holiday naysayers will end up embracing their inner Whos.
7. "Carol Of The Bells"
A carol built around an incessant four-note sequence and often heard in stoic choral arrangements or cheesy rock-classical iterations certainly has the potential to incite sleighfuls of yuletide rage. Yet as far as traditional, ubiquitous holiday music goes, "Carol Of The Bells" maintains an unadulterated holiday charm even as it's scoring commercials for Hershey's Kisses and Victoria's Secret. The haunting four-note motif, based on a Ukrainian folk song, is vaguely spiritual and deeply catchy, and the simple lyrics boil down to the basic, unassailable holiday sentiment of spreading good cheer. Plus, it features enough bright-sounding bells to provide an army of deserving angels with wings.
8. Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics
The South Park guys have had lots of fun with Christmas, beginning with the Jesus-vs.-Santa animated experiment that spawned the series. They took it to new heights with a variety-show episode and accompanying album), Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics, in which an anthropomorphic piece of shit in a Santa hat introduces a series of skewed holiday numbers, including Mr. Garrison's "Merry Fucking Christmas" and Cartman's incredible "Swiss Colony Beef Log." A Christmas album has never seemed so relevant.
9. Die Hard
Christmas movies, by and large, don't contain a lot of explosions or gunshots to the head. This is where Die Hard comes in. Bruce Willis mostly) saves an office full of hostages in his bare feet, while Alan Rickman is deliciously evil. What does this have to do with Christmas? It takes place on Christmas Eve, with gloomy versions of "Joyful Joyful, We Adore Thee" playing over the soundtrack. It isn't a Christmas movie in the traditional sense, but sometimes the holidays just make you want to blow shit up, so what better seasonal way to indulge that desire?
10. The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, "Fairytale Of New York"
"You scumbag, you maggot / You cheap lousy faggot / Happy Christmas your arse / I pray God it's our last" is just one of the lines that keeps The Pogues' "Fairytale Of New York" from being a conventional Christmas song. Shane MacGowan's classic duet with Kirsty MacColl oscillates movingly between pitch-black comedy and wrenching pathos as it recounts the agonizing death of the American dream from the grimy vantage point of a New York City drunk tank on Christmas Eve. Though it's been covered countless times, no rendition can hope to match the inspired pairing of MacColl's angelic croon and MacGowan's stumbling demon-baby rasp.
11. Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas
Tim Burton's name is right there in the title, but director Henry Selick gets most of the credit for making The Nightmare Before Christmas such a treat: Danny Elfman's songs are a little lumpy, and the story is a little clunky, but watching Selick's amazingly detailed stop-motion puppets glide through their paces never gets old, and Nightmare's giddy combination of Christmas cheer and Halloween morbidity is a fine antidote to all the usual sentiments of the season.
12. Motown Christmas singles
Where the Beach Boys and Phil Spector turned out classic Christmas albums, Motown made Christmas songs a seasonal staple. And they didn't slouch, either. The Temptations bring the same showmanship to "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" as their own songs, and originals like Stevie Wonder's "What Christmas Means To Me" have become classics in their own right. Our personal pick: Marvin Gaye's "Purple Snowflakes," which gives an affecting seasonal polish to his "Pretty Little Baby."
13. A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift Of All
For his very first Christmas special, Stephen Colbert hooked up with such formidable friends of The Colbert Report as John Legend, Willie Nelson, Jon Stewart, and Elvis Costello—and battled his old foe the grizzly bear for a deliciously cheesy tribute/parody to the indelibly stiff, stilted Christmas specials of yesteryear. Best of all, A Colbert Christmas is an intentionally crass ode to materialism and the commercialization of Christmas: The "greatest gift" of its title is the Colbert Christmas DVD itself.
14. John Denver and the Muppets, A Christmas Together 1979)
One of the most rage-inducing things about the holidays is the way retailers, networks, and other corporate entities try to force warm feelings, then milk them for a quick buck. Cutting through the crap like the world's softest, fuzziest blade: the utter sincerity and simplicity of Jim Henson and John Denver in their prime. The TV special A Christmas Together and the album collection of its songs (get the "limited collector's edition," which has the original 13 songs instead of a bastardized, truncated set list) feature Denver singing sweet standards and non-standards with the Muppets joining him in close harmony. "When The River Meets The Sea" may be the saddest tune ever passed off as a Christmas hymn—it's basically about peaceful acceptance of death—but it's also one of the most beautiful.
15. Bad Santa
Nice generally trumps naughty when it comes to Christmas movies, but in 2003, Bad Santa swore its way into America's black, shriveled heart with the story of a larcenous lech (Billy Bob Thornton), his pint-sized elf sidekick (Tony Cox), and their criminal endeavors. Thornton, who was famously inebriated throughout filming, stumbles his way into doing a good deed when he reluctantly becomes a father figure/mentor to a chubby little boy obsessed with Christmas. Consider Bad Santa a bracing shot of Jack Daniels after the syrupy-sweet eggnog bath that is pretty much every other holiday movie.
16. The Beach Boys' Christmas Album
There's something inherently absurd about a bunch of candy-striped surf boys singing about Christmas the way they did about T-Birds and girls, but that's The Beach Boys for you. Or at least part of them. The group's classic Christmas album from 1964 capitalizes on their storied knack for harmonizing, and it's something to hear indeed when they lean into "Little Saint Nick" and especially the a cappella "Auld Lang Syne."
17-18. Christmas episodes of The Simpsons and Futurama
The Simpsons and its sister show, Futurama, always excelled at inverting or twisting beloved movie and TV tropes to great effect. So it's no surprise they're at their best when screwing around with that most beloved of television traditions, the holiday special. Lest we forget, the very first full-length episode of The Simpsons was a Christmas special, and Futurama made Christmas even more delightful by putting it in the hands of a mass-murdering robot Santa.
19. Joseph Spence, "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town"
Bahamian folk singer Joseph Spence was a genuine legend, and his unusual guitar-picking and odd tuning gave him a unique sound, fully on display in this demented cover. But the real draw is his mumbling, meandering singing: Spence obviously doesn't know or care what the lyrics are, and he proceeds to flail around delightfully, sounding like a drunken Oscar The Grouch. This song should be played in every shopping mall in America around the holidays.
20. The SCTV staff Christmas party
In 1981, the comic geniuses at SCTV were responsible for one of the greatest television Christmas specials of all time. Not only did it feature almost all of the show's recurring characters getting a moment in the spotlight (Tex and Edna Boil singing Christmas carols; Jerry Todd blackmailing Guy Caballero with his new Steadicam), but it also featured a cripplingly funny episode of "Street Beef" with Johnny LaRue. The segment, largely improvised by John Candy, ends with a drunken, babbling LaRue getting what he always wanted: a pointless, expensive crane shot.
21. The "Comfort And Joy" episode of Justice League
Justice League was the best-written of the Bruce Timm-shepherded DC Comics cartoon series, and they proved it with their one and only Christmas special. The show follows three strands: Clark Kent bringing a lonely, isolated Martian Manhunter home to spend Christmas with his folks; blossoming lovebirds Green Lantern and Hawkgirl expressing their feelings with extreme violence; and, in one of the series' funniest (and most surprisingly moving) moments, the Flash pressing hyper-intellectual supervillain the Ultra-Humanite into service for a charity gift exchange.
22. Elvis' Christmas Album (1970 reissue)
Elvis Presley released the most popular Christmas album of all time—more than 9 million copies sold—in 1957, combining holiday standards, a few growly new Christmas songs, and a quartet of tracks previously released on a gospel EP. When RCA re-released the record in 1970, the label ditched the gospel and added a couple of newish pop numbers, including the rousing "If Every Day Was Like Christmas." The later version is quintessential Elvis and quintessential Christmas, evoking deep sentiment and raw schlock.
23. Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas
Two years before The Muppet Movie, Jim Henson produced and directed this adaptation of Russell and Lillian Hoban's children's book, about a mother and son who enter a talent show to earn money for Christmas gifts. Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas was a cable-TV staple in the late '70s and '80s, enchanting viewers with its tuneful Paul Williams songs (there's "When The River Meets The Sea" again), as well as intricate puppetry that makes the story's riverside setting look like the coolest playset in the toy store.
24. The Beatles' Christmas Greetings
Anyone who's ever listened to a "Breakfast with The Beatles" type fan show devoted to the Fab Four has probably heard one or two of the holiday greetings the band recorded for their fan-club members each year from 1963 to 1969. Already a charming concept, the funny, off-the-cuff recordings often contained updates, skits, and songs in the nonsense wordplay John Lennon was especially known for. While the records themselves are worth hundreds of dollars each, thanks to YouTube, now fans can listen to The Beatles wishing them a "Merry Crimble" anytime they want.
25. The Andy Griffith Show, "Christmas Story"
Despite its persistent homespun-itude, The Andy Griffith Show only once referenced the ultimate homespun holiday, perhaps because the show got it so right the first time that there was no need to try and top it. Old coot Will Wright plays a Scrooge-like local businessman who seems strangely insistent that the Mayberry sheriff keep all his prisoners locked up for the holidays; eventually, Griffith realizes that Wright is just lonely, and wants to be around other people at Christmas. In the episode's most affecting scene, Griffith and his girlfriend Elinor Donahue sing "Away In A Manger," and the camera slowly pans across the jail until it lands on Wright, standing outside in the alley, clutching the bars of a cell and softly singing along.
26. Miracle On 34th Street 1947)
True, Miracle On 34th Street helped define the holiday season as running from the start of the Macy's parade to the moment the last present is opened, and true, the movie combines bustling big-city comedy with suspenseful courtroom drama in ways both entertaining and satisfying. But the real reason Miracle is the Christmas movie of choice is because it best captures the true spirit of the season: shopping for bargains and lying to children.
27. Santa Vs. The Snowman
This half-hour Christmas special aired once on ABC in 1997 to dismal ratings, then found new life in a slightly expanded and enhanced form as a 3D IMAX film. It's a funny, action-packed short, riffing on the relentless cheer of TV Christmas classics. When a lonely snowman tries to take over Santa's operation, a full-scale battle ensues, with snowmen and elves attacking each other in a clever parody of The Empire Strikes Back, using snowballs, gingerbread men, mistletoe, and hot cocoa as weapons. Inevitably, Santa Vs. The Snowman sweetens up, in a surprisingly poignant finale that creators John Davis and Steve Oedekerk earn by tying it to their loopy vision of the North Pole as part theme park and part temple.
28. Midnight mass
Hey, it's free! Plus, high church on Christmas Eve smells nice and looks pretty, with beautiful music and a general sense of bonhomie helping to set the tone for the day. And who can sleep on Christmas Eve anyway?
29. The Brave Little Toaster
The Brave Little Toaster isn't technically a Christmas movie, which is definitely a good thing: There are no scenes around a tree, no carols on the soundtrack, and not even one lesson about the "true meaning" of Christmas. But the movie always finds its way to cable during the holiday season, so watching this heartwarming, Santa-free musical about a ragtag bunch of talking appliances on a journey to find their owner always feels a little Christmas-y, even though the C-word never comes up.
30. Saturday Night Live's "Dysfunctional Family Christmas" commercial
Can anyone relate to carols like "Have A Holly Jolly Christmas" unironically anymore? Isn't it time we add some new standards that aren't so emotionally detached, puritanical, and just plain lame? Be real: Nobody has a "holly, jolly" anything—they're far too busy biting their tongues so they don't accidentally tell dear old mom about their drug problem, or let it slip how much they hate their sister's assholish new husband. If only Saturday Night Live's Dysfunctional Family Christmas album were actually in stores, we could all gather around the fireplace and sing stuff like "Let's Pretend We Like Each Other" and "What I Want You Can't Buy Me," and finally feel something again. Forget peace on Earth; wouldn't it be awesome if we could just be honest for once?
31. Nat King Cole, "The Christmas Song"
The smooth master of mood makes even lines about Santa and "tiny tots" seem comforting and weirdly sensual. This is a song that never gets worn out no matter how much it's heard and played.
Okay, so Scrooged would have been better without the original Christmas Carol plotline, but casting Bill Murray as a modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge was so ingenious that the movie works anyway. Murray can play a heartless asshole like no one else this side of Michael Douglas, and he's a lot more fun to watch than any other portrayal of the stiff, stuffy lead of Dickens' classic. Giving the Christmas ghosts actual personalities, and putting more edge into the supporting cast (hi, Bobcat Goldthwait), Scrooged has the most bite of all of the story's numerous retellings.
33. David Bowie and Bing Crosby, "Peace On Earth / Little Drummer Boy"
1977's tour of Britain and the companion "Merrie Olde Christmas" TV special looked like just another predictable Bing Crosby holiday program, but Crosby couldn't have predicted that he'd be dead in a month, or that a last-minute duet with some offbeat guest he didn't even know would become a timeless holiday classic. Bowie initially wouldn't sing the boring "Little Drummer Boy," so hours beforehand, the producers added a harmonized part called "Peace On Earth" and mashed the two together. Bowie liked it, and, after minimal rehearsal, the pair recorded a supremely serene, heartfelt plea for peace that's stuck around 30 years.
34. John Lennon, "Happy Xmas War Is Over)"
In 1969, Lennon and Yoko Ono bought a bunch of billboards in 11 major cities reading, "War is over! If you want it.) Happy Christmas from John and Yoko." Apparently people didn't want it, because Vietnam kept going for another six years, but at least the campaign spawned useful lyrics for a 1971 Christmas song. Sure, activism and the holidays are often a lousy mix, and Lennon's way of hoping the new year is "a good one, without any fear" is lazy rhyming, but musically, the Harlem Community Choir's chorus is undeniably uplifting, yet easy to sing along to.
35. Hall & Oates, "Jingle Bell Rock"
As far as decent Christmas music goes, Hall & Oates doing "Jingle Bell Rock" is pretty unobjectionable. But it's the video for the tune that's the true holiday entertainment. The buzzwords during the conceptual stage must have been "corny," "holiday special," and "weird." Daryl Hall & John Oates don holiday apparel, walk and sway to the tune on a cheap-looking set, and employ all the subtlety of the acting in a silent movie. It's so consciously unhip that it's mesmerizing. In essence, it's how many people see Christmas—as surreal, corny, and pretty fun.
36. The Carpenters, Christmas Portrait
How could Karen Carpenter's voice ever inspire rage when it's so warm and soothing? When the holiday stress builds, hearing her mellifluously sing "The Christmas Song" (a.k.a. "Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire") can turn a nightmare holiday into the smoothest Christmas ever. Released in 1978 as the Carpenters' popularity waned during the disco age, Christmas Portrait was the group's last hit record before Carpenter's sudden death in 1983. The album offers a bounty of 21 tracks that go beyond the standards. ("Little Altar Boy"? "The Christmas Waltz"?) But it's those standards that Carpenter does so well, which explains why they're a staple of holiday radio 30 years later.
37. A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector
Sure, subsequent events in Phil Spector's life cast a pall on his output, but as with all the music cut during the height of Spector's Wall Of Sound golden age, there's simply no denying the greatness of this 1963 Christmas album. Against Spector's trademark everything-hits-at-once production, Darlene Love, The Ronettes, The Crystals, and (to a much lesser extent) Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans sing the heart out of standards like "White Christmas" and "Marshmallow World." Love even contributes a new classic with "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." It's a peerless set that helped prove holiday music didn't have to come from Squaresville. Just be sure to shut it off before Spector's spoken-word message at the end. That's still kind of creepy.
38. Beck, "Little Drum Machine Boy"
When it came time to record a smartass Yuletide nugget for Geffen's too-cool-for-school holiday compilation Just Say Noel Sonic Youth's contributions is "Santa Don't Cop Out On Dope"), Beck dipped into the non-Scientology part of his heritage and dropped some Hanukkah funk robot science on "Little Drum Machine Boy," a giddy lark with mad-phat yet appropriately seasonal lyrics like "I get the shit lit like a menorah / This funk's so illegal, I think I might need a lawyer," and "Spin 'em around, play around, like a dreidel / kinda science that puts ya back into the cradle."
39. Rufus Wainwright, "Spotlight On Christmas"
Rufus Wainwright's "Spotlight on Christmas," on 2003's Maybe This Christmas, Too? compilation, is a wonderfully warm-souled ditty that's earned a seasonal spot on independent radio, if not yet on TimeLife disc sets. With a dash of his typical chamber-pop flair and lyrical charm, Wainwright gets points for working in religion ("And they were each one quite odd / a mensch, a virgin, and a God") and a call for self-evaluation ("The spotlight's shining on Christmas / and the spotlight's shining on us") without getting too heavy. Delivered with a wink, it's a holiday message that won't induce eye-rolling.
40. Jody Rosen, White Christmas
So ubiquitous that it's easy to take for granted, "White Christmas" is one of those songs that defines the season as much as it decorates it. As music writer Jody Rosen tells it, however, the story of the song is surprisingly melancholy and compelling. From anecdotes about Irving Berlin writing it to Bing Crosby singing it like nobody else, White Christmas packs a lot of rich history into a slim volume. And it helps reposition a song that's long been inescapable anyway.
41. Donny Hathaway, "This Christmas"
Soul singer Donny Hathaway committed suicide a few weeks after Christmas in 1979—he was depressed and suffered from paranoid schizophrenia—but he left a lot of joy behind him on earth. In the 30 years since, he's been name-checked in song by everyone from Amy Winehouse to Talib Kweli to The Game to Fall Out Boy. His sweet Christmas track, "This Christmas," charted in 1972, and it's been a staple of soulful holiday times since. (Special bonus below: The Dismemberment Plan's version.)
"This Christmas" by Donny Hathaway
"This Christmas" by The Dismemberment Plan
42. Rankin-Bass Puppetmation TV specials
Call it cheap nostalgia or authentic appreciation of old-school stop-motion craft, but there's still something special about those handcrafted holiday specials of the '60s, particularly how profoundly surreal they got at times. Hermey the Christmas Elf who wants to be a dentist in Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer? Paul Frees hamming it up as an evil German named Burgermeister Meisterburger in Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town? The whale with a clock built into its tail and all the other time-related oddness in Rudolph's Shiny New Year? All indicative of an era when kids' entertainment seemed designed to send children on the kind of trips their hippie parents were taking via other means. If nothing else, Heat Miser And Snow Miser from The Year Without A Santa Claus will rightly be with us forever, simultaneously jazzing up and weirding up our holidays with those tiny dancing clones of themselves.